Mehul Sanghani is CEO of the Octo Consulting Group.
There's a lot of talk that agile contracting is the panacea to the inefficiencies and stagnant processes affecting IT development in government. But what exactly is needed to move the needle beyond buzzwords?
For government IT systems development, it's not a question that better methods exist. To create more innovative ways of thinking about agile, greater partnerships and trust between the contracting and government community are desperately needed.
Education is a Key to Agile Partnerships
IT contractors often shake their heads at the continued persistence of archaic development and design techniques. However, it's important to remember that changes in government processes don't happen overnight and aren't easy. One of the most helpful thing agencies can do to mitigate this frustration is to clearly articulate the contracting and IT constraints faced when it comes to agile development. If government agencies pull the private sector into their world, contractors can take advantage of this transparency and probe agency partners to understand challenges, ask the right questions and recognize limitations from both a technological and process standpoint. From there, greater emphasis can be placed on creating solutions that can be navigated within the confines of agency realities.
However, educational responsibility is a two-way street, and the contracting community must also do a better job of educating agencies. Over the past year, agile has become one of the most overused buzzwords by marketing departments, advertisers, bloggers and the media alike. The word has been tossed around without many tangible and concrete examples of implementation and successes. The concept of agile is still incredibly new to some agencies, and thus the onus of responsibility is on the contracting community to provide details of experiences, lessons learned, and successful tactics. For contractors, the exchange of ideas comes naturally, so there is a level of responsibility to lead the charge and push the government to engage in a sharing culture.
This pulling and pushing educational process between the contracting community and government agencies can build a distinct and trusted relationship that serves as the foundation for a partnership needed to make agile succeed.
It's crucial that agencies understand the investments agile requires. In a traditional waterfall outsourcing model, contractors work on a project largely independently and come back to government customer once it is completed. With agile's philosophy strongly rooted in measuring results at regular intervals, agencies cannot divorce themselves from the process of building the solution. Rather, agencies must be an active participant throughout the entire engagement. Agencies should consider resources, such as agile coaching, to help gain familiarity with this increased involvement as true innovation cannot be outsourced.
Agile investments can also pay off in terms of financial and resource returns. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) incorporated agile methodologies in developing its next-generation case management system allowing for improved workflow, predictive analytics, and data driven reporting and policy enforcement. This system has helped OSHA realize cost savings and efficiently use its resources, allowing the agency's 2,200 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers, employed at more than 8 million worksites, to more effectively meet their mission.
Finally, it can't be understated how new talent can also be a source of innovation and fresh perspective. Washington, D.C. has seen an influx of individuals bringing an entrepreneurial, Silicon Valley-esque, type of momentum to the federal ecosystem, like the Presidential Innovation Fellows, USDS and CTO Meghan Smith. These individuals provide a broader view on how to promote innovative techniques like agile within their agencies. GSA's 18F is a great example of an organization making significant strides toward changing the standard of what government can do with its hackathons and agile BPA contract. Leveraging these individuals can lead agencies towards what's next in IT.
Not a One Size Fits All
Agencies should note that agile is a set of guiding principles and there is no one size fit all approach on adoption. Agile offers the possibility to go beyond individual IT projects and offer a broader lens to manage all of an agency's projects. Agile principles teach constant prioritization of product backlog and demand responding to change, versus sticking to a by-the-book plan. This approach may start with an individual IT development project but the principals can quickly be adopted and adapted to other projects, processes and systems.
It's hard to deny that agile will play a large role in modernizing government IT. Overcoming cultural divides, creating real partnerships and appropriate investments will allow for greater understanding and acceptance of agile. These are the keys to mitigating ambiguity around agile and propelling federal agency IT modernization forward to create true mission-centric results.