Federal CIOs struggling to balance agility and governance

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HOT SPRINGS, Va. - A shift from waterfall acquisition to more agile, modular strategies continues to be discussed and encouraged governmentwide. But in federal information technology, governance of the applications and devices being used is paramount, and this can make agile development difficult, said participants on a May 16 panel at he ACT-IAC Management of Change Conference.

Federal chief information officers are striving to find a balance: They need governance but still want to encourage bottom up innovation, said Homeland Security Department CIO Richard Spires.

"How to be agile in this is what we have all struggled with at times, at least I know I have," said Spires. "Good governance and agility don't have to be mutually exclusive."

At first glance, agencies often appear to have too much governance, said Drew Jaehnig, operations chief at the Defense Information Systems Agency, but good governance appears that way because it's often layered.

"Governance is not linear. It's not a linear process. It comes in from anywhere," said Jaehnig.

Certain decision making is appropriate at some levels and not at others, and as a result governance boards may live in different parts of the organization. In other words, not everything needs to be reviewed by everyone, said Jaehnig.

At one point, the DISA human resources department wanted a spot on every governance board because they were afraid they would miss something important, said Jaehnig. In truth, it wasn't necessary for HR to be on every board, but it did spur DISA to transparently share information from governance board meetings with other parts of the organization. This practice has helped effectively reduce the footprint of multiple governance board meetings, according to the operations chief.

DISA aimed to turn governance into a process; prior to that it was a function, explained Jaehnig. To that end, reducing the logistical burden of governance was a goal--ensuring governance isn't slowing the pace of innovation or becoming a time drain for staff.

For some governance boards, DISA has reached a level of automation in which issues are quickly pushed to the board outside of formal meetings and voting is done electronically. A faster governance structure can ensure it's not another gate where projects get held up, said Jaehnig.

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