Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Agile provides a framework for organizations to be nimble and responsive to changing situations

Agile emerged initially as a set of values and principles for software development formalized in 2001 with the Agile Manifesto. For two decades, it helped revolutionize software development. Today, Agile approaches have been adapted to government services beyond software development, offering a new way of thinking and delivering in areas such as project management, policymaking, human resources, and procurement. 

The basics of Agile and associated methods have been covered in previous IBM Center for The Business of Government reports. These reports provide a good overview of Agile principles, use of Lean, and application of user-centered design. They provide insights into the evolution of Agile adoption in public sector over the last two decades. This new report, Adopting Agile in State and Local Governments, by Sukumar Ganapati of Florida International University, examines the adoption of Agile among state and local governments. State and local governments have increasingly adopted Agile methods in the last decade, applying them across a range of applications. At the same time, they vary widely in terms of their maturity levels in the adoption and implementation.

Professor Ganapati identifies three broad phases in this lifecycle of Agile maturity among public agencies in general.  The three phases are not clear cut, with distinctive breaks between where one phase ends and the next one begins. Rather, they could be conceived as a continuum, as public agencies evolve through the lifecycle of implementing Agile. The report highlights the evolution of the use of Agile methods in two states (Connecticut and California) and two local cities (New York and Austin). 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 four case studies show different trajectories of adopting Agile in state and local governments. The strategies for adopting and implementing Agile methods broadly differ in the three lifecycle phases of infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. The case studies offer lessons for enabling strategies to adopt Agile across these three phases.

Phase I (Infancy)

  • Start Simple with a Small Project. Simple and small-scale pilot projects give an opportunity for the Agile teams to experiment with the methods. The cumulation of successful experiences provide future directions for implementing Agile. Successes increase faith in the Agile methods about their prospects for resource efficiency, timeliness, and end-user satisfaction.
  • Catalyze Cross-Functional Agile Teams. Leadership must catalyze, support, and protect cross-functional teams. The catalyst can span across departmental siloes to bring together relevant experiences. Agile teams need support with adequate training and resources.

Phase 2 (Adolescence)

  • Institutionalize Agile Acquisition Procedures. Institutionalizing the acquisition (contracting and procurement) procedures for Agile enables it to become a routine organizational endeavor, rather than an exception. A project management office (alternatively, the innovation office or the digital services office) could provide the requisite support for Agile acquisition. There are several contractual models that can be adapted for Agile acquisition,such as blanket purchasing agreement, modular contracting, work order authorization, and invitation to negotiate.
  • Cultivate Agile Community of Practice. Cultivating an Agile community of practice extends the learning process from within the team to the enterprise-wide context to verify the methods that work. The community of practice extends the peer support system and fosters an ecology of Agile environment in the organization.

Phase 3 (Adult)

  • Establish Agile Management Support. Support structures for Agile management provide the institutional, technical, and contractual assistance for Agile projects. The institutional support systems help in routinizing Agile procedures. The technical support enhances organizational capacity for Agile. The contractual assistance enables public agencies to work with vendors in iterative and incremental ways. The support structures could take different forms, such as project management office, center of excellence, innovation office, and digital services office.
  • Sustain Agile Organizational Culture. Agile is not an end in itself, but a means toward different ends. The central emphasis is on Agile as a mindset where the methods can be flexibly adapted. There are four dimensions of sustainability: leadership, legislative, institutional, and financial support. Leaders support and protect Agile. Institutional structures provide the necessary procedural and contractual support for conducting Agile projects. Stable financial support helps in the persistence of institutional structures to sustain Agile methods across the government.

As Ganapati’s research underscores, Agile is not a panacea of preset tools of practices. Agile is a mindset of organizational change. As a process of continuous improvement, Agile methods themselves could evolve over time with doing, testing, and improvement. The process itself could evolve with maturity. As Agile methods continue to increase in adoption across government agencies, there are both conceptual and empirical research questions that require further investigation. Answering the conceptual research questions would help in outlining Agile’s relationship with other government reforms that have been underway over the past decades. The following research questions are important threads that require examination.

Conceptual Questions

  1. What are the public sector organizational reforms that Agile methods can bring about?
  2. What are the use cases of Agile’s application in the public sector?
  3. How should we conceptualize the success (or failure) of using Agile in public sector?

Empirical Questions

  1. What are the organizational conditions that help in adopting, implementing, and sustaining Agile?
  2. How should Agile contracts be structured?
  3. What are the leadership and team requirements for successful Agile implementation?

The Agile Government Center, a new initiative of the National Academy of Public Administration, will no doubt play a key role in pursuing such research bringing together governments, nonprofits, foundations, academic institutions, and private sector partners to assist in the development and dissemination of agile government principles and case studies of agile policies and programs. The AGC has gained significant momentum with the creation of the Agile Government Network, which has developed a set of agile principles to drive government improvement. The network continues to develop case studies of agile government in action and acts as a source of assistance to those who want to adopt and implement Agile to provide public goods and services that fully meet customer needs and build public trust.

The report also joins a host of other IBM Center report focusing on agile techniques and how they can help improve government—prior studies on this topic include: The Road to Agile Government: Driving Change to Achieve Success, A Guide to Critical Success Factors in Agile Delivery, Agile Problem Solving in Government: A Case Study of The Opportunity Project, and Transforming How Government Operates: Four Methods of Change.

We hope that the cases studies, insights, and recommended strategies outlined in this report will help government agencies in their efforts to adopt and implement Agile methods, taking advantage of evolving capabilities that can enhance public management, ensure better outcomes and improve public trust in the delivery and operations of government at all levels.