“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
— Sir Winston Churchill
Aligning Technology Investment with Agency Strategy
This is article three in the SAFe for Government (S4G) series. Click here to view the S4G home page.
Technology investments are a vital part of each government’s annual budget. Increasingly, modern information technology has been identified as the backbone for how government serves and meets the expectations of citizens. As a result, each agency has to articulate the initiatives and the funding required to implement their piece of the overall management agenda. The question is—how much of the technology budget (including cyber-physical systems) in each agency is aligned to the government’s larger aims?
This article explores how the leaders responsible for managing an agency’s technology investment portfolio can use the tools within SAFe to create alignment between the Agile Release Trains (ARTs) in their development organization and the strategies of the agency and the federal government.
Challenging Status Quo
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”
— Henry Ford
The U.S. federal government spends roughly $95 billion annually on information technology (IT)  and over $200 billion more on weapons systems, satellites, and other physical systems.  Other governments also invest heavily in technology as a percentage of their total budget. In an era of unprecedented transparency and scrutiny over how governments spend taxpayer dollars, it is essential these investments deliver the highest value. Additionally, many of these systems literally protect the lives of the general public. However, too often, government agencies worldwide adopt a mindset of what Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup  and The Startup Way ) refers to as “entitlement funding.” This assumes a never-ending spigot of money to support systems that may be antiquated, redundant, or no longer aligned to the agency’s strategy. Entitlement funding also encourages what Ries calls “success theater”—carefully selected metrics chosen to prove these projects and programs are ‘on target,’ and thus merit additional investments made year-over-year, regardless of their contribution or efficacy.
The alternative to entitlement funding is to challenge status-quo thinking, to continuously evaluate whether technology investments are aligned with agency priorities. In the spirit of adopting a Lean mindset, one important exercise is to identify, reduce or eliminate waste as part of an agency’s technology budget. For example, it’s common for an agency to have multiple disparate systems performing duplicated functions. Eliminating wasteful spending was listed as ‘priority number one’ in the U.S. 2019 budget. First on the list in the administration’s management agenda in support of that priority is modernizing outdated and redundant technology. Agencies, in turn, reflect these priorities in their own plans. For example, goal #4 in the 2018-2024 strategy document for the Department of Veterans Affairs is to modernize its technology systems. 
For an illustration of how IT modernization and application rationalization led to $9 billion in savings in fiscal 2018, read the FedTech article here. 
Objectives such as modernization or improved customer experience through digital services will exert considerable influence on the people, programs, and architectures needed to realize them. Approaches such as building autonomous platforms to replace manned-vehicles, moving applications to cloud platforms, or replacing custom applications with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems can dramatically affect how an agency’s technology dollars are spent. They also determine what skills will be needed and how people and resources will be organized.
Another approach that is being adopted by the U.S. federal government to understand and control technology spending is Technology Business Management (TBM). TBM is a framework of practices that seek to create a true “bill of IT” so that government leaders can make informed, data-driven decisions on aligning technology expenditures to agency strategy. Agencies that have adopted both SAFe and TBM report strong synergies between the two bodies of knowledge. (For more details on TBM and SAFe, read the white paper Accelerating Business Value with SAFe and Technology Business Management).
If the strategy paints one picture of the future, but the department’s development budget conveys something else, the lack of alignment will undermine the organization’s ability to accomplish its mission. A different approach is required.
Creating Alignment with Strategic Themes
The primary mechanism in SAFe designed to address this challenge is Strategic Themes. Agency leaders use strategic themes as the bridge between the strategy of the organization and its portfolio of technology initiatives, as shown in Figure 1 below.
Strategic themes translate agency imperatives into language that articulates the implications of each strategy on the organization’s technology development efforts. Understandable and actionable strategic themes guide the people in the agency’s development Value Streams. Continuing the technology modernization example, here is an illustration of how federal and agency strategy can be expressed to the development organization as one or more strategic themes.
Strategic themes are then used by the executives responsible for development to create a vision of the systems needed in the agency’s technology portfolio. That vision influences budgeting decisions and informs a prioritized list of large initiatives (Epics) for one or more Agile Release Trains to implement. This, then, aligns the work of technology practitioners with the top priorities of the agency.
For a more detailed discussion of this topic, please read the Strategic Themes article.
Building a Lean Portfolio Management Competency
Aligning the efforts of the development organization with the overarching strategies of the agency is just one element of developing Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) as a core competency. SAFe provides guidance and tools, such as the portfolio canvas and participatory budgeting to support LPM activities. For a more in-depth discussion of this competency, read the Lean Portfolio Management competency article. You can also explore the associated roles, processes, and artifacts by clicking on the various icons in the Portfolio layer of the SAFe Big Picture. (Be sure to select the Full SAFe or Portfolio SAFe configuration from the website.)
The next key concept for adopting SAFe in Government is Transitioning from projects to a Lean flow of Epics.Next
Learn More Budget of the U.S. Government. Fiscal Year 2019. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BUDGET-2019-BUD/pdf/BUDGET-2019-BUD.pdf  Program Acquisition Cost by Weapons System. 2019 Fiscal Budget Request, U.S. Department of Defense. https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/documents/defbudget/FY2019/FY2019_Weapons.pdf  Ries, Eric. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business, 2011.  Ries, Eric. The Startup Way: How Modern Companies Use Entrepreneurial Management to Transform Culture and Drive Long-Term Growth. Crown Business, 2017.  Department of Veterans Affairs FY 2018 – 2024 Strategic Plan. https://www.va.gov/oei/docs/VA2018-2024strategicPlan.pdf  How DHA and USDA Have Cleaned Up Their Cluttered App Portfolios. FedTech, July 23, 2108. https://fedtechmagazine.com/article/2018/07/how-dha-and-usda-have-cleaned-their-cluttered-app-portfolios
Last update: 10 February 2021