Agile for the Public Sector Is Closer Than You Think

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As counter-intuitive as it seems, methodical planning, standardized processes and procedures and relentless communication are key to achieving agility.

Last fall, Gartner published a list of technologies that could address the challenges public-sector chief information officers will face in the upcoming year to help prioritize their technology investments. Agile by design was highlighted as a key practice, citing the need to create, “a nimble and responsive environment.” Despite this future-focused call to action, we’re already closer than anyone imagines. As counter-intuitive as it seems, methodical planning, standardized processes and procedures and relentless communication are key to achieving agility. And by this measurement, many public-sector organizations are well on their way.

The first question that comes to mind after reading the Gartner report is, “Why does government need to be agile?” The answer, in a word, is efficiency. Shrinking budgets and a reduced workforce coupled with demands to better serve “customers” requires a new approach. 

The next question is, “What does agile look like?” There’s a lot written about agile processes but we like to think of agile as more of a philosophy, so organizations can be open to multiple methodologies that embrace agile values, including incremental, feedback-driven changes. Agile by design allows public sector organizations to implement large-scale programs of all types to continually meet current needs and adapt to changes in the environment from new technologies to new political priorities.

There are 12 principles behind the agile philosophy but there are four that are key for public-sector organizations. Agile government organizations:

  1. Embrace change.
  2. Operate on short timetables. 
  3. Evaluate and adjust.
  4. Work together, talk together.

A key tenant of agile is change. Namely welcoming change, at any stage, and being flexible enough to adjust. In agile project management, work is evaluated often and adjustments are made based on new input and feedback. This can be rough on organizations that have created detailed plans spanning five or even 10 years, and those that focus on delivering a “final” version.

For public-sector organizations, agile timelines are shockingly different. Small things happen quickly and multiple streams of work happen simultaneously. Project schedules are built with sprints—intense, dedicated work to accomplish one specific milestone—and daily check-ups to make sure everyone stays on track. For organizations used to long-term planning, there’s a tendency to try to break down old processes into smaller tasks and plan them out sequentially, hurrying timelines. This is not the same as being agile.

Agile project management depends on keeping everyone on track, so 15-minute stand-up meetings, frequent updates, shared task lists, feedback and daily assignments are all part of the plan. This hyper-focus on communication means all stakeholders know where things stand all the time.

How can government organizations, hemmed in by rules, regulations and policies, ever become agile? They can leverage that structure to make agile operational changes, as they work on a cultural shift towards greater flexibility, innovation and learning through trial and error. 

Familiar methodologies, from CMMI to ITIL to Lean Six Sigma, and federal and industry privacy and cybersecurity standards, offer employees a set of shared, standard terminology for better communication, metrics to assess progress, oversight capabilities, an emphasis on quality, and an iterative mindset where results are used to make adjustments. For organizations already using these methodologies, agile is simply the next step in more modern operations.

All organizations are subject to evolving technological change as well as those changes driven by regulation, policy and customer demand. With an agile by design mindset, public sector can more easily adapt to inevitable changes with efficiency and speed. 

Edward Tuorinsky is a principal at DTS