Agile: a new way of governing

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  • Published Date: 06 May 2020

As a practice, ‘agility’ has fundamentally changed core aspects of project management, business processes and software design. This agile approach also has the potential to change government and public administration.

At a glance

A forthcoming paper - Agile: a new way of governing - in Public Administration Review looks at agility and how it can benefit public managers. It explores the challenges managers face when they are expected to make their organisations more flexible and responsive.

Agile:

  • is the opposite of traditional hierarchical and bureaucratic organisations
  • requires new forms of self-selected, team-based organisational structures, and leadership that serves these teams
  • thrives in innovation-oriented organisational cultures
  • requires new, flexible forms of contracting and procurement.

What is agile?

Agile government is inspired by agile software development. This essentially means responding efficiently to changing public needs.

When redesigning and digitising public services, agile methods are used in the initial requirements analysis. Service designers use ethnographic methods to understand the needs of users when accessing public services. This reveals pain points and also what works well. These insights reveal how public services can be better designed from a user perspective.

Service designers then compare these informal requirements with the formal requirements and hand over a prototype to the software developers. In these design steps, inclusiveness and transparency are essential.

Agile principles

Unlike complex project plan-based approaches which can be slow, agile is quick and simple. It invests in initial planning but anticipates these plans will change as new information emerges about user needs.

The architects of agile developed 12 key principles when creating and implementing projects:

  1. Try to meet the customer's needs. Do this by delivering software early. Keep improving this software.
  2. Respond to requests for changes to this software because this will better enable the customer to be successful.
  3. Shorten the timeframe for delivering functional software. Deliver changes frequently.
  4. Developers should work hand in hand with business users.
  5. Centre manufacturing around people who are motivated to succeed.
  6. Emphasise the personal conversation within the team and between the development team and the organisation in a broader sense.
  7. The most important reference points are working software.
  8. Sustainable development is the goal. All parties involved should be able to maintain a constant pace of engagement.
  9. Continuous focus on technical quality and good design.
  10. Emphasis on simplicity.
  11. Self-organisation in teams improves design and production.
  12. Regularly think about how you can improve this process.

The core assumption of agility is that innovation is not linear. Organisations, cultures and needs are intertwined when it comes to driving innovation.

The advantages of agile

Agile can contribute to more effective and efficient public administration in the following ways:

  1. Agile assumes that situations are fluid and change over time. When new information, constraints or opportunities arise, agile prompts practitioners to update early versions of work to improve processes or services.
  2. Agile privileges an adaptable structure over hierarchies and silos. Like other cross-functional arrangements, agile improves transparency, the sharing of resources and skills.
  3. Agile emphasises individual discretion over standing operating procedures. It focuses on bottom-up changes rather than top-down changes and emphasises that the individual can improve public service engagement.
  4. Agile places value on continuous self-reflective learning processes. Agile cultures quickly learn from past mistakes.
  5. Agile increases knowledge about processes, procedures and requirements for new services.

Challenges in introducing agility to public administration

There are key challenges in introducing agility into traditional bureaucracies:

  1. Agile can sit uncomfortably in risk-averse and hierarchical organisations. In these organisations, line managers may be unwilling to take on responsibility for cross-functional nature agile teams. When experimentation is not part of the organisation’s DNA, agile never gains traction
  2. Agile requires a new form of leadership. It needs consensual decision-making and acceptance of trial-and-error approaches.
  3. Agile requires new forms of contracting and procurement. Agile doesn't quite fit traditional processes because there isn't a single finished product, process, or service - the focus is on continuous improvement. 

What this means

There are key challenges in introducing agility into traditional bureaucracies. At its core, agile requires a change in rigid bureaucratic cultures that are top down with zero tolerance for failure. Changing organisational culture can be difficult, especially if there are no incentives to change.

An agile culture turns traditional organisational principles of bureaucracy upside down. Agile values individual team members and teams. It requires responsible discretion and flexibility in organisational procedures and principles. Many organisations have seen remarkable changes through the application of agile principles. The same is possible in the public sector if managers embrace its benefits and are aware of its challenges.

Understanding the prospects for agility in the public sector is just beginning. Areas that are ripe for theoretical and empirical contributions include emergency management and public health responses.

Want to read more?

Agile: a new way of governing – Ines Mergel, Andrew Whitford and Sukumar Ganapati, Public Administration Review (forthcoming).

This Research Brief is written by Maria Katsonis as part of ANZSOG’s new research translation series, The Bridge. This project is designed to bridge the gap between the research work of academics and the policy work of public managers by providing access to visible and accessible high-quality research. The Bridge is emailed fortnightly to thousands of engaged readers and centers around a Research Brief which distills academic research into an easy-to-read format.

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