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WILLIAM D. EGGERS is director of public-sector research at Deloitte.
Agile procurement and the dark side of the Force
Agencies can’t afford the risk and complexity that come with the IT equivalent of Death Stars
In a 2011 essay on military acquisi- tion, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward turned to “Star Wars” to make his case. The Death Star
was the “undefeatable ultimate weapon” that was “brain-meltingly complex and ravenously consumed resources,” he noted. The first Death Star fired its main weapon only once before being destroyed. The second was much bigger than the first; it failed to fire its weapon at all.
The problem with the Death Star project was that it was too complex for any program manager to properly design or oversee. In “Return of the Jedi,” Darth Vader even complains that construction is behind schedule.
Government faces similar prob- lems today and not just with weap- ons systems. Too often, agencies attempt to build the IT equivalents of Death Stars.’s catastrophic launch happened despite the tens of millions of dollars the govern- ment spent on development. Yet three 20-somethings took three days to build
— a site that quickly and simply matches people with health care plans. It didn’t meet every goal of, but it provided the bulk of what customers needed. And while the government’s mas- sive undertaking collapsed, Health- Sherpa kept serving citizens.
Shortly after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO Mark Schwartz joined govern-
ment in 2010 from the fast-paced world of startups, he requested a few small changes to a USCIS web page. He was told they would take a year to complete. The changes had to follow a Department of Homeland Security rulebook called Management Directive 102 — a couple of hundred pages on how the agency should procure, devel- op and test software.
The “Star Wars” Death Star was too complex for any program manager to properly design or oversee.
“If you wanted to instruct a large group of people that they must use the waterfall approach,” Schwartz said, “you couldn’t possibly write
it better.”
MD 102 is designed to efficiently
create Death Stars. It incorporates extensive competing interests and expects to wrangle big, overbud- get, complex projects.
“What tends to happen in our that we build big programs,” Schwartz said. “You can’t tackle one mission need unless you have a lot of mission needs that you can put together into a program [that’s easy to send] through the oversight and appro- priations process.”
The problem is that trying to build the electronic equivalent of the Death Star contradicts a key rule of IT: The bigger and more complicated your project, the more likely it is to fail.
Waterfall’s thorough, slow approach is useful, but it reflects an outdated attitude about failure. A space shuttle can only fail once. Yet for digital projects, with informa- tion stored at little cost on the pub- lic cloud, failure is relatively cheap.
So Schwartz has effectively ripped up MD 102. Instead of trying to build large, complex programs all at once, his team takes on
small groups of requirements at a time and pushes them all the way through to production.
In agile, that is known as a continuous delivery pipeline. “This lets us minimize risk in a big way,” Schwartz said, “because all you’re really committing a small batch of requirements and time. When you can do that, oversight needs are much less, procurement needs are much less, and every- thing else follows from there.”
So for the past five years, Schwartz had spent most of his time aligning contracting, quality assurance and security to an agile approach. Once such systems are in place, a modular approach will be even cheaper.
“If we could do this across the government, it would be revolu- tionary,” he said.
Fast, simple weapons often are. n
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