Realizing the Power of Software: How Government Leaders Are Cultivating an Agile Mindset

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At the heart of the President's Management Agenda is the call to strengthen and empower the Federal Workforce, deliver excellent federal services and improved Customer Experience, and manage the Business of Government to create equitable and accessible solutions. Federal agencies can begin to meet this new standard through agile software development.

Technology is a crucial part of delivering governmental services to constituents and internal stakeholders — it is the de facto catalyst for mission success. But many of the government’s existing IT solutions are outdated and slow to adapt to changing mission needs. While this technology exists to support the mission, it often has the opposite effect, proving to be the problem rather than the solution.

The Biden Administration is hoping to resolve this with a new set of mandates. The President’s Management Agenda, which the administration released in 2021, calls on all federal agencies to revamp existing solutions. To meet the President’s request, IT leaders from across the public sector should focus on agile software development.

“Agile is recognizing that software is always evolving, that there’s no system that’s ever really done,” says Paul Burnette, director of the software accelerator at Leidos. “There’s always going to be security patches, software changes, and end-of-life issues with components of that software.”

Agile software development — unlike waterfall or other full-scale design-then-build methodologies — does not focus on tools or processes. Instead, agile focuses on the end user. It’s this distinct focus that helps IT departments within the public sector deliver equitable and secure results.

How Agile Helps Agencies Build Equitable Solutions

One of the main touchpoints in the President’s Management Agenda is the call to create equitable systems. For public sector agencies, building these systems will require agencies to rethink their approach to customer service.

“[Deploying] fully equitable solutions means considering the entire user experience,” says Burnette. “It means making sure the customer experience works, especially for systematically marginalized communities [and] people with limited internet connectivity.” 

Unlike other design-then-build methodologies which are more focused on the tools and processes, agile can help.

“Agile at its core was always designed to be driven by the user — the person that the software is going to affect or interact with,” Burnette says. “The whole point of agile development is that it is people-centric; it's driven by the needs and experience of the user.” 

With the user experience driving the agile lifecycle, software developers are then able to “build a little, test a little” to ensure they’re delivering excellent, equitable experiences that meet users’ needs with each update.

How Agile Helps Agencies Build Secure Solutions

Much of the President's Management Agenda revolves around building secure systems — and for good reason: Recent attacks such as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack and Microsoft Exchange exploit have demonstrated that security must be a key consideration for software developers.

The agenda states that the government should be able to “...function and deliver prosperity, security and opportunity for the people in this country.”

One part of ensuring security means proactively patching potential security risks — and agile methodologies can help agencies achieve this.

“In the traditional sense, security always comes after you’ve built the application,” says Burnette. “The problem with that is, if you wait until the end to try and secure your software, you’re already too late.”

In fact, many cybersecurity attacks could have been avoided had security been incorporated from the start.

 “A lot of the cybersecurity events that we’ve seen over the past two years have been because of inherent flaws in software that was released to production,” says Burnette. “That’s why security must come first, because software is always built using pieces and parts of open-source libraries and commercial tools. From a security standpoint, we have to think through the implications of the software we use.”

To continuously enhance federal information technology and cybersecurity, agencies should deploy agile methodologies to support their development processes. After all, as threats evolve and vulnerabilities become apparent, government agencies will need to ensure their systems remain secure and suitable for use.

How Partnerships Can Help

One of the last touchpoints that the PMA focuses on is the need to identify and address critical skills gaps across the federal IT and cybersecurity workforce.

For agencies that aren’t familiar with agile development, organizations like Leidos can help.

“We view this as part of our mission, to train and upskill not just our workforce but to actively reach out to universities and the Armed Forces Academies,” says Burnette. “We train and teach how to use those tools and how to enable agile development.”

Discover how Leidos can help your agency meet the PMA’s requirements.

This content is made possible by our sponsor Leidos; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of NextGov's editorial staff. 

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