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GovOps Secretary Touts Agile Development at Code for America Summit

Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer took the main stage at the Code for America Summit in Oakland on Wednesday, and she said user-centered design and "minimally viable products" are becoming the mantra for more and more state IT projects.

Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer took the main stage at the Code for America Summit in Oakland on Wednesday and shared the story of how the state decided to shift to agile for procurement and development of the California's child welfare system.

Batjer reiterated, as she has often done during the past 12 months, that the state had been working on the RFP for a traditional waterfall IT procurement process for a period of three years, and that the document was on its seventh version. There were deep reservations that if it were to proceed, the project would be over budget and unsuccessful.

Batjer credited Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne for going to Code for America experts to get a second opinion, which quickly led to California instead choosing agile for the child welfare project.

"We needed an environment where it was OK, if not good, to step out on a limb, to take a calculated risk to make government more valuable to the end users — the people of California. Maybe that sounds simple, but in the world of government, that's difficult," Batjer said.

Batjer noted that change has been slow to come, as California had committed in the 1990s to modernize its child welfare system, and the state was fined $30 million about 14 years for not meeting standards.

"The [current] IT system we have for child welfare is functional — just barely — and not at a level the federal government requires. And it hasn't been since 1993," Batjer said.

Changing longstanding processes isn't easy, Batjer said, and there's naturally an instinct in government to hold on to the status quo.

"Government is so averse to change that the risk of the status quo is seen as better than taking the new ways of doing things," she said. "When projects have failed, government — whether the Legislature or the executive branch — have added rules in place to try to stop the failure. Unfortunately these rules often just bring more restrictions that can lead to more failure."

The decision to switch to agile for the child welfare system came together in a matter of weeks, with backing from GovOps, the Department of Technology, Department of Finance, Legislature, county welfare directors, and the Governor's Office.

"It was a clear this was an opportunity we could not pass up," Batjer said. "The right project, the right people were willing to take the risk because we knew that the status quo would possibly provide a costly, unsatisfactory project that failed everyone. The stakes were just too high. Frankly, our children needed better."

She said that the early parts of the agile work have been "very successful," and she's been told that a product will be hands of users within a one-year time frame.

GovOps is taking its lessons — such as user-centric design and delivering "minimally viable products" upfront — and applying them to other projects, whether they're waterfall or agile. She specifically mentioned the upcoming design and development of a "track and trace" IT system for California's medical cannabis industry.

"No more 'one and done.' Instead the product will evolve based on user needs," she said.

Watch Batjer's full remarks in an archived video on the Code for America website. Her presentation begins at at the 1-hour, 10-minute mark.

Matt Williams was Managing Editor of Techwire from June 2014 through May 2017.