WATCH AGL Live: “Wild Wild West: Managing Agile Contracts in Government”

Last week at AGL Live, public sector innovators and bureaucracy hackers discussed challenges and lessons learned in applying agile principles to government contracts.


  • Alla Seiffert – Director of the Office of Acquisition at the GSA Technology Transformation Service (sister office to 18F)
  • Florence Kasule – Digital Service Expert with the U.S. Digital Service (currently helping VA with their digital contracts)
  • Ben Hafer – Director of Business Development at CivicActions (formerly Chief of Operations for California’s Child Welfare Digital Service project)
  • Dave Zvenyach – Consultant helping organizations and government work smarter together (formerly Senior Technical Advisor at GSA’s Office of Systems Management and Executive Director of 18F)


Watch the video and view discussion summary below:

6:05 Procurement officer’s perspective on why waterfall contracts are cumbersome and how agile contracts can fix it

7:24 “The process was small and iterative enough that we could detect what was working and what wasn’t working before 10 months had burned. And the process was interesting and engaging for the whole team.”

8:03 Why agile contract management is like the “chicken and the egg”

8:40 “It’s important to change the way contracts are structured so that they mirror the agile work that is being performed — smaller, iterative cycles.”

8:57 Why California decided to try a totally different approach to contracting with the momentous child welfare system project… and how it went

9:50 “We were able to kick off the project much more quickly and start writing code even before we were finished developing requirements … We’re starting to see a lot more states and local jurisdictions take this approach because they realize it really is a better way of procuring and managing the work.”

11:33 Why post-award management is more important than what happens before contracts are awarded

12:07 How 18F discovered precedent for agile in government contracts … ever heard of “Raines’ Rules”?

13:42 The TechFAR Hub provides good information for contracting officers who are dipping their toes in and want to learn more about management of agile contracts.

14:37 The TechFAR Hub is grounded in the principles of the U.S. Digital Service Playbook. When you’re innovating in government, it helps to be able to reference sites like these to alleviate fear from folks who are managing risk.

15:38 The 18F blog documents lessons learned and actual contracts to help folks implement agile procurement.

16:51 Does a Time & Materials payment structure make an agency vulnerable to vendors who might charge a lot without delivering a lot?

17:37 “The reality for agile contracts is you’re actually managing capacity in a very different way. You’re buying the team itself — the team’s time and capacity to deliver. This requires focus on product management, and it’s hard, but it can be done.”

18:44 How agencies can break long-term projects into short-term contracts with optional extensions to ensure they get value from agile teams (resulting in vendor management instead of contract management)

21:03 How agencies that want to use Firm Fixed Price can re-think risk in terms of each individual period of performance

22:22 “Allowing the government to be involved in the creation and management of the thing they are building is the most effective risk management.”

23:25 How agencies can measure the success of their agile contract

24:34 What happens when agile project activity is hard to measure using traditional oversight and metrics

26:00 “There’s something that’s a bit backward about oversight teams. Agencies should be structuring acquisition so that experts are coming in the door, and those experts should be trusted to deliver excellent software. That’s a virtuous cycle. The problem with the government is they’ve gotten so used to buying things badly from non-experts that there’s an entire ecosystem around the expectation that things will fail. We need to rebuild a culture of trust.”

27:20 Government should know what it’s looking for — what product the users need. That’s the first step in managing contract risk.

30:45 On the importance of having strong Product Owners in government

31:16 “Finding vendors who can deliver great code is no problem. The problem is when the government gets in the way of itself through misinformed oversight and procurement.”

34:02 “The Product Owner needs to work with user researchers to make sure the desired end result is clearly communicated. Identify what marks along the way should be achieved to meet those needs. Then, work it through the program office and the stakeholders. This is a good way to socialize the development of user stories.”

35.26 How user research can be made part of the contract process to make sure it gets done

36:31 “You HAVE to know what to build. If user research is a capacity the government team lacks, then think about contracting for the user research as part of the contract vehicle.”

36:45 “Think about labor categories, contract line item numbers, anything you need to do to make sure that user research is done up-front if you feel that it’s lacking.”

37:47 How to make sure you’re developing a solution that is informed by users and will definitely meet business needs, rather than building something from technical requirements that you HOPE will meet business needs

39:04 “If you’re delivering something that doesn’t deliver value to the user and the business, you shouldn’t build it.”

41:30 How contracting specialists can learn about the customer and fully understand the WHY behind the thing they are buying

42:32 Contracting specialists: “Take the time to get out there and meet the full IT team that will be working on the solution, then be involved in the administration of it — not just from a contract perspective, but how the team will engage with each other and how the work will be done … If you take the time to be involved, you’ll be able to tell much more quickly if something is working or not working.”

44:18 How informal procurement processes (RFOs or RFQs) empower agencies to have exploratory conversations with vendors, resulting in better proposals that address specific business needs

46:12 Want to lower vendor protests? Focus on great communication and industry engagement.

46:23 “Vendors need to feel they are heard, that they are treated with respect, that they are given the opportunity to submit their best work. Think of vendor debriefing as a way to lower protests. They just want to know why they lost so they can do better. If we don’t offer industry good feedback, they won’t have an answer for why they lost and they are forced to do a protest to uncover the things we haven’t been forthright about.”

48:09 “In the post-award setting, engaging your vendor pool and keeping people in the loop will help you, as government, receive better work from industry.”

49:36 Tips for demonstrating the value of agile by helping governments define their current pain points

50:48 To show the value of agile, a key question is “How are your users responding to the systems you’re building?” If the users aren’t happy you might not be engaging them enough.

52:40 State governments are learning they have to shift away from the tendency to just provide oversight and let the vendors do all the work.

52:50 “You have to start taking on the role of system integrator for these agile vendor contracts, managing them much more directly. It’s not easy, but the user community ends up much happier because their needs are factored into the system builds.”

54:10 To help people see the value of agile, show them a similar size agency or project so they can talk to people who understand their specific struggles. Let them see how they can find success or failure in a faster way so they can arrive more quickly at customer satisfaction.

55:12 Start small in order to build the team’s confidence — from the executives to the contracting specialists — and get people comfortable enough to realize they’re not alone in this new way of doing things. Others have done it before, and the lessons learned can benefit everyone.

56:43 While this panel is called the “Wild Wild West”, there are some “knowns” within this landscape that can be shared across the board so everyone can get better at doing this.

2018-11-14T13:02:45-08:00 November 14th, 2018|Categories: Agile government, AGL Live, Modernization, Procurement, Videos|Tags: , , , |

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AGL served the government innovation community from 2014 - 2020. It has now broadened its mission and community to form a new organization, Technologists for the Public Good. Learn more and get involved at

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