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Unique challenges for Agile development in government

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Implementing Agile development with the federal government is not without unique challenges, members of a Sept. 26 panel said.

Agencies are accustomed to the waterfall process, said Tim McCrosson, a senior policy analyst within the Office of Management and Budget office of e-government and information technology. He spoke during an event put on by AFCEA-Bethesda in Rockville, Md.

"Those customers have to be taught that we're not shooting for perfection with this first product," he said. Agile seeks to produce several iterations of an application in quick succession, with each iteration an improvement over the previous one.

Because waterfall dominates federal agencies, customers also tend to believe--based on experience--that working with developers is a one-shot chance at getting better functionality. That generates suspicion of iterative products.

Agile also bumps into traditional federal practices and mores in different ways. It hinges on extensive end-user participation--but, noted McCrosson, many federal offices are short-staffed these days.

"If you can't get the customer to come down…and then, weeks later test capability, and give you feedback, then it's not going to be the right process," he said.

Diffused accountability presents another challenge, said Mark Schwartz, chief information officer of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.

Agile methodology assumes that a single authority can prioritize a backlog of requirements according to value, "but in government it's a little bit harder to have one person make value decisions. We might have a bunch of different business silos in the agency and they all have their own sense of what's important…and then we're also going to have input from counsel and privacy, OMB, GAO, inspectors general," he said.

In addition, horizontal communication across those silos isn't encouraged, at least not within the military, noted Tom Sasala, chief technology officer of the Army Information Technology Agency.

Federal acquisition presents another challenge, since "you don't actually understand how the system is going to end up" at the initiation of an Agile project, said Shawn Kingsberry, chief information officer of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

Contracting officers are trained to translate a set of requirements into a contract, but a point of Agile is not to have all of the requirements defined upfront.

Agile can work in the acquisition process "if we can get out of that mindset that we're buying a product and get into the mindset of we're buying a process," McCrosson said.

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