Agencies hit road bumps with incremental software development

"It is critical that agencies take action to put in place appropriate incremental certification polices to ensure CIOs exercise the proper authority and oversight over major IT investments," a new GAO report states.
Close-up of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sign outside its main headquarters in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

Federal agencies still have some work ahead in properly implementing incremental IT development practices, a new Government Accountability Office report finds.

Incremental development has a number of acknowledged benefits, mostly surrounding how it allows agencies to incorporate user feedback, keep a project in line on schedule and budget, and abandon or pivot if necessary without too many sunk costs. Conversely, GAO argues, waterfall development practices “too often result in failed projects that incur cost overruns and schedule slippages, while contributing little to mission- related outcomes.”

By way of example, the report cites the Farm Service Agency’s Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems program, which was ended in July 2014 “after investing about 10 years and at least $423 million, while only delivering about 20 percent of the functionality that was originally planned.”

More incremental development is needed, GAO says, to avoid such embarrassing cost overruns.


But agencies still face some challenges getting the ball rolling — challenges associated with “inefficient governance processes; procurement delays; and organizational changes associated with transitioning from a traditional software methodology that takes years to deliver a product, to incremental development, which delivers products in shorter time frames,” the report states.

On top of this, there is the issue of chief information officer certification of “adequate” incremental development practices.

Only four of 24 federal agencies have a clear policy that the CIO can use to certify that a given IT investment adequately uses incremental development. Of the remaining 20, 11 have vague policies and nine don’t have any policy at all.

Oversight of incremental development is an important piece of Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act of 2016 (FITARA), which builds on an Office of Management and Budget guidance from 2000 that requires that agencies endeavor to make IT investment in iterative, incremental pieces (as opposed to traditional waterfall development) as a way to avoid costly project failures. According to the GAO report, FITARA requires that agencies “develop policies and processes which ensure CIO certification” that incremental development is being used and “report the status of CIO certification.”

Accordingly, GAO found that at the 24 agencies investigated, 62 percent of major IT investments made in fiscal year 2017 were certified by the CIO as utilizing proper incremental development. The remaining investments were not certified, agencies said, for any number of reasons. In some cases this was an error, while in other cases agencies said that the required certification was “not applicable” to the given IT investment.


However, GAO found that according to OMB’s guidance on the subject, several of these “not applicable” responses were incorrect. That is, agencies should have responded with a “yes” or “no” answer to whether the CIO had certified the investment project at hand as one that utilizes incremental development.

The issue, GAO argues, is that many agencies lack clear policies on CIO certification of incremental development. The data on use of incremental development across the federal government is valuable, GAO says, and so it’s important that it is reported correctly. “It is critical that agencies take action to put in place appropriate incremental certification polices to ensure CIOs exercise the proper authority and oversight over major IT investments,” the report states.

The GAO report offers 19 recommendations to 17 agencies, requesting that executive leadership make sure the office of the CIO implements a clear certification policy.

“Agency CIO certification of the use of adequate incremental development for major IT investments is critical to ensuring that agencies are making the best effort possible to create IT systems that add value while reducing the risks associated with low-value and wasteful investments,” the report concludes.

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