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How Do You Save Government IT?

There’s awareness that change is needed, and the solutions are becoming apparent.

A majority of IT projects undertaken by government fail to deliver satisfactory results, cost more than anticipated or take longer to implement than planned. How often do we, as project managers and government employees, hear things like this: “It’s software development; it’ll take as long as it takes.” “I know it’s what I told you to build, but it’s not what I need.” “Tell me again why it’s going to cost an additional $50,000.”

Faced with tighter budgets, increasing expectations and closer public scrutiny, government IT organizations are under extreme pressure to deliver technology solutions that meet the needs of their users quickly and at low cost. Where the traditional project management approach has failed, agencies need to find alternatives to address these heightened expectations. Agile development has sparked the interest of public-sector change-makers as a way to save government IT from the debacle of skyrocketing costs and redundant systems.

Agile is an entirely new way of approaching project delivery, especially for public agencies. Many of the concepts employed in agile are not particularly new. They have been used in software development under names like prototyping, extreme programming or rapid application development. Frameworks like Scrum bring a structured methodology to these same concepts. It’s about breaking up large, complex projects into easily digested pieces and routinely getting feedback to make sure what is being delivered is in line with what’s needed.

These methods represent a huge cultural shift for agencies, which have been slow to adopt agile practices mainly due to a lack of understanding about how it works, how to get started or how agile actually benefits government. In response to the need for an agile community in the government space, Agile Government Leadership (AGL) was created to provide resources, training, conversation and help for those looking to implement agile into government.

AGL’s working group includes employees from federal, state, county and city government — all with similar experiences of discovering agile as the solution to specific issues within their agencies. They found that each successful agile project carries the next one forward with increased momentum, while agile processes are often adopted by other teams and organizations that observe the successes and want to try it too.

Agile is, certainly, a new way of working for government. It’s also essential to meeting the demands of the modern digital age where traditional development systems are no longer adequate. The mammoth failures of government IT in instances like and California’s Case Management System have not been without lessons learned.

Federal efforts such as the TechFAR Handbook, U.S. Digital Services Playbook and the Agile BPA have helped agencies start charting a new course. Not only is there an awareness of the need for change in government IT, the solutions are also becoming apparent. Agencies are beginning to adopt agile — not just talk about it — as a proven way to make their projects more efficient, effective and successful.

This commentary originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of Techwire magazine.

Bill Haight has served Salt Lake City as the CIO and director of Information Management Services, participating first-hand in the evolution of IT over the past 35 years.
Elizabeth Raley serves as director of Professional Services at CivicActions and is a practicing ScrumMaster with a deep knowledge of agile and its benefits to agencies.