As the world moves quickly from the industrial age into the information age, new challenges have arisen and demands on government have increased. The Agile Government Center has collected case studies from across the globe that evaluate agile principles in action.
By John Bartrum, Chief Executive Officer, Brightstar Innovations Group, LLC. and Academy Fellow
Dr. Deming noted “…it is necessary to innovate, to predict needs of the customer.” During the COVID-19 Pandemic, we have seen yet again how necessity is the mother of innovation.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Technology advances have been used to address many human challenges experienced throughout history. Infectious diseases can be propagated by bacteria, viruses and other things you cannot see. For example, smallpox used to kill millions. In 1796, Edward Jenner decided to try an experiment that resulted in a new technology: a vaccine for smallpox. Sir Alexander Fleming harnessed the power of nature to establish the single greatest victory over disease in the 1920s with the discovery of penicillin. Technological advances have impacted how we treat illnesses, but does not change the fact that infectious diseases have the potential to make people sick, or as in 1918 and 2020, threaten the entire human race. It is only through innovation that we can both reduce and overcome these real threats.
What is innovation? Innovation is the action or process of innovating a new method, idea, or product. Often, it is making new things with things you already have. Innovation occurs at two different levels – breakthrough and incremental – both are needed but breakthrough requires more deliberate leadership focus.
Public perception has assumed that government organizations are incapable of a culture of innovation as they are absent of competitive forces, lack of incentives for employees, and have excessive red tape. However, innovation does and has occurred in the government. Historically and as the COVID-19 pandemic response highlights, we see when leaders make a deliberate decision to focus on innovation, they can overcome this conventional wisdom.
In 2014, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, or DATA Act, became law. The goal of the DATA Act was to provide more accessible, searchable, and reliable spending data for the purposes of promoting transparency, facilitating better decision-making, and improving operational efficiency. Tracking more than $4 trillion in annual federal spending on a quarterly basis in a clear and consistent way that the public will understand from the entire federal government is a large task. The scale of the effort is overwhelming even with the most modern technology – but the federal data that the DATA Act required Treasury to collect was scattered across hundreds of disconnected systems across the federal enterprise. The new law only gave Treasury three years to collect this data from more than 100 Federal agencies and display all this information for the public. Treasury needed a new approach to accomplish so much work in such a short timeframe. In 2014, agile development, user-centered design and open source code were relatively new concepts that were just getting traction in government. Treasury was an early adopter of these principles to guide the DATA Act Implementation.
Australia Post faced both disruption and opportunity as the digital era began to shift consumer demands towards ecommerce. The government business enterprise needed to adjust to these headwinds, so in 2012, it embarked on a reinvention of how its Digital Division operated. On a quest to improve customer experience, the Division grew from 15 to 270 open and collaborative people in a couple of years. The Digital Division consciously adopted the Agile methodology in setting out on its transformation.
Australia Post presents as an interesting case when thinking about Agile Governance. Its primary purpose is service delivery, so in this regard it is also a useful case when thinking about Agile Government implementation. Australia Post is not directly involved in policy development or regulation. Australian Post operates quite differently to government departments, as it is government-owned enterprise focused on service delivery in a competitive market. But there are many transferable lessons for other contexts. In particular, for government organisations who operate in an environment shifting towards digital service delivery. The main success of this shift to Agile Principles can be seen in the organisation-wide to be customer-driven in everything they do. This is particularly pertinent for Australia Post as its customers have the option of using another delivery service. This change in focus also helped create shared understanding across all the internal stakeholders of Australia Post, assisting in breaking down divisional silos in the process.
Tyler McBrien drafted this case study based on interviews conducted by Alyssa Denzer and Jennifer Widner in February, March, and April 2020. The case enables the rapid dissemination of ideas at an important time and rests on fewer interviews than the ISS standard. Case published June 2020.
Enhancing its own efficiency and effectiveness was front and center on the World Bank’s agenda in 2015. An internal survey revealed staff concern about how long it took to develop and complete projects. The middle managers, team leaders, and specialists were better positioned to spot problems and solutions than senior leaders, Bank strategists said. Why not turn them loose on the problem? To assist, a small unit within the Bank introduced some principles the tech sector used in developing and adapting software, initiated three pilots that invited staff to develop their own proposals, and created a way to scale the best of these across the institution. Five years after the initiative began, the Bank considered how to make managers more comfortable with delegating and collaboration, and how to foster broader cultural change within its ranks.
Aotearoa-New Zealand walks between two cultural worlds - Māori and Western/Anglo traditions - which were embedded following British colonisation, what happens when social policy is designed to reflect these worlds? Māori have perpetually demanded their perspectives be listened to and acted on in public policy since colonisation, but in the past 30 years this call has been gaining broader support. In 2010, Whānau Ora health and social initiative was legislated into action. This came after years of former Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector Hon. Dame Tariana Turia agitating for change to how Māori health and social services were delivered. For Māori, whānau sits at the centre of culture and community. Whānau Ora, “family wellbeing” in Māori, aims to improve outcomes across areas such as health, education, housing, and employment, with a focus on the hauora of the whānau, as opposed to the traditional focus on individual crisis intervention. “Hauora” is a Māori philosophy of wellbeing entailing four mutually supportive dimensions: taha tinana (physical wellbeing); taha hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing); taha whanau (social wellbeing); and taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing) (Durie 1994).
As background, it is important to recognize that a central goal of this endeavor is to recognize in Whānau Ora the principle that whānau are best placed to develop their own plans to meet their needs and achieve their aspirations. This contrasts with past practice where services are thrust upon them in times of crisis and with little consideration for their strengths.. Thus, this radical shift towards whānau self-determination required different approaches to developing and implementing Whānau Ora. While not drawing directly from Agile methodology, Whānau Ora shares many of the principles of it, but through a particular Māori and pasifika lens. This case shows us that application of the principles of agile government can be seen in delivering services in a manner that resonates in many communities and has roots in a wide variety of practices.
This case study presents an example of Agile principles being used in an innovative policy without explicitly being drawn on. Instead, Whānau Ora is a policy innovation that was developed in concert with Māori and Pasifika groups and imbued with a Māori worldview. In doing so, we can see that customer-centric views need not just be related to individuals, but rather groups of people can be the units that policies govern for. It also presents an example of what types of policies can emerge when genuine consultation with users occurs. Genuine consultation will inevitably bring some pushback on ceding control over the policy’s direction as consultation and collaboration can challenge perceived wisdom. But this will better serve the needs of the initiative’s users.