Contracting -- more agile, please

Placeholder Image for Article Template is officially agile. Contractors who work on design and development of the site must do so using an iterative, agile methodology, according to contracting documents published on April 17.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a draft statement of work on the Federal Business Opportunities website as part of a "sources sought" posting designed to attract small businesses to work as subcontractors on the site. The document contains interesting details about how contractors are expected to do business, and it points to what CMS will be looking for when the time comes to review candidates for the prime contracting slot that is set to be awarded in January 2015.

Accenture is currently the prime contractor charged with building and maintaining the e-commerce and data verification system that connects individuals seeking insurance with carriers who are marketing plans, and with the necessary tax information to determine subsidies. But Accenture's $91 million one-year deal is set to expire next January. The short-term deal was made after repeated operational failures at soured officials on original contractor CGI Federal. While there’s no indication that Accenture will not be a leading candidate to renew, there are bound to be other contractors interested in the prime slot on

CMS has clearly taken some of the lessons of the botched October 2013 launch to heart. The new statement of work specifies that the contractor will use "an iterative agile methodology to system development that provides the best opportunity to build and test software functionality."

Many of the problems with were linked to a compressed testing schedule that gave developers little time to identify and repair problems with the highly complex website. The draft calls for the use of open-source software and open application programming interfaces, and specifies continuing the shift from hosting on virtual machines to operating on dedicated physical hardware. And one area that was particularly nettlesome for developers -- automating the process by which enrollment forms called 834s are filed with insurance carriers -- is explicitly noted in the requirements.

In addition to running the front-end shopping portal of, the contractor is charged with operating the Small Business Health Options Program and maintaining the financial platform, which at last check was still under construction. The urgency in delivering the financial management piece of was cited in December 2013 as a reason to move the contract from CGI Federal to Accenture without a full bidding process.

It's not clear how much of that system is online and how much is being handled using workarounds. But when complete, the financial management system is designed to calculate subsidies for individuals seeking coverage and make payments on their behalf to insurance carriers. The system will also calculate payments to carriers that are exposed to more risk than expected.

The documents also give a sense of the scope of the operations required to maintain An advisory to small businesses says the project employs the equivalent of 400 to 500 full-time employees.

Note: This article was updated on April 21 to clarify the context of the new contracting documents.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Fri, May 30, 2014

Agile would be a good thing if the agile developers would understand that they still need to "document" requirements; otherwise, scope creep occurs and someone ends up paying the bill - usually the government. Contractors need to start being accountable for requirements, design, coding, testing, implementation/deployment, and maintenance which equates to "artifacts." -- An artifact supports the adage, "Say what you do, do what you say, and PROVE IT!"

Tue, Apr 22, 2014


Tue, Apr 22, 2014

Sounds like waterfall. Definitely not agile! "The Contractor shall use Microsoft Office Project software" "The Contractor shall follow the CMS Expedited Life Cycle (XLC), in which system development life cycle phases for requirements and design, development and test, and implementation will be governed by deliverables and gate reviews" "The Contractor shall create a detailed Project Plan / Schedule ..."

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