To Improve Customer Experience, Federal Agencies Should Adopt Agile Methods
With more and more executive mandates and legislation focused on improving customer experience, many in the federal government are finally realizing their old ways of working simply do not meet the needs of today’s fast-paced, ever-evolving digital landscape. Customers of government services expect the same quality of experiences as their other day-to-day digital interactions. Catching up will require federal agencies not only to change what they produce but how they produce it. To truly improve customer experience, federal agencies should adopt “agile” practices, a software development and project management methodology based on iterative, rapid, and continuous development.
Historically, federal agencies are hierarchical and bureaucratic, operating across functional siloes, from IT and policy to human resources and legal. This organizational structure paired with traditional approaches to software development results in several competing functional priorities shaping the product rather than the actual customers.
“Waterfall” is one of these traditional approaches federal agencies have used for decades that builds IT products across sequential, discrete phases. In waterfall, stakeholders define the software requirements far in advance of actual development, which frequently leads to misaligned expectations with the final product, as well as project disruptions and delays. While a waterfall approach may work for a large-scale infrastructure project, such as building a road, it is less suited to modern software development.
Agile is intentionally everything waterfall is not. Per the “Agile Manifesto,” the methodology’s core values emphasize interaction and open communication, working software, customer collaboration, and embracing change. These values are in direct contrast to waterfall practices, which often rely on restrictive processes and tools, burdensome documentation, complicated contract vehicles, and inflexible project plans.
Agile’s underlying principles underscore using small, interdisciplinary teams that are flexible, efficient, and focused on delivering workable digital products tailored to customer needs. For a federal agency, customers include employees as well as the citizens, individuals, businesses, and organizations that interact with the agency and receive its services.
Customer needs are embedded within every phase of agile as teams are structured to ensure the software continuously prioritizes customer experience, especially as external customers—such as citizens trying to pay their taxes or apply for health insurance—do not know or particularly care about an agency’s behind-the-scenes functional units.
Additionally, Agile teams are designed to be small, interdisciplinary, and independent. Digital products like websites are living things that frequently require updates and changes. The agile team structure accommodates continuous delivery that incorporates customer feedback loops. In this way, agile is particularly suited to government as it’s intended to develop software that best serves customer needs, even as those needs change over time.
There are several frameworks for implementing agile in practice, but the overarching principles are the same. For federal agencies, going agile is less about strictly adhering to the tenets of a particular framework and more about embracing the overarching mentality.
Importantly, agile is proven in the federal government, with agencies successfully implementing its principles to deliver high-quality, user-centered digital services. With the help of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), the federal government’s rotating tactical tech team that supports IT modernization efforts, the Treasury Department used agile methods to improve the federal government’s customer-facing payment system, Pay.gov. Similarly, the Department of Justice used agile project management to build a user-friendly Civil Rights Reporting Portal.
Finally, agencies have the tools and support to adopt agile. Both USDS and 18F, another team of technologists that help federal agencies with technical fixes and IT development, employ agile methods when working with federal agencies. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office published an agile assessment guide in 2020, a comprehensive document that shares best practices for how federal agencies can adopt agile.
Agile adoption will likely continue to meet resistance in government. The federal bureaucracy is old, entrenched, and complex, and it comes with a lot of operational baggage. But the proof is in the pudding. Agile projects have four times the success rate and one-third the failure rate compared to waterfall projects while simultaneously putting citizens at the center of product development. If agencies are serious about improving customer experience, it’s time they adopt agile methods.