Government agencies are not noted for moving quickly, especially when it comes to IT. In Washington state, however, change is underway.
Typical government IT projects cost millions of dollars and take years, so that by the time a solution is delivered, the problem it was designed to solve may have changed or expanded. But over the past few years, an increasing number of state agencies have embraced a more agile approach to meet their technology needs — one that delivers better results in less time at a lower cost.
The state Department of Ecology is a case in point. By 2017, the agency’s Water Quality Program was dealing with a major backlog of invoices that was seriously jeopardizing its $22 million per year revenue stream based on collecting permitting fees from individual and industrial clients throughout the state. The culprit: an outdated and overloaded invoicing software system that crashed on a regular basis.
“We weren’t able to send out any invoices for too long,” says Fee Unit Administrator Charles Gilman. “That means we weren’t recovering any of the cost. We support about 200 employees not only in Water Quality but also through some other programs we help fund. It was all put on hold.”
After hearing it would cost millions to replace the software, Ecology hired Lacey software company Cayzen Technologies to fix the old system instead. The company works with more than 30 state agencies and its president, Sanjeev Batta, coaches government IT teams in how to be more agile.
“We analyzed the situation quickly and told him, ‘There’s no point in spending tax dollars on fixing this,’” says Batta. “‘We can build you a new system for the same amount of money, if you are willing to do agile development.’”
Initially, Gilman couldn’t see how Cayzen could deliver on its promise, but he decided to take a leap of faith. “He walked us through a quick plan and it made sense,” says Gilman. “We weren’t collecting any revenue, so what did we have to lose?”
The first step was prioritization of business needs: Water Quality didn’t need an entire new system right away, but they did need to generate invoices, or they would soon be in hot water financially. Getting started required simultaneous development. “I would write down all the steps for a process and Sanjeev would send me screenshots of what he thought I wanted,” Gilman says. “While I was going through that, he’d be going through my user stories. It was a highly collaborative approach.”
Cayzen staff became regulars at the DOE, with their own badges and desks on site. “The whole thing was, ‘Let’s sit down and do some work,’” Gilman notes. “There was no, ‘I’ll email you and hope to hear back from you next week.’ It was, ‘Here I am. Show me what you did.’”
The result is a system that was delivered in small increments and exceeded business expectations at one-tenth of the originally projected cost. Not only was the software delivered faster and cheaper, it’s easier to use because it was built in close collaboration with people who are going to use it. More importantly, the agency was able to get the initial system in less than four months and meet its deadlines for invoicing.
Batta says the project is an example of how government can deliver better outcomes to its stakeholders if business and IT can work together in a collaborative and trust-based fashion. “We prefer working software over stacks of documentation, and we prefer customer collaboration over end meetings and sign-offs,” he says. “The result of such agile adoptions means smarter government for all of us in Washington.”
Gilman agrees. “Everything about it was faster, better and more agile,” he says. “Through Cayzen we were able to do the entire process in less than a year.”