Jan 03 2018

7 Agile Success Factors for State Government IT Leaders

These few tips can help any CIO get more flexible and transparent government IT.

When it comes to state and local government IT, the word “agile” may not be on the tip of anyone’s tongue. Often, government IT operations, updates and development can prove bulky or lengthy as the sector battles small staffs and tight budgets. But with the right set of values, government IT leaders can begin to inject agile development methods into their operations, according to a report released late last year by the National Association of State CIOs.

Agile is “an iterative project management methodology that delivers differentiated, high-value solutions in rapid deployments and functionality, and relies on frequent feedback and adaptation to reach desired outcomes,” the report states. It is based on the Agile Manifesto, which lays out four key values: individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation and responding to change over following a plan.

By implementing agile development, the public sector can respond more rapidly to changing citizen and employee demands. This is becoming particularly important, since, in 2016, 85 percent of U.S. citizens expected government digital services to be on par with commercial ones, according to the report.

“To respond to user demands and deliver high-value functionality, organizations today need a new technology infrastructure with supporting business processes to be able to anticipate and adapt to the rapid changes of the digital era,” the report states.

But how can government leaders go about building a more flexible and responsive IT infrastructure? Drawing from lessons learned by IT leaders in the private sector as well as public sector pioneers, the NASCIO report lays out seven ways that state CIOs can begin to implement the cultural and structural changes necessary to create more agile government IT.

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1. Get CIOs to Fight for Agile Development

Agile has the potential to solve many of the issues in government IT, including increasing transparency and reducing risk for new systems, but none of it will happen without a proactive and determined advocate.

In many states, the CIO, who sometimes comes from the private sector where agile has already been adopted in many cases, takes the helm. In Nebraska, for instance, the Office of the CIO first implemented agile development first by recruiting interns that were later hired on from the University of Nebraska. Once it kick-started development within the office itself, the functionality spread to other areas of the government naturally.

“The important thing is to recognize that agile can serve as a standard for simplifying sponsorship and buy-in, and that, ultimately, success is driven by a clear voice and an active champion willing to take risks,” the report states.

2. Focus on Building a More Agile Culture

Technology is only one part of the move to more flexible and responsive systems. To get there, IT and other government staff need to be willing to embrace change and buy in to agile methodology whole-heartedly. Moreover, IT leaders will need to work to break down traditional work silos to ensure that all teams can work together to make every IT system as functional as possible for everyone.

This cultural transformation includes rethinking enterprise functionalities, integrating traditionally siloed team structures, shifting mindsets from command and control to servant leadership, ensuring teams follow agile rules and shifting from status reporting to collaboration,” the report states, adding that IT teams will need to also adopt a mindset focused on ensuring the organization has “functioning software, real technology capabilities that support an accompanying examination of the underlying business intent and the business processes that should deliver that intent.”

3. Engage Businesses in IT Transformation

Agile development can greatly improve everyday operations for an agency or department, but to do so it requires that business beneficiaries are engaged with IT teams during an entire project lifecycle.

“For agile to work, team members representing the product owners must be familiar with the business needs and have the authority to make decisions and prioritize requirements,” the report states.

It lays out a few ways that IT teams can continue to engage business teams, including daily scrums, changing out product owners to ensure they are on board with the agile development process and communicating effectively about business needs.

Continual feedback is needed to be agile. And the necessary cultural change must take place within the business as well as the IT function,” the report says.

4. Design Digital Government with Users in Mind

It’s not just businesses and customers that will benefit, but also users, as long as they continue to be placed at the center of the design process.

“A successful user-centric design requires engaging both product owners and end users in conceptualization and prototyping. Working through prototypes with end users and encouraging user involvement fosters effective system design,” the report says.

5. Involve Budgeting and Procurement

When it comes to budgeting and procurement for agile projects, states have yet to lay out standards or regulations, although many are working out ways to do so.

By involving chief procurement officers and others in the process, it can help to lay a foundation for future agile procurement standards.

6. Emphasize Cost Savings to Win Over Authorizing Agencies

It’s important to get authorizing agencies on board, and emphasizing cost savings and increased transparency can help to do this. The majority (65 percent) of CIOs surveyed for the report said agile offers them greater transparency into IT projects.

“If properly structured, an agile project can incentivize vendors to finish early for less cost — a key selling point to authorizing agencies. They must also emphasize how agile provides greater control over spending,” the report states.

7. Train All Employees on Agile Systems and Methods

Even if a culture of innovation has taken hold in a state government, it’s impossible to move forward with constant agile development if staff aren’t skilled in agile. In fact, 65 percent of leaders indicated in the report that more than half of their staff lack the knowledge necessary to use agile.

“Training fosters adherence to agile, adoption of the more mature aspects of the approach and the onboarding of new developers, project managers and agency stakeholders,” the report states. “Some states found that training the organization’s leadership on agile helped them achieve success.”

Eva-Katalin/Getty Images

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