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Editorial: For IT projects, it's time to get agile

Aug. 25, 2014 - 11:22AM   |  
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Steve Watkins, Managing Editor of Federal Times.

It’s widely known that incremental approaches to IT development — also known as agile development — result in more on-time, on-budget successes.

The research shows that. And the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office have strongly encouraged use of agile development approaches across government in recent years.

Yet, inexplicably, federal IT managers don’t adopt this common-sense best practice when embarking on IT projects.

The result is the waste of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in failed or troubled IT projects. Does Healthcare.gov ring any bells?

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Agile, or incremental, development refers to a disciplined approach in which IT systems are developed in a series of short “sprints,” with each sprint producing a deliverable of limited scale that can be tested and subjected to user feedback. The benefits are many:

■ The process requires unparalleled transparency and communication among all stakeholders, which favors success.

■ It is highly adaptive to changes in user requirements — which inevitably occur — as the users are intimately connected to the development process.

■ Requirements are continually reviewed and prioritized, so the most important stuff is sure to get done first.

■ It better positions agencies to adopt new innovative technologies as they mature.

■ And, because each increment of work is limited in scope, risk exposure is minimized.

OMB has been trying to convert federal managers to agile development for years, but with limited success.

Four years ago, OMB pressed agencies to deliver functionality every 12 months as a critical way to reduce investment risk. In 2012, it upped the bar, urging agencies to deliver functionality every six months.

But few agencies are complying. A May report by GAO said almost three-quarters of federal IT investments reviewed did not plan to deliver capabilities every six months, and less than half planned to deliver capabilities in 12-month cycles.

That report pointed out that of five large departments — Veterans Affairs, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Transportation — only the VA had fully implemented all key components of OMB’s guidance on incremental development.

For the VA, the adoption of agile IT development has paid off: The agency saw a dramatic improvement in its on-time delivery rate of IT projects once it began mandating incremental development approaches. On-time delivery rates shot up from the 30-plus percent range to the 80-plus percent range.

So kudos to OMB for the release this month of its “TechFAR Handbook,” a new guide intended to promote wider adoption of agile IT development. It states that agile development is “the preferred methodology” for tech projects. While a good step, a more effective approach would be to take a harder line: OMB should roll out an “Agile First” policy that requires agencies to use agile approaches unless they show compelling reasons not to.

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