The New Age of the Public Sector: How to Unlock the Power of Agile


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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Agile working methods are becoming more common in the public sector. What can you do to stay on the right side of this trend and maximize the benefits?

Article 4 Minutes
The New Age of the Public Sector: How to Unlock the Power of Agile

Faced with challenges including budgetary pressures, time constraints and escalating citizen expectations, public sector agencies have a lot to gain from new and more efficient ways of working.

Agile methods are one example of new models that have started gaining traction in this sector, and research has suggested they’re becoming increasingly common in the public sphere. But how much potential does this trend really hold to change how the public sector operates, and what can you do to ensure your organization benefits from it?

The growth of agile in the public sector

A forecast by Gartner in October 2019 predicted that 'agile by design' would be one of the top ten government technology trends for 2019-20. The company said it will become increasingly important for chief information officers in the public sector to adopt principles and practices that would help to create a "nimble and responsive environment".

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) provided further evidence of this in a study that reflected trends in 23 global, federal and state institutions in Australia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

Key findings included:

  • Nine out of ten public sector agencies are now using agile, and nearly half have been using these practices for more than two years
  • The most popular areas of deployment for agile methods include IT, policymaking and service delivery
  • Approximately 40% of respondents had at least one division using agile as its primary way of working
  • Agencies using agile have seen benefits including faster service delivery and higher levels of citizen satisfaction
"Agile has arrived in the public sector. To keep making progress in adopting agile as [their] primary way of working, agencies should move beyond practices such as the 'daily stand-up' status check-ins, and put in place enablers such as senior leadership support, new funding models and training." - BCG

The research also suggested that, despite recent growth, there’s considerable scope for further expansion of the agile approach in the future. Relatively few organizations taking part in the survey had completed enterprise-wide scaling of these practices.

Realizing the benefits of agile

Agile has a lot to offer public sector organizations, but moving away from legacy processes and ways of thinking isn't easy.

So what can you do to promote a transition to agile methods and set your organization on the right path to benefit from them?

1. Focus on culture

The shift to agile should be an organization-wide mission that brings about wholesale cultural change. If adjustments are only being made at a departmental or team level, the overall benefits will be reduced.

As you embark on your transition to an agile philosophy, remember your ultimate goal should be to create a more responsive, adaptable and efficient organization. Everyone from senior managers to junior employees should be committed to the project and prepared to adjust to a new culture.

According to Edward Tuorinsky, a principal at consulting firm DTS, a willingness to embrace change is a key principle of agile for public sector bodies, along with:

  • Operating on short timetables
  • Evaluation and adjustment
  • Working together and talking together

2. Look for agile enablers

Agile practices - such as creating multidisciplinary teams to reduce inefficiencies across silos and using sprints and frequent feedback to get better outcomes - can prove highly beneficial at a team level.

But to unlock these advantages across the agency as a whole, you need agile enablers, which BCG describes as "organizational levers that allow agile to scale".

Agile enablers can come in various forms. Senior leadership support, for example, is one of the most important pillars you should have in place to ensure new processes and methodologies are broadly adopted.

Making sure you have the right technologies in place is another key consideration, along with providing training and implementing metrics to measure team productivity.

3. Experiment

Agile is still a relatively new concept in the public sector. Testing and experimentation could have a vital role to play in helping your organization and your employees become more familiar with it.

You could start by trialing different methods, strategies and tools in a range of environments to see how easily they're adopted and what results they generate.

As you move forward, remember that constant evaluation and adjustment are key elements of agile, so you should always be prepared to change things that aren't working.

4. Be patient

Patience and a willingness to persevere will help you maximize the benefits of agile for your organization and the people you serve.

BCG's research showed organizations with less than two years of experience with agile often see quick internal results in areas like staff engagement and morale. However, external outcomes that have broader significance - such as the ability to adapt to change and improvements in delivery speed - take longer to achieve and typically arise when agile is implemented at greater scale.

In short, if you have the patience and commitment to make agile practices a core part of how your entire organization functions, you'll see better outcomes.

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