Is government ready for agile?

"That's like asking whether the government is ready for oxygen," said 18F co-founder Robert Read. "It needs it, whether it knows it needs it or not."

Shutterstock image: software developer.

In the past year, government innovators have released a number of policies and guides, including the U.S. Digital Services Playbook and 18F's open-source policy. Now an organization that promotes agile development, Agile Government Leadership, has released an Agile Government Handbook.

The guide lists resources such as books, white papers, directives and articles, and includes a checklist, key questions and a "manifesto" of rules to live by when using agile techniques.

"We find that many people are interested in agile in government, but they don't know how to begin, so they sort of need an introductory text on agile use in government," said Robert Read, co-founder of the General Services Administration's 18F and a member of AGL's Steering Committee. "I think it's a great starting point for information about doing agile, although I think people really need to practice agile in order to understand it."

About a year ago, GovFresh founder Luke Fretwell teamed up with software integration company CivicActions on a number of projects, including researching the use agile development in government. After surveying the field, Fretwell said two things stood out.

First, no community for agile had come together in government. "We wanted to create a hub and the community to support [agile development], so we started working with government officials and building that community," Fretwell said.

Second, feds' awareness and understanding of agile development varied. "There was an agile divide," Fretwell said. "There were people like Robert who are expert in agile and then other people who didn't have a clue what agile is."

There have been some government efforts internally to promote the use of agile development in the past few years. Aside from what 18F and the U.S. Digital Service have done recently to raise awareness of new methods and techniques, the TechFAR Handbook also makes a case for why government should adopt agile techniques for IT development and project management. And the Government Accountability Office released a list of 10 best practices for agile development in July 2012.

In the spirit of the movement, AGL's handbook has been published on GitHub, and the team is asking for feedback.

"We're expecting that there are people who are new to agile using it, and then more seasoned people using agile who may have more case studies or success stories to add," said Elizabeth Raley, director of professional services at CivicActions. "We're seeing the handbook as an iteration as well that we can continue to add things that will be of great use to the people using it."

Read said he expects that government program managers will use the handbook as a resource for new projects. The intended customer is "the person who is in control of a $200,000 to $20 million budget, who needs to run an IT project and wants to do a good job using modern software methodology but doesn't necessarily know where to begin and may not even be sure if they have permission to use agile," he said.

So now federal agencies have a handbook. But do they have the processes and people in place to adopt agile methodology?

"That's like asking whether the government is ready for oxygen," Read said. "It needs it, whether it knows it needs it or not. I think the federal government is ready, [and] program managers are ready to see immediate results and de-risk projects by having gradual progress."

He added that government procurement strategies, however, might not be ready.

"We need to discover ways to procure agile services properly," Read said. "But we're breaking new ground in that respect."