The speed of changing technologies means CIOs and CTOs in government need to rethink how they develop long-term plans, both for individual projects and overarching agency priorities, according to panelists at an event sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management. In moving to agile development, federal CIOs are promoting strategic plans that reflect the advancement of technology and the unknown future.
"We certainly can't do things the way we have done in the past – these really long-term, five-year, big contracts that don't have an opportunity for competition or reseller markets coming in until the end," said Karen Britton, special assistant and CIO to the Executive Office of the President, during a panel discussion on Dec. 18. "I really don't think that CIOs should have five-year strategic plans."
Britton suggested narrowing plans to one or two years, focusing on "tech insertion" – using available technologies to meet specific mission needs – rather than planning large-scale investments that might be outdated before completed.
This tack would mean a significant change for many in government.
"We've been taught a certain way, not just in IT," General Services Administration CIO Sonny Hashmi said. "How we budget, how we plan, how we project manage a certain way ... You plan everything out to the nth degree, then you execute it and that's just not the way things work anymore."
Instead, managers should focus on what can be done over the next six months.
"You don't have the luxury anymore … to have long-term projects that go beyond six months," Hashmi said. "If a project lasts more than six months I can assure you things will change so dramatically during that time that you will have to do a rethink at some point along the way."
At Veterans Affairs, CIO Stephen Warren has developed a similar system for his shop, called the Project Management Accountability System (PMAS).
"The greatest risk, the greatest impediment to delivering on something is how long you take to do it," Warren said during a talk in November. "The longer you take, the higher the chance you won't deliver … So we said if you can't deliver in six months, don't bother."
When VA began employing this policy in 2009, there was a decline in the total number of projects completed, however the percentage of successful projects rose immediately from a third to two-thirds. By the end of fiscal 2014, the department was delivering on three-quarters of its projects, completing more total than in 2008 and brought the average time down to 4.2 months from an average of three to seven years.
"What's being asked for changes as time goes by – as the business sponsor changes, as laws change, as life changes," Warren said. "Agile flips this on its head and says, 'set the time.' Hold to a time schedule, allow your scope to flex."
While agile planning is the right mentality, Tom Sasala, CTO for the Army Information Technology Agency, cautioned against throwing out five-year plans altogether.
"I think we need goals and objectives for five years," he said. "I don't want to see a plan that says adopt this solution five years from now because it may exist or may not exist."
Sasala said agencies should develop roadmaps that show how their capabilities need to change over time and identify the technologies that can meet those needs on a timely basis.
Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.