Agile development: What's the plan?

To some people, the Obama administration's discussion of modular development sounds like code for agile development.

One of the goals of the Obama administration’s 25-point plan to reform federal IT management is to make such programs more responsive to new technologies and the changing needs of the agencies that will use them.

The administration plans to do this by pushing agencies to develop more modest but high-priority IT systems in six months or less and get away from the kind of multiyear, be-all, end-all system development projects that the government historically runs. The inflexibility of the latter approach too often results in cost overruns, missed deadlines and capabilities that are outdated on arrival.

The term that the administration uses to describe the proposed new approach is “modular development,” but to many eyes, it looks like agile development.

Agile development is a technique for writing software that emphasizes iterative development, incremental releases of capabilities, and close collaboration between developers and users. Agile development is increasingly popular in the private sector, though the government uses it much less frequently.

Industry group TechAmerica issued a report in October that proposes many of the same changes called for in the administration’s reform plan. One of the group’s four recommendations is for the government to promote agile/incremental development, which would include publishing a common definition of agile development as soon as possible.

The administration’s 25-point plan doesn’t once use the term “agile development.” The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for clarification.

So is there something more to the administration’s decision to avoid proposing agile development by name? Does it even matter whether it uses the term as long as the ideas are the same?

Various techniques fall under the agile development umbrella, and no one size fits all. So it’s not as if OMB had to worry about getting locked into one particular method.

Perhaps the administration’s proposal is intended to set forth high-level goals and save the details for later.

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