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What Does It Mean to Be "Agile" in the Federal Government?

Draft GAO Guide Outlines Best Practices for Agile Software Development

Washington, D.C. (September 29, 2020) – The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) today issued a new “Spotlight” overview and videos on the use of Agile software development in the federal government.  Both accompany a new draft Agile Assessment Guide that is being released for a one-year public comment period. Developed to help government agencies adopt, execute, and manage Agile programs, the draft guide applies to civilian and defense programs run by government entities and contractors.

“The Agile software development guide is GAO’s latest effort to promote best practices in the management of federal projects,” said Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the GAO.  “Too often, government information technology acquisitions have fallen short in delivering expected capabilities on time and within budget. Our guide is designed to help federal managers make the most of the Agile approach and avoid these pitfalls.”

Drawing on information technology acquisition and management concepts from the public and private sectors, GAO’s draft guide identifies Agile software development practices and key challenges agencies face in applying them. The guide also presents best practices for Agile adoption, execution, and program control and monitoring. Although federal auditors are the guide’s main audience, other government professionals, including Agile practitioners, program management office personnel, and various governance bodies, should find the guide’s framework useful for understanding Agile processes and their application.

“Emerging technologies are rapidly changing how the government operates. GAO’s Agile Assessment Guide brings together best-in-class thinking from experts throughout government agencies, private industry, non-profit groups, and academia. The guide will help federal auditors and managers adopt Agile best practices with the potential to improve program effectiveness and save the federal government billions of dollars,” said Timothy Persons, GAO’s Chief Scientist, who headed up this effort along with Carol Harris, GAO’s Director of Information Technology Acquisition Management Issues.

“The Agile guide is a high-level conceptual road map of software development, contracting, and program management. It highlights the aspects of Agile development throughout a program’s life cycle and addresses key risks to an organization—without imposing prescriptive ‘how to’ steps,” Harris said.

The GAO guide provides an overview of Agile software development practices and challenges faced by federal agencies as they acquire and manage IT systems and transition to Agile software development. It highlights elements of Agile adoption that can help minimize key risks to an organization, program, or team, and presents best practices for Agile adoption, execution, and control. The guide includes checklists that program managers and evaluators can use for each best practice.

The draft Agile assessment guide is a companion to GAO’s other best practices publications, including the Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide (GAO-20-195G), Schedule Assessment Guide (GAO-16-89G), and Technology Readiness Assessment Guide (GAO-20-48G). GAO plans to use the guide to evaluate agencies’ basis for their conclusions and decisions about Agile programs.

For more information, contact Chuck Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs, at 202-512-4800.


The Government Accountability Office, known as the investigative arm of Congress, is an independent, nonpartisan agency that exists to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities. GAO also works to improve the performance of the federal government and ensure its accountability to the American people. The agency examines the use of public funds; evaluates federal programs and policies; and provides analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to help Congress make informed oversight, policy, and funding decisions. GAO provides Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonideological, fair, and balanced. GAO’s commitment to good government is reflected in its core values of accountability, integrity, and reliability.

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