Project Vs. Program: Explaining The Differences


Project management is a vital part of the governance structure and is actively used in South Africa in science and defense development, information technology, and construction. Many project management methods and techniques have been directly and successfully applied in the administration and public sector, while the terminology can still remain unclear. The paper aims to examine the difference between a project, a sub-project, and a program used and implemented by project managers in the Department of Public Works and to give examples of such projects. The executive who has been appointed to oversee the construction of a community hall needs to explain this information to a community meeting that is being held to initiate this project.

Main Differences Between a Project, a Programme, and a Sub-project

The meaning of each concept must be defined separately to determine the difference between each one of them. First, to understand what a project is, it is essential to distinguish between a project and a process. A process is a repeatable task or operation that produces an expected result. Examples of a process are printing out documents, selling products, and evaluating a subordinate’s work; a process’s main characteristic is repetitiveness (Bogdanova et al., 2020:284-285). Moreover, the result of a process is predictable, while a project is a set of actions, limited in time and aimed at solving a problem or achieving a specific goal. It is also important to note that a project, unlike a process, always has a high degree of uncertainty, although it consists of known processes. Thus, a project is a unique task or group of tasks with a goal, purpose, beginning, and end (Moutinho & Rabechini, 2020:1262). Accordingly, examples of a project corresponding to the processes examples: writing a program for printing documents, building a store to sell goods, and developing new methods for evaluating the effectiveness of employees.

A project program is a group of related projects of the same type, with the same focus, or carried out by the same team. It may also include sub-programs – smaller programs grouped by more clearly defined characteristics. For example, the state’s Mpumalanga development program includes a sub-program to develop the downtown area, which already includes the construction of a community hall. On the other hand, a sub-project is a part of the project as a sub-program of the program. In the case of a sub-project, it may be a list of specific tasks grouped within the project. These tasks have their exact purpose within the project and can be carried out by a designated team. For example, when building a community hall, the sub-project may include creating plans and budgets for the building using computer design systems or by hand.

Thus, the main difference between a project, program, and sub-project is the number and size of goals, objectives, and time units. According to the project management theory, each project has four essential criteria while still being unique: time, content, cost, and quality (Mashwama et al., 2020:305-308). All these attributes are interrelated, and changing one will modify the other. When building a community hall, higher quality requirements can be set, but that will increase both the cost, time, and complexity of the project and sub-projects. Although quality is the most subjective property of a project outcome, evaluating the result always implies its importance. Quality and complexity will inevitably suffer with shorter construction times, and costs can decrease or increase. A sub-project always has a goal similar to, or a direct part of, the project’s goal (Bogdanova et al., 2020). The interaction between the project and the project program is also similar.

Every program, project, and sub-project has a responsible multifunctional person with a wide range of competencies: the project manager (Ribeiro & Domingues, 2018). The main functions of such a person correlate with all the processes that take place in a project, in particular:

  • Communications management controls internal and external contacts between team members and external stakeholders. It also includes various types and forms of statistics.
  • Stakeholder management means working with parties interested in the project and influencing it: partners, sponsors, media, and authorities.
  • Team management is the management of talents and working with creative people or artists. This type of management contains everything from finding a team to organizing its work, mentoring, and motivating it.
  • Project content management is filling the project or a sub-project with content, making necessary changes, and adjusting task objectives.
  • Time management consists of meeting deadlines and keeping track of the overall project schedule.
  • Cost management includes everything that concerns the project’s financial resources.
  • Risk management is one of the critical functions, especially in massive program plans. Risk analysis, developing and implementing a risk management strategy.
  • Quality management defines quality criteria and requires constant monitoring and controlling of the reality corresponding to the expected result. The result of best quality is obtained when the project is divided into sub-projects, and each is assessed with awareness.
  • Overall monitoring and control of project implementation and integration of all its components and processes to achieve project goals.

Based on the information above, all the differences between a program, a project, and a sub-project can be further divided into four categories. The first and most apparent is the scale of the concept, where a program is a set of projects, and a project is a set of sub-projects (Seelhofer & Graf, 2018:12). The second category is related to the first but is not as obvious. Its essence is duration: the program timeline is much broader if provided, while project and sub-project timeframes are specific and measurable. The third category of difference is complexity: the execution of a program is much more intricate than a project, as it involves many sub-tasks that need to be coordinated. Lastly, the fourth category is the outcome: a project is realized when the planned actions and steps are completed by the specified date. The result of the program is a global change of state or the impact on the current situation, so even its partial implementation is possible, and the final effect may exceed all expectations.

The Department of Public Works Operations

The Department of Public Works declares that an integrated infrastructure and transport system has to be built to promote social and economic development. This government organization’s primary goal is to effectively execute all directives that will facilitate the management of all province’s tangible infrastructure assets (Mashwama et al., 2020). Much attention is provided to the roads and transportation systems, both freight and public. Examples of programs, projects, and subprojects the Department conducts will be presented below.

Programs Examples

The Department of Public Works, Roads and Transportation in Mpumalanga province has many programs in operation to improve citizen living standards and infrastructure. For example, one of the most crucial programs deals with the development of an improved public transportation system. Its main goal is to give all citizens equal access to affordable, reliable, and safe public transportation and taxi. The public works program is also significant: provincial infrastructures are being expanded, built, and maintained, and public customer services are being improved.

Project Examples

Examples of projects integrated into programs in the Department of Public Works are numerous and decent. The expansion and improvement program of the transportation system includes such vital projects as the implementation of taxi services’ recapitalization, restructuring of the bus subsidy system, and renewal of the regional freight railroad. One of the projects in the development program, for example, is the current one, the community hall building plan.

Sub-project Examples

Sub-projects are incomparably more numerous in the Department of Public Works. The current project can be analyzed and divided into sub-projects according to construction stages or tasks to be performed. Even before the construction is underway, the major tasks for sub-projects within the project are identified clearly: creating a building plan, communications planning, and staff recruitment for specific types of work. With professional project management, the balance of costs, time, and scope can be achieved.


As mentioned above, the differences between a program, a project, and a sub-project lie in the scale of the goals and the methods. The program’s goals are the most global, achieved by the sum of the accomplished project goals. Moreover, the latter, in turn, is split into objectives within mini-projects, called sub-projects. With this division, the maximum efficiency in achieving the purposes is attained as the overall manageability rises.


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Mashwama, N., Thwala, D., & Aigbavboa, C. (Ed.). (2020). Obstacles of sustainable construction project management in South Africa construction industry. In L. Scott, M. Dastbaz, & C. Gorse (Eds.), Sustainable ecological engineering design (pp. 305-314). Switzerland: Springer Publishing. (Original work published 2020).

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