Bringing Agile Inside

Feb 25, 2016

We hear a lot about agile software development being used in work with customers and end users. User stories are developed, coders and programmers turn them into prototypes, then testing is done to make sure the features work and do what is expected. But, agile is more than a way to develop software; it’s a mindset that favors iteration over knowing everything up front.

Loop iteration sprint illustrated as a street arrow.

So how can you have an agile mindset inside YOUR agency? At GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT), we have a process where employees “pitch” new ideas to a panel of judges for the chance to win funding and staffing.. It’s like the TV show Shark Tank — we call it The Great Pitch. Since agile favors responding to change over following a plan, we gather ideas and award funding every MONTH, instead of just in step with the yearly budget process.

OCSIT and 18F employees serve as the subject matter expert judges. They evaluate the ideas, give feedback, and present a go/no go decision to the funding team for final approval. The project proposals are judged on:

IMPACT: The potential impact of the proposed solution on citizen experience, open government, secure cloud or smarter IT delivery.

SCALABILITY: The potential scalability of the proposed solution across government.

PROBLEM UNDERSTANDING: The proposal’s understanding and explanation of the problem that needs to be solved.

CUSTOMER NEED: The proposal’s understanding of the customers that the project serves. Ideas are scored and grouped into 3 topics:

  1. Moving forward/being funded
  2. More information is needed, or the project needs to be re-scoped, or
  3. The project will not move forward or be funded
    Three rows of different colored paper sticky notes on a wall.

Some of the ideas that move forward are given a portion of their requested funding for discovery. In line with agile methodology, this allows a team to investigate the idea further for a short period of time (a sprint) before moving full steam ahead. This allows us to “fail fast” and not invest too much time and money in a product that is not needed. We average 10-12 ideas a month.

One of the projects funded through the Great Pitch process was the U.S. Web Design Standards. The standards are set of user interface components and visual style guide to help create consistency across all U.S. federal government websites. Federalist, another result of the pitch process, is a suite of tools designed to make it faster and cheaper for government agencies to build websites that are secure, responsive, and accessible. And the network effects go on from there. Services like Federalist are adopted, and past proposals that didn’t get funded initially honed in on a business model and now have paying clients.

At a recent event, I heard a USDA CIO say they have an Innovation Pool, similar to our Great Pitch process. HHS has an Idea Lab. So tell us, are you agile? Do you do something like this at your agency to engage employees and surface, fund and staff their ideas?