DHS tried to take 5 legacy IT programs agile. Here’s what happened

Agile development By Kalakruthi shutterstock image ID: 516494164

When it comes to IT acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security wants what most every agency wants: to get things done faster, cheaper and with more oversight.

William Pratt, the director of strategic technology management in DHS' Office of the CTO, said during a June 7 presentation at the National Defense Industry Association's agile government event that the department struggled to leverage modern software delivery best practices thanks to acquisition and oversight policies rooted in legacy methods originally crafted for the Department of Defense.

So in 2017, Pratt said, DHS embarked on a yearlong pilot the put five existing programs through the agile process starting – the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance (NFIP) and Grants Management Modernization (GMM) programs; the Transportation Security Administration's Technology Infrastructure Modernization (TIM); U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services' Verification Modernization (VerMod); and Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Student and Exchange Visitor (SEVIS) program.

To kick-start the pilot, DHS created the Agile Acquisition Working Group with six main goals: reduce cycle time, more rapidly deliver capabilities, save money, tailor capabilities to mission and user needs, avoid expensive failures, and provide continuous accountability and oversight.

Mixed results

The results were mixed, Pratt said, with VerMod speeding ahead and FEMA's programs trailing some.

VerMod was already successfully using agile before the pilot, but is now pushing out code several times a week and has deployed a new Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program interface to support a paperless environment.

FEMA's grants management program consolidated dozens of systems used to handle all of the agency's grants. But the program is moving more slowly and developing a firefighter grants system replacement, Pratt said. Infrastructure for FEMA's flood insurance program, meanwhile, has hit initial operating capacity. The program has also delivered an application that allows for near-real-time financial visibility.

By the end of the pilot, TSA's TIM program integrated TSA Pre-Check and built a successful stakeholder engagement framework. ICE's SEVIS program executed an agile contract in September 2017 and is developing a Manage Non-Immigrant Module.

Lessons learned

The yearlong pilot wrapped in June 2017, yielding 18 recommendations for making DHS' acquisition processes more agile. Pratt said the goal is to address the first 12 by the end of 2018, and that seven are already resolved. 

Top recommendations were the need for an automated workflow tool to replace email used to edit acquisition documents, Pratt said. The pilot programs also revealed the need for “a unified authority to govern, institutionalize, and manage the implementation of AAWG action plans and enable continuous improvement of IT acquisitions and delivery.”

The need for better cyber guidance, cost estimations, and testing evaluation guidance in acquisitions policy and practices were among the most critical recommendations. DHS also noted that it needed to establish performance-based metrics to monitor program delivery and incorporate data analytics and automation under high-priority and moderate recommendations.

"The process we have now is to fix it," Pratt said, "so when your money comes, you can start to get some agile teams and start churning out a product."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is a staff writer at FCW covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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