In a time of unprecedented technological advances and global change, Federal leaders, managers, and front-line employees must not only be aware of the changes to work, workforce, and workplace, but must also be able to identify weak signals, anticipate trends, and plan for the inevitable changes.
—2022 Federal Workforce Priorities Report 
SAFe for Government
SAFe for Government is a set of success patterns that help public sector organizations achieve better solution development outcomes by implementing SAFe Lean-Agile values, mindset, principles, and practices.
The foundations of Lean and Agile thinking have led to higher success rates versus waterfall methods in software and systems development in the private sector. Government programs are starting to experience similar results using these same patterns. However, government agencies must address unique challenges in Lean-Agile transformations. The recommendations and best practices in SAFe for Government provide specific guidance to address these concerns.
The government-specific SAFe guidance is provided in the following series of nine articles:
- Building on a solid foundation of Lean-Agile values, principles, and practices
- Creating high-performing teams of teams of government and contractor personnel
- Aligning technology investments with agency strategy
- Transitioning from projects to a lean flow of epics
- Adopting Lean budgeting aligned to development value streams
- Applying Lean estimating and forecasting in cadence
- Modifying acquisition practices to enable Lean-Agile development and operations
- Building in quality and compliance
- Adapting governance practices to support agility and lean flow of value
The remainder of this summary article sets the context for why the principles and practices of Lean-Agile and SAFe are especially relevant for government agencies and provides a summary of each of the individual articles in the series.
Why SAFe for Government?
Lean-Agile and DevSecOps practices are gaining interest among the leaders responsible for the largest, most complex systems built for government worldwide. Much of that interest is driven by the internal and external forces changing how government agencies provide services to citizens, the government workforce, and warfighters. Governments are concerned with mission agility. While managing limited resources and funding is a concern, governments are not profit-driven but instead measure success as the value of impact that a solution provides. In this regard, governments resemble very large, complex non-profit organizations striving to run the business of operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. These imperatives drive:
- The need for business (mission) agility
- Impact of digital transformation
- The rise of social media and instant access to information about IT spending
- Increasing citizen expectations
- Technical debt and antiquated systems driving IT modernization initiatives
- Rapid changes in defense systems and the global cyber threat environment
- Fostering an Agile organization and growth mindset for the government workforce
Like for-profit organizations, the government is increasingly dependent upon technology. Yet, the traditional approaches to developing and sustaining solutions over the last 60 years have proven insufficient when developing modern technology-based capabilities. Agile practices have shown promise. However, the size and complexity of government systems, ranging from an unemployment benefits website for French citizens to large cyber-physical Sentinal missile systems, require more than team-level Agile and DevSecOps practices can provide.
Background of Agile Adoption in the U.S. Federal Government
Interest in Lean-Agile methodologies for government technology development programs has increased exponentially in the U.S. since 2022. In July of that year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report recommending specific practices for Agile development, along with 14 unique challenges to Agile adoption in government . That same year, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed agencies to change their procurement practices from bloated long-term projects to a more modular contracting approach aligned with an iterative development model . Although these were positive signs that the decades-old commitment to waterfall processes was relenting, agencies were still slow to adopt a different way of working. Figure 1 shows a timeline of the significant events that have driven Lean-Agile adoption in the U.S. federal government.
The troubled launch of the U.S. Healthcare.gov website in the latter part of 2013 increased the interest in adopting Agile almost overnight. This site allows citizens to obtain health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For weeks, the website’s initial difficulties were highlighted in the national news, exposing many weaknesses in the traditional development practices common to government technology programs . These events’ public focus on government IT programs drove increased openness to adopt more modern development practices. In an analysis of Agile adoption in the U.S. Federal Government published by Deloitte in 2017 , the percentage of federal IT projects that report using Agile or iterative processes has grown dramatically since 2012, as shown in Figure 2.
The increased interest in Lean, Agile, and DevOps accelerated when two new U.S. government agencies, 18F and U.S. Digital Service, were created to attract talent from industry to help bring modern, Silicon Valley-like practices to federal IT programs. The Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR Handbook were two early resources they provided to help leaders in government programs understand how to modernize development practices and adjust the acquisition process to support Agile contracts. The number of additional government-authored resources on Agile adoption has grown significantly, as has the number of published success stories of federal programs getting better results after their transformation to Lean-Agile practices. One agency, the Department of Homeland Security, has made Agile the formal standard for software development. In September 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its draft of The GAO Agile Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Agile Adoption and Implementation for government programs using Agile practices. Congress continues to direct increased training in Agile as well as authorizing the modernization of acquisition practices to support Agile through legislation such as the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Agile Adoption in the Global Governments
Similar trends are being experienced in systems development for state and local governments and governments in countries across the globe. The UK government has been engaged for several years in an Agile transformation effort that spans hundreds of Agile teams across its many departments and agencies. Pôle Emploi (French employment agency), the Dutch Tax Authority, and the Australian Post (postal service) are examples of global government agencies using SAFe to guide their transformations to Lean-Agile at scale. In the case of Pôle Emploi, their transformation has resulted in better on-time delivery of employment benefits and increased satisfaction with the agency’s services by both hiring businesses and job seekers.
Government as a Lean Enterprise
Increasingly, government agencies are challenged by the same forces of change driving their commercial counterparts to accelerate Lean-Agile transformations. The need for business (mission) agility, digital disruption, globalization, ever-increasing cyber threats, aging legacy systems, and increasing dependency on technology for business and mission success are just a few of the factors that are equally concerning for both government and industry.
The hallmark of a Lean Enterprise is the ability to deliver the best quality and value in the sustainably shortest lead time. SAFe provides guidance by describing the success patterns that help organizations achieve these competencies. The evidence provided by the many case studies of SAFe implementations in government agencies suggests that these competencies apply to public sector organizations in the same way they do in commercial enterprises.
How SAFe Enables Lean-Agile and DevOps in Government
“In 10 months’ time, we have turned a failing effort into a success story for the warfighter, for our organizational culture, and for the taxpayer. We could not have executed a turnaround this fast without SAFe …”
—Scott Keenan, JLVC Program Manager, Joint Staff (U.S. Department of Defense)
SAFe Adoption in Government is Growing
Many government technology programs are large and complex, involving hundreds (sometimes thousands) of practitioners. Solutions are built by multiple teams of teams that need to:
- Plan and work together
- Manage cross-team dependencies
- Integrate frequently
- Demonstrate working software and systems iteratively
- Share learning for relentless improvement
Often, these large solutions include small groups of government employees working closely with large numbers of contractor personnel. Multiple suppliers on different contracts may work on the same program across dispersed geographies. High assurance and compliance requirements, burdensome governance regulations, and abnormally long acquisition lead times further complicate government projects.
Most of these challenges are also common in large commercial organizations. Companies in the Global 1000 have used Lean-Agile to build core banking systems, satellites, farming combines, clinical and financial systems for health networks, and much more. For these organizations, SAFe has emerged as the leading Framework of practices for Lean-Agile at scale; the positive results have been documented in published case studies. Many government agencies have adopted SAFe as the process model for technology development for the same reasons as their commercial counterparts. Practitioners who have used SAFe in both contexts have reported that there are far more similarities in development between industry and government than differences. As shown in Figure 3, SAFe is now being used in hundreds of programs across a large number of government agencies.
The Government has Unique Challenges Along the Path to Lean-Agile Adoption
Despite the increased momentum toward Lean-Agile and using SAFe, several barriers delay widespread adoption. The most frequently cited challenges include:
- Poor implementations of Agile in the past created a reluctance to try again
- Waterfall-centric governance and lifecycle policies that are not easily changed
- An acquisition workforce that lacks experience with Agile contracts and Lean contracting practices
- Project orientation, versus a continuous-flow-of-value mindset, is deeply ingrained in government culture
- Long acquisition lifecycles create tremendous waste and delays in delivering value
- The lack of a common enterprise Lean-Agile Framework leads to a limited synergy between programs
Although these problems look similar to those faced by commercial companies, the organizational context, culture, and governmental authorities in the public-sector environment are unique. Government acquisition processes and laws are intended to create a fair playing field among potential providers, but they can also create bureaucracy and delay unlike anything the private sector experiences. In addition, government agencies do not have the competitive market dynamic and profit motive that drives rapid change and innovation in a commercial environment. Instead, legislative bodies typically provide funding in politically-charged annual appropriations processes that move slowly. Even a government technology program’s concept of ‘value’ is often difficult to conceptualize and measure.
The Solution – Government-Specific Guidance for SAFe
Because factors in government technology development are specific to these environments, specialized guidance is required to help change agents as they lead transformations. The following links connect to articles addressing the most common challenges of adopting SAFe in government programs and the best practices that support transitioning to a Lean-Agile model.
Building on a solid foundation of Lean-Agile values, principles, and practices. Waterfall ways of thinking and processes are deeply ingrained in government technology programs. Simply mimicking practices like the Team Sync and working from backlogs will not achieve agency agility. Government leaders and practitioners and their industry partners must understand how and why Lean-Agile fundamentally differs from past approaches to technology development.
Creating high-performing teams of teams of government and contractor personnel. Lean-Agile development is a team sport. Teams on government programs often include a combination of government and contractor personnel. Too often, the relationship between these entities is more antagonistic than cooperative. This friction inhibits the development of high-performing teams and, ultimately, the rapid delivery of valuable quality solutions.
Aligning technology investments with agency strategy. Government technology programs can be proposed, approved, and funded for various reasons. Technology investments are often made on the basis of assumed funding of past initiatives without the benefit of a periodic review of holistic portfolios of systems. The best use of limited development funds is achieved by ensuring that priorities are aligned and in harmony with the strategic imperatives of the agency.
Transitioning from projects to a lean flow of epics. The start-stop nature of the ‘project metaphor’ for technology development leads to committing to point solutions too early in the process when there are too many unknowns, and committing to delivering all planned features even if completing just the highest priority features provides most of the value. Projects also encourage moving people to the work instead of flowing work to teams through single-piece flow backlogs. The Lean alternative is to organize large efforts into epics and manage them in flow from a prioritized backlog built by long-lived teams of teams.
Adopting Lean budgeting aligned to development value streams. Along with the shift from projects to a lean flow of Epics, there is a change in how to budget. Instead of funding individual pieces of work, budgets fund ‘the factory’ that can build whatever the agency needs based on priorities. Since priorities can continuously shift and change, this approach avoids the wasted expense and delay of change orders or entirely new solicitations to shift investments from one initiative to another, enabling agency agility.
Applying Lean estimating and forecasting in cadence. Lean-Agile practices recognize that traditional estimating and forecasting techniques often fail because there are too many unknowns when building entirely new systems. These traditional techniques also lock programs into the one right answer created up front and used to define contractual terms with multiple vendors. Lean estimating and forecasting techniques are lightweight and provide needed adaptability to constantly changing conditions while still providing critical reporting and accountability.
Modifying acquisition practices to enable Lean-Agile development and operations. Fewer barriers to Lean-Agile adoption in government are as daunting as the legacy acquisition process. Contracting officers depend on tried and true boilerplate language for each new acquisition firmly grounded in waterfall terms and conditions. Programs cannot be genuinely Agile if contractors are required to perform in ways that run counter to Lean-Agile values and principles. Transforming to a new way of development requires new templates for contracting officers that allow vendor partners also to be Lean-Agile.
Building in quality and compliance. The goal of Lean-Agile is to create a continuous and sustainable flow of value in technology solutions. Continuous flow is defeated if our governance processes, such as verification and validation, remain big batch activities performed only at the end of a project. Changing the way the development team works is only part of the answer. Every aspect of the technology value stream, including operations and governance, must also work in flow in smaller batches. This builds quality and compliance into the solution versus inspecting it as part of one big batch before release.
Adapting governance practices to support agility and lean flow of value. Traditional governance standards for technology development are also deeply rooted in a waterfall model. They require programs to plan everything up front, commit to and budget for one right solution before the work begins, provide detailed project plans for unknown work, pass through arbitrary stage gates, and much more. Lean-Agile methods serve the original intent—to provide sufficient oversight to ensure the delivery of mission-enabling capabilities within a reasonable time and cost—but through the use of alternative processes and artifacts that support a continuous flow of value.
NOTE: These recommendations for Lean-Agile adoption in government do not require a different version of SAFe or suggest modifying SAFe terms and practices to fit government protocols. Experienced practitioners in government services have reported that they achieve the best results when the SAFe model and terminology are used without modification. Using the terminology native to SAFe allows program personnel to take advantage of the classes, articles, books, forums, and other information sources necessary to implement SAFe practices successfully. The articles behind each of the practices above explain the specific patterns used by government programs to overcome the most common concerns when transitioning a federal IT initiative to SAFe.
Government adoption of Lean-Agile has accelerated to the point where most programs (80%+ in the U.S. according to a Deloitte study)  are using some form of Agile or iterative development. However, Agile practices are often limited to development teams and do not address the program and portfolio challenges of strategy alignment, budgeting, project-centric planning, acquisitions, governance, compliance, and more. Agencies also lack a common language and set of enterprise-wide practices to create synergies between programs and practitioners. With this SAFe for Government guidance, supported by the corresponding SAFe for Government course, agency leaders will have the tools to overcome common barriers to SAFe adoption and Lean-Agile practices, enabling better results.
Learn More 2022 Federal Workforce Priorities Report. https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/human-capital-management/federal-workforce-priorities-report/2022-federal-workforce-priorities-report.pdf  Software Development: Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods. Government Accountability Office (GAO), July 27, 2012. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-681  Contracting Guidance to Support Modular IT Development. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), June 14, 2012. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2012/06/14/greater-accountability-and-faster-delivery-through-modular-contracting  Brill, Steven. Code Red: Inside the nightmare launch of Healthcare.gov and the team that figured out how to fix it. Time, March 10, 2014. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,2166770-2,00.html  Viechnicki, Peter, and Mahesh Keikar. Agile by the numbers: A data analysis of Agile development in the US federal government. May 5, 2017. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/industry/public-sector/agile-in-government-by-the-numbers.html
Agile Acquisitions 101. Federal Acquisition Institute. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www.fai.gov/media-library/item/agile-acquisitions-101
DoD Software Modernization Strategy. U.S. Department of Defense. February 4, 2022. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/2924187/dod-software-modernization-strategy-approved/
Digital IT Acquisition Professional Training Program. TechFAR Hub. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://techfarhub.usds.gov/get-started/ditap/
Eggers, William, Mike Canning, and Beth McGrath. Government Trends 2021: Global transformative trends in the public sector. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/insights/articles/7079_CGI-overview-and-introduction/DI_Government-trends-2021.pdf
Eggers, William D. Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies that are Transforming Government. Deloitte University Press, New York, 2016.
18F/Modular Contracting And Agile Development. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://modularcontracting.18f.gov/
Pawlikowski, Ellen. USAF’s Pawlikowski: DoD Use of Agile Software Development ‘Critical’. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://youtu.be/nQUpplJVjqI
Science & Tech Spotlight:Agile Software Development. Government Accountability Office (GAO), September 29, 2020. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-20-713sp
The Digital Services Playbook. US Digital Service. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://playbook.cio.gov/
The TechFAR Hub. US Digital Service. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://techfarhub.cio.gov/handbook/
Agile Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Agile Adoption and Implementation. Government Accountability Office (GAO), September 28, 2020. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-590G
Last update: 12 October 2023