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DATA Act: Agile's First Governmentwide Win

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The successful but anticlimactic launch of the website housing the federal spending data may have also created a blueprint for other modernization projects.

“I can't speak highly enough about the technical approach we took,” Dave Lebryk, fiscal assistant secretary of the Treasury Department, told the audience at the final DATA Act Summit held late June.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which became law in 2014, requires federal agencies report spending data on a least quarterly basis to a single website for taxpayers and policymakers to check out. The law’s goal is financial transparency, but along the way created the first governmentwide data framework and the first governmentwide project to use the agile methodology.

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The DATA Act implementation team of Treasury officials, the General Services Administration’s 18F and vendors opted for agile development techniques, which break larger projects down into iterative, incremental steps and rely on frequent user feedback. The team decided against building new systems and instead mapped where valuable data resided across government and figured out how to extract and validate it.

“That's not how government normally does things,” Lebryk said. The federal government defaults to the waterfall process, which attempts to map out technology needs in advance with deliverables at certain milestones. That’s the process Lebryk experienced when Treasury was launching the Governmentwide Treasury Account Symbol Adjusted Trial Balance System, known as GTAS. The project progressed in “fits and starts,” often starting over after getting new batches of code only to discover things didn’t work.

The GTAS project took four years, “untold dollars” and when the website launched, they were still working out bugs, Lebryk said.

When the beta version of USAspending.gov launched May 9, it was a different story. The website worked, displaying $3.8 trillion in spending. But the team knew what to expect: It had seen iterations of the site every day. Within three weeks, the team was making adjustments to the site and continues to make changes every two weeks.

“We were able to do something in six months that took us four years using a traditional design process—at a fraction of the cost,” Lebryk said.  

So Why Did It Work?

Any project with the word “governmentwide” is complicated, but the DATA Act team delivered on time and under budget. Rob Cook, GSA deputy commissioner and director of the agency's Technology Transformation Service, credited the use of agile techniques, which the private sector has used for decades.

“It acknowledges the basic reality that technology has gotten too complex to plan it all in advance,” Cook said. Agile’s increments, called sprints, allows teams to adjust when things go off course. The power is the ability to identify problems early.

It also works hand in glove with user-centric design. As he explains it, a team builds a product, then shows it to users for feedback, adjusts and repeats. The end result is essentially a co-creation between the technologists and the users.

“When [Treasury’s Deputy Assistant Secretary] Christina Ho and her team at Treasury built the governmentwide standards, they didn’t do it in a vacuum,” he said. Instead, they would get agency feedback after each sprint.

“Same thing with [Beta.USAspending.gov Product Owner] Kaitlin Devine and her team at 18F when they tackled the software,” Cook added.

Cook also asserted the success relied on the partnerships of Treasury officials, 18F and industry, a view Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Bryce Pippert seconded. The 18F team created early prototypes for the DATA Act, but switched to a collaborative role when it was time to expand and scale, Pippert said.

“Many consultants to the government that support the government see 18F as competitive or a threat,” he said. “I see them as healthy competition.”

In addition to pushing each other in a way that “lead to the good outcomes,” Pippert credited 18F with creating the procurement environment that allowed Booz Allen Hamilton to do agile development and freed the company from milestones.

The work on the DATA Act will continue, for example, by improving data and drilling down to a more granular level. But many of the DATA Act Summit speakers and attendees opted to enjoy the break from the more frequent tales of mismanaged government projects that cost too much and shipped too late.

“This is proof the government can do things competently,” Cook said. “Now that we have an example of that, why would we settle for anything less?”

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