Is agile the answer to government's IT skills deficit?

Steve Kelman argues that DevOps deliverables are easier to evaluate, especially when the evaluators lack technical expertise of their own.

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Kalakruthi

More and more I am hearing from people in or around the government IT community worries about the technical skills of the federal IT workforce. I suspect that the situation is not as bad as some allege -- clearly there are some very talented technologists the government -- but there does seem to be a problem with dated, or never-developed, skills in government IT shops.

That observation is central to the case for contracting out as much IT technical work as we do in government. (Inside commercial firms, a considerably larger share of such work is often done in-house). But the worry about lack of technical skills goes further than the suggestion that this justifies outsourcing so much IT. The larger fear is that the inadequate technical skills of many civil servants in agency IT shops not only keep them from writing code, but also leaves them unable to monitor the IT work product of contractors and pass judgment about whether it is good enough to accept or reward.

I want to put out there a thought about a way for the government to mitigate this problem. My basic idea is that using agile for IT development -- in addition to its other virtues as a way to increase the chances for a project's success -- also makes it easier for less technically trained government folks to evaluate contractor work.

There a several differences between the deliverables the government receives from a contractor during execution of an agile product and those received as milestone deliverables in a waterfall project. The first is that there are many more of them, connected with the many sprints into which an agile project is divided. This makes it easier for the government itself to learn by doing over time, and get better at judging agile work product.

Second, the individual work products are less complex and therefore easier to evaluate. Often the test for evaluating a work product is as simple as observing whether the incremental functionality actually works as promised. The government person will often be able to make this judgment as a user, even without technical skills. In evaluating deliverables the government is focused on whether a feature works, not whether it is properly architected or elegantly coded.

Compare this with the knowledge requirements for evaluating waterfall interim deliverables. Since the contractor often isn’t submitting anything that actually works at the early milestones, the government may want to evaluate the quality of code or architecture submitted, both of which require more skills. It the contractor submits “percentage complete” estimates, the government, to evaluate the deliverable properly, will have the difficult job of attaching a degree of credibility of such estimates.

Agile is not a magic bullet solution, of course. Even if individual deliverables from a contractor work and thus “pass,” the less-technical civil servant can’t figure out how good the architecture is. (Will it scale? Is it an efficient use of resources?) To answer such questions, the government may need specialized in-house skills or an independent verification and validation contractor. But agile allows the government to get a fair bit down the contract management road even with limited technical skills, and to economize on the need for not-always-present IT technical skills. It is a way out for what otherwise might be a very difficult dilemma for government.

As I have written a number of times in the past, there are many virtues to agile over waterfall as a development method, separate from any advantages in terms of contract management. I believe, though, that the argument I am presenting here is valuable icing on the agile cake. This may -- and I hope will -- encourage some government organizations to take the agile plunge.

Reactions from agile users, non-users and maybe-will-become-users are welcomed.

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.