How Agile Development Can Benefit Federal Projects

Jan 4, 2016

Agile methods help agencies deliver projects and products more efficiently and effectively. The benefits aren’t limited to deliverables: Going agile can break down the silos that exist between and within agencies. And collaboration doesn’t need to end at the federal level—agile projects done in the open provide a way for the public to contribute to government initiatives.

A word cloud of Agile Scrum concepts


Transitioning to agile development has benefited Open Opportunities, a platform that helps agencies tap into federal expertise and provides professional development opportunities to federal employees.

The platform first launched in May 2013 using a WordPress-based system. In August 2014, 18F was hired to work on the project, and 18F team members began customizing a crowdsourcing platform developed by the Department of State using open, agile methods.

Not only has going open and agile helped stimulate innovation on the platform, it has expedited feature development, reduced development costs and provided a path for the public to get involved.

First Things First: Determine Project Goals

Lisa Nelson, program manager for Open Opportunities, leads the program development of Open Opportunities, and Sarah Allen, a designer for 18F, leads software development. While the two sides have different day-to-day tasks, they are both working towards a singular goal: creating and supporting a network of innovators who hone skills and gain interagency experience. Getting aligned on goals was a critical first step in the collaboration, Allen said.

“At first, I thought the goal was task taking, and then I realized Lisa saw it as a professional development program and a way to build a communication network,” Allen said. “We were building something not even present in the software. Getting aligned on goals is super important; the software has certain needs, the design has certain needs, but we are all working together. Government can get so stuck because of management structure, but this is a model that can unstick that.”

Communication, Not Coding, is Key

Allen said communication is the most important factor in a successful agile project.

“A lot of our rituals are about how we can effectively communicate in a way that is constant, always updating people, and keeping them unblocked,” Allen said. “One of the things we’ve done in a very disciplined way with Open Opportunities is have our road maps be public. All of our artifacts conveying what we’ve been doing are public.”

Using agile, open methods also allows for easier program expansion. When an agency approached the Open Opportunities team with an interest in using the platform for rotational details, they had already reviewed the road map and other critical documentation.

“It saves rigamarole around two agencies working together,” Allen said. “When an agency is interested in collaborating, the usual process becomes ‘we have a meeting, we exchange docs, we have another meeting to exchange questions’; you have to have a series of meetings. With agile, you don’t need to have the pre-meeting because the documents are open and available.”

“Scrub in, Help and Leave”

Doing agile development in the open expands the possibilities for collaboration: Over 40 contributions have been made by people outside of GSA. Having a structured experience for people to contribute also leads to more consistent contributions.

“I don’t think you can have open source contributions near our velocity without agile development,” said David Cole, a developer for 18F. “It allows people to plug in, contribute and then pull out if they are busy. It also helps us go through the project cycle quicker. We go through it in two to four weeks, rather than months.”

In traditional waterfall methods, it’s hard for interested contributors to figure out how they can work on a project, Cole said. By posting all of the project’s artifacts on Github, including the project road map, contributors can see where the project is going and how their efforts fit into the work stream.

This article is the first in a two part series of how open, agile development has benefitted the Open Opportunities platform. In the next article, DigitalGov will delve into the view from the outside: how and why people outside of government got involved in contributing to Open Opportunities, and the keys to a good experience for those contributors.

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Originally posted by Ashley Wichman on Jan 4, 2016
Jan 4, 2016