Who Says The Government Can’t Be Agile?

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As the global pandemic continues to force massive disruption and accelerate change, the need for greater institutional agility is everywhere obvious. Leading firms in the private sector have shown the way: firms that are relatively advanced in Agile management have coped much better with the disruptions than traditionally managed firms, while the Agile leaders have reached unprecedented levels of market capitalization.

Yet the need is just as great in the public sector, where agencies such as health and finance are being called on to perform the extraordinary on a daily basis. So it is timely that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just published an excellent, comprehensive Agile Assessment Guide. The Guide presents auditors, agencies, and others, with the best principles and practices to enable Agile management in the Federal government. Anyone can click on this link to read the guide and to provide the GAO with suggestions for improving the Guide over the next 12 months. Much of the report is equally applicable to the private sector.

The need for improved government performance in software development is clear and the task is large, with a federal IT spend of around $90 billion in the coming year. All too frequently in recent years, IT programs have incurred cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes. The government’s management of IT remains on the GAO’s High Risk List.

Agile in the federal government isn’t new. Since 2014, federal agencies were required to certify that large IT investments are adequately implementing incremental development, including Agile software development, which has been adopted by many federal agencies. The Report outlines in chapter 2, the roadblocks and obstacles that were encountered in implementing this mandate.

In 2018, the Department of Defense (DoD), encountered such a large amount of questionable activity that it issued a guide, called “Detecting Agile BS”, which recognized that while DoD software development projects were, almost by default, declared to be ‘agile,’ in reality, they were often agile in name only.

Skeptics inside and outside of government sometimes question whether a government agency could ever be Agile, given the long history of bureaucracy, the nature of government work, and the politicized environment. Yet the GAO’s Guide shows, step by step, how to go about shifting from bureaucracy to agility. It gives examples of agencies where the hurdles have been overcome.

Strengths of the GAO Report

The GAO report gets many things right.

·       The report is comprehensive: at 268 pages, it contains almost everything you wanted to know about Agile software development but were afraid to ask.

·       It gets the core Agile principles right: focus on the customer, self-organizing teams, and sharing knowledge across organizational boundaries.

·       It recognizes the centrality of the customer (265 mentions).

·       It stresses the need for alignment (125 mentions) with the overall agency structure, approach, and values.

·       It emphasizes that Agile is a major culture shift from traditional management.

·       It salutes the importance of the Agile mindset, not just Agile tools and practices.

·       It recognizes that Agile is not applicable everywhere.

·       It warns against rushing into an Agile implementation without getting support from the top of the organization.

·       It includes many practical stories and vignettes that reveal the pitfalls that have occurred in specific agency contexts.

·       It shows in detail how government control and procurement processes can be adapted to Agile management.

Improving The Report

Since the GAO asks for suggestions, I would offer the following:

·       More positive stories:  The many learning vignettes are valuable, but they aren’t always inspiring. Like most audit reports, the emphasis is on the negative: what went wrong. History shows that people are far more inspired by positive stories. Indeed, some of the better vignettes are accompanied by a positive story, showing how the problem was overcome by a specific agency. It would help if the next edition of the report could include more positive stories in the learning vignettes, at least where they are available.

·       Recognition that lasting success in Agile requires constant vigilance. Although the report stresses that the shift to Agile is a major change, it may still understate the challenge. Traditional 20th century management practices are prevalent throughout the economy and are still taught or assumed in business schools, with a focus on outputs and efficiency, bureaucratic work structures, and top-down hierarchy. Traditional management is an internally consistent and coherent system that is difficult to eradicate. There is always a risk that incoming managers, staff, consultants, or suppliers will re-introduce 20th century mindsets, even in successful Agile implementations.

·       Distinguishing different stages of Agile:  The GAO report recognizes that an Agile journey is a vast undertaking and should only be attempted in phases. Delineation of those phases, at least in notional terms might be helpful, i.e. early stage Agile, mid-stage Agile and advanced Agile. Although there will be context-specific variations, it could be helpful to delineate common patterns.

·       Progressing towards the Agile organization: The GAO report is explicitly limited to Agile software development. While it recognizes the importance of getting top-level support for Agile software development, it stops short of suggesting that the real benefits will come when the whole agency leaves behind 20th century management for good and embraces Agile in every aspect of its operations. This means embracing a 21st Century management approach to all the processes of the agency, including leadership, strategy, innovation, finance, HR, budgeting, and risk management. Nevertheless, the GAO report makes a strong start in explaining the essence of Agile software development.

And read also:

What 21st Century Management Looks Like

Agile Management At DOD

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