Agencies overstate use of incremental development — audit

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Several agencies overstated how many of their software development projects would deliver incremental functionality every six months, according to a government watchdog.

The Office of Management and Budget mandates agencies use incremental development practices on major IT investments. And while 22 agencies said on the IT Dashboard 64 percent of their software projects in fiscal year 2016 would see such functionality in six months, an audit of seven departments revealed only about half of their projects actually did.

In one striking disparity, the Commerce Department reported on the IT Dashboard that 93 percent of its software development met the incremental development threshold but during the audit told the GAO only about half of its projects saw functionality within six months.

Delivering 93 percent of software development projects incrementally would make the department “world class,” said Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at GAO and lead on the audit. He told FedScoop the Commerce Department’s data “didn’t look quite right” initially.

“There’s a lot of attention on incremental development; it’s not totally where we want it to be,” Powner told FedScoop. “Probably the self-reporting is a bit overstated.”

The idea of incremental development is to break up big investments into smaller projects with capabilities rolled out every six months, he said. Incremental development can help government avoid the pitfalls of investing billions in something that ends up delivering nothing.

The GAO also noted in a letter accompanying the report that it put the “management of IT acquisitions and operations” on its high-risk list in 2015.

“We want the reporting on the dashboard to be as accurate as possible,” Powner said.

Due to the data disparity, the GAO recommended all seven agencies update their data for better accuracy and asked OMB to clarify guidance “regarding what IT investments are and are not subject to requirements on the use of incremental development and how CIOs should report the status of projects that are not subject to these requirements.”

Department officials, however, told the GAO “management and organizational challenges and project complexity and uniqueness impact their ability to deliver incrementally.”

Powner said complexity and uniqueness of projects are two reasons why agencies actually should deliver incrementally.

“Each agency has these mission critical things that are unique, complex, but those are even more reasons why we want to break them into small manageable chunks,” he said.

GAO also noted that some of the seven departments do not have a process for their CIOs to certify that major IT investments use incremental development practices as required.

The departments of Education, Treasury, and Health and Human Services said they were working on establishing such processes, while the Defense Department doesn’t have an explicit process and, according to the report, doesn’t “intend to institute a separate process for the CIO to certify incremental investments because the department believed that its existing processes were sufficient to ensure that investments were appropriately implementing incremental strategies.”

In its recommendations, the GAO asked the four departments without finalized policies to establish them.

GAO will continue looking at the CIO certification process in its upcoming research, Powner said.

“There’s going to be a lot more to come,” he said.

Ultimately, he noted it’s not about the process but about getting more projects functional in a shorter period of time.

“The bottom line is we just don’t want these waterfall approaches where we’re spending years and years and not delivering anything,” Powner said.

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