Jeff ShupackForbes Councils Member
Forbes Technology CouncilCOUNCIL POST| Membership (fee-based)
Jun 28, 2022,07:15am EDT
Jeff Shupack is the President of Advisory Practice at Project & Team.
You don’t usually see innovation happening first in government; that’s typically the bailiwick of private industry. But in the case of the General Services Administration, great strides have been made in using agile methodologies to modernize applications and integrate flexible architecture—progress that sets a high bar for any corporate entity.
Agile software development was also the mantra for Nicolas Chaillan, the former Chief Software Officer of the Air Force and Space Force. Innovation and agile development in software is a better use of taxpayer dollars than a typical waterfall-type acquisition and development process, Chaillan has explained.
Despite some stumbles or stubbornness along the way, the federal government is starting to take on a leadership role in the use of agile business practices to improve effectiveness while accomplishing business goals.
Agile methodologies enable organizations to maintain higher ground and accelerate their competitive positioning. Indeed, there are several government initiatives that pit agencies competitively against each other. One of those is the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which we’ll look at shortly. The takeaway, however, is that agencies that have chosen to adopt agile practices routinely do better than their peers.
Let’s take a nuts and bolts look at the GSA project we addressed at the outset. In a project very near completion (anticipated to wrap in the Fiscal Year 2022), GSA used agile methodologies in a program that has seen no cost overruns and is projected to meet its approved budget.
FITARA And TMF
GSA is absolutely leading the way as the government sees an increasing convergence of two federal initiatives—FITARA and the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF). By proactively taking advantage of one, the agency finds itself well-positioned to offer success stories for both.
For context, the TMF is an innovative funding vehicle that gives agencies additional ways to deliver services to the American public more quickly while improving the security of sensitive systems and data and making more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
TMF was born out of the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017 to ensure project success for federal tech programs. So far, TMF has amassed $175 million through the annual budget process and $1 billion through the American Rescue Plan to fund modernization projects.
FITARA is a bit longer in the tooth, having been passed by Congress in December 2014 in what was the first major overhaul of Federal information technology (IT) in nearly two decades. Each year in April, agencies score themselves against a list of requirements, with the Office of Management and Budget scorecarding the results a month or so later.
Lately, agencies have found themselves treading water in FITARA compliance. Last year, 18 of 24 agencies saw no improvement in their scores, with two having slipped below their previous rankings. Only GSA received an A-plus score amidst a sea of Cs and Bs.
The less-than-stellar agency performance in FITARA has led lawmakers and CIOs alike to posit that perhaps the program would benefit from somewhat of an overhaul, concentrating more on cybersecurity and getting assistance from TMF. (TMF has become a way for agencies to improve their cybersecurity and achieve IT modernization goals as well.)
It remains to be seen whether TMF will help all agencies over the FITARA hump, but as we’ve said, GSA, in particular, offers a glowing example of success in the use of agile practices for IT modernization and reform. Let’s take a closer look at how GSA has emerged as the poster child for responsible and effective digital transformation.
GSA’s Agile Application Modernization
GSA’s account of how it succeeded in modernizing its applications is brief and well worth reading and can be found in TMF’s publicly available overview.
In essence, in 2018, the organization needed to modernize 88 IT applications to integrate them with other systems. The agency received an investment from TMF of nearly $10 million, allowing GSA to take on all its modernization needs at once, from software to hardware.
There are two takeaways to understanding how GSA succeeded in its modernization mission.
1. The agency adopted a cross-functional solutions team to implement best-in-class agile methodologies.
2. They created a set of “playbooks” to standardize how databases will be transformed and how data is to be migrated from now on. (As a bonus, GSA has made these playbooks available to other agencies in similar positions.)
The result of the effort is a comprehensive initiative that’s on track to come in on time and within budget.
This, of course, is the goal of every agile project in any industry. The proper application of agile practices typically allows organizations to improve performance and create an easier pathway to scaling their operations.
In fact, GSA’s success story is at the heart of what digital transformation can and should be. Agile methodologies and best practices create repeatable processes that can continually adjust to the demands of the ever-shifting digital landscape. It’s also an example of how innovative thinking can make use of existing initiatives to improve performance across more than one set of enterprise requirements.
GSA succeeded because agency personnel understood that they were not just overhauling IT systems. They were actually upending years of inflexible attitudes toward business processes and replacing them with a culture of “continuous learning.”
Cross-functional solutions teams, like those in GSA’s account, are essential to an environment of continuous learning. The individuals on the teams are free to create new and innovative ways to address problems without the stress and fatigue that can often come with an organizational mandate to “get creative.”
Of course, there’s much more to creative learning and digital transformation, and we’ll unpack aspects of the process throughout these commentaries. The question now becomes, what lessons can your organization learn from the GSA’s experience? How can you apply agile processes to your own business goals to continually learn how to navigate the waters of digital transformation?