It’s hard to be Agile in Government. Within an elected government delivery is expected to mirror a published manifesto. Do something different, and the words ‘U-turn’ threaten within the corridors of power
Government services have tended to be developed based on established processes that have been tried and tested over many years. Add in the expectation that they’ll showcase the latest technologies and the route seems fairly fixed. But agility is becoming increasingly important in this world of Brexit, fast moving change and unpredictability.
We need to find ways for government to be more responsive, more adaptive and be able to follow the paths that bring the best results.
In 2011, the government mandated that all digital service delivery would be Agile, but transforming government itself into a truly Agile and responsive organisation is a tougher challenge.
This year’s Agile Business Conference, organised by the not for profit Agile Business Consortium, was hosted by Daniel Thornton, Programme Director at the Institute for Government and featured a keynote address by Hugh Wallace, Transformation Lead in the Scottish Government.
Both proponents of the Agile approach, they shared their views about the difficulty of embedding Agile practices within government.
“Within government Agile is reasonably well established for software development, but in terms of creating Agile organisations, there’s a really long way to go,” said Daniel.
“The processes and accountability requirements of the public sector, interaction with parliament, the fact you’ve got so much legacy legislation and processes along with legacy IT, all of that makes it very hard to be Agile in Government.
“But a lot of adaptation is necessary. Brexit is going to require a lot of big changes so Government needs to speed up.”
Daniel warns that cultural change is a challenge in the public sector.
“Everybody has operated in this kind of myth of control, believing that you can predict the future, that you can say, ‘Don’t worry, we know what’s going to happen in a year or two years, here’s how much we’re going to spend, here’s how this project is going to run,’ but nothing works like that, so that’s a big change to work your way through.
“We’ve seen a real change in the last few years, digital teams coming into Whitehall and changing culture in a mixture of bottom up and top down ways. They’ve really been the leaders of the Agile cultural revolution in government in the UK and that thinking has spread to the idea of transformation and what transformation involves, but it still needs to go a lot further and a lot faster.
“Senior people in the civil service and ministers need to appreciate that successful transformation is not all about control, it’s about creating the right environment. Set long-term objectives certainly, but don’t specify how you are going to do something a long way in advance, because you need to interact with citizens and find out what they want, and then test and learn in rapid cycles.”
It’s an approach being applied successfully in the delivery of digital services by the Scottish Government as it grapples with complex projects such as the transfer of social security benefits from the UK government, as Hugh Wallace outlines:
“Agile is not the natural position of the civil service or the public sector where the tendency is to focus on solutions, to base thinking on what’s been done before and, particularly in IT, to take a technology first approach.
“What we are trying to do is target areas of government we think are most ripe for transformation and taking a partnership approach to how we deliver Agile. It’s about running projects and demonstrating new processes, sharing budgetary responsibility, sharing governance and trying to hothouse skills and move things forward by showing actual delivery.
“It’s never going to all fall into place overnight, but if we are prepared to work through projects and processes openly and collaboratively, we see that as a route to success.”
The views of both are echoed by Geof Ellingham, Chair of the Agile Business Consortium, who said: “Developing a concept of business Agility and helping the public sector work out how to implement that in a world of governance and public responsibility is imperative.
“If you’re a commercial company it’s really easy to go, ‘This is our strategy, we’ve looked at the data, the data tells us this strategy is not working, we’re going to do something completely different.
“If you’re an elected official and you’ve stood on a platform that says this is what we believe in, then making that pivot is not as easy, and there’s a need to engage with the public sector in understanding how you justify that choice.”
At delivery level, the Agile Business Consortium is working to support Agile in government through new guidance, including a new course and qualification, Agile Digital Services, which integrates Government Digital Service (GDS) guidance with established product, AgilePM.
“We delivered a prototype course at Newcastle City Council and the Ministry of Justice and are halfway through delivering a beta version to 12 public sector organisations,” said Geof.
“We have user researchers getting feedback from trainers and delegates, which we’ll review and either do another round of private tests, or launch the product.”
So while delivery of digital services in government is Agile, there isn’t enough Agile leadership at a time when significant change is happening quickly and where the future is uncertain.
In the corporate world we see a real understanding of the need to be different in the way we lead, to flatten organisational structures, and empowering people to make decisions at the lowest possible level and expecting them to take personal responsibility for their actions.
That approach is something government needs to get to grips with – and quickly.
Chair of the Agile Business Consortium
Transformation Lead Digital Directorate
Programme Director of the Institute for Government