The troubled launch of healthcare.gov shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Multiple studies show that large-scale IT projects are almost never delivered as promised and pose a significant risk of complete failure. A government acquisition process that can’t reliably predict the outcomes of programs as measured by cost, schedule and performance exacerbates the problem.
The continued underperformance and outright failure of government IT projects doesn’t occur because we don’t know how to solve the problem. A 2010 report by the National Research Council outlined a clear remedy: Large projects would be broken down into small increments and developed through an iterative process known as Agile development. The need for better methods of acquisition, project management and software development is even more critical today, as the pace of technology change accelerates.
As technology rapidly evolves, software development must continue to adapt and increase effectiveness. Most government software development projects are still created using the antiquated Waterfall method. It divides projects into a series of phases, each dependent upon the last: requirements, design, development, integration and testing, delivery and maintenance. Since integration, scalability and end-user testing are typically restricted to the final phases, projects such as healthcare.gov are often plagued by a host of bugs and other problems upon release.
A long line of government projects have been scrapped due to problems created by the waterfall development approach. The biggest predictor of project failure is size. Studies show that initiatives over $10 million have almost no chance of being delivered on time, on budget and meeting requirements. Problems discovered in late phases of waterfall projects can necessitate that much of what was developed in earlier phases be reworked or even thrown out entirely. The resulting cost overruns and time delays are why large projects end up abandoned after hundreds of millions of dollars have already been invested.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see how breaking down a large project into a series of smaller releases and minimizing the time between requirements gathering and delivery can reduce the risk of failure. Instead of segmenting projects into phases, Agile methodology continuously addresses small slices of each activity. Each week, the project tackles a small amount of requirements, design, coding, integration, testing and delivery of working code. Problems are detected and corrected as they occur, rather than months or even years later, when a traditionally developed project moves into integration and testing.
Although the vast majority of government projects are still developed through the Waterfall method, a small number of innovative projects are successfully developed using Agile methodology. The United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is the single manager of America’s global defense transportation system. On an average day, USTRANSCOM conveys over 500 containers, loads 100 railcars, employs 44 ships and flies 480 airlift missions. Its mission is facilitated through planning, collaboration and the use of information systems.
In 2009, General Duncan McNabb, commander of USTRANSCOM, directed his IT division to develop and field a new supply-chain portal. Eventually delivered as distribute.mil, the portal serves as the unified platform for USTRANSCOM distribution planners and logistics stakeholders.
Utilizing an Agile development methodology, the initial distribute.mil product was delivered in less than a year. The portal was designed to help logistics personnel make faster and more informed decisions about the world’s most complex distribution pipeline. Today, the distribute.mil portal is used daily for conducting and improving the business of DoD distribution.
As government projects like distribute.mil and healthcare.gov become more technologically complex, the need for widespread use of an adaptive development approach becomes more urgent. Every new project is a journey into uncharted territory and the unforeseeable future. Agile is just the best vehicle to success.■
David Elfanbaum is co-founder of the IT consulting firm Asynchrony, a division of Schafer Corp.