To Do Agile Development, Contractors Should Be Agile, Too
Do it faster, make it better, be more efficient.
Every organization wants to improve. But knee deep in the day-to-day business of getting work done, few have the capacity to step back, survey the landscape and take time for more than incremental improvement.
Today however, more and more government agencies are turning to private sector models to achieve better results.
They’re employing agile development techniques to roll out new systems more quickly; setting up innovation centers to encourage and facilitate new ways of thinking; and seeking ways to change the procurement process to lower barriers to innovation. Each approach has proven its merit in practice.
Agile software development emphasizes quick iterative development cycles, in which developers roll out and then improve one version after another, learning as they go, rather than striving for perfection at the end of a single, long development cycle. Agile has been a mainstay in commercial industry for years, but it’s still a relatively new concept in government. To be successful, agile demands changes on all sides of the government acquisition process.
The American Council for Technology & Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) hosted an annual Igniting Innovation competition last spring, in which 140 public-private entries vied for recognition. Among the eight finalists: InCadence Strategic Solutions, which employed agile methodologies to develop a mobile fingerprint ID system for the FBI, allowing field agents to capture fingerprints on Android smartphones and tablets and then “receive near-real time identity information on a suspect, wherever they have cellular service or WiFi access to the Internet, worldwide.”
“Agile brings us closer to the end user,” says Anthony Iasso, InCadence president. “That’s really the key: It’s about users. Oftentimes, we find there’s too many people between developers and end users. Adhering to agile allows us to quickly get to the functionality that the end user needs. It reduces the risk that a long-running program misses the mark.”
Adding engineers to the mix is also important, Iasso notes. “You have to pair agile with V1 engineers. They can go to an empty compiler and make version 1 of an application. If you let them learn as they code, then you get great capabilities,” he said.
Now the system is being marketed to state and local law enforcement, along with the military.
When the EPA decided it was finally time to replace paper forms with a digital system for evaluating firms seeking approval to remediate lead-based paint from aging buildings, developers at contractor CGI shaved months off the project by employing agile development. The whole thing was done in six months, a 20 to 30 percent versus a conventional waterfall approach.
That meant EPA needed to be actively involved, observes Linda F. Odorisio, a vice president at CGI. “If you want to do it and you want to do it right, you have to be right in there at the same table with your sleeves rolled up.”
Center for Agile Innovation
The state of North Carolina’s Innovation Center is essentially a laboratory for agile development. “Before we had the center, practically all projects appeared to be waterfall in nature,” says Eric Ellis, head of the Innovation Center. “We maybe had one or two trying to do agile methodology.”
But one goal for the new center was to conduct-proof-of-concept studies to test out new systems as they were being developed.
For example, a new application and renewal system for commercial fishing licenses was developed with agile techniques, saving the state $5 million in development costs.
“We would have gotten there [without agile], but it would taken us longer and cost us more money,” says state Chief Information Officer Keith Werner. “I had reservations that they wouldn’t have gotten the functionality they were looking for.”
Innovation centers are not without risk. Separate from the rest of an organization, they can be seen as disconnected or elitist, creative experts focused on innovating but disconnected from the real business of government.
“If you create an innovation group then they’re seen as the innovation group,” says Ellis. “The rest of the people, who aren’t in the innovation group, don’t feel compelled to innovate.”
To guard against that, the North Carolina Innovation Center, located on the first floor of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources HQ, has no full-time resources of its own. The idea is to create an open environment that can change as needs change. Even its office space is flexible, easily reconfigured to encourage open-space interactions, so ideas can be demonstrated with little fuss.
Changing the software development process alone is not enough, says Michael Howell, senior director of the Institute for Innovation and Special Projects at ACT-IAC. The contracting piece also has to change.
“You can’t say I want to be agile, so here’s what I’m going to do: ‘I’m going to put a request in my 2018 budget and wait and see if I get any money,’” Howell says. “It doesn’t work. They have to have flexibility to come up with the money. Then they have to have flexibility … to actually spend the money.”
Bob Gleason, director of the Division of Purchases and Supplies in the Virginia Department of General Services, says conventional procurement practices focus on known solutions and avoid unknowns, which add risk and uncertainty to programs.
Traditional requests for proposals define in specific detail exactly what is wanted, and suppliers respond in kind. “It gives you what it is you’re looking for,” Gleason says. “But there’s no incentive for any added value.”
It’s better, he said, to focus on the desired outcome, rather than on the detailed requirements intended to produce that same result, and to invite industry to offer innovative solutions the government customer may not have imagined on its own.
Contracts also must be flexible so vendors can improve their products or services over time, as they learn. Otherwise, vendors can be contractually locked into inefficient systems and approaches.
“You need to have a contract that’s not structured in fixed points in time, but is structured in a way that enables change over the life of the agreement,” Gleason says.
“Part of the challenge we have as integrators is not just coming up with that new capability,” but also making sure that contracting officers’ technical advisors are well informed so they have the ability to compare very different proposals, says David Gagliano, chief technology officer for global solutions at General Dynamics Information Technology. Innovation inevitably involves risk, and contracting officials are trained to be risk-averse. Selection based on price is clear and straightforward in a way that value comparisons are not. So acquisition officers need skills to evaluate the benefits of different technical proposals and the confidence to take on reasonable amounts of risk.
“Two years ago, the government published the ‘TechFAR Handbook for Procuring Digital Services Using Agile Processes,’” Gagliano says. “It’s a pretty good starting point for contracting officers and their technical representatives who want to learn more about Best Practices in Agile procurement.”
“People don’t want government to fail at all,” says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “When government fails, it often ends up on the front page. The private sector model of failing nine times to have that initial success has been difficult to incorporate in the public sector.”
So to accept failure, the threshold must be low enough that risk can be tolerated. Pilot programs and related short-term, proof-of-concept contracts can lower risk by reducing the amount of money at stake. West contends they can “encourage innovation while protecting against large-scale failures.”
The Defense Department’s DIUX initiative, which brings together venture capital firms, small technology businesses and Pentagon technologists to accelerate the injection of new technologies into the department, exemplifies the approach. New concepts can be conceived and proven in a low-risk, small contract environment, independent of conventional contracting rules and schedules. Then, once the technology has matured to the point of a wider roll-out, bigger firms can compete for the right to manage that implementation.
In this case, government gets the best of both worlds: rapid-fire innovation from small firms unfettered by cumbersome acquisition rules followed by a managed implementation by experienced contractors steeped in the intricacies of doing business with large-scale government organizations.