TL;DR: Following several high-profile development disasters, government IT departments have received a mandate to change their default app-development approach from the traditional top-down model to the agile, iterative, test-centric methodology favored by leading tech companies. While previous efforts to dynamite the entrenched, moribund IT-contracting process have crashed in flames, analysts hold out hope for the new 18F and U.S. Digital Service initiatives. Given the public’s complete lack of faith in the government’s ability to provide digital services, failure is simply not an option.
Can Silicon Valley save the federal government from itself? That’s the goal of former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who relocated to California this summer and set about recruiting top-tier application developers from the most innovative tech companies on the planet to work for the government.
As Wired’s Steven Levy reports in an August 28, 2014, article, Park hopes to appeal to developers’ sense of patriotism. “America needs you,” Levy quotes Park telling a group of engineers at the Mozilla Foundation headquarters. A quick review of recent federal-government IT debacles demonstrates the urgency of Park’s appeal.
Start with the $300 million spent over the past six years by the Social Security Administration on a disability-claim filing system that remains unfinished. Then check out the FBI’s failed Virtual Case File case-management initiative that had burnt through $600 million before being replaced by the equally troubled Sentinel system, as Jason Bloomberg explains in an August 22, 2012, CIO article.
But the poster child of dysfunctional government app development is HealthCare.gov., which Park was brought in to save after its spectacularly failed launch in October 2013. For their $300 million investment, U.S. taxpayers got a site that took eight seconds to respond to a mouse click and crashed so often that not one of the millions of people visiting the site on its first day of operation was able to complete an application.
The dynamite approach to revamping government IT processes
Just months before HealthCare.gov’s epic crash-and-burn, Park had established the Presidential Innovation Fellows program to attract tech professionals to six-month assignments with the government. The program was envisioned as a way to seed government agencies with people who could introduce cutting-edge tools and processes to their development efforts. After initial successes with such agencies as Medicare and Veterans Affairs, the group turned its attention to rescuing HealthCare.gov — and perhaps the entire Affordable Care Act.
The source of the site’s problems quickly became obvious: the many independent contractors assigned to portions of the site worked in silos, and no single contractor was responsible to ensure the whole shebang actually worked. Even as the glitches stacked up following the failed launch, contractors continued to work on new “features” because they were contractually required to meet specific goals.
The culprit was the federal contracting process. Bureaucrats farmed out contracts to cronies and insiders, whose only motivation was to be in good position to win the next contract put up for bid, according to Levy. Park’s team of fixers was met with resistance at every turn despite being given carte blanche to ignore every rule of government development and procurement.
With persistence and at least one threat of physical force, the ad-hoc team applied a patchwork of monitoring, testing, and debugging tools that got the site operational. By April 2014, HealthCare.gov had achieved its initial goal of signing up 8 million people for medical insurance.
How an agile-development approach could save democracy
The silver lining of the HealthCare.gov debacle is the formation of two new departments charged with bringing an agile approach to government app development. The General Services Administration’s 18F was established earlier this year with a mandate to “fail fast” rather than follow the standard government-IT propensity to fail big.
As Tech President’s Alex Howard describes in an August 14, 2014, article, 18F is assisting agencies as they develop free, open-source services offered to the public via GitHub and other open-source repositories. Perhaps an even-bigger shift in attitude by government officials is the founding last month of the U.S. Digital Service, which is modeled after a successful U.K. government app-development program.
To help agencies jettison their old development habits in favor of modern approaches, the White House released the Digital Services Playbook that provides 13 “plays” drawn from successful best practices in the private and public sectors. Two of the plays recommend deploying in a flexible hosting environment and automating testing and deployment.
That’s precisely where the Morpheus database-as-a-service (DBaas) fits into the government’s plans. Morpheus lets users spin up a new database instance in seconds — there’s no need to wait for lengthy IT approval to procure and provision a new DB. Instead it’s all done in the cloud within seconds.
In addition, users’ core elastic, scalable, and reliable DB infrastructure is taken care for them. Developers can focus on building the core functionality of the app rather than having to spend their time making the infrastructure reliable and scalable. Morpheus delivers continuous availability, fault tolerance, fail over, and disaster recovery for all databases running on its service. Last but definitely not least, it’s cost efficient for users to go with Morpheus: there’s no upfront setup cost, and they pay only for actual usage.
The Morpheus cloud database as a service (DBaaS) epitomizes the goals of the government’s new agile-development philosophy. The service’s real-time monitoring makes continuous testing a fundamental component of database development and management. Morpheus’s on-demand scalability ensures that applications have plenty of room to grow without incurring large up-front costs. You get all this plus industry-leading performance, VPN security, and automatic backups, archiving, and replication.
Government IT gets the green light to use cloud app-development services
As groundbreaking as the Digital Services Playbook promises to be for government IT, another publication released at the same time may have an even-greater positive impact on federal agencies. The TechFAR Handbook specifies how government contractors can support an “iterative, customer-driven software development process.”
Tech President’s Howard quotes Code for America founder Jen Pahlka stating that the handbook makes it clear to government IT staff and contractors alike that “agile development is not only perfectly legal, but [is] in fact the default methodology.”
Critics point out that this is not the government’s first attempt to make its application development processes more open and transparent. What’s different this time is the sense of urgency surrounding efforts such as 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. Pahlka points out that people have lost faith in the government’s ability to provide even basic digital services. Pahlka is quoted in a July 21, 2014, Government Technology interview by Colin Wood and Jessica Mulholland as stating, “If government is to regain the trust and faith of the public, we have to make services that work for users the norm, not the exception.”