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Five Ways Agencies Can Become More Agile

The federal government is only now beginning to adopt what many view as the new standard for how work gets done in a post-COVID world.

Signed into law in 2016, the Program Management Improvement and Accountability Act requires federal agencies to enhance efficiency and reduce wasteful spending by adopting best practices in project and program management.

Despite the law, the government is only now beginning to adopt what many view as the new standard for how work gets done in a post-COVID world: the agile approach to project management. 

The agile methodology has its roots in the software development world. It was first developed as a way to improve outcomes on complex IT projects where requirements change frequently and speed is critical. Agile has since made the jump into broader, non-IT applications, as project managers seek to cope with growing complexity in a world of rapid and unpredictable change.  

Agile differs from traditional project management methodologies in that it operates in short iterative cycles rather than fixed project phases. It also prioritizes end-user satisfaction and incorporates customer feedback throughout the project. Team members are empowered to innovate and problem solve, and risks are identified and addressed early on. 

These characteristics make agile ideal for government projects, where problems often don’t lend themselves to simple, fixed solutions but may require a degree of trial and error. In fact, the one area where agile has made inroads at the federal level is in crisis management, for example, in the government’s response to natural disasters, such as Gulf Coast hurricanes and the California wildfires. 

The time is right, however, for broader adoption of agile as the federal government moves forward in implementing the American Rescue Plan Act and potentially other Biden administration programs that may be approved by Congress.

Before this can happen, however, certain procurement practices that favor traditional project management methodologies would need to change. These include progress measurement requirements with percentage completion estimates; “gate reviews” that must occur before the next developmental step can be taken; and expectations for final, completed system and/or product delivery at one defined point in time. 

To address these issues and to encourage broader adoption of agile, my organization, Project Management Institute, together with the National Academy of Public Administration, recently made five recommendations to make government more agile. 

  • To the maximum extent possible, agile should become the preferred operating model across the federal government. We advocate for making agile a cornerstone of the president’s management agenda and incorporating it into existing cross-agency priority goals – ensuring that agile is used whenever appropriate. We also recommend that the General Services Administration and the President’s Management Council support agile implementation. 
  • Agile methods of management and operations should be championed inside departments and agencies—and incorporated into as many of their activities as possible. Leaders should support and champion agile programs and projects already underway, assess their organizations’ levels of agile readiness and encourage staff members to assess their individual readiness. Leaders should also encourage agile practices by empowering team members, encouraging collaboration, actively participating in the agile process and establishing annual award programs for agile managers. 
  • The key barriers to agile functioning within the federal government should be identified and appropriately addressed within the political system and legal framework. The Office of Management and Budget, GSA and the Office of Personnel Management should identify and remove regulatory and statutory barriers to implementing agile beyond IT projects. We also call on the president and Congress to take legislative action to affirm these changes.   
  • Agile approaches, successes and challenges should be highlighted across government. The federal management councils should establish agile communities of practice to share knowledge and publicize progress in agile adoption. The new agile unit within GSA should also create agile management playbooks to help departments and agencies adopt the methodology. 
  • Department and agency leaders should ensure that training opportunities about agile principles and approaches—especially management skills—are readily accessible. Agile management should be a standard component of federal training programs and working frameworks, and agencies should work with university schools of public policy and administration to incorporate agile into their curricula.

The problems facing the federal government no longer lend themselves to simple solutions, and we’re operating in an increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable world. Agile offers a more flexible project management approach that would strengthen the government’s ability to tackle persistent problems, enhance the way work gets done, and optimize how tax dollars are spent for the benefit of all citizens.

Scott Ambler is vice president and chief scientist of disciplined agile at the Project Management Institute.