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By Steve Kelman

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Agile training, delivered agilely

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The definition of insanity, according to a phrase attributed to Albert Einstein, is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Now the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the U.S. Digital Service have together decided that if we want to get IT development off the failure path that has hobbled it for so long, we must stop doing the same thing over and over again.

According to a recent op-ed from ASI Government President and CEO Timothy W. Cooke, the two organizations are starting a Digital Services Contracting Professional Training and Development Program that will chart a new path.

In the first cohort, which is just starting, there are 30 youngish contracting professionals, almost all with some IT contracting experience, according to Joanie Newhart, the head of workforce training at OFPP, who is shepherding the effort from the contracting side. The main topic of the training is how to contract for agile development for IT, and more generally how to manage digital service contracts and to manage change.

For OFPP and USDS, not doing the same thing over and over again means not just new training materials, but also new ways of teaching it. In addition to traditional classroom material, the course will have a portal with simulations, games, readings, visual and audio media, role playing, and virtual forums and discussion boards. According to the Cooke's article, "[s]tudents' learning paths will differ as their individual development plans are updated based on their performance on assignments and regular assessments ... participants will earn recognition and course credit by contributing to the emerging body of lean and agile contracting knowledge through blogging, articles, white papers and presentations."

Another innovation in the new training is that it will itself mimic the principles of agile software design. In traditional training – as in traditional waterfall development – the curriculum is all developed in advance, before the first class, and then rolled out in the course of the training program. For this effort, the later modules have not even been developed yet – they will be developed "on the fly" based on what has happened in the course earlier on.

This reminds me of a phrase we sometimes use at the Kennedy School to discuss pedagogy that teaches not just by what it says but also by how the class is conducted, which we sometimes call "the class as a case in point." (In other words, we don't just discuss a case in class -- the way the case is discussed illustrates lessons to be drawn from it.)

The procurement method for the Digital Services Contracting Professional Training and Development Program is cutting edge as well. It was conducted through Challenge.gov, though it was not a conventional procurement contest – there was a fixed prize of $250,000 for the winner, but far fewer specifics on what the government wanted from the bidders in terms of performance requirements than many contests have.

The government chose three finalists, each of whom received $20,000 to develop their proposal, and used oral presentations by the teams (a technique begun in the 1990s but used less frequently recently) so the government could get a better idea of the quality of the key personnel. As part of the competition, each team needed to teach an actual one-hour class. The winner was a team from ICF and Cooke's ASI Government.

Finally, I like it that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and U.S. Digital Service are working together on this. Twenty years ago there was no love lost between IT folks and contracting folks, who often glowered at each other over stovepipe walls. A collaboration such as this reminds us of how much things changed.

Government still has a real ways to go, but collaboration these days is much more a part of how organizations do business than it was in the past.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 02, 2015 at 3:23 PM


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Reader comments

Mon, Nov 2, 2015 Jeff Myers Washington, DC

Steve, I kind of like the agile approach because it calls for collaboration and flexibility. I worry though, that the gov't can't really ask for a fixed price, and may fall victim to T&M price escalation with agile. Do you see a way to mitigate that risk?

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