Agile IT Delivery Challenges Government 'DNA' (Industry Perspective)

As agile development gains ground in the public sector, agencies will need to make structural, operational and behavioral changes to find success.

by Keir Buckhurst, Accenture / November 17, 2017
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A newly released report from Accenture and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) digs into an important shift occurring in how some public-sector IT projects are designed and implemented. Government leaders are gradually turning to agile IT delivery to seize emerging digital opportunities to work smarter within stretched budgets and to accommodate citizen expectations for modern government.

Agile delivery methods over the past two decades have taken deep root in the private sector. Agile entails development of software and digital services through short, iterative development cycles, in contrast to the more traditional long single-cycle "waterfall" approach to IT projects still prevalent in government (plan, budget, build, test, deploy). But times are changing, with NASCIO's annual survey of state CIOs showing the shift to agile development is a rising priority in state government.

Our interviews with leaders in government found that many increasingly see the waterfall approach as no longer fit for purpose, especially for timely development of modern, citizen-focused digital services. State CIOs and other officials surveyed earlier this year agreed strongly (98 percent) that agile is an effective approach for state government. They believe it helps improve project outcomes and user satisfaction and avoid large IT project failures and delays.

Given such favorable views of agile delivery, and growing demand from citizens for leading-edge digital public services, why isn’t agile delivery growing faster in government? Our research found 57 percent of respondents are using agile delivery on less than 20 percent of IT projects. Half of the state government officials surveyed said their organization's culture does not support agile. Three-fourths point to their "legacy" IT and lack of training and knowledge impeding adoption of agile, and nearly as many (70 percent) also said their procurement system does not accommodate agile. 

Clearly, some evolution of government organizations is required to implement agile IT delivery and gain the benefits. One government leader said the hardest part of agile is the "psychology," speaking to the difficulty of retooling bureaucracy to be, in some important respects, more nimble and flexible, and less hierarchical.

Agile Survey Highlights*

Agile Viewed Favorably / Percent Agree

  • Effective for state government / 98%
  • Improves customer satisfaction / 71%
  • Helps prevent wasted dollars from ineffective projects / 78%

Agile Not Yet Widespread / Percent Agree

  • Using agile for more than three years / 31%
  • Not using agile at all / 19%
  • Using agile on less than 20% of projects / 57%

Top Barriers to Agile / Percent Agree

  • Legacy solutions impete agile / 77%
  • Lack of agile training/knowledge / 75%
  • Procurement not set up for agile / 70%

*State officials surveyed 2016-2017; 53 responses from 34 states.

Agile requires structural, operational and behavioral changes, effectively a retooling of an organization's "DNA," with leadership, managers and staff all engaged in creating the environment for success. Public-sector leaders told us that shifting to agile required their organizations to rethink enterprise functions, break down organizational silos, shift mindsets from command and control to collaboration, and prioritize the need for design sessions to repeatedly tap the views of end users and program managers.

There are a number of critical success factors for agile IT delivery in government. Predominant is executive leadership. According to the research, agile delivery success in state government commonly features a "champion," a leader committed to the agile process. Along with internal managers and staff who need to be rallied and mobilized for agile delivery to flourish, the champion may well need to enlist support from authorizing agencies, elected officials and legislative committees.

Agile team training is crucial but most appropriately approached as one dimension of a broader strategic enablement and evolution of organizational competencies. That is critical for agile IT delivery to flourish and deliver on the promises of digital government.

State CIOs see agile IT delivery growing fast in state government over the next few years, with a third believing agile will become predominant, and half believing agile and waterfall will be used roughly equally. Such predictions may well be tempered by the need for essentially organizationwide changes going far beyond the bounds of past IT planning and management.

The ability of most government organizations to deliver IT projects in an agile manner at scale will hinge on integrating their IT delivery approach with deliberate and focused strategies for growing into agile organizations. Agile IT delivery is part of the solution to build truly digital government, but will be most successfully deployed in tandem with broader organizational change management fostering the increased feedback-driven adaption, collaboration, transparency, accountability, and creativity and innovation that increasingly digital citizens are demanding of their public services.

Keir Buckhurst is a managing director of Accenture.