Why Agile is Still So Hard for the Government


Pockets of the federal government want to change the buying process so technology can be acquired in sprints, preventing large-scale failures like the HealthCare.gov rollout.

Getting more of the federal government to buy agile technology services will be anything but quick, analysts say.

In the past couple years, pockets of the federal government have tried to promote agile software development, a process in which customers and coders work closely on small chunks of larger tech projects, rapidly spinning out and testing prototypes.

One example is the General Services Administration’s tech consultancy team, 18F, which debuted a pre-approved list of vendors who specialize in this methodology; other groups, including the Homeland Security Department, are following suit. Many private-sector tech recruits, including members of 18F, have made it their mission to eliminate the waterfall approach, in which a product’s requirements are decided upfront and then revisited, often years later, after launch.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

But the transition to agile will be bumpy, experts say. To fully embrace it, agencies will have to make some nontechnical changes, including adjusting how their inspectors general evaluate technology projects.  

By 2018, about 90 percent of industry projects will involve “experimentation, speed and quality,” characteristics of the agile methodology, but government lags behind, according to IDC analyst Adelaide O’Brien. Government has been “slow to embrace change and to acknowledge that software development projects face unknowns,” including user requirements, design, schedule and cost, she told Nextgov in an email.

Buying Options

Some experts credit 18F with beginning to change the way software is acquired. With the agile blanket purchase agreement, that group’s goal has been to help agencies “become smarter buyers” of technology services and products that already exist in the private sector, Phaedra Chrousos, former commissioner of the new Technology Transformation Service that now houses the pre-existing 18F, said in written testimony for a House oversight hearing this summer.

Another part of the mission has been to propagate a culture in which agencies “innovate on a small-scale basis and expand,” Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said during that hearing.

18F unveiled its agile BPA in August of last year, awarding several companies a spot on the list other agencies are encouraged to buy from. Companies were asked to create a digital prototype within 24 hours, making the code available on GitHub. 18F selected the groups whose products and prices met their requirements.

Two task orders have been issued under that BPA. The first, for a FedRAMP dashboard, was awarded in June and a beta launch was unveiled earlier this month. A second project, awarded in July, was for creating citizen log-ins for federal sites.

The BPA has met its own roadblocks. The contracting vehicle was halted at least twice by multiple protesters who weren’t given a spot, including Octo Consulting, which argued it excelled in the product test but its bid price was only slightly higher than the next closest awardee’s. Contractors weren’t able to secure task orders through the BPA until protests were resolved.

Despite hiccups, other federal organizations are standing up their own versions.  

DHS is creating Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland, or FLASH, and hosted an industry day inviting digitally savvy contractors, even if they’ve never worked with the government, to participate.

The program, which will likely ask potential vendors to complete a technical challenge similar to 18F’s, is a sort of pilot, Chief Information Officer Luke McCormack said during a June AFCEA event. DHS has told Congress and GAO “we are learning here … as we go,” he said. “We’re going to put FLASH out there … and will probably have a FLASH 2.0.”

DHS is constantly communicating with 18F and the U.S. Digital Service about agile practices, including how to evaluate proposals from companies specializing in that methodology, Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa told Nextgov last month.

“That’s where some of our thinking on the challenge came up, some of our thinking on past performance,” she said, explaining the department wants to connect with a new group of contractors who don’t have a long history of selling to the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency is also developing its own version. It hosted an industry day in July for vendors that want to be a part of the $200 million, 5-year contract system for companies specializing in agile development.

Evaluating Success in Agile

Agencies sometimes struggle to adjust even once they’ve started agile projects, experts say.

Gary Labovich, who heads system delivery at Booz Allen Hamilton, said some agencies grapple with adjusting to a new project management method. Booz Allen Hamilton scored a spot on the 18F agile BPA but has yet to win a contract through that vehicle. The company, however, is working on agile software development projects for the Internal Revenue Service and the Veterans Affairs Department, among others.

At the IRS, the Booz team is working on implementing a part of the Affordable Care Act, specifically the portion that helps validate the people who get subsidies that match their income. His team has also been working on VA’s benefits management system, with about 25 “scrum teams” each working on a specific feature, totaling about 200 people.

Agencies are “used to a very rigorous structured process where you have a set number of deliverables, interviews, drafts, technical specs, technical architecture,” when evaluating projects, Labovich said.

But agile development is a “little more freeform” involving prototypes, then frequent client meetings in which they comment and ask for modifications. “You don’t necessarily document all the deliverables.”

Especially when agencies are used to submitting project evaluations to their inspectors general in a specific format, adapting those to agile can be challenging, Labovich said clients and other agencies have said. But Booz Allen hasn’t lost any business because of it, he said.

The agile process “definitely requires more engagement on the client side” up front, Labovich said, but in the long term, there are fewer remedial meetings because the product rarely evolves much without the client overseeing it.

“The old model was you build something and then you end up having to tear it down and rebuild it again," he said.

Agencies adopting agile now have to use different measures of success, including speed of product delivery and how quickly the quality of the product increases, instead of metrics like the number of the pre-determined features that made it into the final product, Diego Lo Guidice, an analyst with Forrester, told Nextgov in an interview.

“It takes time to adopt these changes which are quite radical,” he said. “I do still hear contractors struggle because clients still operate on a fixed [price] basis" instead of paying for development sprints. Agile in government “is not yet a done deal.”

There are small successes. Joe Crobak, a member of the White House’s Digital Service team working on a project for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said agile development has meant fewer meetings and more prototypes.

Crobak, working on a payment reform effort, said his team has been rapidly whipping up prototypes instead of having prolonged meetings to discuss requirements, which is "very powerful to the point where leadership is now asking for demos instead of PowerPoint decks,” he said during a recent panel hosted by ATARC.

But it’s still government, Crobak said. “[L]et’s be realistic, there’s still lots of meetings," he added.