Only the beginning for agencies’ push toward agile

As half of federal agencies earned a failing grade in incremental development on the first Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act report card from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, many are still learning how to navigate agile’s complicated field.

“We’re about to start walking,” said David Zvenyach,  director of acquisition management at the General Services Administration’s 18F, at an ACT-IAC panel discussion in Washington Nov. 5. “Once we start walking, then we’re going to start running, then we’re going to go really fast. But you just also have to go to that place where you say, OK, now I can put one foot in front of the other, and then it’s off to the races.”

In some areas, agencies have passed the early innovator stage, said Traci Walker, acquisition team lead at the U.S. Digital Service.

“As a whole, people are starting to really understand what it is and what the benefits are, and that’s driven from industry,” she said. “That isn’t something the government is making up and saying, ‘Hey, this is something new.'”

But for some agencies, establishing a clear vision of what they’re looking for and how an agile framework will apply, has been an ongoing challenge.

“Historically, the agencies have been less than precise let’s say, about what they’re trying to get at,” Zvenyach told Federal News Radio. “Agile embraces the idea of having a really clear product vision with a little bit less emphasis on the long laundry list of requirements and instead focusing on, who are my users, how is this product going to satisfy my users’ needs, and defining that up front so that vendors can start shipping on a regular basis the things that satisfy users’ needs.”

Communication with industry has also been a struggle. From the agencies’ perspective, contracting officers want vendors to demonstrate outcomes, rather than apply agile “buzzwords” to their proposals.

“Just show me what you’ve done, Zvenyach said. “And show me how you’ve documented it. It’s really trying to apply the ‘show don’t tell’ approach.”

Similar in spirit to idea of agile development, Zvenyach said agencies should strive for continuous, incremental improvement.

“Everyone knows we’re not perfect,” he said. “We have a long way to go. But I think what the American public expects, and what I think government agencies want, is to do a little bit better each day. So that over the course of each day, you’re doing a little bit better. Over the course of each sprint, you’re doing a little bit better, and at the end of each product, you’ve got a better result.”

Agencies acknowledge they need to get more creative not only in the way they buy products and services, but also in how they think about and approach agile and incremental development.

The U.S. Digital Service, for example, recently launched a six-month pilot for contracting officers to train them in agile and digital services techniques. The pilot creates a “safe space” to talk about common acquisition challenges, Walker said.

“One of the things that as I’m looking across government is that we all think that in every agency we have such unique, special situations, and yet, every single time you go to another agency, they have that same unique, special situation,” she said. “Really opening that conversation and saying, we’re not all that unique and we are facing common elements and common practices and challenges… those are the things that we’re really trying to change the mindset of.”

The Homeland Security Department’s chief information officer will soon sign off on an agile development guidebook, said Eric Cho, project lead for the Procurement Innovation Lab at DHS.

And 18F recently experimented and made a “micro-purchase,” Zvenyach said.

The goal, he said, was to buy open source code for less than $3,500. His team used a reverse auction technique to solicit vendors. The winning bidder submitted code for $1, Zvenyach said.

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