Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University
Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University

07/22/2016

SEI’s Will Hayes Testifies on Use of Agile Approaches in Social Security Systems Modernization

July 22, 2016—Computer technology continues to deliver new capabilities and adapt to the changing ways in which users access information. Yet the Social Security Administration (SSA), despite recent updates to its physical assets such as computers and data centers, struggles with applications created decades ago in the COBOL programming language.

“SSA had state-of-the-art systems in the 1970s,” said Congressmen Xavier Becerra, minority member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, “but today those legacy systems are increasingly obsolete. They are expensive to maintain, prone to breakdown, and difficult to reprogram.” To address these problems, SSA has put forward a funding-dependent plan to modernize its software, and it plans to do so using agile development approaches.

On July 14, 2016, the Subcommittee on Social Security convened a hearing on the SSA information technology modernization plan. Agile development approaches, relatively new in government settings, create opportunities for rapid deployment of new capabilities but also pose challenges to traditional government oversight and management practices.

The SEI understands these challenges. It has conducted research on agile in government settings for seven years, and has advised a number of government agencies and the Department of Defense on the proper use of agile in their specific development environments. To lend insight on issues pertaining to agile development, the subcommittee called on the SEI’s Agile in Government (AIG) team, represented by Will Hayes, to testify. Hayes is principal engineer on the AIG team.

Hayes’ verbal testimony reinforced many points expressed in written testimony prepared by the AIG team. Hayes reminded the subcommittee that agile seeks to deliver working software on a short timeframe with an emphasis on providing quality in terms of user value, all of which require discipline and ongoing planning. The planning and development cadence of agile approaches, noted Hayes, “place a premium on consistent use of short iterations with stable staffing dedicated to a single stream of technical work. This new cadence offers more oversight opportunity, but with different measures of success.”
 

Hayes also reminded the subcommittee that agile relies on uncovering user needs through collaborative interaction. This can be difficult to achieve in a government setting. “It is not yet clear how we will build the capacity for government personnel to interact more frequently with developers,” said Hayes. The SSA workforce, he noted, is already being asked to accomplish more with limited resources.

To overcome these and other challenges, Hayes suggested two areas of focus for government. “First, we need to start asking different questions about software systems in which we invest. We need to focus on what the software system enables and how the work supported by this system is improved by the capabilities we deploy. Second, a focused workforce development effort is needed to develop the skills necessary to utilize these new technologies.”

At the request of the subcommittee, Suzanne Miller and Eileen Wrubel, both members of the AIG team, worked with Hayes and Alyssa LeSage, the SEI’s congressional liaison, to produce the SEI’s verbal and written testimony.

To read the full testimony of Will Hayes and the other subcommittee witnesses, and to view a video of the hearing, visit http://waysandmeans.house.gov/event/hearing-modernizing-social-securitys-information-technology-infrastructure/.

To read the written testimony submitted by the SEI’s AIG team, visit http://waysandmeans.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/20160714SS-Testimony-Hayes.pdf.

To learn more about the SEI’s research in agile adoption in government settings, visit http://sei.cmu.edu/acquisition/research/index.cfm.

 

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