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Continuous development might not require a revolution

I sometimes forget how much of the software development world is outside the scope of Agile. A lot of organizations have to slog through thick sheets of bureaucracy and cut through yards or even miles of red tape to get the job done. In my less optimistic moments I’m sometimes tempted to believe the bureaucracy is there to prevent innovation. Last month at the DevOps Enterprise Summit I was given a reminder of just how far that is from the truth. Mark Schwartz closed out the first day of the conference with a session about how DevOps can help fix the bureaucracy in the federal government. And his solution isn’t to get rid of the oversight and the governance, but to find lean ways to make bureaucracy work for innovation.

Mark Schwartz is the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is a part of the US Department of Homeland Security. He made sure to make it clear that his organization is neither responsible for deporting illegal immigrants, nor border-patrol, nor airport security. The USCIS is responsible for processing applications for legal immigration into the United States.

They have really long backlogs. Apparently, a lot of people want to get into the United States. Schwartz said the USCIS receives about seven million applications every year. Just doing the math myself, assuming 50 working weeks in the year and 40 working hours in a week, the organization would have to process about 3500 applications every working hour to keep up with that pace.

In order to keep up with that sort of pace, it seemed obvious to Schwartz, that the processes they used would need a major overhaul. But even small changes took maddening lengths of time when Schwartz first took up his post as CIO at USCIS. A minor change, he said, would take at least eight months, no matter how small. The reason things took so long, it turned out, was because of a thick, dense development document known as Management Directive (MD) 102.

Schwartz described MD 102 as “An absolutely beautiful document for describing with great eloquence and in great detail exactly how to develop software if you’re absolutely married to traditional waterfall models.” He said this without sarcasm. Schwartz honestly respects MD 102 and the efforts it took to create it. The document included 9 distinct phases each of which needed to be completed before the next stage could be started. There were 11 gates through which any project would have to pass, in order. A gate before and after each phase plus an extra gate.

At some point, Schwartz wanted to decommission an old system. It was called ARNAX, few people remembered what it did, and no one still used it. He was told he could not do that because it would violate MD 102. Schwartz, it seemed, did not have the authority to decommission applications without congressional approval. At first, this confounded him, but as Schwartz studied the arcane document and learned its history, he found reason to respect and appreciate it.

“In the document [MD 102], you could see, if you looked at it the right way, the hopes and the fears of the actual humans who wrote it.” Understanding those humans, their drives, and the pressures they were under gave Schwartz a new found respect for the bureaucracy they built. MD 102, Schwartz explained, was written by government employees in the wake of 9/11. The DHS was forged by combining dozens of organizations and was overseen by 104 congressional committees, none of which would relinquish the oversight they had in the smaller organizations.

These were people with real business needs for a low trust system. That is, a low trust system holds value for complicated government organizations – where the potential for corruption is high. Our entire government, Schwartz argued, is based on a lack of trust. This, he said, is why we have checks and balances. The executive, legislative and judicial branches are each responsible for keeping the others from abusing their powers.

The importance of the freedom of the press, as Schwartz described it, is to ensure government missteps can be made public. Everything needs to be checked and approved. This is not excess, Schwartz came to realize; oversight and accountability are actual organizational needs (analogous to a business need in the private sector) of the government. MD 102 is obviously designed to minimize risk according to the conventional wisdom of the time.

“Don’t’ ever let anyone tell you the government is just a faceless bureaucracy,” Schwartz pleaded. “That bureaucracy is built from the ground up of good people doing the very best they can to make things better from the situation in which they find themselves.” Frequently, large organizations have special concerns that the bureaucracy meets. Bringing the bureaucracy down, apart from being incredibly difficult, would actually be bad for business. The trick then, is to work with the bureaucrats toward a brighter and more Agile future. Easier said than done.

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