Legislative direction moving Federal agencies toward incremental development in their software initiatives is beginning to take hold, and Agile development methodologies have been a key driver of that success, according to an agency CIO, a leader in government IT modernization, and an industry executive assisting agencies in Agile adoption.

“I am an absolute advocate around Agile development,” said new Defense Department CIO Dana Deasy at a May 23 hearing of two House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees. “It’s proven time and time again in every place I’ve seen it developed in private industry to give you much better results, quality as well as the end-deliverable actually meeting what the requirement is.”

Deasy’s agency is struggling to demonstrate that its software projects are using incremental development–where projects deliver new functionality on a six-month basis.

But the incremental development process is receiving a firm legislative push from the Federal IT Acquisition and Reform Act (FITARA). In FITARA’s six scorecard releases, DoD has yet to receive anything but a failing grade in the category that tracks incremental development.

Many agencies are already demonstrating functionality every six months in a full 100 percent of their software programs, and there’s still room to grow.

“If you deliver in smaller chunks you’re usually successful,” said Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office in an address to the House subcommittees at the FITARA hearing. “On incremental development, when you held your first scorecard hearing in November 2015, 58 percent of the government software development projects were planning to use a six-month incremental approach. Now, this percentage is up to 87 percent.”

A key driver of incremental development, Deasy noted, is the Agile development methodology, an iterative approach to software delivery that builds and deploys software incrementally, incorporating continuous customer feedback, instead of trying to deliver it all at once.

“To improve success of IT programs, FITARA focuses on incremental development and deployment. We see Agile as the enabling methodology for incremental development that can deliver on the goals of FITARA,” said Dawn Platt, Principal, Public Sector, Grant Thornton. “Effective implementation of FITARA should lead to an increase in the number of successful Federal technology programs and innovation.”

Platt helps guide Federal agencies through the transition to Agile by tailoring programs to specific needs. She said that mature, effective programs are in place at agencies like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the General Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Federal leaders have stressed the importance of cross-agency IT solutions, and Platt said Agile is an area where insights can be used to improve software delivery across government.

“We leverage lessons learned from supporting transformation efforts at some of these agencies to inform our efforts at others. We’ve created an Agile Center of Excellence within Grant Thornton to promote a collaborative environment for practitioners at various federal agencies to share lessons learned, best practices, project challenges/solutions, and learn about current trends,” she said.

Platt said that the right roadmap is needed, but creating it can yield lasting results.

“Every agency is different and you need to understand the existing culture, tailor the approach, and proceed with transformation thoughtfully,” she said, noting the long-term benefits of such an approach. “An Agile approach helps agencies achieve their goals faster while creating a modernization roadmap that can deliver the greatest ROI.”

Deasy said the shift to Agile is now on for many of DoD’s projects. Since the first FITARA scorecard was issued, eight agencies with F’s in incremental development now account for six A’s and two B’s in Scorecard 6.0. With that private sector guidance, it seems government is finally deciding to move faster.

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Joe Franco
Joe Franco
Joe Franco is a Program Manager, covering IT modernization, cyber, and government IT policy for MeriTalk.com.