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John Foley
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Agile Government: Elusive, But Not Impossible (Really)

A coming together of technologies and IT management philosophies at the federal level---including agile development and shared services--is cause for guarded optimism.

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John Foley

Bloated, slow-moving federal agencies (sorry, but that's most of you) must get the lead out. The $15 trillion national debt demands it, the public wants it, and the technology now exists to help.

Don't laugh. With its $3.7 trillion in spending and more than 2 million employees, the federal government is obviously better known for its enormous girth than for turn-on-a-dime performance. But there's a coming together of technologies and IT management philosophies at the federal level--agile development, cloud first, shared services, a national mobility strategy--that is cause for guarded optimism.

The concept of agile government--responsive and efficient, if not leaner--isn't new. A.T. Kearney argued eight years ago that government agencies could "set in motion a cycle of improved productivity and effectiveness" by becoming more agile. But that sound business management proposal never took root.

The idea is back, and this time it's being championed by people who can make it happen: the CIOs of federal agencies. Vivek Kundra, the former federal CIO, emphasized agility throughout his two-year tenure. Kundra's IT reform plan called for adoption of cloud services and other "light technologies" and advocated modular IT projects where "usable functionality" gets delivered every six months.

The new federal CIO, Steven VanRoekel, is picking up where his predecessor left off. In his first public presentation, he called on agencies to embrace modular development and "run our projects in lean startup mode."

VanRoekel's first big initiative, establishing a national strategy for mobile devices and applications, will make thousands of federal employees better equipped to work anytime, anyplace. And it should translate into millions of dollars in savings through consolidated purchasing of smartphones, tablets, and services. (For more, see "Going Mobile.")

Agile software development, where capabilities are delivered in "sprints" of a week or two, is emerging as a viable alternative to multibillion-dollar IT projects that take years to implement. FBI CIO Chad Fulgham is using agile development to complete the agency's Sentinel case management system, which had fallen two years behind schedule in the hands of contractor Lockheed Martin. That project continues to have its setbacks, but the delays are measured in months, not years, and the project remains within budget.

The question now is whether there's enough buy-in among key influencers to keep the momentum going. Department of Defense CIO Teri Takai set a hopeful example with her new mission statement: "To deliver agile and secure information capabilities to enhance combat power and decision-making." Note the equal emphasis on agility and security, which makes sense as DOD looks to reduce overall spending by $500 billion over 10 years.

Other federal CIOs have their own urgent reasons to get agile, but how--and how much can they really accomplish? We'll tackle those questions at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum on May 3 in Washington, D.C. Join us and share your thoughts on how IT can make government more nimble.

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User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2012 | 4:34:50 PM
re: Agile Government: Elusive, But Not Impossible (Really)
Interesting article, John. You might find an upcoming (May22) virtual event from the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to be relevant. In fact, Teri Takai will discuss the introduction of agile methods into the DoD software acquisition and development environment. For more detail please see:
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