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Digitally transforming the public sector using an Agile approach has its challenges

November 13, 2018 by Lape Runsewe

Digitally transforming the public sector using an Agile approach has its challenges

The ‘Agile’ methodology has swept across the landscape of customised software and digital development for huge numbers of organisations around the globe, gathering momentum especially over the last 15 to 20 years. It can best be described as ‘the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment’ (Source: Agile Alliance).

 

Agile software development basically refers to a group of software development methodologies based on iterative development, where requirements and their solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. The public sector, like any commercial, customer facing organisation, has always faced uncertainty and turbulence and what’s more, on a colossal scale. How can the public sector benefit from taking a more Agile approach to digital transformation? What are the changes that need to happen?

A core range of principles are required for public sector transformation programmes to become more Agile

Some of the key principles required in adopting an Agile approach to public sector digital transformation are:

 

  • Have a clear vision
    Start with a clear vision, expectations or intent, not a set of detailed requirements. The main priority should be the satisfaction of the customer, or in this case the citizen, through early and continuous digital or software delivery.
  • Adopt citizen-centric design
    Use “design thinking” techniques that focus on the needs of citizens —or citizen-centric design—and that result in real value to the public.
  • Be interactive and welcome change
    Move from a linear to an interactive approach in programme design and implementation. In fact, welcome changing requirements, even late in a project stage.
  • See rapid, iterative development as good
    Insist on rapid, iterative, and continuous development of functionality of a programme or service. Working solutions should be delivered as frequently as possible.
  • View motivated employees as gold–dust
    Empower employees to act in ways that bring the visions and expectations to reality. Projects should be built around motivated individuals and trusted to get the job done! That age-old practice of face to face conversation has been proven as the best way to convey information within and between digital development teams.
  • Collaborate with all stakeholders
    Engage in ongoing collaboration with stakeholders, where the end client participates in the development process. This is an approach linked to greater transparency and open data and networks for implementing programmes and delivering services. The best architectures and designs emerge from self-organising, collaborative teams.

 

Despite the hurdles, multiple benefits can follow from an Agile approach to digital transformation
As with any complex organisation, implementing successful change has many hurdles.
In the public sector, skills shortages, legacy IT systems, excessive cost and gaining executive buy-in are perhaps some of the main ones. But perhaps the biggest hurdle is the culture gap between public sector business users and Agile developers. It can take a number of forms:

  • The language hurdle – waterfall development, fixed project plans and timelines may often be the norm. Moving to an Agile approach without any Gantt charts, a plan or set delivery times is a challenge!
  • The rules hurdle – the public sector, of all sectors, has a huge ‘rules ethos’ full of acronyms, regulation, hierarchies and documentation. It’s vital that both developers and business users focus on end results, not just the rules.
  • The trust hurdle – unsurprisingly, most public sector contracts are designed to protect the government client, for example, from scams. It’s important that contracts for Agile-based transformations are crafted to prioritise the success of any collaboration. The close client interactions and regular demonstration of progress characteristic of Agile help build customer trust.
  • The contract hurdle – with Agile, procurement managers can’t just award a contract and sit back and await delivery. Because of the way Agile projects work, regular engagement of the public sector business owner and procurement manager throughout the process is essential.

Notwithstanding all these culture challenges facing the public sector in managing and implementing digital transformations, it’s important not to lose sight of the end goal – better public services and better citizen experiences. Since approximately 39% of all consumers are wanting to see the UK move faster towards its digital future (Source: Information Age), and more and more consumers seeing the Amazon Prime type online experience as ‘the norm’ these days, i.e. where they have instant access to any type of service, consumers no longer want or expect any differences between commercial and public service transaction or information delivery. Agile thinking, development and delivery clearly provide the best approach to satisfy this public sector vision in such a rapidly changing consumer and citizen environment.

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