Trying to put your tax dollars to work

In my previous incarnation, I was a program manager who gave out money for projects, from a variety of funding sources: local, state, regional, federal. Federal was the least favoured colour of money. A penny of United States money would be a plague on your project: triggering an avalanche of paperwork, an obstacle course of bureaucratic hoops, and extend the schedule of your project to completion after the next presidential election. Which invariably drove costs up, since time is money.

(And no, the blame for this one can’t be pinned on Dubya.)

As such, like any funding person worth her salt, I learnt how to swap funds, and exploit all loopholes possible. Beg, borrow, cadge, charm, threaten, curse, blackmail, mutual back-scratching. Swapping government funds is a process that makes shell games look transparent. Drug cartels could lean tricks from us. All to help project managers who got the money through us deliver projects more easily, faster and cheaper.

Now I’m a project manager. I get to spend money to deliver my project. Most of my experience in being a program manager has is applicable to managing my project. Like providing status reports. Tracking expenses. Projecting schedules. Planning activities.

The most jarring thing about my current gig is how hard it is to spend the money to get things done, to move things along . . . because even though the grant was applied for through a state agency and administered through a regional agency . . . the dollars come from the feds. Even though this is something I knew going into the game.

Trying to spend Uncle Sam’s dollars is not easy, my friends. It’s damned hard. And you thought the IRS makes so hard for you to figure out how much taxes to pay.

I have a budget of six figures for my project.

I want to hire a grad student for a few thou to do a coupla weeks of stats-crunching for me. We did an online survey that generated an overwhelmingly higher than expected response. The student knows how to use the software (I don’t), has the software (the agency doesn’t), will run the stats quicker, at a lower hourly rate than mine. No brainer?

No. I can’t just write a letter contract to hire her and cut payment checks like I would do, were these were non-federal funds. The process to hire her for a quick, simple, low-cost gig like this would make an audit look like a cakewalk. I may have to hire her as a sub-contractor to a sub-consultant to a prime consultant . . . which ends up about the same hourly rate as yours truly. Timber! can you hear the sound of paperwork falling?

Next up

The project scope took a turn last month and gains a late-in-the game add-on. Not a big deal. These things happen. The add-on is some additional survey work. The agency has a preferred surveyer under contract. I get a quote. About ten grand or so. No big whoop, that’s why PM’s build contingencies in the budget.

There’s a snag. Federal funds can’t be used to increase the contract amount to cover my scope add-on with the preferred surveyer, because the contract was bid within the local, not federal process. I’d have to go out to bid from scratch. Three months, and oh, the bid process itself will cost ten grand of the already short-handed procurement staff’s time to shepherd through. The timing of this survey would have been perfect in the fall; with this option it would have to be pushed out to spring, because it can’t be done in the winter. I’d much rather have it done sooner than later.

I’ve tried to find other projects to swap funds with. But this grant was a little too unique and the project is a little too unique. It’s like trying to trade in a collection of eight-track cassettes for an I-pod.
Some projects have federal dollars, but their scope isn’t eligible for my grant funds. Some projects have eligible scope, but no federal funds on it. I’d say no thank you too.

(I am so frustrated right now, I fantasize about taking money out of my personal account, cut a contract to pay the preferred consultant and take a tax credit or write-off on it.)

Realistically, I’ll probably just have to beg straight up for some money from within the agency that’s already stretched thinner than a spider web.

Anyway I cut it, this is all sucking up so much of my time, I don’t have time to work on the project right now. Spinning furiously in a hamster wheel, progressing nowhere. The project is paralyzed at equilibrium.

And somehow, writing this hasn’t been as cathartic as I thought it would be.

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One thought on “Trying to put your tax dollars to work

  1. Welcome to my world. I’ve always felt that project management is more difficult than program management. If you’re a program manager, you have issues usually if others mess up. If you have issues on a project that you’re managing then it can be argued that it’s on you.

    There certainly are project managers that are bordering on clueless sometimes, but even the best project managers will often find themselves wondering how they were able to complete a project given all the calamities. Sometimes it’s so bad that you don’t know if you should laugh or cry. All the hoops. All the conflicting requirements and requests. All the inane fund source requirements usually meant to protect the money. What about having rules that you develop a better product instead. And heaven help you if you have a project that has federal, state, and local money all at the same time. And it seems that the smaller the project, the more difficult it is to get problems resolved because who cares if the money at risk is a small amount.

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