How CIOs Can Use FITARA To Get Away From Waterfall

Roger Baker | FCW | January 30, 2015

The newly enacted Federal Information Technology Acquisition Act provides an opportunity for federal CIOs to eliminate waterfall as an accepted approach for IT systems development, bringing the government in line with the private sector.  FITARA requires that the CIO of each federal department "certify that information technology investments are adequately implementing incremental development." More importantly, it provides the CIO with a lever for enforcement, requiring that the CIO approve every contract, and every budget request, for IT products or services by the department. Using these two levers, CIOs can effectively eliminate the primary cause of large-scale systems development failures.

The concepts behind waterfall software development date back to the 1950s and are based on the premise that IT projects should use the same project management disciplines used when creating a building or an aircraft carrier. Similar to physical construction projects, lots of dollars were at stake, and big IT projects typically took years to complete. Discipline was needed, because changes in requirements get increasingly expensive as implementation work progresses. Waterfall became the accepted process for doing large-scale IT systems "right." And government had a lot of large-scale IT projects.

But "right" didn't translate into "successfully" often enough. In fact, the landmark Clinger-Cohen legislation used a 1994 report on pervasive federal IT failures entitled "Computer Chaos" to justify large-scale changes in federal IT management. Similar research at the time by the Standish Group, "The Chaos Report," documented that only 9 percent of IT projects in large organizations (public and private) came in on schedule and on budget...