When agile development is change management in disguise

The current and former heads of 18F agree that when it comes to digital services, the tech is often secondary at best.

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The secret power of agile development for federal agencies' citizen-facing services and capabilities isn't so much getting projects done more efficiently and possibly saving money, according Environmental Protection Agency CTO Greg Godbout. It's really about seeding the government with new ideas that will take hold and steer it in a new direction for planning and acquisition and ultimately serve the public's needs, he said.

"The secret isn't agile and adoption," said Godbout, who was the first executive director of the General Services Administration's 18F innovation lab before moving to EPA. It's about the ability to learn more flexible ways to handle the ever-quickening march of technology.

Aaron Snow, another co-founder of 18F who succeeded Godbout as executive director, agreed. 18F, he said, is "really a change management office disguised as a digital services office."

"It can be hard to ask change managers for help," Snow said -- there's a sense of stigma or change that such a request means an agency has been "doing it wrong." But "it's easy to ask computer people for help," he said.

Godbout and Snow both made their remarks at FCW's March 2 Citizen Engagement Summit in Washington, Godbout, who opened the event with a wide-ranging discussion with his boss, EPA CIO Ann Dunkin, urged attendees to "embrace early adopters" who have seen the results of agile development projects first hand. Those adopters, who may drawn on 18F or the U.S. Digital Service, "can replicate our results on their own," he said, and pave the way for still more adoption.

The push for agile is sometimes met with resistance that gives way once their results are experienced first-hand, Godbout said. Some managers can be "upset because someone is in their territory," he said, but "they eventually come around."

Snow, meanwhile, said implanting agile expertise in agencies is at the heart of his group's work, not so much doing all the heavy lifting of development work.

GSA's recent announcement, that 18F plans to expand its consulting and acquisition services to help federal agencies that provide grants to state and local programs, falls in line with that, he told FCW. The announcement isn't about 18F building a system for those agencies, he stressed -- it's about helping those agencies discern what they need, and possibly helping them draft a competitive agile request for proposal or work statement.

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