Making Agile Work for Government: A Blended Approach

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Summary:
As technology development programs represent some of the biggest line items on agency budgets, there should be little surprise that agile development, with its promise of a fast, lightweight, and iterative approach to delivery of value, has caught the attention of officials from across the government space as they seek to improve their programs’ productivity and effectiveness.

In an era of looming budget cuts, expanded oversight, and increasing demands on limited resources, government agencies have found that their ongoing initiatives must incorporate three new realities. First, agencies must do more with less by increasing efficiency, cutting waste, and maximizing return on investment. Second, agencies must respond quickly and effectively to changing stakeholder needs by delivering functionality to mission users in shorter timeframes and ensuring that programs remain closely aligned with evolving stakeholder requirements. Finally, through strong, accountable control, agencies must minimize program risk and ensure that expected results will be delivered when promised and for the expected cost.

As technology development programs represent some of the biggest line items on agency budgets, there should be little surprise that agile development, with its promise of a fast, lightweight, and iterative approach to delivery of value, has caught the attention of officials from across the government space as they seek to improve their programs’ productivity and effectiveness. Championed by former federal CIO Vivek Kundra [1] and his successor Steven VanRoekel, agile is at the heart of a concerted effort across government agencies to transform sluggish, multi-year, multibillion-dollar IT projects into efficient, responsive efforts that deliver usable, stakeholder-aligned functionality every few months. [2] 

Figure 1.  Characteristics of the blended approach

Using the blended approach, government managers can improve their programs’ flexibility and responsiveness to changing mission needs across many development cycles, retain high levels of program control and transparency, and remain compliant with their agencies’ traditional program-control and acquisition frameworks. This approach represents more than a combination of agile and traditional methodologies, in that it also requires a careful re-framing of the context (the on-the-ground management language and delivery environment) in which a project is planned and executed. To succeed, a blended-agile project must be staffed with personnel conversant in both agile and traditional methodologies, who can translate and overlay critical elements of each method where required. Involved, engaged program leadership is similarly critical. Even though the blended approach does not represent the wholesale paradigm shift of a move to pure agile, it does require leaders who are willing to set priorities, provide direction, and be fully committed to support the new delivery approach and all that it entails.

When implemented properly, a blended approach to agile development offers government agencies the opportunity to leverage the greatest strengths of the agile methodology (speed, flexibility, and efficiency) while improving program accountability and reducing delivery risk. It also increases the likelihood that the program will deliver expected outcomes on time and on budget. While implementing any new methodology bears adoption risks founded on natural resistance to change, the blended agile approach helps minimize the “newness factor” by retaining and re-purposing many of the familiar elements of an agency’s existing delivery lifecycle, including gate reviews, earned value management, and formal status reporting.

The benefits of the blended approach are borne out in practice. Several US government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the National Institutes of Health, and others have successfully executed significant development projects using tailored, blended implementations of agile methodology. In each case, the projects have delivered high-value, high-impact results on an aggressive schedule, maintained high levels of program accountability and minimized the disruption to existing program control methodologies and oversight mechanisms.

References

1. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra Advises Government IT Leaders to Learn From Private Sector
2. Why Agencies Are Racing To Embrace Agile Development
3. Agile Government: Elusive, but Not Impossible (Really)
4. Homeland Security Tackles Agile Development
5. Software Development: Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods


Read all of the articles on Making Agile Work for Government:

Making Agile Work for Government: A Blended Approach
Making Agile Work for Government: Perceived Challenges to Agile Adoption
Making Agile Work for Government: Addressing the Challenges of Agile Adoption

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