Agile government: oxymoron or opportunity?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

Back in the day…

It was the summer of 2012, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” was in the Billboard top 10 and, suitably, the implementation of agile methodologies was spreading throughout the federal government and its contractors. Competing for shrinking agency budgets and increasingly competitive government contracts, many organizations rushed to implement agile methodologies – however fragmented – with nothing more than an idea, some rumors and unrealistic expectations.

Without a clear organizational vision or direction, some employees, myself included, were “volun-told” to learn and “do” agile. This included purchasing a cheap backlog management tool and a couple of books on Kanban, Scrum or whatever else the program could afford. This was not a smooth, consistent organizational transformation, but we were making progress, right?

So, you’re saying there’s a chance

It was in this disjointed environment that the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) released its study on the beneficial practices and general challenges experienced by five federal projects, across multiple agencies, that attempted to implement agile methods. Aimed at helping others avoid, rather than repeat, past failures of fragmented implementation, this study revealed 10 effective practices and 14 challenges associated with adopting and applying agile in the federal environment (GAO, 2012). Maybe this whole agile thing has a chance after all!

More than a mere chance, there’s opportunity!

The GAO report included astute observations and recommendations around strategic planning, organizational commitment and collaboration, and agile preparation and execution. The lessons are as applicable today as the day they were written. Most importantly, the study pointed to a necessary paradigm shift away from team-level agility toward organizational agility. Six years later, many agencies have yet to embrace this shift.

For example, the report recommends “…being more agile rather than simply following agile methods and steps”—in other words, avoid agile theater. It also advises “identify(ing) measurable outcomes, not outputs, of what you want to achieve using agile.” Setting up an agile team or two may check some boxes, but creating an agile enterprise is the real mechanism to satisfy your mission.

6 years later, a lot has changed… or has it? 

In the six years since the release of this publicly-accessible report, I’ve worked with numerous senior executives in federal, state and local government agencies.

Sadly, I know first-hand that many influential leaders are unaware of the lessons that could help them embrace agile the right way, connecting strategy with execution, and delivering more value faster.

For example, I can’t count the number of senior managers who still believe agile doesn’t apply to them but is something others in an organization do. And, of course, every organization’s situation is “unique” and “special,” right?

To be fair, there has been some progress. Agile development has gone mainstream, and agile at scale is “a thing” now. Companies, certifications and federal case studies exist to prove it. In this way, agile in the government space is maturing. Except, for every glowing example of a unified agile program with a history of delivering value to its customers, so many more exist as frustrating proof that there are still countless barriers to overcome.


Repeat the right history

Whether you’re looking to be more competitive, “do more with less,” or whatever your agile motivation is, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of learning from others’ (or your own) history. You can easily avoid the well-worn agile adoption traps that countless others have succumbed to.


So, do yourself a favor, dust off or discover that electronic copy of the GAO report, and give yourself a head-start. I also encourage you to join me on October 9, for our webinar, Connect Strategic Planning to Agile Team Execution, to learn:


  • How daily visibility into the work can help steer the business
  • How teams can deliver value continuously
  • How to tie value to investments


Following the webinar on October 9, bring all your questions to our virtual discussion on October 17 titled Ask an Agile Expert: Let’s Talk Modern Business Management, where we’ll discuss all the questions you have in an open Q&A format.

Putting all the pieces together will help your highly-regulated organization reap the benefits of a strong organizational strategy connected directly into the teams that are doing the work.




Joseph Valeriano
Joseph Valeriano is a Principal Consultant with the CA Agile Management Business Unit and an…


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