18F Says 6 Core Concepts Can Reduce Risk in Federal Tech Projects

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The new De-risking Government Technology Field Guide looks to educate officials on how to merge modern software design with traditional government bureaucracy.

Teams of technology, process and procurement experts with the Technology Transformation Service have published a 128-page guidebook outlining best practices for technology projects—federal, state or local—in an attempt to “de-risk” one of the most failure-prone areas of government.

Last week, 18F—the internal tech consultancy housed in the General Services Administration’s TTS—in conjunction with their colleagues at 10x, released the “De-risking Government Technology Field Guide” with specific advice on how agencies can use human-centered design, agile development and modular contracting to significantly lower the risk of producing a substandard or unusable product.

“Only 13% of large government software projects are successful,” the guide states, citing statistics from The Standish Group analyzing projects in the U.S. and Europe valued at more than $6 million. “Modern software development practices reduce that risk by delivering working code every few weeks and getting feedback from end users to ensure that the product meets their needs.”

While much of the private sector has adopted these development practices, government has been slower to make the turn, as entrenched issues like “budgeting, procurement and oversight structures” get in the way, the authors note.

“In the federal government, technology isn’t the challenge—outdated practices are,” they wrote.

The guide provides specific advice on every aspect of the process, but the ultimate goal is to get federal programs—and the people that manage them—a better understanding of “modern software design,” as well as tips for blending these methods with the requirements of federal bureaucracy.

“A technology project’s odds of success improve when the ‘nontechnical’ government leaders who fund and oversee it understand six basics concepts of modern software development,” the guide reads.

Along with the high-level concepts of user-centered design and agile development, the authors focus on product ownership, DevOps, “building with loosely coupled parts” and modular contracting.

The introduction gives an outline of each key concept, which are then woven through the remainder of the document. The rest of the guide touches on issues like empowering product owners, the tradeoffs between building and buying, using open source software, incremental investments, remote collaboration, “modern” market research, evaluating contractors and post-award contract management, among many others.

The guide is geared toward federal employees in charge of software and product launches across a department or program office, not just the IT leads. A blog post introducing the guide calls out “senior executives, program managers, product owners, senior procurement executives, contracting officers, IT managers and funding officials” as the target audience.

The latest release builds off of work on the 2019 “Agile Budgeting and Oversight Guide for State Governments” developed by some of the same people.