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GCN : March and April 2016
GCN MARCH/APRIL 2016 • GCN.COM 39 functional prototype. “We put the focus on contractors and vendors to be more creative and to get what we need,” said Mark Nag- gar, HHS’ Buyers Club project manager and IT vendor management special- ist. He added that the agile approach mitigated the risk of paying for a fi- nal product before knowing its worth. Vendors also saved time and resources by being able to deliver previews of realistic results. Such prototypes are typically developed using publicly available “dummy” data to preserve security. If a prototype does not do what the agency wants, it can change course without haven’t wasted a large expen- diture of resources. “Fifty grand isn’t a big deal for a contract,” Naggar said. “We’re able to see what a company can do as opposed to what they say they can do.” Like NGA and Octo, HHS has found that one of the biggest changes in the agile approach to procurement is the project manager’s increased hands-on role. He or she is much more involved with the contract’s direction and the elements of each increment. “You can provide feedback much more quickly than you would if it were in the waterfall situation,” Nag- gar said. “So far, everyone who’s done these types of projects...has had suc- cess. I think it’s the way that we should be heading, and a lot of us have prov- en that it really works.” Similarly, NGA experimented with agile acquisition even before its con- tract with Octo. Jonathan Mostowski, a former agile acquisition contractor at NGA, said he was able to change the way the agency bought software appli- cations by giving developers the oppor- tunity to display their work — such as geospatial, web services and business process apps — in an app store-like environment. The agency paid only for the apps that users downloaded. Software development has no real end state because updates and new iterations can constantly be imple- mented, and that means the waterfall approach is not always the best option, said Mostowski, who is now a procure- ment adviser at the U.S. Digital Ser- vice. He helped create the TechFAR Handbook the White House released in 2014; it shows agencies how to use the Federal Acquisition Regulation for agile contracting. More recently, GSA’s 18F digital ser- vices shop developed a blanket pur- chase agreement for agile services to address the growing requests from agencies for 18F-built products. It gives agencies access to a pool of Schedule 70 vendors that already work in agile development. Crowdsourcing has become another tool for taking advantage of agile prin- ciples. Naggar and the Buyers Club turned to crowdsourcing when an organization needed graphic design services. They used a worldwide crowdsourc- ing site called 99designs, which allows users to communicate directly with designers. Clients can get templates in seven days or less — often with mul- tiple design revisions a day — because of the way the site enables users to provide feedback and adjustments. The process saved money, time and resources and bypassed many tradi- tional procurement requirements. Pur- chases were small enough to be made with a credit card and required no long-term contracts. Agile procurement and contracting do face some obstacles. For example, knowing the types of vehicles and as- sistance available requires communi- cating with others. Naggar said many experts, including the Buyers Club, have answers, but “most people just don’t know what’s out there. They don’t know what contracting vehicle is available to them, and they don’t know they can use different methods.” And although agile procurement techniques aren’t foolproof, many be- lieve government agencies should be heading in that direction. “It doesn’t work for everything, but we’ve found that with IT services, it works tremen- dously well,” Naggar said. • Avoiding agilefall Recognizing that old habits die hard, officials at the General Services Admin- istration’s 18F have cautioned against using a technique referred to as “agile- fall,” which occurs when project managers and stakeholders adopt some agile practices but don’t move away from top-down management. An agilefall project might tackle development in a series of distinct sprints, for example, while still specifying requirements upfront. In a blog post last December, 18F experts wrote that “it’s incredibly dif- ficult to understand what the best solution will be if you’ ve never built it before.” Furthermore, because agile’s iterative approach focuses on working code rather than clearly defined processes, agencies must have the flexibility to adjust requirements as the solution is being built. When a project is stuck in agilefall mode, 18F recommends identifying bar- riers and problem areas early, conducting teamwide reassessments regularly and seeking professional assistance from 18F or other government partners during the development process. — Amanda Ziadeh 0416gcn_036-039.indd 39 2/29/16 9:48 AM
January and February 2016