What getting to agile looks like from the trenches

Steve Kelman talks to a longtime contracting officer about the realities of making agile work for an agency.

steve kelman

Last week an email arrived in my inbox from somebody I hadn't heard from in 20 years. It was John Inman, a contracting officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the same agency where Mark Schwartz, whom I have been writing about recently in the context of agile management, is the CIO.

In a classic small-world example, I last knew John when he was a young contract specialist who was the Air Force's representative on the original Frontline Procurement Professionals Forum. I established that forum in 1995, while serving as Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator, to listen to non-supervisory contracting folks. (This was one of my proudest achievements, which I wrote about in a blog post two years ago. After having been put on ice during the eight years of the Bush administration, it has been revived under President Obama's two OFPP administrators.) From the Air Force Inman went to the Forest Service, then landed at USCIS in 2015, working on IT contracting.

Inman is now in the midst of trying to make agile happen in the trenches at USCIS. He awarded one of the agency's two task order contracts for agile, which he is managing along with re-competing the second.

We spoke about two distinct challenges to getting contracting officers and program managers to embrace agile. One involves culture, and is somewhat different for contracting and program people. The other involves the impact of agile on an employee's workload, which Inman feels are actually more of an issue for program than contracting people.

The cultural challenge for contracting professionals is the way agile breaks with the strong preference for specifications that are developed upfront, for which the contractor is then held responsible. The contracting culture, as a general matter, is not crazy, and contracting folks have been socialized in the view that program people like to underspecify out of laziness, and must in some sense be kept at bay by contracting folks watching out for the government's interest. In my recent blog on contracting for agile, I discussed why that general preference for upfront specification applies poorly to agile software projects, and also how the Federal Acquisition Regulation allows for considerably less upfront spec development in a way that still protects the government's interests.

Inman agreed that the TechFAR gives top cover for doing agile, but he said he would have preferred that contracting officers use the provision in FAR Part 1 -- which declares that anything not explicitly prohibited, and that is in the government/taxpayer interest, is allowed. He fears that the spirit of Part 1 is less strong today than in the past, so contracting folks feel they need the top cover more.

The cultural challenge for program managers is different, and actually may be harder to overcome. In agile, the "product owner" (agilese for the program manager) works together with the contractor rather than just throwing a requirement over the fence and asking for periodic reports and deliverables.

In waterfall, the government can blame the contractor when an effort fails. Given the product owner's close and ongoing involvement with the contractor during the many sprints into which a task order (or contract) is divided, failure becomes much more shared -- much more on the government's shoulders. Even if agile reduces the risk of failure, program managers may well not want to take increased risk, even on a lower probability.

Inman and I had an interesting back and forth on the workload implications of agile. Perhaps surprisingly, agile is likely to lower the overall workload for contracting officers, both because they have less to do during development of the spec and less to do post-award because contract modifications essentially disappear with short sprints. For product owners, however, the balance may go the other way.

Product owners have less work to do developing the original spec, because they don't have to worry about trying to think about everything and get it all on paper. But they have a lot more work to do post-award, as the essential feature of agile is that they are in constant interaction, often daily, with the contractor, both reacting to work product and approving the many new mini-requirements that get iterated during agile. And, at least at USCIS, product owners also do monthly past performance feedback to contractors, in addition to once or twice yearly CPARS reports, in which the contracting officer is not involved.

Finally, as Inman emphasized during our conversation, workload costs for both contracting and program staff are considerably higher at the beginning, just because everything is new and people need to figure things out on the fly the first few times around. Those costs eventually go down, but if folks get discouraged, they might abandon the effort before they have made it down the learning curve.

(Incidentally, this problem exists for almost any change an organization introduces. The immediate effect of a process change on productivity is almost always negative, even when the longer-term effect is positive, because people in the organization have optimized doing the ineffective practice and haven't yet learned the new one. For this reason, potentially valuable changes for organizations are often abandoned too soon.)

Taking risk and workload considerations into account, I suggested to Inman that officials concerned only with their personal well-being might well regard agile as a bad deal. "Yes," Inman answered, "This is all about asking the program manager and the contracting officer to take a higher workload and more risk in exchange for the greater good." Keeping the greater good – more successful contracting, more benefits to the government – front and center in people's minds is part of the job of a visionary, and Inman sees Schwartz as playing that role.

I asked Inman whether agile training had helped him understand agile better and hence helped him overcome objections he or other staff had had. "We had no training on the contracting side – it was seat-of-the-pants for the two of us involved in originally awarding these contracts," he said. "We did get a class after the fact, and I encouraged others to attend in hopes of learning. But it was of no value. Universally, people here will say they learn agile from me."

He added: "Training without practical experience is hard to do. Rather than trying to do official training telling people the official way to do contracts for agile, I wish the instructors would plan classes that teach correct principles and encourage people to experiment."

In concluding, Inman said that his "biggest message to fellow contracting officers is to look for an agile opportunity -- even though there isn't much guidance yet, look at it as a professional challenge. I hope we will allow for experimentation and that we will accept some risk."

Spoken like a true one-time member of the Procurement Professionals Frontline Forum.

NEXT STORY: Techies make the 'Sammies' finals

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.