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Hurdles to Agile Adoption in Government Organizations

By: David Pradko

While an iterative approach like Agile, that uses continual prioritization to deliver value to end users, is an ideal approach to many Information Technology (IT) solutions, there are various obstacles that keep many agencies from fully adopting Agile methodologies and practices. Despite newsworthy mentions of federal debt, many federal, state, and local government agency budgets have been flat or declining for several years. Add in inflation and other cost increases, and these agencies are constantly being asked to do more with less.

Responsible Spending and Risk-Aversion

Most federal agencies have their overall budgets determined by Congress. However, factors like the current political climate and lobbying, also influence final budget decisions. Unlike companies that can expand budgets through increased revenue and profitability, government agencies need to justify budget requests by showing they have a responsible track record deploying their budget to meet their mission.

Government organizations routinely make decisions that can be justified as responsible, risk-averse, or “safe” – even if those decisions are not the most efficient or cost-effective. A half-century old methodology like Waterfall– or a century old tool like Gantt charts – have historically been preferred to newer methodologies like Agile.

Delivery Dates vs. Sprint Cycles

Government IT solutions and systems are often the result of new laws or regulations and have a defined time period in which they must be implemented after the new law is passed. Laws can be vague, but the regulations and software implementation must be specific. Elements like complex business rules and multiple system interfaces along with required supporting documentation must be considered with new implementation. Delivering the most valuable percentage of the solution on time is preferable to delivering the entire system after a one to two-year delay.

Software and Tools

Hardware and infrastructure requirements as well as licensing costs are a common consideration. Security concerns often mean out-of-date software on pre-approved lists keep getting used instead of newer products being adopted. Implementing the use of new software has its own obstacles for adoption. To roll-out a change, training and the creation of knowledge-based articles must be created to equip Help Desks and Call Centers with the tools to support end-users.

End User vs. Customer

Until recently, most end users of government IT systems were employees of that agency, so there was little conflict in seeing the end-user as an internal customer. As the internet has proliferated, more businesses and individuals are interacting directly with government IT systems: submitting applications and appeals, self-registering or updating information, or just searching for general information on a government website or portal. These external end users, or government customers, present a unique tension when designing systems for them.

While “the customer is always right” is a great motto for many private businesses; government agencies need to walk a fine line with that approach. They run the risk being too accommodating or “too cozy” with the people and businesses they regulate and can erode the trust that the government agency can regulate or monitor effectively.

Tight budgets, pre-defined timelines, and the need for some agencies to keep end users at arm’s length make it easy to de-emphasize agile principles like personas, end user demos, and usability sessions.

Lack of Agile Knowledge and Training

Just like in the private sector, it’s easy for an organization or IT department to declare Agile the preferred software development methodology for new projects, but it’s also difficult to properly implement. Unless an agency commits to bringing in Agile trainers and coaches, agencies must rely on whatever Agile knowledge already exists within the organization. This might be individuals that used Agile prior to joining the agency or training available through e-learning providers like Skillsoft or Udemy.

Don’t Give Up Hope

Despite these hurdles, agencies still have options for using Agile to improve the outcomes of software development projects.

  • Engage with the local Agile community. Organizations like the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the International Institute for Business Analysis (IIBA) have chapters all over the world, and regularmeetups that are free or low-cost.
  • Leverage existing training platforms like Skillsoft or Udemy – many agencies have these in place already as part of their professional development platforms.
  • Import Agile knowledge through new contracts. While it has long been common to ask a vendor to provide a PMP on new contracts, many agencies are now starting to ask for key personnelwho also hold certifications in Agile. Agencies should also ask vendors to show that they have experience delivering software to their clients successfully, while using an Agile methodology.

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