The shift to agile working may be fraught with complications – so how can public sector organisations get it right?

Embracing uncertainty; active listening; strong leadership – Antonio Weiss explores the foundations of good agile approaches
Agile post-its

By Antonio Weiss

07 Apr 2022

Across the board, agile working has become the preferred way to structure workstreams. The majority of technology companies and large corporate firms have already adopted an agile approach to work. This includes banking, retail, education, healthcare – you’d be hard pressed to find an industry that has not adopted agile ways of working in some form or another. There are numerous benefits to working in an agile way for those in the public sector, in reducing costs, minimising risks, futureproofing strategies and significantly, tempting the best talent away from the private sphere. So, where to start?

For complicated public sector organisations, the shift to digital agile working practices may be fraught with complications. This can be caused by the sheer scale of their operations or by the numerous government stakeholders involved, each of whom need balancing. But there are clear theories we can use to outline the change needed in simple terms, and to put it into practice in the real world.

First, we start with the end policy intent in mind. What is the government department of agency trying to achieve by this digital initiative? How will success be measured and when does it need to be achieved by? This feels like a massive question, but when you focus on the outcome you want and work backwards to what you value and need most, it’s often simpler than you think. This step is about clarifying the vision for your organisation and there are a few simple rules to help keep you focused: think about your digital needs, your organisation’s overall transformation objectives and try to keep your aims tightly focused throughout. 

"Studies into failed digital transformation invariably cite a 'lack of leadership' as a critical missing factor, so it’s important to get this mix of skills and personalities right early on"

Second, put together a team of mixed disciplines – covering fields such as technology, business analysis, user research, data and product ownership – to lead the initiative. This team should use agile project management disciplines many of which are already becoming commonplace such as daily stand-ups, weekly fortnightly sprints, and action tracking. Importantly, this multidisciplined team will act as visible figureheads for the project, with the dexterity of skills needed to implement your strategy and crucially, the ability to communicate what’s happening to the rest of your organisation. Studies into failed digital transformation invariably cite a "lack of leadership" as a critical missing factor, so it’s important to get this mix of skills and personalities right early on.

Third, work out who the people – the users – are involved in this space, what their experience and needs are from the policy. This is called "user research" and involves actively listening and understanding how people currently experience a service – be it accessing information, submitting information, or receiving something from the government – and what can be done to make that experience better.

Fourth, iterate towards your end goals. One of the foundations of good agile approaches is embracing uncertainty – you don’t know what issues may yet emerge and you may need to pivot your understanding of the problem as you go. Agile approaches tend to run through phases; you start off discovering more about the problem space; you then move into an alpha phase of prototyping potential solutions to the problem; in a beta phase you might build the best solution and continuously refine it with users; and in a live phase you will run the service for many users and continuously look to improve it.

And fifth, work transparently and openly with stakeholders. Be honest about risks, challenges and findings. Don’t be afraid to stop initiatives if they’re not working. 

Doing agile well should transform how you work for the better. It should align you more closely to the people whose lives you’re trying to improve. It gives you opportunities to stop bad initiatives before they become too costly. And it ensures you look at the problem or opportunity from multiple, creative angles, rather than just through a pure technology lens.

Antonio Weiss is the author of The Practical Guide to Digital Transformation.

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