Project Management for Public Sector Planners: How a Chance Encounter at a Starbucks Made Rachel’s Day

by Terry A. Clark, AICP, PMP

Rachel sat down at the Starbucks in Spearfish, South Dakota, took a deep breath, and wondered why she was so exhausted at 7:30 a.m.  The day had just begun, and she was ready for a nap.  It had been a regular, hectic morning getting her 20-month old daughter to her mother’s house for the day, helping her husband get ready for work, and heading off to her job as a planner with the town of Sammax. 

While enjoying her morning quiet time at Starbuck’s, she overheard a conversation at a nearby table.  Two planners from a local consulting firm were complaining about their jobs.  They were about her age, managing several projects for their firm, and not having much fun.  From their perspective, the consulting firm only had one primary objective: to make a profit.  Also, the firm they worked for required them to start each project with a project charter outlining the project requirements and deliverables; and they did not like having to do that.  In addition, they were expected to take the firm’s internal project management training and become certified as project managers by the Project Management Institute ( ); another point of contention.  Their managers also required regular project status meetings with their clients to include reviewing project schedules and Gantt charts showing percent complete of the various tasks.  Complain, complain, complain.  If they only knew!

They had no idea what it was like to be a public sector planner managing projects!  Those private sector projects with clear and consistent guidelines sounded like a dream to Rachel!  That’s not what it’s like managing planning projects in a public sector environment.  Not that she was complaining – she actually liked the added challenge of working directly with elected and appointed officials, local stakeholder groups, facilitating public workshops, gathering input to improve planning documents and being responsible for projects that have a positive impact on people’s lives.  That’s why she became a planner.  It’s just that managing planning projects in a public sector setting is more challenging than it should be.  Having some of the project management standards and practices that the nearby private sector planners were complaining about could really help in the public sector.

In fact, Rachel had read the book Project Management for Planners, written by Terry Clark and published by the American Planning Association Planners Press (Clark) and found a lot of practical advice for managing planning projects.  But, there was something missing.  The book doesn’t focus specifically on the public sector; it is focused on managing planning projects in general, not public sector planning projects.  So, she had done some research on her own and found a very interesting and obscure paper written for the 27th International Project Management Association (IPMA) World Congress held in Dubrovnik, Croatia (Jałochaa).  The paper presented at the 2013 IPMA conference offered four characteristics of managing projects unique to the public sector:

  1. Complexity - public organizations face a variety of stakeholders, each of whom places demands and constraints on managers
  2. Permeability - public organizations are ‘open systems’ that are easily influenced by external events
  3. Instability - political constraints result in frequent changes in policy, and the imposition of short time-horizons on public managers
  4. Absence of competitive pressures - public organizations typically have few rivals for the provision of their services. Even when competition is present, public managers frequently enjoy a dominant position in the market, for example in education and health

While probably not a comprehensive list, the four characteristics seemed to capture much of what Rachel found challenging in managing public sector planning projects.  The public sector is different than the private sector and, therefore, requires a different approach to managing projects.  On the surface, it seemed simple and straightforward.  In fact, many of the project management practices that private sector planners applied (and the ungrateful pair of private sector planners sitting next to her were complaining about) could also be applied in the public sector.  Rachel thought requiring all project managers to prepare project charters for their projects made a lot of sense, and having regular status meetings could keep the public engaged and informed.  But the public sector requires a different twist on these standard practices, and she wasn’t sure how that could be accomplished.

As Rachel was finishing her latte, she overheard the pair of planners say that Terry Clark was going to be at the 2017 SDPA/Western Planner Conference giving a presentation on Project Management for Public Sector Planners.  They were going to attend the session even though it was focused on public sector planners since they might hear something new about how to deal with the project management “problems” at their workplace.

Rachel had an idea.  Her boss was out of town, and she thought she could afford to spend a couple of hours at the 2017 SDPA/Western Planner Conference and attend the session. The conference was in Spearfish so she could attend the session and get back to the office without incurring any travel expenses.  She would like to ask Terry some questions specifically about managing planning projects in the public sector. 

  • How do the four characteristics from the 2013 IPMA paper actually play out in local government and how can planners address them successfully?
  • How do public sector planners schedule planning projects and yet still remain flexible to accommodate changes by decision makers, expanded public review and changes to the final deliverable?
  • What can planners do to manage the risk of being responsible for projects that cross organizational lines in the public setting?
  • What is the best way to incorporate work being done by consultants?

Rachel did a quick Google search and found Terry Clark’s email address:  She was going to send him these questions to see if he might be able to address them in his session.  She thought that made a lot of sense and that other people attending the session could also do so.

Feeling better already, Rachel left Starbucks for the office looking forward to the opportunity of managing projects for the Town of Sammax, and maybe even receiving some helpful hints at the 2017 SDPA/Western Planner Conference.


  • Clark, Terry A. 2002. Project Management for Planners: A Practical Guide, American Planning Association, Planners Press, Chicago, IL.
  • Jałochaa, Beata; Hans Petter Kraneb; Anandasivakumar Ekambaramc; GraĪyna Prawelska-Skrzypekd.  2014. Competences of Public Sector Project Managers, 27th IPMA World Congress Key proceedings.

Additional Resources


  • Baker, Sunny and Kim Baker.  2000.  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management, 2nd Ed.  Alpha Books: Indianapolis, IN.
  • Block, Thomas R. and J. Davidson Frame. 1998.  The Project Office.  Crisp Publications: Menlow Park, CA.
  • Berken, Scott. 2005. The Art of Project Management. O’Reilly Media.
  • Catlette, Bill and Richard Hadden.  2000.  Contented Cows Give Better Milk.  Saltillo Press: Germantown, TN.
  • Clark, Terry A.  2002.  Project Management for Planners: A Practical Guide.  APA Press: Chicago, IL.
  • Crawford, J. Kent.  2002.  The Strategic Project Office: A Guide to Improving Organizational Performance.  Marcel Dekker, Inc.: New York, NY.
  • Grey, Stephen.  1998.  Practical Risk Assessment for Project Management.  John Wiley and Sons: New York, NY.
  • Heerkens, Gary R.  2002.  Project Management.  McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.
  • Kerzner, Harold.  1998.  Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, 6th Ed.  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: New York, NY.
  • McCauley, Cynthia D., Russ S. Moxley, Ellen Van Velsor (editors). 1998.  Handbook of Leadership Development.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
  • Parker, Glenn M.  1994.  Cross-Functional Teams: Working with Allies, Enemies & Other Strangers.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
  • Portnoy, Stanley E.  2006.  Project Management for Dummies, 2nd ed.  For Dummies.
  • Project Management Institute, Inc.  2004.  A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Third Edition.  Project Management Institute, Inc.: Newtown Square, PA.
  • Wirick, David W. 2009. Public-Sector Project Management: Meeting the Challenges and Achieving Results. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, NJ.

World Wide Web:

Terry A. Clark, AICP, PMP has over 30 years of planning and project management experience in the public and private sectors.  Mr. Clark is President and founder of StaffConnections, LLC ( ) a professional services firm committed to helping people improve results through project management, planning, facilitation, training, and coaching.  His experience includes preparing local government comprehensive plans and land development regulations, local and regional water supply plans and water quality management plans.  Mr. Clark has worked at the state, regional and local government levels.  Terry has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geography and a master’s degree in human resource development.  He is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and is certified to administer the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  Terry is also the author of the book, Project Management for Planners: A Practical Guide published by the American Planning Association (ISBN 1-884829-63-5).

Published in June 2017 Western Planner

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