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Agile at the Office of Personnel Management

Agile in the Government

The Agile Manifesto states:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

However, the Federal government generally operates on the right side of this equation. Whereas the commercial world largely looks toward the delivery of value, the government often focuses on minimizing risk. In such an environment, can agencies use Agile to deliver value to the Federal government?

This report looks at how Agile ideas and processes were used at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to innovate and deliver value to a troubled Retirement Systems Modernization (RSM) program.

RSM History

Currently OPM averages 138 days to process retirement claims[2]. A key issue in processing retirements is that retirement records are still provided and stored in paper form.

The RSM program was designed to convert the current paper based Federal retirement system and infrastructure to an electronic online system called RetireEZ. This program has previously tried at least three big bang approaches to implementation[3]. The last attempt used traditional requirements, design, implement, and test cycles to develop the system. During the testing phases, serious issues became evident. These issues eventually resulted in a mutual agreement by OPM and the vendor to terminate the RetireEZ contract[4].

A New Solution

{OPM Director John} Berry said OPM will continue attempts to automate the system, but will do so incrementally, rather than attempting to remake the entire system at once.
"I don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past," he said.[5]

Coming off the contract termination, OPM was presented a new solution that looked to address the issues that had previously plagued the RSM program. The main points of the new solution are:

  • Identify the top value deliverables
  • Establish close communication and collaboration with the OPM Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and external data providers
  • Implement an iterative Agile process to perform the work

Identifying the value

One issue affecting the previous efforts was the program tried to take on all the problems at once. Simultaneous efforts were in place to:

  • Create electronic feeds
  • Implement paper conversion
  • Enable electronic adjudication
  • Create on-line retirement tool
  • Create retirement calculator
  • Perform data cleansing
  • Enable retirement modeling

Learning from the past, OPM’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) decided against doing everything at once. Rather the program looked to identify the highest value item: the data. The data itself is the key to all of these efforts; all of the efforts listed required having the data problem resolved. Thus, the top priority effort revolved around addressing the data issue. With this in mind, the effort became the RSM Data project with the highest priority goal of defining specifications for the retirement data feeds.

Communication and Collaboration

Figure 1 - Retirement Claims Process

SMEs understand retirement process - Shifted focus from telling SMEs how the system works to understanding their needs
Data providers need to know what data to send - Shifted focus from gathering requirements to confirming requirements

As pictured in Figure 1, the current retirement process has the data providers sending paper data to the OPM adjudicators. The adjudicators then process the paperwork and place the processed data into the retirement systems. Initial working sessions to define the retirement data feed specifications had the team meeting daily with individual data providers. In dealing with the data providers and understanding the system, it soon became apparent that the true users were the adjudicators. These adjudicators are the true OPM SMEs in that they have a deep understanding of the data and the retirement process. Thus, the RSM data team changed the working sessions so that team was meeting with the SMEs twice a week to define the data specification feeds. Similarly, it was more productive to meet with all the data providers at once to confirm requirements and data specifications versus using the data providers as the primary source of requirements.

In working closely with the OPM SMEs, the RSM data team started to get great traction on project progress. Specifically:

  • The RSM data team gained true understanding of data and program needs
  • The RSM data team built a collaborative relationship with the SMEs
  • SMEs became vested in the program
  • SMEs identified with the team and attended the data provider meetings as a part of the team

Having the SMEs get value, and become vested, in the program is a great indicator that the program is on the right track and delivering value. The SMEs became a great inside champion for the RSM Data project efforts.

Iterative Solution

"OPM will not be able to get through the backlog by only processing paper," {OPM Director} Berry said. "{OPM officials} are considering how to use agile software development to address the processing of data in the short term and other technology issues in the longer term." [6]

Based on lessons learned from past efforts, the OPM’s OCIO was interested in an iterative process and Scrum was the natural fit. The program brought in talented business analysts, developers, and a Scrum Master with Agile experience. The team’s top priority involved creating retirement data feed specifications and developing a system to accept, validate, store, and view data from the feed.

Image 1 - Agile Manifesto signatory Alistair Cockburn visiting the RSM Data Team Scrum wall

The team’s Scrum process focused around two week iterations. The first day of the iteration was devoted to planning. This involved reviewing the product backlog, selecting the user stories for the sprint backlog, and creating tasks for the user stories. During the iteration, team members developed the feed specifications, developed the system, and select team members spent two days a week in working sessions with the SMEs. These working sessions involved real time collaboration and development of the data feeds as well as reviewing the data system. The last day of the sprint was spent reviewing the system and the work from the sprint followed by a retrospective. Eventually the team got to a point where the planning, review, and retrospectives were accomplished in a day.

Figure 2 - Iteration Schedule

Defining the Product Owner

The biggest team issue was they did not have a typical Scrum Product Owner. The team ended up using the Program Manager as the Product Owner. The team leads met with the Program Manager and using the information from the SME working sessions and input from government managers, the leads and PM determined the priority and shaped the project vision and sprint goals message.

The Program Manager would deliver this message to the team so that the team had one voice setting the priority and giving them direction. The team also used the SME meetings to validate the work for the iteration.


On Federal programs, there are governance components in place that must be followed. Fortunately, for the RSM Data project, the data team had a good working relationship with the RSM Project Management Office (PMO). The two groups were able to collaborate to meet the program’s governance needs. The two most critical items from governance standpoint were the monthly status report and the EVM updates.

Creating a monthly status report was actually a simple process for the team. Since the RSM data team was already tracking updates to the backlog items in the tracking system and Scrum wall, it was easy to create status reports on the fly. The larger issue was the EVM updates. Agile and EVM are not mutually exclusive and there have been publications on AgileEVM[7]. However, many implementations of EVM follow waterfall models of requirements, design, development, test, release. This conflicts with Scrum’s approach to managing work based on features versus a lifecycle based sequencing. Additionally, the baselining of EVM entries poses issues when trying to reprioritize work. If EVM has a work item scheduled to be completed this month and the project wants to move it to a later month, the EVM entry will show a status of red, which causes problems for the program. The most effective way the team found to address this was to work with the Federal managers to help them understand how the program was re-prioritizing based on the needs of the program. This is where the team’s close relationship with the OPM SMEs came into play. The SMEs became key supporters of the team in helping them work with the Federal managers in understanding the progress and work of the team.

Mike Cohn’s article, The Art of Compromise: Scrum and Project Governance, gives great advice on how to deal with governance in general. Cohn states:

  1. Negotiate and set expectations up front
  2. Fit your reporting to current expectations
  3. Invite them to your process
  4. Reference a success[8]

CIOs throughout the sprawling federal government are challenged with appeasing the varied interests of OMB, subject-matter stakeholders, and technologists. OPM’s measured approach with its RSM effort has heretofore kept these audiences more than satisfied.


As noted earlier, the first priority item for the RSM Data project was creating the retirement data feed specifications. The great news for the program was that retirement data feed specifications became published in the form of OPM’s Guide to Retirement Data Reporting[9], also known as the GRDR. This guide is a real world working solution vetted (and continuing to be vetted) by external and internal Federal retirement subject matter experts. The program is gathering feedback and test results from the GRDR and continues to iteratively produce updates to the GRDR.

Image 2 - Guide to Retirement Data Reporting

The team also demonstrated working data viewing and validation software to the SMEs and continues to define and develop business rules for the system. All of this is great progress considering the program’s stop work status in 2008.

New Agile Efforts

Through careful decision-making, OPM’s CIO’s office has put OPM in the position of delivering quicker and higher sponsor satisfaction via a streamlined organization, without alienating the establishment culture largely familiar with non-Agile processes and mentalities. The OCIO is looking to balance opportunity with prudence by encouraging modest but progressive steps toward Agile.

The RSM Data project was not truly designed to be an Agile pilot program for OPM. Rather it was a program that looked at using Agile to create traction and results. In 2010, OPM created two new Agile projects: one for a short-term financial project and a second for a new web migration project. For these projects, OPM brought in key Agile personnel from the RSM Data project team to leverage their experience and expertise in implementing Agile at OPM. The CIO’s office will be using the results and lessons learned from the pilot projects to help develop future Agile strategies at OPM.

[1] Manifesto for Agile Software Development

[2] OPM announces another overhaul of federal retiree system, Joe Davidson, October 20, 2010

[3] OPM shakes up retirement office to improve claims processing, Jason Miller and Max Cacas, October 21, 2010

[4] OPM and Hewitt Make Nice on RetirEZ, Alyssa Rosenberg, February 9, 2009

[5] At OPM, an overhaul of retirement processing, Joe Davidson, October 21, 2010

[6] OPM shakes up retirement office to improve claims processing, Jason Miller and Max Cacas, October 21, 2010

[7] AgileEVM: Measuring Cost Efficiency Across the Product Lifecycle, Tamara Sulaiman, October 5, 2007

[8] The Art of Compromise: Scrum and Project Governance, Mike Cohn, December 22, 2009

[9] Guide to Retirement Data Reporting, Office of Personnel Management, June 30, 2010


Richard Cheng is a managing consultant at Excella Consulting, providing consulting services to commercial and Federal clients in the Washington, DC area. Richard has successfully implemented Agile principles in:

  • Managing web projects
  • Implementing data transactions services
  • Creating an international general ledger application
  • Implementing enterprise level financial packages
  • Developing processes for non-technology based teams and organizations

As a management consultant, Richard has coached and mentored clients on the adoption and implementation of Agile and Scrum. Richard also leads Excella’s Agile Center of Excellence. Currently, Richard is working to bring Agile to the Federal government and is collaborating with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on Agile programs.

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