Reviews are mixed for early agile efforts

FBI, VA fall short in embracing the facets of agile development

As part of its effort to cure the government’s frequently ailing technology acquisition processes, the Obama administration has proposed that agencies start using agile development techniques.

Two agencies that didn’t ask for the role but can be seen as guinea pigs for testing the agile approach in government recently got some feedback on their efforts. Reviewers gave the Veterans Affairs Department and the FBI credit for good intentions but also said their ability to fully embrace the many facets of agile development fell short.

The encouraging news is that the reviewers in both cases suggested that fixing the deficiencies would not be that difficult. The juicier question — whether agile techniques were demonstrably better than traditional development practices would have been — wasn't dealt with and, in fact, is much harder to quantify.

The hallmarks of agile development are closer collaboration between developers and end users and the breakdown of projects into smaller chunks that are delivered in speedy increments.

In an assessment released Dec. 1, the Government Accountability Office said VA’s system for processing claims for education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill is missing a key component of an agile program: a velocity oversight mechanism, writes Alice Lipowicz in Federal Computer Week. Such a mechanism measures the rate of work completed and changes to project scope.

The GAO report said that although the agile process has given VA added flexibility and helped it complete early phases on schedule, the department has experienced reduced functionality and schedule delays for later phases.

As some like to say, no good deed goes unpunished.

Roger Baker, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology, disputed several parts of the assessment and said GAO auditors might not understand agile development given its relative newness in government projects.

Meanwhile, a review of the FBI's plan to use an agile approach to complete the remainder of its troubled Sentinel case management system turned up several weaknesses. The September report, commissioned by the FBI and written by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University, was obtained recently by David Perera at FierceGovernmentIT through a Freedom of Information Act request.

SEI authors said agile techniques are likely to help solve some of the program’s problems, but they expressed several concerns about the bureau’s approach. For example, they fear the FBI won't sufficiently empower the agile development team — called a scrum team in agile parlance — and instead cling to a centralized authority model and a predetermined fixed-time, fixed-scope approach to deliverables.

The SEI reviewers also noted that the bureau’s plans included a scrum team at least twice the recommended size, a separate quality assurance process rather than one integrated with the scrum team, and little evidence that the end-user community would be continuously involved with the Sentinel developers.

The reviewers said it is reasonable to mix and match elements from various agile methodologies as individual circumstances require, as the FBI has done, but that isn’t the problem.

“Our concern…is less with the planned fidelity to a particular version of Agile but rather with the FBI's internalization of the essential principles that underlie all of the major Agile approaches,” the report's authors wrote.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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Reader comments

Tue, Dec 14, 2010 Agile and Aged DC

In Vivek Kundra's recent presentation of OMB's new IT priorities he was using agile in the broadest since - not Agile as a methodology, per se. Stressing production deliverables every six months is hardly Agile but it is 'agile' for the typical large government IT project. By requiring th6 month deliverables it protects us from both Governement managers that don't make decisions on a timely basis and contractors that don't produce. It is worth reminding that the projects included in the list are the WORST performing large IT projects so be careful what you extrapolate out of them. Also, these Agencies are hardly Guinea Pigs for Agile. We've been using Agile methodologies (appraised at CMMI-Dev 3, btw) for a decade to the benefit of our USG clients. Just because something blew up and agile was the proposed fix doesn't make it the first. OMB, how about looking at successful projects and learning from them!

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