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4 whys for Agile in Government



Co-authored by Brigitte Odgers-Jewell and Hwee Queen Chong from ADAPTOVATE Singapore

Governments and public sector organisations work on some of the most pressing, multifaceted, and high stakes challenges in the world. The same pressures that affect organisations in the private sector are also affecting the public sector. For example, many public-sector organisations were suddenly faced with the same Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous environment while dealing with the Covid pandemic, similar to what private sector organisations have been facing with the rise of disruptive online competitors.

Increasingly, public servants find themselves having to be creative problem solvers while navigating hierarchical rules-based environments and complex procurement and partnership processes. All these happening under public scrutiny from individuals, communities, and businesses holding high expectations. Agile ways of working can be transformative in helping governments overcome these challenges.

Agile focuses on an incremental, iterative approach and cross-functional collaboration to developing products or services that are more user-centric. Agile teams work in short iterative sprints to deliver value at a faster cadence. Our work with public sector organisations suggests four key benefits of adopting agile ways of working: clear focus on the right priorities, improved team morale and productivity, faster delivery of improved outcomes, and greater value delivery to citizens and stakeholders.

1. Clear focus on the right priorities

Prioritizing policies and initiatives are rarely straightforward. In fact, it is one of the hardest things to do but also one of the most important. While a government’s resources are finite, its list of problems are infinite. Prioritization becomes the first key step to ensuring resources are dedicated to the right causes, especially when all problems can come across as equally pressing. Cascading the priorities and ensuring alignment across the organisation are also crucial to deliver meaningful impact.

How does Agile help?

Often in an Agile transformation, OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are used as a complementary goal management framework to help organisations define strategic goals and measure outcomes. OKRs are future-focused and action-oriented. Objectives defines what we want to achieve and key results measures how we meet the objectives. OKRs are sequenced and measured throughout the quarter. They help to break down ambitious goals into more manageable pieces and create visibility on what is working and what is not working in a timely manner. Thus, acting as a focusing tool to help organisations prioritise their top objectives. Importantly, OKRs inspire organisational convergence by combining both top-down and bottom-up approaches to goal setting. They can be defined and linked at every level in the organisation. For public sector organisations with hierarchical structures, OKRs help rally teams behind shared goals and creates early opportunities to strengthen or refocus resources on projects.

At a large Australian government department, teams developed clearer understanding on the purpose of their projects with clearly established OKRs. The OKRs were used to guide the development of 3-month roadmaps for each team, creating alignment on their immediate tasks and enabled better use of each team’s time and resources.

Agile also drives organisational-wide alignment by building transparency. At the leadership level, Agile advocates leaders to be transparent about what they are working on, the broader business aspirations and the priorities that should guide their teams’ work. At the team level, Agile artefacts and ceremonies create transparency amongst members. This fundamental shift in mindset and way of working, away from a highly bureaucratic one, opens discussions across all levels of the organisation for better alignment.

2. Improved team morale and productivity

Public sector organisations face ever increasing pressure to deliver more and better to citizens and stakeholders, amid a multitude of budgetary and political challenges. This often creates a risk-averse culture to avoid negative attention and teams having to resign themselves to bureaucratic hurdles and controls. Shrinking budgets and increased workload also means teams are under-resourced and overworked. As a result, mission-driven employees become disengaged and disillusioned and present a dire threat to organisational success and sustainability.

Agile frameworks support empowered and self-organising teams, helping leadership in public sector organisations to move away from a command-and-control structure that is ill-suited for today’s world. In adopting Agile, leaders learn new mindsets and empower roles in the organisation by delegating decision making authority to teams and giving teams the tools and space that they need to move fast.

Besides empowerment, teams have increased visibility over their workload, progress and impediments with the adoption of Agile artefacts such as product backlog, sprint backlog and obstacle board. In addition, Agile ceremonies create structured meetings for the team members to give and receive feedback in a timely manner, both within the team and with relevant stakeholders in the wider organisation. Being able to validate progress with stakeholders at fortnightly showcases instead of waiting for quarterly management updates increases engagement and alignment between stakeholders and teams. Teams feel supported by sharing success, talking about learnings, and improving collaboration.

At a large Australian government department, working in Agile ways provided the tools and space to drive structured and outcome-oriented collaboration. One team had an urgent need to resolve new and competing priorities and was able to prioritise 20 items overnight by working on their product backlog. Team morale also improved as team members are now able to call out blockers and ask for help with increased transparency and visibility enabled by the artefacts and ceremonies they have set up. Team members can now go on leave feeling supported that the project will stay on track and assured that they can easily pick up on their tasks once they return.

3. Faster delivery of improved outcomes

Balancing risk, value and speed have always been an especially delicate challenge for public sector organisations. Often, government policies or initiatives are playing catch up to market developments due to long planning cycles caused by multi-layered approval process and red tape that were put in place to manage risks.  Sometimes, policies miss the mark due to a lack of community collaboration. Despite the desire to push for faster delivery on outcomes, leaders in public sector organisations must ensure that risks are well managed, and outcomes are impactful.

Agile ways of working address this delicate balance with an iterative and incremental approach. Agile introduces a shorter working cadence where teams work on delivering incremental value in short time bound sprints. A shorter working cadence means earlier identification of problems, faster resolution of impediments, and a quicker time-to-launch. It also helps increase communication within the team and collaboration with stakeholders and citizens which enables faster feedback, better responsiveness to community changes, and improved outcomes that better meet the expectations of the citizens.

At a government client, teams used to only get feedback from the management once every 3 months due to its hierarchical structure and slow approval process. With Agile ways of working, teams now work in 2-week sprints with regular showcases which enables them to get feedback from stakeholders on a fortnightly basis. They are also going out to the public earlier to get feedback with a minimum viable product and incorporating such feedback in the next sprint to drive continuous improvement in an iterative manner.

4. Delivering value to citizens and stakeholders

Agile helps public sector organisations define a clear focus on their priorities, improve team morale and productivity, and deliver improved outcomes at a faster speed. In today’s fast-moving environment, Agile ways of working will allow public sector organisations to maximise the use of their resources and to attract and retain talents to effectively deliver value to their citizens and stakeholders.

Public sector organisations often work on projects with long time horizon which increases the ambiguity of the projects and makes it difficult for detailed planning from the onset. Planning and working in shorter iterations help teams to improve their focus on immediate deliverables, avoids stretching team members unnecessarily with unrealistic dates and gets the product to the community quickly.

At a government department, a program to deliver a vendor COTS product using tradition project management practices had taken 4 years and the users had seen no value.  By pausing the program to restructure, introducing Agile ways of working, providing coaching and training to all stakeholders connected to the program, we were able to deliver the full suite of products to the citizens incrementally over 13 months. 

We worked particularly closely with the vendor who was not familiar with Agile ways of working or incremental code releases.  Co-locating the business SMEs with the vendor greatly improved cycle time since they could test changes as they were made and provide immediate feedback. In the meantime, we grew new capabilities within the department opening up new career paths for staff and lifting levels of engagement.

The evidence is clear and there is no doubt that it is time that governments around the world look to embrace Agile as their primary way of working.  Agile reduces risk by means of a continual feedback loop. It delivers value early and regularly and involves the right people at all levels.  By embracing change and learning from failure, an Agile government will be equipped to manoeuvre and overcome unforeseeable challenges that will undoubtably occur.


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