Agencies face clunky switch to agile IT development

Thursday - 9/27/2012, 6:20am EDT

Ruben Gomez, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Agencies continue to struggle with agile IT development, two years after former federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra made it a central piece of the administration's 25-point IT reform plan.

The agile approach, which is relatively new to the federal government, aims to make IT development more efficient and cost-effective. It focuses on more frequent incremental progress, letting agencies refine requirements as they go along and as technology changes. But the concept presents many challenges.

For one, agencies face difficulties holding contractors accountable, said Mark Schwartz, chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department's Citizen and Immigration Services.

"And in an agile model, it's not impossible to do that, but you certainly have to think about it very differently," he said, because the process brings in many input groups and the requirements change frequently. Some points of accountability shift away from contractors.

Law, policy changes needed

In addition, acquisition laws and policies slow the agile process, making it difficult for agencies to keep up with rapidly-changing technology, said Thomas Sasala, chief technology officer at the Army Information Technology Agency during the panel discussion on agile development Thursday sponsored by the AFCEA Bethesda chapter in Bethesda, Md.

"You can read any newspaper, any article in the space, and they're like, 'the biggest limiting factor to the deployment of IT in the federal government is acquisition cycle,'" he said. "I just recently used an [indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity] pre-competed contract, and it took me 9-1/2 months to get a task order on the contract."

The agile approach is forcing agencies to get away from the decades-old concept of trying to build an entire system over three-to-five years and toward iterative segments.

But first, agencies must figure out how to get around roadblocks that threaten success under agile. CIOs have listed federal budgeting issues and cultural difficulties as major hurdles to adoption. And even if they find solutions, agile development will not lend itself well to certain IT categories, such as hardware.

"Hardware development is a little less nimble … because of the nature of what you're doing," said Sasala, who began his career as a hardware engineer working on printed circuit boards. "And so, the capital investment can be astronomical."

Some using agile successfully

But the challenges are not stopping agencies from applying agile development in IT projects.

DoD and Veterans Affairs, for example, are using this approach for their electronic health records project to serve millions of service members, veterans and their families. The project timeline extends to 2017, so leaders must use a more agile process to ensure requirements remain in sync with advances in technology.

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board used agile to quickly deploy technology to monitor of stimulus money.

"We're doing more with less because we're getting the job done and checking things off quicker, but also … getting things done and moving on," said board CIO Shawn Kingsberry. "So in essence you can actually do more, because you're forcing it, time-boxing … your results."

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