DevOps in government – real deal or house of cards?

For budget-strapped agencies, Lean is the best way to start a successful DevOps journey.

It’s good to hear that the DevOps movement is gaining momentum within the public-sector. While it’s not exactly new, a few agencies have adopted the principles or dipped their toes in the water.

The adoption challenge, as is usually the case for government departments, can’t easily be associated with a single word – be that culture, technology or process – it’s often a combination of many things, including perhaps the toughest nut to crack – budget.

Busting budgets and failing fast

Like it or not, government agencies have to deal with shrinking IT budgets; it’s the one constant and agencies are under increased scrutiny to ensure money is spent wisely. Unlike private sector companies who can justify mega IT spending as the means to increase market share or make more profit, government agencies can only think in terms citizen-centric service improvement, which given the overarching political context might not be a top priority.

Even when budget is available, the track record in IT delivery hasn’t been great. For example, if we believe numbers from the Standish Group, just over 94 percent of all large government IT projects (2003-2012) have been over budget, behind schedule, fallen short of user expectations, or had to be abandoned completely.

So with a 6 percent chance of success, it’s perhaps not surprising that the DevOps-style mantra of “failing fast” hasn’t taken full hold in government. After all, who wants to be in front of a Congressional committee when software services go really wrong? That’s never going to be fun and it certainly won’t be “blameless”.

Upside too great to ignore

But the potential for DevOps, with its focus on collaboration to continuously deliver enhanced software services, is huge. Especially when we consider that approximately $90 billion is spent on government IT in the U.S., yet according to a Meritalk survey only 13% of IT managers claimed they could develop and deploy new applications as fast as their agency mission requires.

So for government agencies focused on budget, probably the best place to start DevOps is to focus on the Lean elements that underpin much of the thinking.

This involves agencies identifying all elements of “waste” that incur greater cost and negatively impact delivery. To this end, and before any investment is made in tools, highly mature government agencies will carefully examine the entire end-to-end software delivery cycle and remove any cultural, process or technology-related elements that add no value.

The intention of course is to increase speed and quality, but a very important “byproduct” for the budget-constrained agency is cost reduction.

Lean: it’s not just for manufacturing anymore

Traditionally associated with manufacturing, many wasteful practices outlined in Lean thinking are applicable to government IT. These may include:

  • Long waits – despite the benefits in DevOps and continuous delivery, agencies remain fixated on performing lengthy change review processes. But now new technologies make it possible to deploy fully certified stacks supporting applications to the cloud. This means only application changes need to be checked, which significantly reduces release times and administrative costs. Of course there will be times when teams require access to production systems and data for testing, but here again wait times can be negated with technologies that virtualize or emulate dependent systems.
  • Excess inventory – over years, agencies have acquired a complex array of technology. These include mainframes, applications and databases servicing agency requirements in everything from massive transactional processing to data matching and analytics. In order to manage this complexity, agencies have become reliant on contractors who generally shun agile and DevOps concepts; preferring instead contracts with fully defined requirements and longer delivery cycles. To address this, agencies must immediately address IT culture and skills gaps this ‘contractor excess’ has caused, plus start engaging nimbler agile and DevOps minded contractors through a simpler procurement process.
  • Slow motion – as with any large enterprise, government agencies can be mired in bureaucracy. As governments look to adopt DevOps it’s important to analyze every ponderous process or procedure from idea to production delivery that results in unproductive “chasing the tail” work patterns. A large part of the magic in DevOps comes from doing rather than procrastinating, so agencies should start examining Agile like processes – especially familiarizing themselves with smaller and iterative approaches to software development combined with fully automated release processes – a state where everything moves with purpose.
  • Untapped skills – when things are slow and hard to change, everything atrophies – including staff and their skills. If DevOps is to help slow moving government agencies then it’s important to identify any people or structural issues that intentionally and unintentionally prevent change. Over the years many staff will have become accustomed to working in a certain way, with incentives linked to these practices. Therefore, a key requirement is not only motivating with short term DevOps newness, but getting them to stay the course. This may involve changes in organizational structure, new STEM talent acquisition strategies, and the adoption of shared goals and metrics.

 

More and more organizations and government agencies are realizing the benefits of adopting DevOps. For the private sector this nets out to increased profit, but in the public sector it’s far more profound.

High performance government IT enabled with DevOps means delivering software that helps the sick, supports the vulnerable and educates our children.

As government agencies begin a process of determining what wasteful practices impede these goals, they’ll not only drive cost efficiencies, but also start delivering more high-quality digital services needed to improve our society.


Peter Waterhouse, Senior Strategist at CA Technologies, is a business technologist with 20+ years’ experience…

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