Agile innovation management in government: A research agenda
Ines Mergel Dr.
University of Konstanz, Germany
Received 16 July 2016
Received in revised form 19 July 2016
Accepted 19 July 2016
Available online xxxx
Governments are facing an information technology upgrade and legacy problem: outdated systems and acquisi-
tion processes are resulting in high-risk technology projects that are either over budget or behind schedule. Re-
cent catastrophic technology failures, such as the failed launch of the politically contested online marketplace
Healthcare.gov in the U.S. were attributed to an overreliance on external technology contractors and failures to
manage large-scale technology contracts in government. As a response,agile software development and modular
acquisition approaches, new independentorganizational units equippedwith fast reactingteams, in combination
with a series of policy changes are developed to address the need to innovate digital service delivery in govern-
ment. This article uses a process tracing approach, as well as initial qualitative interviews with a subset of exec-
utives and agency-level digital services members to provide an overview of the existing policies and
implementation approaches toward an agile innovation management approach. The article then provides a re-
search framework including research questions that provide guidance for future research on the managerialim-
plementation considerations necessary to scale up the initial efforts and move toward a collaborative and agile
innovation management approach in government.
© 2016 Published by Elsevier Inc.
Digital service delivery
Previous waves of digital innovation managementwere closely con-
nected to fads and fashions in public management. The New Public
Management era for example brought about disaggregation, competi-
tion, and incentives to outsource digital service delivery and reduced
skills and capacities in government (Dunleavy, Margetts, Bastow, &
Tinkler, 2005). The result is that contract managers in government are
oftentimes following a performance-based acquisition process that
aims to anticipate the ﬁnal software products within a rigid framework
of contract fulﬁllment obligations. These IT acquisition norms led to in-
creased complexities, delays or even failed delivery of digital services
(Anthopoulos, Reddick, Giannakidou, & Mavridis, 2016): as an example
the U.S. Healthcare.gov virtual marketplace to sell mandatory health in-
surance coverage to citizens failed to launch and had to be rescued by a
team of Google engineers in an emergency turn-around that costseveral
100 million dollars over the initially contracted price. As a result, practi-
tioners and researchers are now calling for adaptive (Janssen & van der
Voort, 2016), anticipatory (Bertot, Estevez, & Janowski, 2016), and agile
(Balter, 2011; Margetts & Dunleavy, 2013) approaches to reintegrate
digital service delivery with a holistic focus on human- and client-cen-
tered design delivered through shorter development cycles.
Agile innovation management is introduced here as an umbrella
term that describes a set of project management and software
development processes, adjusted procurement procedures, combined
with HR policies, and organizational and managerial approaches to sup-
port innovative digital service delivery in government. Innovation in
government software development are created by using an agile soft-
ware development approach adopted fromprivate sector and especially
IT sector organizationsthat are involved in creating software projects on
a shortened project management life cycle. In comparison to the tradi-
tional waterfall project management approach in which each phase se-
quentially follows the previous phase, an agile approach focuses on
shorter development phases and radical collaboration with the client
in each phase. Subprojects and results are presented and tested imme-
diately and not delayed until the ﬁnal product is presented at the end
of the fully completed contract. The method evolved as part of a ‘new
product management’approach in Japan and was subsequently
adopted by the IT industry (Takeuchi & Nonaka, 1986).
Recent developments have shown that government agencies are
implementing similar approaches in order to update large-scale legacy
system and adapt to environmental changes and citizen requests faster.
Driven by negative experiences, the overrelianceon external IT contrac-
tors, and management oversight failures, the current administration
took the introduction of HealthCare.gov as a stepping stone to introduce
agile development processes. In 2013, HealthCare.gov was initiated by a
top-down Presidential mandate to create an online marketplace that
brings together insurance providers offering health insurance to indi-
vidual citizens based on the income, family status, and location of
their residence by state. The implementation was a massive IT failure
that included over 50 subcontractors and IT spending of over $800
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Please cite this article as: Mergel, I., Agile innovation management in government: A research agenda, Government Information Quarterly (2016),
million (see for example Christy, 2016). The contractors and those re-
sponsible at the Department of Health and Human Services never con-
ducted test runs with a subset of user groups, instead the decision was
to go live on the day of the reveal of the platform. For the administration
this was the ﬁrst time they saw the platform running after months of
development. Similarly other high-risk IT projects fail in government:
94% of IT projects in theU.S. federal government are over budget and be-
hind schedule and 40% are never ﬁnished (Torgovnick, 2016).
The traditional waterfall software development methods in the cur-
rent acquisition paradigm of government contracting is highly
intransparent and dissatisfying both for government clients who do not
receive the expected products, as well as for contractors who are tied to
the existing acquisition and contracting rules to deliver what is deﬁned
in incomplete IT contracts. As Read (2016) in a recent TechInsider post
said: “Government workers tend not to invite the customers to see the sau-
sage being made, but wait until the silver platter is ready”.
The data collected for this study were informed by an initial litera-
ture review of mostly the computer science literature to derive the
core concept of agile software development and to contrast it to tradi-
tional development methods. This distinction drawn in the literature
as well as in government policies, guidance documents, and reports
were then used to inform a semi-structured interview outline for gov-
ernment ofﬁcials in the U.S. federal government (Drever, 1995). The in-
terview partners included eight top managers of the central digital
transformation team located in the General Services Administration
(GSA) responsible for replicating practices across the federal govern-
ment and representatives of ﬁve different federal departments in the
U.S. government which have already started to apply agile innovation
management approaches. The selection includes one case only –the
U.S. federal government –mainly because the case is well-documented
by government technology media articles, but also because each agency
faces similar contextual opportunities and constraints (Strauss & Corbin,
1998). Other governments, such as the United Kingdom or the Nether-
lands have gained similar experiences and more research is needed to
understand each case in depth. The interviews, document search and
tracing, as well as the existing literature were then used to draw initial
conclusions about the concept of agile innovation management.
This article ﬁrst reviews the development of agile approaches, the
underlying principles, the components of an agile development process
in contrast to a traditional waterfall project management approach pre-
ferred by IT contractors, and then highlights the beneﬁts and challenges
of agile development in government. The article then presents insights
from a processtracing approach (Collier, 2011) and initial qua litative in-
terviews and presents a two-layered research framework using agile
principles for the implementation of agile innovation management
based on the insights of the U.S. federal government case. Agile innova-
tion management is presented here as a comprehensive framework that
highlights how agile methods also need policy and management chang-
es in order to contribute to government innovations. Finally, the article
ends with a set of open research questions that need empirical evidence
to understand the concept of agile government, acquisition processes,
cultural changes, as well as HR and training needs.
2. Agile development process: from sequential to overlapping soft-
The development, management, and operation of IT projects in gov-
ernment traditionally follow a waterfall approach: tackling one piece of
the development phase at a time and providing the ﬁnal product to the
buyer. This is largely attributed to the current acquisition procedures
and contracting practices. Recently, more and more agile development
approaches that are well-established in the private sector have been
moved into government operations, challenging project management,
acquisition rules and standards, as well as the culture of project teams
and contract managers. In the following, a brief overview of these two
different approaches is provided.
2.1. Traditional software development process: sequential, waterfall soft-
Most IT contracts and internal modes of software development in
the public sector use a sequential process, in which one phase has to
be completed before the team is allowed to progress to the next
phase. This progression “ﬂows from top to bottom, like a cascading wa-
terfall”and is therefore called the waterfall development method
(Royce, 1970). The core belief here is that by ﬁnishing each phase and
eliminating any possible mistakes for this phase, future phases won't
be impacted by mistakes and the project team won't lose time and
money by going back to ﬁx the mistakes.
The downside is that contract managers and developers must have a
fully developed plan before they write a request for proposals, sign a
contract, and start work on the ﬁnal product. The reality in government
is however, that IT professionals and contract managers don't have all
the ﬁnal details available to deﬁne and specify the details of a contract.
This circumstance oftentimes leads to contract add-ons or extensions to
accommodate for changing internal needs or to ﬁll in the gaps that exist
at the beginning of the request for proposals phase.
Given the ﬁxed structure of IT contracts in government, risk-aver-
sion to veer outside the contractual obligations and oftentimes unfore-
seen adjustments, government organizations tend to follow initial
rigid contractual structure (Balter, 2011). Project phases are predeﬁned
with deadlines and deliverables that are tied to payments and leave lit-
tle room for ﬂuid adjustments that might be necessary to ﬁt in initial
omissions or client changes along the development process. As a result,
waterfall methods are criticized for their rigidity, inﬂexibility, and lack
of communication with the clients and users during the development
process. They tend to ﬁll the contract requirements and support risk-
averse approaches of government contract managers, but mightnot sat-
isfy the users, clients, or government employees who have to use the
ﬁnal product to support the mission of their organization (GAO,
2012). At the end, waterfall methods are not able to respond to changes
in the environment that are destined to happen, especially in large-
scale, long-term delivery contracts. As a result, expensive follow-up ser-
vice contracts have to be signed to manage required changes and re-
spond to the actual user requirements. A waterfall process shown in
the following ﬁgure therefore favors theﬁnal product and contract com-
pliance over users' needs and actual use of the ﬁnal product (Fig. 1):
A major disadvantage of a waterfall development approach is that
while the project team works through each phase, it can never respond
to changingneeds and requirements and never knows the true progress
or ﬁnal outcomes. Only at the end –atwhat are usually mega launches –
the software might fail and problems are not known until the end. The
customer or contract owner is only invited to get involved in testing
the ﬁnal product at the end of the development process. Evaluations
of the project status do not occur until the very end.
2.2. The alternative: agile, overlapping development
While the step-wise process initially made sense, Royce (1970) stat-
ed already in 1970 that it is “risky and invites failure”. He continues to
Fig. 1. Waterfall development process.
2I. Mergel / Government Information Quarterly xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
Please cite this article as: Mergel, I., Agile innovation management in government: A research agenda, Government Information Quarterly (2016),
explain: “The testing phase whichoccurs at the end of the development
cycle is the ﬁrst event for which timing, storage, input/output transfers,
etc., are experienced as distinguished from analyzed.”(Royce
1970:329). The reality in government is that there are continuously
changing developments and developers cannot assume that agencies,
especially non-IT contract managers, are able to adequately predict
the speciﬁcations of large-scale IT projects. This is animmense challenge
for the acquisition process and the way vendors and contractors who
win a bid are then tied to the process and predeﬁned outcomes.
In contrast to waterfall development methods, agile development is
a method that involves creating, testing, and improving technology
products incrementally, instead of waiting for the foolproof delivery
by the end of the contract period in a traditional IT contracting agree-
ment. Agile methods were ﬁrst introduced outside the IT industry, but
are mostly known for its advances in software development: the phys-
icist and statistician Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs began applying Plan-
Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to the improvement of products and pro-
cesses (Goldman & Preiss, 1994). His approach constitutes the ﬁrst iter-
ative and incremental development approach to rapidly respond to
changes and actual ﬁndings in the development process.
In 1986, Takeuchi and Nonaka introduced a team-oriented approach
to bring products to market faster and called it the “rugby”approach
“where a team tries to go the whole distance as a unit, passing the ball
back and forth”(Rigby, Sutherland, & Takeuchi, 2016b;Takeuchi &
Nonaka, 1986). They started to consider large software development
projects as multiple independent tasks. Takeuchi and Nonaka (1986)
called their iterative and incremental agile software development
framework the scrum method: small, self-organizing, adaptive teams
that are tasked with solving complex problems using overlapping de-
velopment phases. The tasks are broken down into small, manageable
modules and use the short development cycles, hold brief daily
“stand-up”meetings to review progress and identify roadblocks that
might prevent them from moving forward. In addition, progress is visu-
alized in a process management system called Kanban, that helps teams
to reduce lead times and the amount of work in process. In the mean-
time, these principles are also included in the agile development mani-
festo (Agile Manifesto, 2001).
The starting point for an agile developmentprocessis qualitative re-
search conducted by the project team to understand what the needs of
the clients are. Clients in government canbe agencies and contract man-
agers themselves, or external clients, such as partners or citizens who
will use the ﬁnal product. These user stories are collected using the lan-
guage of the clients to avoid misconception or translation mistakes with
the hope that using language that is known and familiar to the client
will ultimately make it easier for them to use the ﬁnal product and easily
integrate it into their day-to-day use. An important principle ofagile de-
velopment processes is to be able to react to changes that are initiated to
the changing requirements from clients, or as Cockburn (2002, 10) puts
it, it is “a declaration of prioritizing for project management vulnerabil-
ity with respect to shifting requirements, shifting technology, and a
shifting understanding the situation.”
The agile development method follows so-called ‘sprint cycles’so
that the development teams by design fail often and early, instead of
failing catastrophically and wasting taxpayer money as seen with the
U.S. online marketplace for sale of health insurances, Healthcare.gov.
The iterations –or sprints –are following the traditional waterfall in
each segment, but usually take between 1 and 8 weeks for each seg-
ment, and projects lasts no longer than six months. Similar to project
teams in the IT industry, this approach follows the motto: ‘fail fast,
early, and often’with small prototypes that rapidly prove (or disprove)
an idea before much is invested (Leetaru, 2016). The initial plan serves
as guidance, but the plans are revised after each iteration and the devel-
opment output is demonstrated to the client and other stakeholders.
This early evaluation phase reveals which requirements may not have
been fully addressed and can be added as a work package for the next
sprint. One important characteristic of an agile approach is therefore
radical collaboration: clients are working closely with IT engineers and
Another important characteristic of an agile approach is continuous
delivery of output to the clients (Agile Manifesto, 2001;Martin, 2003):
the ﬂuid involvement of the client in the development process allows
for continuous feedback and improvement in all stages of the process.
This requires an increased time commitment by the client –be it a gov-
ernment agency's representatives or the citizens. These agile character-
istics shift practices and values: the value is not generated by delivering
aﬁnal product that fulﬁlls the initial RFP or contract. Instead, value is
created by putting the client at the center of the project and delivering
aﬁnal product that beneﬁts the client and creates value for the public.
Similar modular software development approaches include rapid or spi-
ral development as alternatives to waterfall methods. Here –as deﬁned
by the case selected –I focus on agile approaches only.
The following ﬁgure shows the iterative sprint cycles as part of the
overall development process (Fig. 2):
Rigby, Sutherland, and Takeuchi (2016a) note that agile methods
can be best applied in contexts with complex problems when the ﬁnal
solution might not be predictable or is initially unknown to both clients
and developers –especially environments like government. They also
note, that agile methods need training and potentially behavioral
change, not just in the use of new technologies and approaches, but
also in terms of attitudes toward contracting and involvement of clients
and developers in project teams (Agile Manifesto, 2001).
Using an agile approach supports more adaptive governance ap-
proaches as promoted by Janssen and van der Voort (2016): instead of
predicting and prescribing the outcomes, an adaptive government can
use agile methods to increase its ﬂexibility in responding to changes
and might in the process even deliver less costly innovations in govern-
ment. However only using agile software development approaches is
not enough to fundamentally change how government can tackle the
update and legacy problems it faces. Instead, a multi-layered approach
is needed that goes beyond the development approach. In the following,
based on the case of the U.S. federal government a comprehensive agile
innovation management approach is outlined.
3. Implementing agile innovation managementpractices: the case of
the U.S. federal government
Tracing the process of agile innovation management in the U.S. federal
government is relatively difﬁcult, because there is no ofﬁcial mandate for
a comprehensive strategy at this point. Individual agencies are making
progress using initial guidance from the Ofﬁce of Management and Bud-
get (OMB) to adapt their IT acquisition practices or collaborate with the
General Service Administration's technology transformation service
to get advice on how to use agile methods. Agencies were asked to
submit conﬁdential budgets that are not publicly available to outline the
need for resources to invest in agile innovation management practices.
In the following, Collier's (2011) approach is used to trace the process
through which government documents has encouraged agencies to ex-
periment with agile methodologies and improve their acquisition prac-
tices. The goal is to make causal observations by combing document
reviews with empirical evidence from initial qualitative interviews.
A recent GAO report (2015) has criticized the existing standard op-
erating procedures for IT acquisition: “Federal investments in informa-
tion technology (IT) have often resulted in multimillion dollar cost
overrunsand years-long schedule delays, with questionable mission-re-
lated achievements.”A case in point is the HealthCare.gov implementa-
tion disaster. GAO (2014) has attributed the failure of the IT platform to
The agency name 18F is derived from its location at 18th and F Street in Washington,
3I. Mergel / Government Information Quarterly xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
Please cite this article as: Mergel, I., Agile innovation management in government: A research agenda, Government Information Quarterly (2016),
mistakes in contract planning and lack of oversight practices among the
responsible Department of Health and Human Service's IT staff.
The Ofﬁce of Management and Budget (OMB) has instructed federal
departments and agencies to usepart of their IT budgetto set up digital
service teams modeled after the U.S. Digital Service team –a quick re-
sponse team located in the White House that helped with the recovery
of HealthCare.gov.This shift in moving resources toward improving cus-
tomer-centric service delivery follows the 2011 Executive Order 13571
(The White House, 2011) and OBM's implementation instructions
(Ofﬁce of Management and Budget, 2011), the 2012 White House' Dig-
ital Strategy (The White House, 2012b), and the Presidential Memoran-
dum instructing the federal government to work toward‘Building a 21st
Century Digital Government’(The White House, 2012c).
In 2014, the WhiteHouse established the U.S. Digital Services team –
a quick response team of IT engineers recruited from the private sector
to help with Presidential priority IT projects - and the General Services
Administration's 18F software development teams. Engineers are re-
cruited from technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Goo-
gle, Microsoft, or Amazon. The so-called ‘digital swat teams’of USDS
and 18F are paired with public servants using agile software develop-
ment methods to collaboratively work on high-priority projects, such
as the digitization of the U.S. immigration service forms which are still
mostly paper-based, or the Department of Veterans' Affairs' education
and health service delivery processes.
In addition, the introduction of the Presidential Innovation Fellow pro-
gram (The White House, 2015) - an HR instrument that allows “Tour of
Duty”appointments - are creating opportunities to move external talent
from the private sector into government for short periods of time to con-
duct speciﬁc tasks and then return to their previous positions.
Similar to the UK and soon the Italian government (Amazon.com,
2016;UK.gov, 2016), the U.S. federal government as explicitly adopted
an agile government approach in 2012 (The White House, 2012b,
2011). The Obama budget 2016 includes $106 million to “scale and in-
stitutionalize”the still-new U.S. Digital Service by creating similar agen-
cy-level digital teams within the largest 25 federal agencies. In some
pockets of the U.S. federal government, especially in defense and intel-
ligence agencies, agile methods have been tried and proven to be effec-
tive ways to improve software development processes. For example, the
U.S. Army has created simulation programs using both agile and tradi-
tional methods (Surdu & Parsons, 2006). The Federal Bureau of Investi-
gation (FBI) has worked with its contractor Lockheed Martin on the
Sentinel project to create a case management software to change how
the Bureau gathers, stores, and links data (Fulgham, Johnson, Crandall,
Jackson, & Burrows, 2011). Especially the upfront deﬁnition of require-
ments as part of the standard development process is considered as in-
efﬁcient and ineffective and oftentimes takes years (The White House,
2012a), so that the project team evaluated the existing software devel-
opment methodologies and moved to sprint cycles including outside
stakeholders in the process and more effectively managed risks, costs,
and outcomes. Small teams of a manageable size (up to 15 team mem-
bers) are set up to create collaborations between FBI employees and
government contractors. These teams are using iterative development
within the scrum project management framework: iterative develop-
ment ‘sprints’, each sprint involves the completion of a small set of
tasks in two week cycles, reducing the risk of large scale failure.
At the Department of Defense, the term agile is used as an umbrella
term for many different iterative development processes, including
Scrum, Lean Development, or extreme programming (XP) (Broadus,
2013). Agile methods are included into contract documents as detailed
in the 2010 Defense Acquisition Bill (2010) (Sutherland, 2012), howev-
er DoD ofﬁcials experienced that for example technical documentations
were missing at critical design reviews and therefore recommends to
invest more in training contract managers and contractors in agile prac-
tices (Lapham, 2012). In a recent speech, the Secretary of Defense Carter
highlighted the urgency to become more agile as a whole enterprise:
“DOD doesn't have many effective ways to harness promising technolo-
gies they come up with. We need to ﬁx that. I don't want us to lose out
on an innovative idea or capability we need because the Pentagon bu-
reaucracy was too slow to fund something, or we weren't amenable to
working with as many startups as we could be.”(U.S. DoD, 2015).
In addition to these ﬁrst experiments, 18F has identiﬁed the need for
an increased knowledge and expertise among their federal clients to
change the government's IT acquisition practices. They are working to-
ward improving acquisition and contract ofﬁcers ability to know what
to do and questions to ask at their next acquisition negation with con-
tractors (Christy, 2016). Contractors have to agree the open source ap-
proaches, so that source code can be reused across the government.
4. Building blocks of an agile innovation management approach
The agile innovation management framework as observed in the U.S.
federal government can be divided into two layers: the ﬁrst layer –or
the basis of the framework –includes foundational policies that need to
be adapted in order to shift once learned behavior and practices toward
an agile practice. The second layer is the management layer that includes
management activities focused on innovative processes, and leadership
activities focused on providing cover for all the management activities.
4.1. Base layer: policies
The base layer includes innovative HR policies.In the case of the U.S.
federal government only one major HR policy change was introduced
Fig. 2. Agile sprint cycles.
4I. Mergel / Government Information Quarterly xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
during the eight-year presidency of President Obama. He created a new
program that is called the Preside ntial Innovation Fellows Progra m (The
White House, 2015). Under the umbrella of this program, IT talents
were recruited “skilled in technology or innovative practices to serve
in the Federal Government to work on some of the Nation's biggest
and most pressing challenges.”Among the recruits the Executive
Order speciﬁed thatexecutives, innovators, or successful entrepreneurs
were asked to conduct a so-called “Tour of Duty”and spend short term
stay in the federal government in order to create “meaningful solutions
that can help save lives and taxpayer money, fuel job creation, and sig-
niﬁcantly improve how the Federal Government serves the American
people.”These time-limited appointments are meant as an incentive
to brieﬂy serve the country and especially infuse the federal govern-
ment with skills and practices from the private sector. In practice, sever-
al of the PIFs (Presidential Innovation Fellows) extend their stays to
ﬁnish their projects beyond the initial six months' time period or even
moved into permanent positions in government.
The second type of policies focuses on updated acquisition policies
that allow agencies to use agile methodologies when they write Request
for proposals from vendors. As Mark Schwartz, Chief Information Ofﬁcer
of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services publicly stated, it is im-
portant for the government to “Buy competent teams, rather than buying
a product.”(Read, 2016). Using Agile BPAs (Blanket Purchase Agree-
ments), vendors, who were already preapproved on the agencies sched-
ules, have to showcase prototypes of their ﬁnal products and agree to
deliver their products using agile methodologies with sprint cycles.
Agile BPAs were introduced using the Ofﬁce of Management and Budget's
Modular Contracting Guidance (GAO, 2012;The White House, 2012a).
Under this framework the expectation is that government agencies invest
in smaller projects and increments and open opportunities for small busi-
nesses to compete for government contracts. This will reduce the risk ex-
posure and avoid sunk costs of “grand design”projects.
4.2. Management layer: process management and leadership
The management layer of the agile innovation management frame-
work includes process management and agile leadership –as the um-
brella to facilitate all other activities in the framework.
First, theprocess layer includes a strict application of agile methodol-
ogies. An important ﬁrst step is research. The client's real underlying
needs are researched using qualitative exploration methods with
focus groups, end-users, and agency staff to understand what products
or processes are actually needed. This user- or human-centered design
approach steps away from contract management requirements and
pushes the end-users of the projects into the focus. They deﬁne what
products they need and which processes they will actually use. As
Robert Read (2016), 18F co-founder and 18F consulting founder sug-
gests, agile teams need to ask only open-ended questions rather than
metric survey questions. The research team uses A/B testing, surveys
of at most nine users, and in-person interviews. After that a prototype
is quickly built and as part of the ﬁrst sprint cycle, developers and agen-
cy partners improve the product iteratively and then test publicly in a
so-called “moment-of-truth”phase. Lastly, the fully developed product
becomes operational for all end users.
18F teams up with other agencies using their ﬁve business lines: 1)
develop and build custom products for agencies, 2) develop innovative
ways to buy technology, 3) provide platforms that departments and
agencies can use, 4) consulting services to agencies to implement their
own digital services teams, and 5) provide training in modern digital
services techniques. One support function is to provide contract writing
support. This so-called “RFP ghost-writing”advice helps agency-level
contract managers understand how to include agile methods into RFPs
and how to identify suitable vendors and contracts. In case agencies de-
cide to use 18F's services to build new software, inter-agency agree-
ments are signed on a fee-for-service basis.
At the top of the management layer, agile government leadership is
necessary to provide so-called “air cover”for all activities from the
top. Beyond strategic planning activities, leadership is responsible for
the integration of the digital services teams, software developers, and
agency-level staff. The expectation is to create hyper transparency in
order to promote values and processes, support policies, provide sup-
port for teams to experiment with new methods, or outreach. Moreover,
leadership is necessary to protect the team culture and provide incen-
tives for external IT talents. The following ﬁgure summarizes the policy
and management layer of the agile innovation management framework
Fig. 3. Agile innovation management building blocks.
5I. Mergel / Government Information Quarterly xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
5. Discussion and future research
Building on previous approaches, such as Janssen and van der
Voort's (2016) suggestions for an adaptive government, agile innova-
tion management can be considered as a value framework for the over-
all enterprise of government. It goes beyond the project- or process-
based viewpoint and therefore needs to evolve around a set of princi-
ples that not only focus on the software development process.
An agile innovation management framework needs to consider ase-
ries of agile innovation principles that have the potential to change how
government acquires or creates IT innovation itself. The main principle
is open by default: software is developed and delivered once –either
with the help of contractors who agree to use agile development
methods or built inhouse. The source code is then shared on social cod-
ing sites suchas Github so that other government agencies don't need to
replicate the efforts and a continuous improvement process contributes
to the de-siloing of government (Dunleavy & Margetts, 2015;Mergel,
The second principle is the need for an agile leadership approach.
While scholars and practitioners might be dismissing the importance
of leadership and management in the design implementation of innova-
tion, in risk-averse government environments no action is taken with-
out explicit top-down conﬁrmation. An agile leadership approach
(Ryan & Ali, 2016) helps to change deep seated attitudes, values, and
habits of the hierarchical bureaucracy. Leadership workstoward cultur-
al changes that allow for open collaboration between contractors and
internal development teams and changes the perception that the only
safe approach to deliver is a complete plan. Agile leaders are responsible
for guiding a team to success even in situations where they are inexpe-
rienced in agile methods and introduces the culture of prototyping and
experimentation using shortened timelines that help to deliver results
faster. They also incorporate the possibilities to explore alternatives
and allow their teams to fail. The difference to risk-averse failing ap-
proachesis that failure in anexperimental design approach occursfaster
and errors can be eliminated faster –not a yearor two into the contract
delivery timeline. This procedural innovation creates a cultural change
from contract management to participatory and collaborative culture.
Agile leaders also have the ability to create an environment and the sup-
port for motivated contributors to trust the process and motivate them
to participate (Fowler & Highsmith, 2001).
The third design principle includes alternative contracting and
outsourcing approaches (GAO, 2013;USDS, 2015, 2016). Governments
are in the habit of ‘big designs up-front.’This is especially true in the
U.S. federal government that is driven by budget incentives as well as
existing rules and regulations. Firm ﬁxed-price contracts are considered
as the common contract type. Full speciﬁcations have to be agreed upon
upfront, even though most contract managers have little knowledge of
IT speciﬁcations and actual users of the output are not included in the
early design and speciﬁcation phases. Contractors then need to deliver
on the once agreed contract or suggest follow-up contracts. The beneﬁts
of a comprehensive agile innovation management approach is that cli-
ents, end users, contract managers, and contractors are included in the
contract speciﬁcation phase and leave enough room for adjustments
as they go through the implementation and delivery phases. With con-
tinuous iterations, small failures are quickly corrected and will lead to
successful outcomes earlier (Dullemond, van Gameren, & van
Solingen, 2009). The result is that government can create teams of intra-
preneurs or entrepreneurs (Schumpeter, 1949) who see government as
a start-up opportunity by stepping away from the standard operating
procedures of IT innovation and acquisition.
6. Future research on agile innovation management in government
Current research on agile innovation management in government is
lacking in the information management literature. Most research that is
contributed resides in the computer science ﬁeld and focuses on scrum
and agile methodologies, however there is limited research that pays at-
tention to the actual implementation challenges, innovative outcomes,
or transformation of digital services in government. The following
open research questions might help readers focus their own efforts to
contribute to the discipline and gain an understanding how govern-
ments can overcome their IT legacy problems, move away from stale
and risk-averse acquisition routinesthat might lead to delays in delivery
and push contractors to deliver over budget.
Innovative agile acquisition practices: innovative acquisition practices
are a learning experience for both –IT contractmanagers in government
as well as IT industry contractors. A recent congressional hearing
allowed lobbyist from the software development industry to state
their concerns, that some contractors might be left behind who are
not willing to offer agile methodologies or who are not willing to reveal
their source code for proprietary reasons (Committee on Oversight &
Government Reform, 2016). It is unclear at this point to what degree
the contracting industry is impacted by changing requirements of gov-
ernment. Additional research is needed to understand a) how agile
methodologies are changing the landscape of the IT software industry
and speciﬁcally vendors who have not offered agile methodologies so
far, and b) do these agile blanket purchasing agreements lead to cost
savings, more effective and efﬁcient IT contracting practices, and are
they truly contributing to increased user- and client-centric outcomes?
The principle ‘open by default’ties into the acquisition procedures
that force contractors to make their code open source, as well as the
sharing of software code (Crowston, Wei, Howison, & Wiggins, 2012).
Currently, in the U.S. case, the principles are followed, however there
is no ofﬁcial policy. A draft policy document is circulating with the re-
quest for comments and the intention of the White House was publicly
stated (Scott, 2016). So far there is little empirical evidence how open
source development can lead to sharing of resources or the reduction
of double work in government. Just because the source code is open
does not necessarily mean that agencies also see the value in it
(Raymonds, 1999). Does sharing of software code as seen for example
on Github (Mergel, 2015) truly lead to increased collaboration among
agencies contributing to the improvement of each others' code, to the
actual reuse of already existing code, and subsequently to reduced
spending of tax payer money? In addition, do existing open source pol-
icies lead to the expected change in acquisition procedures? Recently,
the U.S. federal government even unpublished its source code for the
problematic HealthCare.gov website (Jeffreis, 2013). Do vendors –and
governments - comply with the policies? As an example, a recent Con-
gressional Hearing of the Oversight Committee in the U.S. has shown
that the software industry is against open source development
(Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, 2016). How can gov-
ernment incentivize open sharing of source code instead of reinventing
the wheel with every request for proposals, signed contract or grant?
Some insights might be gleaned from other types of sharing services
outside the software development problem.
Another important effort focuses on scaling up practices and replicat-
ing lessons learned from the digital swat teams in the White House
across the U.S. federal government. As Boehm and Turner (2005:30)
point out: “on small, stand-alone projects agile practices are less bur-
densome and more in tune with the software industry's increasing
need for rapid development and coping with continuous change,”how-
ever, they also observe the “difﬁculty scaling up and integrating them
into traditional, top-down systems”. Especially in government, where
organizations are expending 80% of their budget on maintaining legacy
systems, it is unclear how agile innovation management practices can
be scaled up from the project level to transforming overall digital ap-
proaches for each agency and government as a whole. It is important
to understand how open by default practices can be adopted and imple-
mented in the current environment that is still extremely risk averse.
While there is evidence that projects that adhere to agile development
concepts were nearly twice as likely to deliver on time than those that
used the traditional “waterfall”development technique, it is still a
6I. Mergel / Government Information Quarterly xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
show-and-tell effort to convince agency leadership and especially IT
contracting managers to buy into the concepts. Future research can
focus on diffusion of agile practices, but also on comparative studies to
highlight the differences between a traditional contracting approach
and an agile innovation management approach.
The main challenge for government is the cultural change that needs
to go hand-in-hand with the procedural changes. The current notion of
‘small vs. big government’has shifted budget categories toward
contracting out and led to a reduction in IT talent that is located in gov-
ernment. Instead, contractors' and vendors' knowledge is moved from
the outside of the organization into government on a temporary basis,
but is again removed after a contract ends. How can government attract
IT talent from the private sector to serve? This is an important question
given the gap in salaries paid by the private sector and the limits to pay
out bonuses or create ﬂexible salary schemes. Once recruited,
“inculturating”especially Silicon Valley-type software engineers for
whom agile methods are the norm into a risk-averse contracting-out
environment is as Christy (2016) states a “big mind shift”for govern-
ment employees. A top-down commitment to openness and transpar-
ency by design is necessary to shift the internal paradigm, but also
many of the barriers and challenges of the current work environment
have to be adapted to allow for changes toward the start-up culture
that software engineers value in their industries. Here it is important
to understand new forms of prosocial public service motivation, that
goes beyond the intrinsic motivations to do good or contribute to the
public sector (Grant, 2007). Self-determination theories contradict the
traditional command-and-control environments in which government
bureaucracies are designed (Gagné & Deci, 2005). These theories
might go beyond the motivation to contribute to a public good as
most of the current literature on open source programmers suggests
(Blasc, Jung, & Lakhani, 2016;Budhathoki & Haythornthwaite, 2013).
It is therefore important to gain a deeper understanding how govern-
ment can attract and more importantly also retain IT talent that has
other attractive options outside the restricted environment of govern-
ment. What kind of policy and management changes are necessary to
accomplish these goals?
Agile public leadership is needed to initiate process changes from the
top, however it requires middle management support to empower and
showcase change that is possible when using an agile innovation man-
agement approach (Riby & Sutherland, 2016). Leadership is needed
when it comes to providing adequate coverage top down. This will
lighten the risk-aversion and will help managers to push through bar-
riers that have to do more with the practiced and proven approaches,
but are usually not even in the law or in any kind of other bureaucratic
norms (Ryan & Ali, 2016).It is necessary to change collaborative innova-
tion creation and sharing culture in government. As Shaikh (2016)
showed in a recent study, the adoption of open source software as the
standard approach in government is challenging: while it creates possi-
bilities of community development, sharing, and reuse in government,
there are also many barriers and clear policy changes are needed to
help government organizations to adopt an open source strategy. One
example, is the U.S. federal government's Federal Source Code draft pol-
icy document (Scott, 2016). This policy draft suggests that “new soft-
ware developed speciﬁcally for or by the Federal Government to be
made available for sharing and re-use across federal agencies.”Howev-
er, there is little evidence so far, that leadership across the federal gov-
ernment is in support and more research is needed to understand
how top-down policies with an agile-minded leadership can provide
adequate support for broad scale change initiatives.
Lastly, Presidential initiatives are prone to disappear when an ad-
ministration transitions to its successor. National priorities might shift,
budget cuts might move temporary ﬁnancial support from one priority
to a new project, and IT talent recruited by the former administration
might return to the private sector. While there are efforts to smoothly
transition innovative initiatives from one administration to another,
projects that are not institutionalized or are seen as pet projects of a
former President might not survive the transition. Future research
needs to address how the electoral cycle and shifting national priorities
affect the adoption of agile methodologies, how commitment to innova-
tion management persists, and whether risk-taking with government
technology decisions led to sustainable changes, such as the enactment
of acquisition policies and innovative HR policies.
Overall, agile innovation management is an approach that many dif-
ferent countries are attempting –with some governments in advanced
stages, others in early experimentation stage. Most of the topics listed
above are either not researched or in isolation. It is therefore important
for e-government and digital innovation researchers to conduct coun-
try-level studies, project studies, as well as human resources studies to
increase our understanding agile innovation management.
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Dr. Ines Mergel is full professor of public administration at the University of Konstanz,
Germany, where she teaches classes on government innovation management. Professor
Mergel received a Doctorof Business Administration andspent six years as a postdoctoral
fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. From 2008to 2016, she taught in the
Master of Public Administration Program at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citi-
zenship and Public Affairs. Her research focuses on technology management innovations
mostly in the U.S. federal government.
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