Agile transformation: How federal agencies can speed up services and cut costs

Agile is opening the door to improved collaboration, streamlined services and mission success.

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Agile approaches are transforming how federal agencies work, speeding up service delivery and slashing costs while boosting stakeholder satisfaction. Navigating the shift to Agile may present hurdles, but adopting proven strategies can streamline the transition.

The shift to Agile in the public sector involves adapting the dynamic, team-centric approaches from software development to other government functions. This method deconstructs large projects into manageable segments so different teams can work concurrently toward a shared goal, improving government service effectiveness and speed.

Cynthia Ferreira, a federal strategic advisor at Scaled Agile, Inc., says Agile practices were originally easier to manage and show results with small teams because fewer people were involved, and the work was more focused.

As Agile gained popularity and larger agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense sought its efficiency, it spread to include large teams with diverse roles.

“What we're seeing is when we scale that up, when we now have hundreds of engineers and testers and user experience people all working together, it does require a little bit more rigor in how you plan the work and how you demonstrate the work and how you evaluate the work,” Ferreira says.

When implementing Agile in larger teams, Ferreira highlights that in addition to needing better planning and organization, changing the culture is an obstacle.

“Almost everyone that I talk to that is in a leadership position in government, and this is somewhat uniformly across all the different agencies and departments, mentions that culture change is a challenge,” she says.

Many government workers are set to retire soon, which could lead to a loss of expertise, but it also opens the door to new ways of working. Ferreira notes there's a noticeable split in willingness to adapt: New employees are eager to use Agile methods, but those close to retirement are less open to changing their ways, she says.

Navigating impending cultural shifts

Shifting the culture to adopt Agile can be tough. Ferreira advises using tactics that identify and support those who are mission-driven and ready to champion Agile initiatives.

Ferreira sees this as an opportunity to convince leaders that Agile adoption can align with their ambitions and contribute to a more effective government.

Other adjustments are needed for Agile, too.

The pandemic forced a pivot to remote work, disrupting traditional, in-person team collaboration. Agile, which thrives on close interaction, adapted to this new reality. Now, with new tools for remote planning and design, it's easier to integrate remote participants into the workflow.

“There's a little bit of sacrifice for that natural creativity that happens when you're together around a whiteboard, and you're problem-solving, but you also have the ability to bring more people together through these remote tools that allow you to do planning and design,” Ferreira says. 

For instance, she says, online collaboration tools can help get more people involved, including introverts who may not speak up as much in person. These tools create a space where everyone has an equal chance to share their ideas, making communication more inclusive.

Additionally, online tools can bolster openness and teamwork in government. They can support Agile methods by tracking the workflow for everyone involved and allowing teams to make quick changes to project schedules and tasks when necessary.

Ferreira says government contracts often entail tension, as the government dictates tasks and contractors must adhere to regulations, which might hide the real progress or problems of a project.

When agencies and contractors both embrace online collaboration tools and Agile methods, it results in benefits such as increased workflow transparency and accelerated progress and can quell rising issues for everyone involved.

Importantly, for government projects, particularly in defense, only secure online tools should be used to prevent sensitive information leaks. These tools need to be Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program approved or hosted in secure data centers or on-premises.

The evolution of Agile and what to expect

Today, Agile methods are used for big, complex projects such as building satellites or missiles, where being able to adjust to learned information and make fast changes is important. Unlike the traditional waterfall methods, Agile allows for iterative testing and improvement, which reduces the chance of costly missteps in these advanced projects.

Last year, the AGILE Procurement Act was introduced to train government procurement officers in Agile methods, helping them craft contracts that support quicker delivery of work.

“All those functional areas that surround the development of value, they, too, need to be Agile,” Ferreira says.

Ferreira envisions a future where whole organizations, even cabinet-level agencies, use Agile to adapt, learn from experiences, and iterate effectively. Templates and online tools help agencies switch to Agile methods in an organized and unified way, making it easier to apply Agile on a large scale.

To kick off Agile practices on a large scale, visual collaboration platforms like Bluescape, which features Scaled Agile templates, can guide agencies through the process. These resources simplify tasks like planning and estimating, easing the transition into Agile for beginners.

“Our mission is to support any organization that wants to transform from the way that they used to work to this new way of working, of doing things where it's very iterative and there's learning cycles,” Ferreira says. “We have a whole team focused on helping the federal government do this.”

Learn more about how Agile can help your organization transform how your agency works.

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