U.S. CIO Urges Feds to Fail Fast, Not Fail Big

Taking a page from the private sector, federal CIO Steve VanRoekel calls for a more agile, iterative approach to government IT projects.

By Kenneth Corbin
Mon, February 10, 2014

CIO — WASHINGTON — If Steve VanRoekel has his way, the end of large-scale, multi-year federal technology projects is near at hand.

VanRoekel, the CIO of the federal government, is calling for a dramatic shift in the way departments and agencies plan their IT projects. Speaking at a government IT conference last week, he urged attendees to embrace an agile, iterative strategy for tech deployments that would supplant the more ambitious, big-bang approach that has resulted in innumerable projects that ran over budget, past deadline and failed to deliver the anticipated results.

"When I say fail fast versus fail big, we need to think really hard about how we challenge ourselves to break these things down, to start small, to iterate rapidly, to do things in a way that you can fail and learn from that failure and then move quickly into the next phase," VanRoekel said.

Government IT

[ More From VanRoekel: Federal CIOs Need More Authority to Better Manage IT ]
[ Also: Federal IT Efforts Slowed by Weak CIO Roles, Uneven Reporting ]

In that sense, he suggests that department and agency CIOs follow the lead of the private sector, where the model of incremental development is in wide use. Talk to startups in Silicon Valley as well as large government IT contractors in Northern Virginia, he said, and agile is "the new normal. This is the mentality."

Then Again, Healthcare.gov Failed Fast and Big

VanRoekel's comments come as the White House is preparing to deliver its proposal for the 2015 budget to Congress. The details have yet to be announced, but VanRoekel hinted that the administration's vision for harnessing technology to drive efficiencies throughout the executive branch will be a signature element of the document.

"The prevailing theme through the budget is tech and innovation," he said. "It's part of everything we do."

In addition to the persistent trends of tightening budgets and the mounting pressure to increase service delivery, government IT workers today operate in the aftermath of the troubled rollout of Healthcare.gov. VanRoekel made only an elliptical reference to the problems with the site, though in the past he has praised the "boldness" and ambition of Healthcare.gov while acknowledging the complexity of consolidating mainframes and other legacy systems into a single website, allowing that "sometimes in [Version 1.0], things don't go the way you expect."

[ Also: 6 IT Outsourcing Lessons Learned From Healthcare.gov's Troubled Launch ]

Other government IT observers, with the liberty to speak freely from their position in the private sector, have been less charitable, blasting the development of Healthcare.gov for hewing to the familiar government formula of trying to do too much in one fell swoop, rather than the modular development approach that VanRoekel championed on Thursday.

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