You may have seen the news that the U. S. Government has established the U.S. Digital Service, a small team designed to “to improve and simplify the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government.” On the heels of that announcement came the news that Michael Dickerson, former Google engineer, has been selected to head up the U. S. Digital Service. And, in conjunction with these announcements, came some initial updates to the U. S. Government’s acquisition policies as they relate to software and computing solutions. It is these updates I would like to highlight in this post.
These initial updates come in the form of two documents, The Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR , which really go hand-in-hand. The Playbook lays out best practices for creating digital services in the government, and the TechFAR describes how these services can be acquired within the confines of existing acquisition policy (i.e., the FAR ). The Playbook discusses 13 “plays”, or best practices that should be implemented to ensure delivery of quality applications, websites, mobile apps, etc., that meet the needs of the people and government agencies. Advocating and implementing these plays will be the Digital Services’ mission.
As a long-time provider of software development services, I wasn’t too surprised by any of these best practices – and neither will you. However, it was refreshing to see the government finally embrace and advocate them. Here are the Digital Services Playbook plays.
- Understand what people need
- Address the whole experience, from start to finish
- Make it simple and intuitive
- Build the service using agile and iterative practices
- Structure budgets and contracts to support delivery
- Assign one leader and hold that person accountable
- Bring in experienced teams
- Choose a modern technology stack
- Deploy in a flexible hosting environment
- Automate testing and deployments
- Manage security and privacy through reusable processes
- Use data to drive decisions
- Default to open
Like I said, you probably weren’t surprised by these practices, in fact, if you are a successful software services company, you probably already implement these practices. But remember, these practices are now being embraced by the U. S. Government, whose acquisition policy has traditionally been geared more toward building battleships than software solutions.
Speaking of acquisition, the TechFAR is a handbook that supplements the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). The FAR is a strict and lengthy body of regulations all executive branch agencies must follow to acquire goods and services. The Handbook is a series of questions, answers, and examples designed to help the U. S. Government produce solicitations for digital services that embrace the 13 plays in the Digital Services Playbook. At first glance, you may not think that implementing these practices would require a supplement like the Handbook, but if you have any experience with the FAR, or agencies who follow it, you will understand that interpretation and implementation of the regulations varies from agency to agency, and they usually error on the side of caution (i.e., strict interpretation of the policy).
In my experience, the single most difficult thing for a U. S. Government agency to accomplish under the FAR is play #4, the use of agile methodologies to develop software solutions. If you can accomplish this, many of the other plays will happen naturally (e.g., #1, #2, #3, #6, #7, #10). However, the nature of agile development – user stories vs. full system requirements, heavy customer participation vs. just follow the project plan, etc. – seems contrary to the “big design” methodology implied by the FAR. This notion couldn’t be more wrong. The TechFAR encourages the use of agile methodologies and illustrates how solicitations and contracts can be structured to be more agile.
Personally, I think the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR are a great starting point for improving the quality and success of government software solutions. And, official guidance like this now brings the U. S. Government’s acquisition process inline with how Armedia has always developed software solutions, i.e., using agile methodology. No longer will we have to map our methodology and deliverables to an archaic waterfall methodology to satisfy FAR requirements.
I think the questions/answers/examples in the TechFAR are good and provide terrific insight for both the government writing solicitations, and industry responding to them. If you sell digital services to the U. S. Government, I encourage you to read these two documents, the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR — they’re not long. And even if you don’t contract with the U. S. Government, the best practices in the Playbook and the advice in the Handbook are still probably applicable to your business.