by Kenneth Corbin

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

News Analysis
Feb 10, 20144 mins
Agile DevelopmentGovernmentGovernment IT

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

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

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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, 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 VanRoekel made only an elliptical reference to the problems with the site, though in the past he has praised the “boldness” and ambition of 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.”

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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 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.

Government IT Must Be Agile, with its direct impact on millions of Americans and the highly politicized nature of the policy it supported, was an anomaly among federal IT deployments for the amount of public attention it received. But as that site underwent construction, and then repair, CIOs from agencies across the federal government advanced a litany of IT transitions that include cloud computing, data center consolidation, mobilizing the workforce and welcoming new social tools into the workflow.

Those efforts won’t be accomplished through the hulking procurement contracts of years past, VanRoekel said, in part because the money simply isn’t there.

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The smarter, more incremental approach to new tech deployments that VanRoekel envisions doesn’t, by design, break the bank. It does, however, highlight the challenge of reforming a culture within government that has historically been resistant to change.

“A lot of our direction, a lot of our thinking in this was really walling off the old in favor of doing the new — but to do that we had to work really hard to communicate to people the nature of that work and the benefit of going that direction,” VanRoekel said.

“There very much is a culture in government that to do more you must spend more, VanRoekel said. We need to think about how [to] get employees in government, the people of government, to embrace innovation as a culture.”

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.