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Commentary: Is California (Finally) Ready for Agile?

Commentary: Many experts from government and industry say that although California wasn't fully ready to adopt an agile approach, that shouldn’t stop officials from moving forward.

Bill Maile is vice president for government relations with Agile Government Leadership (AGL), which started in 2014 and which has created a nonprofit trade association. Previously he was communications director for the Child Welfare Digital Services project of the California Health and Human Services Agency's Office of Systems Integration. Before that, he was founder and editor of Techwire. 

In 2016, Techwire took an in-depth look at the use of agile methodologies in California state government. A key focus was the launch of the Child Welfare Digital Services (CWDS) project, a complete modernization of the state’s child welfare system that pivoted away from traditional “waterfall” project management.

The effort was a bold move toward adopting agile and other innovative practices, but the question remained: Would the state be able to handle the challenges and harness the benefits of this new approach that had already proven so effective in the private sector?

Many experts from government and industry said the although state was not ready to adopt an agile approach, that shouldn’t stop officials from moving forward. The consensus was that government should definitely be moving toward agile, but that the CWDS effort might prove too large for the state’s first agile project.

Another concern — one echoed across government transformation efforts everywhere — was that bureaucratic culture, with all its rules and risk-averse attitudes, would smother the innovation and willingness to experiment required for the successful adoption of agile approaches.

Culture is the key to real change

I witnessed these challenges first-hand during the year I spent serving as communications director for the CWDS project. While the state deserves kudos for attempting to embrace agile methodologies, user-centered design, and free and open-source software, the project is beset with the daily struggles of the paradigm shift toward rapid iteration and honest retrospection.

“Fail fast, learn, and recover” is a core tenet of agile practices (and innovation in general) — but it’s a concept that still strikes fear into the heart of most public servants. Sadly the political reality is that taking responsibility (and blame) can be a career-killer. This needs to change.

With the agile government community united in an effort to bring cultural transformation to government, California can confidently proceed with modernization efforts from digital service creation to agile procurement and beyond. We’re not in this alone.

Avoid fear and keep moving ahead

There is no silver bullet that will instantly reverse California’s troubled history of failed IT endeavors. And the CWDS project may indeed be too complex for the state to learn what it needs to know, in such a relatively short amount of time, for the new child welfare system to be the “poster child” for the state’s agile journey. But that’s OK — because agile is all about learning from mistakes and creating something better every day (or at least every two weeks).

It would be ill-advised for the state to revert to old ways, abandoning the value of agile because of fear, stagnation or the lure of maintaining the status quo. Following the commendable example of the Health and Human Services Agency with the CWDS project, California should continue to actively invest in its own future.

Together with others in the agile government community, we can:

  • Capture lessons learned and build upon them
  • Objectively define what works and what doesn’t
  • Identify and share best practices across all agencies and levels of government
  • Create a safe space for failure and learning
  • Develop a culture of openness and innovation
  • Deliver user-oriented, accessible digital services
There’s been a consistent drumbeat in the global gov tech community that agencies are ready to follow the private sector into the digital age and give taxpayers the friendly, useful services they deserve. But that will happen only when government culture truly supports and celebrates the process of learning … and remembers why it started pursuing agile in the first place.

Agile Government Leadership (AGL) started as a network of agile government practitioners in 2014 and has created a nonprofit trade association to serve as a brand-neutral, industry-supported resource to spur innovation in the public sector. The goal of AGL is to create a space where everyone in the gov tech industry — from state program personnel to control agencies, legislative bodies, vendors and lobbyists — can contribute their experiences and ideas to increase transparency and evolve a culture of learning in the public sector.


Bill Maile was editor of Techwire from 2011 to 2016.