Federal agencies face a whirlwind of distinct challenges when implementing innovative IT, which they have to learn to overcome, says one industry expert.
Gaurav "GP" Pal has a pretty good idea when the federal government first opened its book to the chapter marked “agile and digital services.” It was in 2009 when Pal, working as a contractor, and his team launched Recovery.gov to help the government keep track of its $840 billion of economic development funds.
The digital portal was a success. Implementing a combination of agile techniques and cloud computing made it an extremely quick success. Pal’s team was able to deliver the website in 11 weeks.
Today, Pal is vice president of technology strategy and cloud solutions at Octo Consulting. He provides some of the company’s some 30 federal agency clients with the information and tools needed to effectively implement new IT projects.
Agencies are now starting to understand the importance of implementing innovative tech using these faster, agile techniques, Pal said.
“It's just a matter of working through the transition plan and how you incorporate that into your modernization roadmap,” he said.
Nextgov spoke with Pal recently to get his take on the dos and don’ts when it comes to agencies implementing innovative IT.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NG: Other than some of the fiscal benefits, what else is needed when it comes to agencies succeeding in digital service implementation?
GP: I think it's just the ability to drive a greater amount of customer satisfaction. A lot of times in large agencies, the software development lifecycle takes so long and people these days are interested in getting access to working software faster.
Moving at a faster pace can lead to development of better software because you're able to go in and get some requirements, build a little, test a little, deploy a little, and then you have these constant iterative cycles, which avoids costly mistakes.
So not only do you deliver the solution faster and thereby save money, but you also deliver a finished product that the customer actually likes, because they feel like they're engaged and able to see a working software and see it evolve as it develops. They feel invested in it.
NG: Give me an example of how you, or Octo as a whole, go about leading agencies toward these best practices?
GP: The National Institutes of Health was looking to evaluate a fairly expensive software for deploying in their data center. They wanted our help with completing the requirements and helping them figure out whether or not they should buy this expensive piece of software.
Rather than just creating requirements and doing a market research-type evaluation, we decided to go ahead and install that software. And then, we can go in and rapidly create a couple of test cases and basically make the software do the things it claims it can do.
NG: What are some of the things agencies should attempt to avoid when implementing digital services?
GP: I'm not sure I would say they should avoid—just overcome certain practices or challenges. One of them is in the area of acquisitions. A lot of times, when we talk about agile and rapid development . . . sometimes, more conservative or traditional agencies have a tough time figuring out how that plays in with their acquisition strategy or their management or oversight strategy.
One of the things that's critical to driving digital services success is making sure that we do a lot of due diligence upfront. We involve all the stakeholders, from the acquisition side, from the program management side, from the technology side, from the security side. And we say, 'Hey, we're going to develop these applications of this software in a slightly different manner than we have been used to in the past. How can we, as a group, figure out a way to make sure our legal requirements and organizational requirements are met?’
This is important so you don't end up in a situation where you do want to do digital services, you do want to do agile, but then some of the compliance and management framework does not accommodate that.
NG: What are some of the challenges agencies may face if they pursue innovative IT projects without the proper preparation?
GP: I think the biggest challenge they are likely to face is not being able to get the benefits of what some of these modern digital services can provide.
For example, the reason we are able to go in and deliver some of these solutions faster is we're using new kinds of tools and frameworks and techniques. A lot of times, if you don't have the right kind of talent or digital savvy solutions strategists, the approach you take to create or deliver that solution may not be the most optimal. You may not use some of the frameworks and techniques around, let’s say, DevOps or automation, that can enable you to do things faster.
NG: Would you say that agencies are becoming savvier about understanding this and recognizing what needs to be done in order to incorporate IT?
GP: Yes, I absolutely believe so. But like in the private sector, there are agencies at the cutting edge and are leading adopters of new technologies and services. And then, there are some other agencies, rightfully so that might be more conservative and might take a little bit longer.
I think people in GSA’s 18F, Department of Health and Human Services, Treasury Department, Interior Department and Census Bureau have done a great job in adopting some of these technologies faster than others. And there are other agencies that still, given the nature of their mission or the nature of the solutions that they have to support, may be taking a little longer to reap the benefits of this.
NG: Is there one thing that stands out to you in terms of a fundamental thing that needs to change in order to make this transformation happen?
GP: I'm not sure if it's just one thing. Technology modernization and transition is not easy . . . I think it's a process. It's not something that's going to happen overnight. But I think a lot of people, for example, the Office of Management and Budget, they get it, and they're driving some really great initiatives.
(Image via Sergey Nivens/ Shutterstock.com)