At the Agile2013 conference going on this week in Nashville, Abhi Nemani, the interim co-executive director at Code for America, delivered a keynote titled, “Coding for America: How Agile and Lean are disrupting government—and why they need to.” Nemani told conference attendees about how governments are adopting modern practices to reduce costs and improve services to their constituencies.
In an interview with SD Times, Nemani discussed how agile principles and methodologies are necessary inside government. “What I wanted to do in my talk was encourage the audience to think about how they could use their skills and their methodologies to make government work better,” he said. “I don’t know if you noticed this but the name of the conference’s subtitle is Practitioners Doing Work That Matters. And I said Doing Work That Matters for Government is the way I would edit that. I wanted to get people thinking about how to use their skills to make government work better. So that was my motivation.”
In his talk, Nemani said he described the money governments spend on software and IT, as a way to encourage technology workers to go into the public sector. “I don’t know if you know this, but government right now spends about US$140 billion on technology a year—federal, state and local,” he said. “And it’s projected to go up to US$172 billion. To put that in context, the iOS market—so, apps for your iPhone—is US$2 billion and the video game market—Nintendo, Gameboy, etc.—is US$10 billion. So, government technology is an order of magnitude larger than almost any other popular consumer market that we can think of. And so, normally, we talked before about using those as motivations for why engineers should think about government technology.”
But Nemani said that what he wanted to do with the agile crowd was to appeal to the motivation behind agile and the core principles that they follow, that they’ve adopted. And in a nice parallel, he discussed a group in the UK called the Government Digital Service (GDS). “They’re like the hub for digital innovation for the UK government,” he explained. “They’ve done remarkable work; they are leaders in this space internationally. And what they’ve said is, ‘We believe that the interfaces to government should be beautiful and simple and user-centric.’ They’ve taken website after website of the UK government and integrated them into this beautiful platform called gov.uk. And it really made a big impact there.”
When the GDS got started, Nemani said they articulated a set of 10 principles that they’ve identified. “It’s things like: start with needs, design with data, build for inclusion, so kind of like principles that apply directly to the agile community in the way that most user-centered design in the technology industry does now,” he said. “And so, what I wanted to do in my talk was explain how those principles really map to the agile principles—that there’s already a body-soul alignment between the agile community and the people who are doing innovative work in government. This is really an opportunity for them to bring their principles to bear on a really important area that affects all of us: government affects all of us.”
Nemani said how, if you look at GDS’s principles, there’s almost a one-to-one mapping between theirs and the 12 agile principles that are listed on the Agile Alliance’s website; that there’s a lot of overlap between what’s really at the core of the Agile Manifesto and at the core of GDS’s principles, which he said makes sense. “It makes sense because the agile community, GDS, and a lot of the other people thinking about government innovation are thinking about user-centered design,” he said. “They’re thinking about the user experience for government software and realizing that that matters. They’re realizing that the way in which we build software for users in the government context matters. The point I wanted to make by calling out the GDS as a really effective model is that there’s a reason to have optimism. There’s a reason to hope, because we’re seeing change happen.”