Modular, Agile, Open
Let’s hope California’s adoption of the 18F concepts gets traction. 18F is the “street” name for the federal group that is the catalyst for the long overdue radical disruption to the way large software projects are undertaken.
18F was founded to improve federal IT management and thereby enhance the ways that government technology is purchased, distributed, and built. Among 18F’s founders are a number of talents from the Silicon Valley. Now, with a presence on federally-funded CA state projects, 18F has received local attention through the efforts of the State’s information technology leadership at OSI and State CIO.
Despite the need for 18F at the federal, state, and local levels, the program is currently on the ropes at the federal level and could soon disappear.
18F promotes breaking large projects into more manageable components, replacing waterfall with an agile-based development life cycle, and promoting use of programming tools that protect clients from becoming captive to licensed software vendors.
18F and Revenue Neutrality
18F does not have a federal budget appropriation to fund its activities. It exists inside the GSA’s procurement division and is funded through charge-backs. Agencies pay GSA to run procurements similar to how, in California, agencies pay the Department of General Services or State CIO to run technology-related procurements. Due to startup costs, the chargebacks are not yet covering the actual costs of 18F activities. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has raised concerns about 18F spending more than it is earning.
The Million Dollar Double-take: Will you see the Savings, or the Spending?
Mega-vendors are, no doubt, loving the sniping against 18F. They don’t like smaller procurements – they promote more competition and their wins are smaller than before. GAO’s procurement division isn’t excited about having to share its revenue with an upstart group that is stealing the limelight by driving procurements into a radically new, agile-guided, direction.
Unfortunately, the procurement division is measured by the cost of its work. Breaking a mega-project into manageable components may save hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run, but the extra million it costs for 18F upfront – to help architect the new strategy – is considered a cost, not an investment, in achieving a better solution at a lower total price.
18F California Debut: Federally-funded Child Welfare Project and Anticipated Challenges
California’s Office of System Integration is paying directly to use 18F staff to help plan mega projects. They’ve started with child welfare. OSI responded quickly and ably to 18F guidance to break a monolithic child welfare project into components.
No doubt there will be challenges encountered in coordinating the components built by different vendors, but can anyone say that the billion dollars in cost over-runs to build and operate health and human service systems in the past decade would predict a better result? Similarly, agile methods will encounter difficulties along the way; again, the results are certain to be better over time than the repeated massive shortcomings in the waterfall approach.
18th and F Streets, Washington, D.C.
18th and F Streets, Sacramento, CA.
What Started Here, Stays Here? 18F’s Future
If 18F is eliminated, let’s hope that California can continue the work it helped to start. But let’s also pay attention to the irony of why 18F is on the federal budgetary ropes. Adding agile and architectural expertise may add a few million dollars to the federal procurement process. But adding agile and architectural expertise may – in turn – save projects from failure, avoid hundreds of millions in cost overruns, and enhance the functionality of solutions. Too often State departments and their missions dwindle under the cost, size, and approach of sprawling mega contracts.
Let’s hope that California can adopt the 18F concepts long enough for all interested parties, including government IT firms, to directly benefit from – or to recognize the benefits of – 18F’s expertise and approach. 18F offers an timely alternative to solution development; tax payers and states deserve the benefits promised in the improvements that 18F brings to automation solution planning and delivery.