GAO Says More Accuracy Needed Regarding Agency Incremental Development

Published: November 16, 2017

GAOInformation Technology

In a new report, GAO expresses concerns about agency efforts to report levels of incremental software development.

Historically, many federal agencies have struggled with implementation of large IT projects, realizing major cost overruns and schedule delays.  Since 2000, OMB has been advocating incremental development, a form of agile development, in order to reduce software development risks.  

The traditional waterfall development approach uses a broad scope, long timeframe, and multiple phases before producing a product.  Incremental development delivers software products in smaller modules in shorter timeframes, thereby reducing risk.  

Since 2000, OMB Circular A-130 has directed agencies to incorporate an incremental development approach into their policies and to apply it to IT investments. Five years ago, OMB began requiring that functionality be delivered at least every 6 months.  FITARA legislation, which was enacted in December 2014, requires agency CIOs to certify that IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development.

GAO was tasked with monitoring agency incremental development efforts and determining the accuracy of agency reporting of those efforts. GAO analyzed data for major IT investments in development at 24 agencies to identify CIO challenges and use of certification information, and to determine whether certification policies and processes were in accordance with FITARA.  

GAO found that in FY 2017, agencies reported 62% of major IT software development investments were certified by the agency CIO for implementing adequate incremental development.  However, GAO also found incorrect reporting for other investments due to agency error. Officials at 21 agencies reported that they were unable to implement incremental development due to the following challenges:

  • Inefficient governance processes
  • Procurement delays
  • Organizational changes associated with transitioning from a traditional software methodology

Only four of the 24 agencies, as of August 2017, had clearly defined policies and processes for incremental development certification. However, the agencies still believed the certification process was beneficial because the information from the process was used to assist them in identifying investments that could more effectively make use of an incremental approach.

GAO made 19 recommendations, including three to improve reporting accuracy and 16 to update or establish certification policies. Most of the agencies reviewed (11) agreed with GAO’s recommendations, but OMB disagreed with several of GAO’s conclusions.

Contractors may find opportunities to assist agencies with implementation of incremental development. Contractors should also be aware that in some cases agencies are still struggling to adapt to incremental development. If you are working with an agency on a software development project, keep in mind that it may involve a learning curve on the part of the agency and its personnel.