The Need for Agile Contracting in the Federal Government

Jonathan Mostowski
4 min readJun 19, 2023

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In today’s rapidly changing technological landscape, the U.S. federal government is facing significant challenges in its information technology (IT) procurement processes. The traditional waterfall development approach, which requires detailed specifications upfront, has proven to be inefficient and inflexible in meeting the evolving needs of government agencies. As a result, there is a growing recognition of the need for more agile development methodologies that can adapt to change and deliver projects on time and within budget.

I. The Inefficiencies of Waterfall Development in Government Procurement

The U.S. federal government is the largest purchaser of code, spending billions of dollars each year on IT procurement. However, the current procurement model is slow, outdated, and often fails to deliver projects on time and within budget. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as few as nine percent of IT projects are delivered on budget and on time, while nearly fifty percent of projects require rebaselining. Furthermore, end users often fail to utilize a significant portion of the features procured, resulting in a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The waterfall development approach, which traces its roots to traditional engineering fields, requires all requirements and specifications to be defined upfront. This rigid approach is ill-suited for the dynamic nature of software development, where requirements are likely to change over time. Additionally, waterfall development emphasizes extensive documentation and formal processes, leading to bureaucratic overhead and delays. The lack of flexibility and inability to adapt to changing needs have contributed to the inefficiencies of the current procurement model.

II. The Emergence of Agile Software Development

In contrast to the waterfall approach, agile software development methodologies prioritize adaptability and collaboration. Agile development recognizes that requirements may change over time and embraces an incremental and iterative approach to software development. Instead of attempting to predict all requirements upfront, agile projects are broken down into smaller components or sprints, allowing for continuous evaluation and adaptation.

Agile development emphasizes communication and collaboration over extensive documentation. Face-to-face interactions and regular feedback loops are prioritized to ensure that the delivered software meets the needs of the end users. By embracing change and focusing on delivering working software in short iterations, agile methodologies have proven to be more efficient and effective in meeting project goals.

III. The Benefits of Agile Development in the Government Sector

Agile development methodologies offer several advantages over the traditional waterfall approach in the government sector. By breaking projects into smaller, manageable tasks, agile development allows for greater flexibility and adaptability. This enables government agencies to respond to changing requirements and technological advancements more effectively.

Agile development also promotes collaboration and communication between stakeholders, resulting in a clearer understanding of project goals and requirements. The iterative nature of agile development allows for continuous feedback and validation, reducing the risk of costly changes later in the development cycle. Furthermore, agile projects tend to be delivered on time and within budget, providing greater predictability and cost control.

IV. The Challenges of Implementing Agile Contracting in the Federal Government

While agile development offers numerous benefits, implementing agile contracting in the federal government presents several challenges. The current procurement regulations and practices are designed for the waterfall approach, making it difficult to adopt agile methodologies. The structure of traditional government contracts often conflicts with the iterative and adaptive nature of agile development.

Additionally, there is a cultural aversion to agile methodologies within the government procurement system. The emphasis on rigid parameters, extensive documentation, and defined processes creates resistance to change and innovation. The lack of familiarity and understanding of agile methodologies among contracting officers and in-house IT departments further hinders the adoption of agile practices.

V. Overcoming the Challenges: Reforming Federal IT Procurement

To overcome the challenges and enable the federal government to embrace agile methodologies, significant reforms are necessary. Education and training programs should be implemented to educate contracting officers and technical representatives on best practices for agile contracting and project management. This will help create a culture that supports and encourages the adoption of agile methodologies.

Statutory requirements that demand extensive documentation upfront should be revisited to align with the principles of agile development. Alternative contracting vehicles, such as engineering selection under the Brooks Act and modular contracting, can provide a framework that is more compatible with agile methodologies. These vehicles allow for flexibility and adaptability, enabling government agencies to take advantage of the benefits of agile development.

Top-down support from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, and agency leadership is crucial for the successful implementation of agile procurement practices. By providing guidance and demonstrating a commitment to innovation and efficiency, senior administration officials can drive the cultural shift necessary for agile methodologies to thrive in the federal government.

VI. Conclusion: Embracing Agility in Federal IT Procurement

The federal IT procurement system is in need of a reboot. The current waterfall approach is outdated and fails to deliver projects on time and within budget. Agile development methodologies offer a more efficient and effective alternative, allowing government agencies to adapt to change and deliver projects that meet their needs.

There are challenges to implementing agile contracting in the federal government. However, steps have been taken to drive agile, and every year more agencies are taking on this challenge. Nevertheless, additional reforms in procurement regulations, education and training programs, and top-down support are required to pave the way.

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Jonathan Mostowski
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Public Speaker, Agile Acquisition Coach, Acquisition Workforce Trainer, Thought Leader