Nov 18 2021

How State and Local Agencies Are Moving Forward on Agile

Government agencies are applying agile processes not only for software development but for project management, procurement and social services delivery.

State and local government agencies have been shedding the perception that they are not moving fast in creating new applications and services for citizens. Over the course of the pandemic, they have been using DevOps methodologies and low-code/no-code platforms and agile development tools to create scalable and modern digital services.

A recent report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government highlights how agencies have been using agile methodologies not just for software development but for a wide range of use cases. Those include project management, human resources management, policymaking, and contracting and procurement. Agile builds and tests iteratively to ensure that what is developed is what the organization wants.

The report highlights the evolution of agile at four government agencies: two states (Connecticut and California) and two cities (New York City and Austin, Texas).

“The cases show the rich contextual evolution of agile and how the methods are applied for using technology to streamline enterprise processes and to address social policy problems,” the report notes.

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The Evolution of Agile Processes in Government

There are three stages of agile adoption, the report notes. The first is “infancy,” when agencies transition from waterfall to agile and have little capacity in agile methods.

The report advises agencies to start with a small pilot project. “The cumulation of successful experiences provide future directions for implementing agile,” the report states. “Successes increase faith in the agile methods about their prospects for resource efficiency, timeliness, and end-user satisfaction.”

Additionally, early adopters of agile need leaders to catalyze cross-functional agile teams. “The catalyst can span across departmental siloes to bring together relevant experiences. The agile teams need support with adequate training and resources,” the report notes. “The leader should protect the teams’ time from outside organizational influences.”

In the second stage, known as the “adolescent” stage, agencies have some experience with agile, but most projects are still waterfall. The report encourages agencies to institutionalize agile acquisition procedures, and notes that a project management office or innovation/digital services office could provide support for agile acquisition.

The report also notes that it is important at this stage to cultivate an agile community of practice, which “extends the learning process from within the team to the enterprise-wide context to verify the methods that work.”

RELATED: Why agencies must continue to digitize citizen services.

“The community of practice extends the peer support system and fosters an ecology of agile environment in the organization,” the report notes. “The impetus for setting up the community of practice could come from the top-level leadership (CxO suite), the project management or equivalent office, or from the voluntary efforts of the agile practitioners themselves.”

In the third, “adult” phase of adoption, the report encourages state and local agencies to support structures put in place for agile management to “provide the institutional, technical, and contractual assistance for agile projects.” This helps make agile development routine and enables agencies to “work with vendors in iterative and incremental ways.” A project management office, center of excellence, innovation office or digital services office could serve this function.

Additionally, the report argues for inculcating an agile culture within the agency and seeing agile not as an end in itself but as a way to achieve different outcomes.

State and local agencies should consider agile for four main reasons, according to the report:

  • The traditional waterfall management approach has had a high rate of failure
  • Agile is particularly relevant in the rapidly evolving digital era
  • Agile can be used for increasing efficiency in public management
  • Agile marks a cultural shift in management from a siloed bureaucracy to an entrepreneurial bureaucracy, with an eye toward fulfilling the holistic mission of the organization

MORE FROM STATETECH: Explore the tech and approaches needed to quickly enable digital government.

How State and Local Agencies Are Using Agile

The report highlights how state and local agencies have been making use of agile for a variety of government functions.

In Connecticut, the state’s Office of Policy and Management in 2017 issued the “Policy for the Management of State Information Technology Projects,” which “explicitly included the scope for agile among the project management methods,” the report notes.

In 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont created Connecticut Digital Services, which made agile procurement a key area of focus. The state used agile for two projects: Business One Stop, a single portal for business owners to register and manage their businesses online, and Real ID Wizard, which helps residents prepare documents for obtaining Real ID.

California in 2016 established the state’s Project Management Office following failures with large, complex and costly projects. “The PMO was designed to overcome the challenges due to the lack of experienced project management staff at the departmental level in the decentralized structure,” the report notes, with a “focus on standardized frameworks, education, training, and tools and techniques.”

California uses agile as one of its frameworks for project management, and it has created agile playbooks. “The office also provides project management services directly to the departments,” the report states. “Unlike the original legislative intent, however, the PMO has not undertaken large complex projects; it mainly deals with low-complexity projects.”

EXPLORE: How can DevOps help agencies scale services rapidly?

At the local level, New York City set up the Service Design Studio in 2017 with the goal of pushing the ball forward on “research, data and design to advance evidence-based programs, policies, and service delivery,” the report notes.

SDS has been involved in public-facing digital services, including ACCESS NYC, an “online screening tool to determine a person’s eligibility for health and human service programs.” SDS simplified the process for residents and made it accessible on mobile devices.

The consultancy Abt Associates recognized the SDS for providing “a novel approach to civic service design,” according to the report, with broad support for the SDS and its techniques among the city’s agencies.

Finally, in Austin, the Office of Design and Delivery has worked with the city’s innovation office and has “undertaken several projects in partnership with other departments where they have employed user-centric design principles,” the report notes.

The ODD is guided by six principles, which are relevant to its adaptation of agile methods: Put residents first; prioritize equity when planning features and functionality; recognize that digital services require teams and competencies, not just software; cultivate a community of learning; champion iterative, data-informed methods; and support vendors that can prove value to residents.

“Agile is a mindset of organizational change,” the report concludes. “As a process of continuous improvement, agile methods themselves could evolve over time with doing, testing, and improvement.”

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