What can be learnt from the “Agile Journey” at the World Bank

illustration of agile journey
  • Published Date: 28 July 2020

By G.Edward DeSeve, leader of the Agile Government Centre

The following article was originally published on the website of the USA’s Agile Government Center. The US-based Agile Government Center has been recently established by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and the IBM Center for the Business of Government. It will serve as the hub of a network that will bring together governments, non-profits, foundations, academic institutions and private sector partners to assist in developing and disseminating agile government principles and case studies of agile policies and programs. G. Edward DeSeve, who leads the centre, has invited ANZSOG’s Professor Janine O’Flynn to join the network as an Australian representative.

The Agile Government Center has also published this article by ANZSOG’s Patrick Lucas and Professor O’Flynn outlining how Australia Post used ‘agile’ principles to respond to the pressures of changing technology.

The move toward Agile government practices is taking place in agencies large and small around the world. The World Bank has undertaken an “Agile Journey” that aimed to streamline bank operations, meet customer needs for more timely action and save money. The lessons from the World Bank Journey can be seen at the National Academy of Public Administration’s Agile Government Center.

The World Bank Journey gives us important insights into how Agile principles can be used. These insights can be summarised as follows:

The very compelling mission of the agency, “Ending Extreme Poverty,” drives behavior throughout the organisation, and listening to staff about problems can lead to effective change – but only if top management undertakes a coherent plan of action based on Agile Principles (https://www.napawash.org/grandchallenges/blog/summary-agile-government-principles) and the demonstration of evidence-based results. Customers are at the heart of agile efforts and innovation is a core principle in achieving success. The Bank effectively used cross-functional teams and displayed diversity of thought. Continued persistence with agile efforts should yield additional results but how this will go forward is unclear.

Below is a summary of the case study developed by the Institute for Successful Societies at Princeton University and a graphic depicting the relation of the Bank’s “Journey”. See the relationship of the World Bank’s Journey to the Agile Government Principles being developed by the National Academy of Public Administration at the Agile Government Center: https://www.napawash.org/grandchallenges/challenge/agile-government-center

Adapting Agile Principles: Toward a More Nimble World Bank, 2016-2020

(Innovations for Successful Societies, Copyright Trustees of Princeton University 2020)

The World Bank’s Mission is “Ending Extreme Poverty.” This mission resonates with staff at the Bank and provides a strong direction for their work. However, the way the Bank works sometimes hinders accomplishing this mission.

The Bank is comprised of 189 countries and operates in 130 locations around the world. In 2015, an engagement survey found that 86 percent of the roughly 17,000 staff indicated that they were proud to work at the Bank but only 26 percent believed that the Bank made decisions in a timely manner.

This concern by staff was reflected in the fact that:

  • projects were slow to reach the Board from initial conceptualisation
  • redundant reviews slowed implementation
  • documents were overly long and complicated
  • there was little collaboration
  • large ineffective meetings proliferated and managerial span of control was too great.

To deal with these concerns, senior management at the Bank instituted the “Agile Bank Program” in 2016. The Bank’s clients and its leaders recognised the need for faster responses and quicker execution, more flexibility and responsiveness.

The model for the Bank’s Agile Journey was the 2001 “Agile Manifesto” developed for software development. The Manifesto distilled the approach into four values:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • working software over comprehensive documentation
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • responding to change over following a plan.

The leadership of the Bank was heavily engaged in developing the Agile Bank Program. Chief Operating Officer Kyle Peters and his senior advisor Qahir Dahani worked to develop a version of Agile suited to the Bank’s own operations. They created a group of “Agile Fellows” to launch three pilots and serve as champions within the Bank. A steering committee of Bank directors and vice-president provided top management assistance.

While the Bank’s senior leaders wanted to see some fast, specific wins, they knew that it would take much longer to generate real cultural change and improve delegation and collaboration. The techniques used to create these wins were:

  • value mapping
  • cross-functional teams
  • sprints
  • pulse Surveys.

According to an analysis prepared by Peters and the Boston Consulting Group, early results of the Agile Bank Program were promising. Positive outcomes included:

  • decreases in ‘Moderately Unsuccessful’ ratings
  • an increase in time redeployed to higher value-added activities
  • a reduction in project preparation time
  • an estimated $8 million in cost savings per year.

Continuing to measure impact remained difficult. Were positive results from the new ways of working? The positive changes could have been caused by increased resources, attention to the pilots or leadership involvement. The Agile Bank Program was not without its skeptics. Linking the program to direct results on the ground was difficult and rewards for participants were not always clear.

The debate about the Agile Bank Program was seen as a good thing. Tension meant that the initiative was still alive and positive initial results held promise.

The World Bank Agile Government Program case study gives us important lessons on how to implement Agile Government Principles in real-time at a very large agency. Both its successes and challenges can inform others who undertake their own Agile Journey.