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This is What Agile Development Should Look Like in the Federal Government

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The pace of technological innovation is so rapid that a project deemed state-of-the-art today might be anything but by next week. So when federal agencies talk in terms of years-long tech procurement timelines, the chance that these projects remain innovative -- let alone effective -- begins to fizzle. 

A new group devoted to evangelizing the concept of agile development inside government thinks it has the answer. 

The Agile Government Leadership organization recently launched the "Agile Government Handbook," which acts as a simple guide for adopting those short, bite-size style goals that agile practices preach. The online guide comes equipped an agile manifesto, checklist and key questions, among other sections.

“We want the handbook to be a fresh and evolving tool that can help someone who is brand new to agile and someone who is more seasoned but looking to refine and improve their process,” said Elizabeth Raley, agile project manager for CivicActions, an organization that helps agencies implement large software projects and a member of the group's steering committee.

Raley said the current handbook is likely not its final form, and will likely be updated based on the public’s feedback. The handbook includes buttons to “share ideas” and “submit updates."

“We're looking for those in government and [the] private sector who serve the government to share how they have used the handbook and have specific suggestions, along with those who have used other tools or resources that have been valuable,” Raley said.

One term the handbook highlights is Minimum Viable Product or MVP, a popular idea in Silicon Valley. A section about key questions to ask when executing agile projects includes “How long did it take to ship the MVP? If it has not shipped yet, when will it?”

The federal government appears to be on a similar page when it comes to agile. Last week, Federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith also highlighted the importance of building big projects one small piece at a time

“What’s the minimum thing we could launch?” she said as keynote speaker for the ACT-IAC Igniting Innovation. “Let’s not 'spec' the whole huge thing out. Let’s do the minimum thing and then get it out there and start iterating with the community.”

The release of the fiscal 2016 budget blueprint last week illustrated the federal government’s focus on distilling large-scale tech projects into digestible pieces. Since May 2013, the practice has resulted in quicker functional products by about 21 days.

Last week was also the joint General Services Administration-18F industry day, which included discussion on implementing an agile-only contracting vehicle. The plan would be for it to allow agencies to buy services based on the turnaround speed.

Although more agencies are preaching the gospel of agile, the administration's "TechFAR Handbook for Procuring Digital Services Using Agile Processes" does not suggest using it for all IT needs.

“Agile software development is intended for activities that require significant software design and development. Many IT needs can be met with commercially available off-the-shelf items and commoditized services…” the report stated.

The next step for the Agile Government Handbook is to begin receiving specific feedback.

Raley said the group plans to do outreach to the broader agile community to gather feedback. The group will use its LinkedIn group to get the word out as well as a new "AGL Live" platform, which allows government leaders to link up by video conference to discuss public sector agile development. 

(Image via hxdbzxy/Shutterstock.com)

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