How Automation in Software Delivery is Optimizing Federal Program Management

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U.S. federal agencies are looking to deliver better software faster to optimize IT and accelerate time to value for end users. Yet unnecessary manual processes are holding them back and overworking their time-strapped employees, integrators and contractors, undermining the success of mission-critical government programs.

The U.S. government – encouraged by The U.S. Digital Service – is trying to provide seamless digital experiences that improve the day-to-day running of the country and its citizens. Government programs, from aerospace to healthcare to national security, are increasingly transitioning from traditional means of operations (such as paper records) to digital systems to improve efficiencies and value delivered.

As part of this transition, agencies are also trying to connect their legacy mainframe computer systems to more modern legacy systems (such as their requirement management tools), as well as incorporate new Agile and DevOps tools into their toolchains to improve quality and speed of software delivery. This digital transformation is driven by a mandate to improve IT efficiency, work within strict budgets and meet constituent desires for digital services.

We aren’t prepared to wait at the DMV for a week straight, or wait on the phone for days to discuss our health anymore; that’s why over 65 percent of public service leaders recognize that creating personalized citizen experiences is a priority. Take the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for example: the VA recently launched a computer platform that will enable developers to create mobile and web applications to help veterans better manage their care, services and benefits. Digitalization of programs can make real, tangible change to American lives.

Optimizing their software delivery value stream, therefore, is a huge priority, and federal agencies are investing in the latest best-of-breed tools, specialist roles, and leading methodologies (Agile, DevOps etc.). Yet they are still not seeing the results they expected, especially when scaling IT initiatives. In fact, according to Tony Scott, a former federal CIO, 80 percent of the federal IT budget is spent on operations and maintenance.

So why are agencies failing to see an ROI with their software delivery?

Much of the answer lies in the way information is manually shared between stakeholders. These archaic forms of communication directly impact IT effectiveness within federal programs.

Communication breakdown

Most of an agency’s IT struggles emanate from sev­­ere lack of end-to-end visibility, traceability and control over the software delivery process. Much of this is due to manual work, which acts as quicksand to all core activities and tasks. The specialists involved – such as program manager, project manager, developer, tester, operations etc. – operate from within their own function-built tools, and these tools do not naturally share product-critical information in real time. This fragmented view causes a number of issues:

  1. Forces specialists into laborious, time-consuming manual work (email, status ­meetings, duplicate entry, spreadsheets etc.) that is productivity and budget-draining. Moreover, human error can undermine the fidelity of the data communicated (e.g., incomplete, outdated, missing). In the private sector, this can waste up to 20 minutes per day per specialist (which equates to over half an hour a week, approximately six working days a year. That works out to approximately $10 million a year in lost productivity, based on an average 1500-person development team).
  1. Deprives under-pressure CIOs of a clear view into the software delivery process to see how IT is improving the performance of a federal program. Without this view, they have no real insight into how the agency’s digital transformation is going. They are unable to ascertain whether they’re meeting their objectives and/or delivering on budget, meaning they may have to go to Congress to ask for more money or, worse, even testify to explain how they misspent/misused public money.
  1. Puts program managers, who are typically contractors, at odds with federal employees (such as CIOs) as they look to meet the deliverables set out in their contract. Everyone shares the same goal — the success of the program — but with poor communication comes a lack of understanding and trust. The result? Ineffective collaboration that means the contractor will likely be dropped, and the agency must then scramble around to find a replacement to save the program. More unnecessary waste of time they don’t have.

In this fragmented world that stifles collaboration, everyone loses – from the specialists, to the program manager, to the CIO, to the agency and the general public. The above issues are similar challenges that commercial enterprises face (just swap program for business initiative). Federal agencies, however, work in a very different environment with very different expectations, meaning the importance of adopting the right approach to software delivery sooner rather than later is even more pressing. Here’s why:

  1. M­­ission-critical: Unlike commercial enterprises, if a federal agency misses a deliverable, there are severe implications for mission-critical government initiatives. A piece of software can delay a rocket launch or a healthcare roll-out, weakening a service/duty to constituents, damaging an agency’s reputation and negatively influencing public opinion of the government.
  1. Contractor collaboration: Contractors are responsible for much of the work to complete projects, meaning there’s additional complexity to consider; more tools, more people, more potential for time and value to be lost. Ineffective collaboration between agencies and contractors is one of the main reasons a project can fail.
  1. Regulations and compliance: Navigating through streams of red tape and bureaucratic conflict is nothing new in the federal space, but when it comes to software delivery, it can make or break a project. All builds, test cases and deployments must be compliant and traceable. There is no room for error. But the enigmatic, experimental nature of software development raises red flags in terms of risk management for veteran government employees.
  1. Constituent needs: As with the average consumer, a constituent’s needs are increasing digitally-centric. They want the convenience to use all federal services through websites and apps. If such a service is not available or usable, the effectiveness of a program will be undermined, leading to disgruntled constituents, and federal targets being missed.
  1. The old world versus the new: Some government programs have b­­­een running for decades, and are underpinned by legacy systems, teams and processes. At the same time, new programs (initiated through new presidential leadership for instance) bring new technology, roles and ideas in, creating the all too familiar clash between the old world and the new. Existing programs need to continue working and/or be improved, while new programs also need to be introduced to accelerate program implementation. Yet again, upsetting the status quo strikes fear into existing systems and protocol.

An automated infrastructure – the bridge between the past, present and future

By connecting the network of teams and tools involved in the planning, building and delivery of the software products that underpin government programs, agencies and their contractors can take control of their software delivery value stream.

Automating the flow of product-critical information between key stakeholders unifies all systems; it creates a robust and modular infrastructure that improves collaboration between agencies and contractors to optimize time to value for end users by:

  • Automatically syncing vital real-time information into specialists’ tools when they need it to eliminate the time spent doing manual handoffs and duplicate entry. Not only does this speed up the process, but it dramatically improves employee satisfaction as they get back to doing their core job instead of grappling with pesky administrivia.
  • Bridging the old world and the new, by integrating legacy systems and tools inside the agency as well as integrating with the more modern software development tools used by contractors. By merging and consolidating data between all systems involved in the process, agencies can obtain the ‘one source of truth’ required to enable CIOs and management to create meaningful reports from accurate data in real-time to assess performance, identify bottlenecks and optimize the process.
  • Creating the ‘one source of truth’ that acts as a clear communication line between agencies and integrators/contractors. Everyone can see what’s going on and all the decisions that have been made to build the product. This visibility fosters better collaboration to ensure both parties are working together to build software that meets current and future needs, and that is delivered on time and on budget to ensure mission-critical programs are implemented in time.
  • Enables the agency to trace the flow of work across the supply chain, inside the agency and out, so they can ensure that test coverage is meeting strict federal regulations and policy. This documentation can also be used as the basis for any handover for future programs, new contractors, etc.

With a connected, visible, traceable and measurable software delivery value stream, federal agencies and their integrators/contractors can create a resilient and adaptable foundation for their digital transformation. With better control over IT, they can greatly improve the success of mission-critical programs, enabling the U.S. to continue thrive on the digital world stage.

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About Author

Wendy Flowers is a Senior Solution Architect at Tasktop with vast experience in both the public and private sector. Through her work in the government space - including her previous role as Director of the IT PMO at the Ohio Department of Transportation - she has developed a zeal for helping agencies and organizations to realize they can be Agile while maintaining the necessary structure for compliance.

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