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How Agility Is Driving Government Transformation

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Government has a notoriously difficult time adapting to rapid advances in technology and the shifting expectations of citizens. But agency leaders can tap an approach from the field of software development—agile method—to improve program management and achieve better mission outcomes.

Agility refers to the ability to act quickly and easily. This often runs counter to government approaches of detailed planning premised on a stable and predictable environment. Managers today cannot fully anticipate future external forces that will affect the success of a program or initiative, and instead must adopt a more flexible approach. Managing with agility involves a series of attributes, strategies and tools, including:

  • Start with a clear vision, not a set of detailed requirements.
  • Shift from a linear to an interactive approach in program design and implementation.
  • Insist on rapid, iterative, and continuous development of a program or service.
  • Use “design thinking” techniques that focus on the needs of customers.
  • Empower employees to bring the vision to reality.
  • Engage in ongoing collaboration with stakeholders.

Governments cannot use these approaches in isolation or attempts to become more agile will fail. Rather, agencies must adapt how mission support functions traditionally operate. Methods for hiring, buying, and auditing should change as well. For example, the U.S. Digital Service began using agile approaches when it was launched in 2014, but quickly found that traditional government contracting approach stymied its work. So USDS staff worked with acquisition officials to develop new contracting vehicles that incorporated agile principles.

The Value of Agility

Agility involves values and principles that incorporate the use of customer experience and design thinking when developing and delivering programs and services. These attributes are increasingly being reflected in government priorities. Some examples:

  • The USDS, General Services Administration’s 18F program, and digital service teams within federal agencies have become leading proponents of agile development approaches. In a 2017 report for the IBM Center, Digital Service Teams: Challenges and Recommendations for Government, Ines Mergel highlights the value of digital service teams in government and describes the institutional challenges these teams face in adopting agile approaches in the public sector.
  • The Office of Management and Budget released a brief four-part Management Agenda in March 2017 that includes strategies reflecting the tenets of agility. For example, the agenda commits to increasing the use of waiver authority by 2020 to grant agencies more administrative flexibility, increase delegations of authority to lower levels in organizations, and increase government responsiveness to the public.
  • OMB’s April 2017 guidance to agencies on how they should develop reform plans directs them to include strategies and investments that would improve customer service and identify opportunities for greater efficiency and effectiveness. The guidance specifically states the plans should “provide managers greater freedom to manage administrative tasks efficiently.”
  • Finally, the White House Office of American Innovation incorporated the tenets of agility into its agenda, with a focus on improving customer’s interactions with government. For example, it highlights the value of the Education Department’s College Scorecard, which compiles information from various sources to help college applicants select a school best suited to their needs.

Changing Government Culture

Recent government actions have set the stage for the greater use of agility. Thus, agencies can take a number of steps to advance agile methods in their operations and organizational culture. Potential options include:

  • Set new expectations among agency senior executives for how work gets done, by encouraging them to focus on user experience, program results, transparency, and collaboration.
  • Revise and streamline existing administrative processes by rolling back low-value activities and requirements.
  • Revisit common mission support systems used in government—such as project management and accountability systems—to make them more flexible.
  • Make procurement processes more rapid and flexible. OMB and the GSA have worked across agencies to streamline acquisitions in a way that provides agencies timely access to commercial services and products.
  • Adopt “time” as a key metric for assessing program performance. Setting a goal of reducing the time needed to deliver a service often leads to more efficient and less costly results, but requires agility to achieve such outcomes.
  • Identify and reduce barriers that inhibit the use of agile approaches to improve program outcomes, which can stem from existing mission support compliance requirements set long ago by legal, acquisition, risk management, and audit offices.

A shift from a linear to a more interactive approach to develop and deliver programs represents a significant shift in policy, culture, roles and responsibilities, and program oversight. By understanding agile techniques, and identifying and overcoming potential obstacles, agencies can embed and expand agility in how government works on behalf of the public.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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