There is clear evidence that the agile software development concept is leading to more successful federal technology projects.
Lisa Schlosser, the acting federal chief information officer, said data the Office of Management and Budget has collected over the last year prove agile or modular development makes sense for and can work well in the government.
“Across the government, we’ve decreased the time it takes across our high impact investments to deliver functionality by 20 days over the past year alone. That is a big indicator that agencies across the board are adopting agile or agile-like practices,” said Schlosser in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “We’ve also seen through our analysis of some of the projects on the [IT] Dashboard that it is a fact that agencies who are using agile and agile-like development lifecycles are seeing improved cost and schedule performance. They are almost twice as likely to be ‘red’ if they are using waterfall versus agile. They are using more and more agile.”
Schlosser said OMB captures this data through quarterly PortfolioStat integrated data collection process as well as annual PortfolioStat reviews. Agencies give OMB updates against a series of metrics
“Based on our analysis of that data, we’ve identified agencies are delivering value than ever before,” she said. “We also test the quality of this data during the annual PortfolioStat sessions as well as quarterly sessions with the agencies.”
“We are continuing to work on training agencies on putting out the right guidance, and in fact, continuing to work through the CIO Council to determine the best way forward to get the message out about agile. Policy is just one part of it,” Schlosser said. “The other part of it is having people like Mikey [Dickerson] and Haley [Van Dyck] and the Digital Services team actually go onsite with these teams and work side-by-side with the existing CIO teams, existing federal staffs and help to bring their experience to drive these practices into our agencies.”
Education and confidence building
Dickerson, the director of the U.S. Digital Service and the deputy federal chief information officer, and Van Dyck, a member of the Digital Service team, already are having an impact on agencies.
Dickerson said his office helped the Veterans Affairs Department create what likely will be the first of many agency-focused digital services teams. OMB said in its recent update on Performance.gov that it was testing this concept across three pilots at VA and with the Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“It’s not like agencies haven’t heard of these ideas before. They haven’t missed the last 20 years of news on the topic. They know the idea. They know agile process. They’ve seen it before, just like they know what clouds are. We’re not like bringing them fire that they’ve never seen before,” Dickerson said. “But there is an important difference between having read the documentation and having lived in a team that really is executing well.”
He said the difference is like reading the manual on how to drive a car and actually driving the car — there are things that just can’t be written about or discussed in the manual and only through driving the car can one experience it.
“Having access to the people that have already worked in teams, that already have worked through a lot of the mistakes so all the things that can go wrong with agile or any development process means we have an opportunity to do a little bit of education and really a lot of confidence building exercise with the teams at the agencies so they can find out what they are capable of that they may not have had the conditions to display before,” Dickerson said.
Van Dyck said one high-profile example of the impact of the Digital Service team is the latest update to HealthCare.gov.
She said it’s clear this launch for open season went a lot smoother than the October 2013 problematic opening.
She said the Digital Services Office has helped VA deal with the challenges around hiring technology experts and remove some policy and regulatory barriers.
“This is a partnership with the agencies. We are in no way here because there’s mistakes have been made,” Van Dyck said.
“We are here to provide the help that’s necessary on the ground and work as one team with our agency partners to make sure that we deliver the best results we can for the American people.”
VA chief technology officer Marina Martin told the Federal Drive in early November that VA is staffing its digital services group with technology experts who come to the agency on two-to-four year positions. These experts will work with current employees on an assortment of projects.
“We need people who can look at the agency from a 50,000 foot view and look at the environment and say, ‘Hey, this is what we can do better, this is where we can improve, this is where we can invest taxpayer dollars more efficiently and this is where we can shut of these three legacy systems and create one better one for veterans,'” she said. “And then there will be days when they are down in the weeds, troubleshooting codes and helping a team work through a technical challenge. And then, of course, there will be new challenges that come up like the Veterans Choice Act there weren’t necessarily on the radar but require some IT assistance to get going to make sure everything is on track so the team will be involved in all those activities.”
Welcomed with open arms
Dickerson said agencies have welcomed USDS’ help, which was a bit of a relief because how the rest of the government would react was a big initial concern when he decided to take the director’s position.
“We’ve spent the last three months trying to sort through the requests. There is a huge amount of demand for what we are doing,” he said. “It’s close to every major one of the CFO Act agencies have asked us for something. It may have been a small thing, maybe a little help with hiring somebody they were recruiting, or it might be a big thing, like we could use some help with this HealthCare.gov thing. It’s a huge spectrum. So far our problem has really been prioritizing demand rather than trying to gain access to something people don’t want us to let us into. That really hasn’t been much of an issue yet.”
Instead, Dickerson said he’s more concerned about how best to choose what to work on because with only about a dozen staff members there is a limit to how much impact they can have on projects.
“In the limited time that we’ve got, a couple of years on my appointment, how are we going to make the best use of it and make sure that we are making the trade off in investing and hiring people now versus spending that time working on an actual project now,” he said. “All those kinds of allocation questions is what I worry about just because I want to get the most impact we possible can out of the resources we got in the time we’ve got.”
Dickerson said he’d like USDS to add more staff in 2015, but that’s dependent on what Congress appropriates in the budget.
But he said, no matter how much funding they receive, the plan isn’t to grow too large.
Over the longer term, the Digital Service Office will serve two main purposes. The first harkens back to HealthCare.gov when Dickerson was part of a broader group that “parachuted” in to help fix the troubled portal.
“I don’t mind that being a long-term part of the Digital Service,” he said. “We also are on the hook for figuring out how to make procurements more successful in the long term, and how we can help agencies build up their internal capability.”