State, local governments lean into agile
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Oct 25, 2021
A study of four governments -- two state and two local -- illustrates how agile has evolved from a software development approach to being applied in project management, procurement and social services.
Across all four, three phases of agile adoption emerged: infancy, adolescence and adult, according to “Adopting Agile in State and Local Governments,” a report released by the IBM Center for The Business of Government Oct. 19, that shares several enabling strategies for each phase. For instance, agencies at the start of their agile journey start with a small project and catalyze cross-functional teams, the report says. In adolescence, agencies institutionalize agile acquisition procedures and cultivate a community of practice to extend learning agencywide. Finally, in the third phase, agencies set up support structures and a sustainable organizational culture.
The report illustrates these phases by exploring agile’s evolution in Connecticut, California, New York City and Austin, Texas.
With a 20-year foundation in the use of lean management, which, like agile, focuses on incremental changes and continuous improvement, Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management in 2017 issued the “Policy for the Management of State Information Technology Projects,” which “explicitly included the scope for Agile among the project management methods,” the report states.
An example of the policy in action is evident in the Department of Children and Families’ Kid’s Information Network Database project in 2018. Overhauling its 20-year-old system was among the state’s first large projects to use agile.
“The CT-KIND project identified a pool of vendors for undertaking smaller modular contracts; the project is thus carried out through multiple vendors using iterative delivery process,” the report states. “The project’s staff were trained and certified in the Scaled Agile Framework methodology to carry out the project.”
In 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont established Connecticut Digital Services with one focus area being agile procurement. The agency used it to implement two projects: Business One Stop, a portal for business owners to register and manage their businesses online, and Real ID Wizard, which helps state residents prepare documents for obtaining Real ID.
In California, the Project Management Office (CA-PMO) was stood up in 2016 to centralize and improve the management of IT projects. It developed the agile project management framework to complement its project delivery and testing methods, according to the report, but it first needed to train state employees to use it. It partnered with the California Department of Technology’s training center to offer classes and resources in agile principles, including scrum, user-centered design and incremental and iterative deployment.
CA-PMO faced two major challenges in implementing agile: accounting for how legacy systems would integrate with modern ones and ensuring that in focusing training and management on scrum and other agile elements, the enterprisewide approach, including methods for chartering a project, having a committed team in a co-located space and appointing a full-time product owner, doesn’t get lost.
“Organizations take time to adapt to such governance changes,” the report states. “The CA-PMO, therefore, advocated agencies to start with a small pilot project and test drive it, rather than starting with a major large project. The agency managers can see how Agile process works, the benefits it has, and the business value for the organization. The managers could become internal champions to promote the Agile methods internally. The agency leaders can then adapt the governance processes, learning more about iterative and incremental product delivery, assigning roles, user journey.”
New York City
The report also looked at how the New York City Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) uses agile to develop and test prototypes. Its digital products team -- which uses agile in conducting user research, creating user experiences and developing public-facing services and tools -- conducts daily meetings in which members share what they are working on and request help.
The Service Design Studio, another arm of NYC Opportunity, may be the first among city governments to be used as a dedicated unit for design thinking, the report states. One project it’s helped with is ACCESS NYC, an online screening tool to determine eligibility for health and human service programs. It features a 10-step process and open-source code that others can use via GitHub. Another is Growing Up NYC, which connects families with community benefits and resources and was built with human-centered, iterative design principles.
In Austin, the Office of Design and Delivery designs and builds public-facing digital services for residents and leads design, development and product strategy for smart city initiatives, the report states. Along with the city’s Innovation Office, ODD uses agile and human-centered design to address not only software, but social issues. For instance, an initiative to streamline the building permitting process involved 15 agencies. The Development Services Department partnered with ODD (then the Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows program) and formed three teams: web resource, service experience and communications. The result was a residential permitting website that launched in 2017 with a toolkit to help residents understand the permitting process in a few clicks.
Another project addresses homelessness. With a $1.24 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Innovation Office, Department of Public Health and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition formed the Austin Homelessness Advisory Committee, which formulated an action plan to end homelessness in 2018. To carry it out, the team used sprints to study homeless people’s experiences and process involved in accessing city-provided shelters. The committee used the results to create 15 insights for strategic actions. One prototype solution is MyPass, a blockchain-based, secure ID for homeless people.
“Agile is a mindset of organizational change. As a process of continuous improvement, Agile methods themselves could evolve over time with doing, testing, and improvement,” the report states.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.