From updating legacy systems and leveraging end-user data, to delivering digital services and staying ahead of security risks, modern government agencies face a range of challenges in the digital age. But unlike private companies, those in the public sector often have to navigate additional complexities on the road to transformation.
Limited budgets, finite resources and strict regulations are a simple fact of reality. Slow, bureaucratic processes, a lack of proactive decision-making and shifts in priorities or leadership are common. In fact, many of the qualities we typically associate with government work could be considered obstacles to innovation. So how do successful agencies begin to overcome these barriers?
The Agile approach
Organizations with the greatest advantage in today’s digital landscape are those that find powerful ways to collect, analyze and leverage data in real time. They develop innovative solutions that empower leadership teams to make strategic decisions faster and more effectively. But building out the solutions needed to enable this type of data-driven transformation is no small feat — even in the private sector.
Innovation is a non-linear process of trial and error, requiring frequent pivots and reprioritization. A traditional Waterfall approach — in which progress is mapped out in a predetermined series of steps — is rarely sufficient and can quickly become a drain on time and resources.
Enter Agile. This unique software development approach was created as a means of establishing a more flexible, iterative framework for accelerating the delivery of functional products. By prioritizing deliverables, and embracing frequent feedback loops and incremental changes, Agile teams are able to nimbly adapt to new information, mitigate risk and improve product outcomes. The Standish Group 2018 CHAOS Report indicates Agile projects are twice as likely to succeed than non-agile projects, and nearly three times more likely to succeed than Waterfall projects.
Agile obstacles in the federal space
Large government IT projects are statistically at high risk of failure, with one in three projects canceled before completion, according to Nextgov. With proven benefits in the private sector, federal agencies are understandably eager to apply the Agile approach to their own projects. But simply by nature, many Agile values and practices go against the grain of typical government operations. Agile is not a step-by-step, linear process. Rather than a stringent series of budgets, timelines and statements of work, Agile requires the flexibility to take calculated risks, a willingness to experiment and learn from failure, and the freedom to adapt and retry until the desired results are achieved. Agencies that have successfully adopted an Agile framework have done so by understanding and overcoming a number of obstacles specific to the public sector.
Building an Agile culture
Agile embraces uncertainty and empiricism, placing trust in people and empowering them to achieve strong results. For many organizations, this requires a cultural shift away from traditional top-down directives, hierarchies and workflows. For government agencies, this can be especially challenging. Both the bureaucratic nature and sheer size of government bodies tend to make embracing an Agile culture more difficult. Processes often move slowly. The established culture tends to be dominated by traditional values and an aversion to uncertainty — many processes and structures within federal government are specifically designed to avoid risk altogether. But there are a few ways to help your agency adopt a more Agile mindset.
- Start from the top. Creating a cultural shift begins with a shared understanding of the need for change and the benefits of achieving your end goal. It’s important to not only establish buy-in from leadership teams, but also identify champions of change who can help drive the cultural transition at multiple levels across your agency.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. While there are certain practices and principles for mitigating risk that may be unavoidable — as we’ve outlined in further detail below — a certain amount of risk can be a good thing, leaving room for growth and innovation. Addressing this upfront can help reduce anxiety and improve resiliency during times of change.
- Demonstrate trust. An effective Agile team requires a certain degree of autonomy. Employees need to be both trusted to execute their portions and empowered to prioritize and make strategic decisions. If you’re building out or contracting with a new team, be sure to find people you can trust with this level of responsibility. If you already have an internal development team, look for ways to empower them with the tools and support they need to excel in their roles. As progress and value is clearly demonstrated through each iteration, trust will continue to grow.
The United States Digital Service has developed a Digital Services Playbook which provides a detailed series of steps for federal agencies transitioning to an Agile framework.
Like contracts, many of the regulations designed to protect the government from risk have a tendency to act as hurdles to agility. Agile relies on the refinement of system requirements based on iterative testing and customer feedback — however, FAR 15.203 dictates that agencies must identify requirements in their Requests for Proposals (RFPs). FAR 24.103(b)(1) requires Contracting Officers to ensure all statements of work specifically identify the systems, design, development or operation work to be performed.
While these regulations may seem like significant roadblocks at first glance, the TechFAR Handbook provides guidelines on meeting regulatory standards within an Agile framework. An experienced procurement professional can also help navigate these guidelines, ensuring your agency meets all necessary requirements while leaving room for innovation.
- Identify a Product Vision. Rather than providing a set of strict specifications or a Requirements Traceability Matrix, work to develop a high-level Product Vision. Coupled with an explanation of how the Agile process will be used to achieve desired outcomes, this documentation can sufficiently fulfill the requirements of FAR 15.203.
- Remain flexible. Recognize that certain aspects of the bidding and contracting process are predisposed to linear organizations. Regulations may dictate that upfront or closing practices remain “Waterfall-oriented.” If this is the case, leave these processes in place and look for ways to embrace Agile in between.
- Prioritize privacy. Regardless of the approach being applied, development processes must comply with privacy and disclosure statutory and regulatory requirements. FAR 24.103(b)(1) specifies that Statements of Work (SOWs) must specifically identify the system of records on individuals and the design, development or operation work to be performed in compliance with the Privacy Act. While other granular details may be omitted from Agile-aligned contracts, those relating to security should remain.
While the path to Agile transformation may present a unique set of obstacles for government agencies, the benefits are well worth the journey. The 13th Annual State of Agile Report reveals that 69% of organizations experience an increased ability to manage changing priorities after adopting Agile, and 63% see an improved time to market.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply apply Agile terminology to a Waterfall methodology; it takes a strategic alignment of culture, priorities and staff. But with proper planning and focus, agencies from the Department of Defense to the Department of Transportation have successfully leveraged Agile to innovate new products and deliver exceptional user experiences.
By following the guidelines outlined by the U.S. Digital Service and engaging with experienced partners, your agency can accelerate transformation and maximize success with Agile.