CIOs cite struggles with agile development

Agency chief information officers say the road to more agile acquisition and development of information technology has some speed bumps, including misaligned bu...

By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

Agencies are knee-deep in federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra’s 25 point plan for IT reform. As they implement it, they’re running into some of the obstacles predicted by the plan itself, and some unforeseen ones.

Though they all expressed broad support for the IT reform plan Kundra put forward in December, a group of agency CIOs identified some challenges involved in reforming the way the government buys and manages IT.

During an AFCEA Bethesda discussion Thursday moderated by Federal News Radio’s Francis Rose, Teri Takai, the new CIO at the Defense Department, said one of the biggest challenges is the federal budgeting process and its mismatch with the technology lifecycle, a problem the plan identifies.

“The plan does pick out some institutional constraints that are a challenge for us,” she said. “It has to do with things like the way our dollars are appropriated. We want to look at agile development and deliverables, but the appropriation process wants to know, womb to tomb, how much this is absolutely going to cost. That’s a very difficult thing for us to say. It starts from a premise that IT projects are engineering projects, without the people dimensions of how you actually get them in and get them to work.”

The 25-point plan calls for the use of revolving working capital funds to let agencies pool their budgetary resources and spend them more flexibly. Kundra has cited “positive discussions” with members of Congress on the issue, but no legislation has been produced.

Another issue is a mismatch between the acquisition process and the technology lifecycle. That’s a challenge for Kenneth Ritchhart, the deputy CIO for Customs and Border Protection.

“We’ve been struggling with the problems of contracting,” he said. “We use the words ‘agile development,’ but we do not have an agile contracting environment that allows us to do contracts as fast as we need to. But we’re moving toward performance-based contracts and statements of objectives as opposed to statements of work. That’s been the biggest change for us is focusing on the outcome and how we need to get there, as opposed to ‘I’m going to build this system.'”

One large agency that already has uniquely broad budget discretion is the Department of Veterans Affairs. Because of that, deputy CIO Stephen Warren said they were able to get a jump on rapid IT acquisition. He said VA designed their Transformation 21 Total Technology (T4) program from the beginning to provide agile development capabilities.

“We’re targeting from when the requirement hits the street to award, a maximum of 30 days. But the goal is 14,” he said. “We’re moving away from 120 to 180 days to get a relationship started, but it takes time to get the acquisition community to change that. That aspect is already underway, and we’re fortunate we had a running start at it.”

In terms of culture within the IT organization, Warren said there’s no “operations” box on the department’s organization chart. He said that’s because the VA technology group sees itself as a service delivery organization, rather than a group of people who maintain black boxes.

Ritchhart said that’s the same attitude they’re trying to build in CBP.

“We’re trying to change the culture,” he said. “We sent 500 folks off to agile training, but it’s really about breaking things down so they stop building systems and start building services. We’re trying to make that change to (service-oriented architecture)-based capabilities. Don’t reinvent the wheel, leverage common infrastructure and build applications, not entire systems.”

Takai said there’s also some level of concern that vendors who’ve grown accustomed to the old way of doing federal IT aren’t yet ready to change. She said industry may need some prodding to adapt to the evolution to more rapid IT development strategies.

“Me saying I want to do agile and yet the large integrators not having agile developers is a challenge,” she said. “And I’m sure that for the large integrators, it’s a question of when we’re going to move to agile and when are we’re going to move away from the laborious acquisition practices we’ve had in the past. It’s not just a culture change, it’s not just training for us, it’s making sure we can convince our partners that we are truly going there and getting them to meet up.”

But the VA’s Warren said the key is to make sure everyone involved in an IT project—the business side, the technology side, the acquisition side and the industry side—go through agile training together.

His comment came in response to an audience question from a small business owner, asking why a VA follow-on contract had taken four months to re-award after it expired. He acknowledged it was a valid complaint.

“But I’ll tell you, I’ve been in government for 29 years, and I’ve never met a person who came to work and said, ‘today, I’m going to make it hard.’ Nobody does that,” he said. “As leaders, we need to help them see that we support their efforts to help them drive to the right decision. We’ve got to inspire and lead them to draw on their experience and knowledge to get to the outcome, which is customer-facing functionality as quick as we can.”

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