Project Management

Building Agile Government Services

25 Feb 2021
Scott Ambler
Today's fast-paced challenges require agile approaches. Scott Ambler discusses how the federal government can build agile government services to drive new solutions and fully serve its citizens.

Image by Matthew Bornhorst on Unsplash

When you hear the word “agile,” the first organization that comes to mind might be a software company or a scrappy start-up—you’re most likely not thinking of an agency in the federal government. As agile expert Steve Denning puts it, current management practices in many large organizations, government or otherwise, are akin to “driving a horse and buggy on the highway.”

But that perception is slowly changing as agile grows in adoption. While it may not yet be prevalent for the federal government to use agile, some agencies like the United States Digital Service and Treasury Department have emerged as leaders in actively embracing agile principles. It’s well past time for a paradigm shift given the high stakes for organizations with such critical missions.

We’ve seen the success possible when government agencies do embrace agile, often in the context of a crisis in which the normal playbook is thrown out in favor of immediate action. We see examples in the coordination among agencies necessary in the wake of 9/11, the aftermath of natural disasters like hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast and efforts to combat wildfires in California. But what if we made agile the standard operating procedure long before an emergency took place?

I recently had the unique opportunity to contribute to a joint report exploring the potential of agile in the federal government, developed by study teams from PMI and the National Academy of Public Administration—with sponsorship from PMI and the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust. The report—Building an Agile Federal Government: A Call to Action—presents five key recommendations for public sector leaders to make government more agile—as well as practical steps for how to implement them.

As part of this project, our study team conducted comprehensive analysis of how a truly agile government would look different—and how agencies can unlock the full potential of agile practices. As the Biden administration lays out a governing agenda for responding to urgent national challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic or responding to cybersecurity vulnerabilities, it’s a fitting time to consider how government programs can more effectively maximize the return on investment for “customers”—in this instance, taxpayers.

 

Some takeaways and key recommendations from the report:

  • To the maximum extent possible, agile should become the preferred operating model across the federal government. For example, agile should be a cornerstone of the President’s Management Agenda, which articulates how to best modernize government services to deliver on mission outcomes, and Cross Agency Priority Goals, ensuring that agile management is used whenever appropriate.
  • Agile methods of management and operations should be championed inside federal departments and agencies—and incorporated into as many of their activities as possible. Department and agency leaders should make it a point to seek out, support and champion agile programs and projects already underway, as well as assessing their organizations’ levels of agile readiness.
  • The key barriers to agile functioning within the federal government should be identified—and appropriately addressed within the nation’s checks-and-balances political system and legal framework. Leaders in the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management should make it a priority to identify barriers, both regulatory and statutory, that stand in the way of making agile management an expected way of doing business, far beyond just IT projects.
  • Agile approaches, successes and challenges should be highlighted across the federal government. Agile government agencies would hew to some proven principles—making the “customer” the top priority, emphasizing learning and iteration and empowering staff to delegate decisions to the lowest possible levels to cut through roadblocks.
  • Department and agency leaders should ensure that training opportunities about agile principles and approaches—especially management skills—are readily accessible. To that end, agile management should be a standard component of federal training programs, and agencies should work with educational institutions to incorporate agile into their curricula and practical learning experiences.

 

Today’s challenges are too fast-paced for business as usual; agile offers the potential for government agencies to fully live up to the high expectations of citizens and drive new solutions to long-standing and complex problems. To learn more, download the report.

Scott Ambler Scott Ambler