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USCIS official: Technology oversight causing its own waste

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The balance between resources for oversight and formalities and those devoted to actual software development has tilted too far to the former, said the chief information officer of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"There are a lot of steps there that are adding dollars to the process for the sake of mitigating the risk on the dollars" spent on actual coding, said Mark Schwartz, who spoke May 1 during an AFCEA Bethesda event.

Between the time that needs arise and solutions are deployed, agencies have to wait for a critical mass of those needs to form into a program and for appropriators to fund the program, then endure the long procurement process, bid protests, oversight from inside and outside the agency, the code development itself and security reviews.

"There's a little piece where we actually do stuff, and there's a lot of wait time," he said. "I think the ratio is way off."

USCIS plans to finish its "transformation" project – to move immigration services from a paper-based process to an electronic one – in 2017. The agency began the project in 2006 when it first put the project's requirements on paper, but as Schwartz noted, the needs addressed by the project date back even further, before they formed a critical mass and became a project.

Schwartz joined USCIS in 2010 after a career in the private sector. At the event, he reminisced about a model he saw used there called continuous delivery, which empowers developers to push out code improvements quickly and frequently.

He also described how the federal bureaucracy makes it difficult to do A/B testing, where an organization produces two versions of the same program that vary in only one way, to see which version of a feature performs best.

USCIS could use A/B testing to determine where some people give up on the E-Verify self-check service, which lets individuals see if the system considers them eligible to work.

But before they roll out a new user interface, even one that's just part of A/B testing, the design must go through public comment, Schwartz said.

"But actually, this kind of testing is a kind of public comment. You're actually seeing how people use the system," he said.

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