OMB promotes agile IT development in new guidance

Lengthy, drawn-out federal IT projects could soon be rare. The Office of Management and Budget has unveiled new framework that will encourage agencies to abandon multiyear IT development methods for a more agile approach.

U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel and Joe Jordan, administrator for federal procurement policy, announced the Contracting Guidance to Support Modular IT Development on June 14 on the OMBlog.

For too long, the OMB officials wrote, federal IT has been marred with runaway IT projects that squandered billions of dollars and lagged behind schedule. Even by the time some of these initiatives were rolled out, they were often over budget or had become obsolete.

“In many cases, these failures can be traced back to lengthy acquisition and IT development efforts that aimed to deliver massive new systems over years, rather than providing new functionality in an incremental manner – as the private sector does,” VanRoekel and Jordan wrote.

The idea is not without its critics, however. In an earlier FCW article on the topic, several readers expressed skepticism.

One, commenting under the name "Old Sarge," wrote, "Sorry, agile is just hacking by developers with no parental oversight."

Another, commenting with no name, wrote, "I have a great idea. Let's throw away decades of software engineering theory and do so at the expense of taxpayers. The principles of agile development make sense if you are only interested in the short term results."

The new blueprint lays out how departments, including acquisition, finance and IT, as a program management team can break investments into more manageable pieces. This more nimble approach would save money and speed up the process of an IT project following a contract award. Additionally, agile development would also allow agencies a better way to hold contractors accountable for keeping projects on track and delivering solutions.

Also, by breaking investments into smaller chunks, agencies may be able to spur more competition, resulting in better value for the citizens, VanRoekel and Jordan suggested.

“Changing agency culture to regularly take advantage of modular principles will take work, but the payback – in the form of improved investment manageability and budget feasibility, lower risk, more responsive contracts and reduced time to value – is well worth the effort,” they wrote.


About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Tue, Jun 19, 2012 Susan Atkinson, Gabrielle Benefield London, UK

This is a refreshing and much needed improvement to the current thinking. Having spent many years researching this topic, our research has shown that iterative, incremental approaches reduce risk and deliver value more consistently and - at the same time - more cost-effectively, than the traditional waterfall projects. It has been found that about three quarters of all software projects are delivered late, over-budget or fail outright. Not only that, but one in six IT projects has a cost overrun of 200% on average and a schedule overrun of almost 70%. These statistics are based on traditional (waterfall) projects. The figures are more-or-less the same for both the public and private sector. Please refer to: The Standish Group, Chaos report, and Said Business School, working papers, Oxford University, amongst others. These figures are part of the driving reason for the US government to find a better approach. It is not just the methodology which causes the IT projects to run over-budget and/or over-schedule. The contract model is also fundamentally flawed. The contract model compounds the effect of poor management, and poor management is often based on the flawed thinking underlying the contract model.

Mon, Jun 18, 2012 Sam Arlington, VA

Erich, what is your definition of "done"? Yes, in 5 years a system could be developed that met original requirements but no users will want it because the technology will be out date. Agile seeks to get critical features to users early and often. It does not have to be an "all or nothing" approach. Running Legacy systems next to newer ones allows incremental delivery. Monolithic systems builds are a thing of the past and I'm glad to see the government adapting their process to a modern approach. If teams you observe are doing no analysis then they are not practicing Agile. Additionally DoD subject matter experts are critical team members. Agile is about team member inclusion and lean processes over documentation.

Fri, Jun 15, 2012 Erich Darr

Ever since the agile development concept came into being, it's been used in DoD to keep from doing the up front analysis that's required to allow major IT projects to succeed. Major DoD systems can' t be rebuilt in the short term. Many major systems don't lend themselves to piecemealing. The thing you need to make major system development succeed is IT management with a deep IT background; managers who can identify the critical path and follow a rigorous process. You need to do the development using integral resources, who are familiar with the current system. The Civil Servants need to be supplemented with consultants, who are experts in the use of the software that the new system will use. Analysis, development, testing and implementation of a major system may take up to 5½ years. It can be done and done successfully. DoD employees developed and deployed a number of such sytems in the 60s and 70s that are now the legacy systems. We had competant IT management with vision, who were able to track progress along the critical path and make adjustments in a dynamic environment.

Fri, Jun 15, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

Modular contracting makes sense. Consider if you will: 1] our budgetary circumstances; 2] the speed with which technology is developed, deployed and utiilized; and 3] without criticism of Government employees, the knowledge gap between what is, what can be and what will be. Modular IT development and deployment might not warm the hearts of big & long project people but it gets the job done within the aforementioned constraints. It allows for the incremental adjustments that projects require in today's environment. It might not provide the grand & glorious bakery some would want, but it will provide the loaf of bread they need.

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