Agile Government Practices 101: A primer

Agile Government Practices 101: A primer

What does it mean to govern our states and cities in an agile way? 

What role do public servants play in evolving our institutions towards greater effectiveness and public trust? 

As an applied sociologist, org designer, and agile practitioner, I’ve spent the last two decades working in a wide variety of organizations - from startups to nonprofits to Fortune 500 enterprises. 

Across these settings, I’ve learned that all work is a system, regardless of industry or profession. To improve an organization, we need to improve the systems of the organization. 

I believe, like Ken Miller (author of Extreme Government Makeover: Increasing Our Capacity to Do More Good), that the real opportunity to improve government isn’t so much at the political level with policymakers. 

It’s in the systems that governments use to accomplish results.

“Our results come from systems. If you want better results, build better systems.” - Ken Miller

As Miller writes, the main complaints about government are that it “costs too much, takes too long, and accomplishes too little.” 

To improve costs, reduce delays, and improve the effectiveness of our public institutions, we need to pay attention to what Miller refers to as the “pipes” of government.

The pipes of our government entities are kinked up and rusted out. One need only look at the recent challenges of our public health system to coordinate accurate testing and treatment of Americans with COVID-19 to see an example of how the design of an antiquated system can hold back the ability of institutions to keep up with the demand. 

So, how do we improve government systems in a way that (1) respects the capabilities of people in government to deliver and (2) leads to better outcomes for citizens?  

To answer these two questions, we look to the field of lean and agile management practices. These practices are rooted in a humane approach to improving work. They are based in an ethos of collaborative problem-solving and trust-building between those who serve and those who are beneficiaries.

In this article, I share 5 tried and true agile practices for improving organizational systems, with a particular focus on the translation of these practices to a public sector context. I’ll draw upon the recent efforts of the Canadian Government to develop a “Quality of Life Strategy” as inspiration for how government entities can adopt these practices to deliver better outcomes for their citizens. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know more about: 

  • The power of a True North for establishing a sense of purpose
  • How to use performance metrics for problem-solving (instead of judging!)
  • How to deliver the “right things, in the right way, and at the right speed” to meet the needs of your citizens

To begin, let’s start with the power of establishing a strong purpose for a government policy or program.

Agile Government Practice #1: Define Your True North

The term “True North” in the agile world is used to communicate the desired end goal of a strategy or initiative. 

Your True North definition works like a compass for the organization. It is a guide to help an organization move from its current condition to its desired condition. It is typically a set of ideals for guiding the design of systems for delivery. 

As applied to government work, a True North is defined as it relates to : 

  • the work of an entity as a whole
  • the work of a new administration or agency
  • the establishment of a new policy or program

As an example of an ambitious True North, the Government of Canada recently announced a “Quality of Life” strategy to coordinate the efforts of all of its branches and agencies. 

As a way to rebuild the economy after the worst of the pandemic, the Government of Canada did something pretty remarkable. They used this moment in time to reevaluate the role of government and consider what the long-term drivers are for quality of life for Canadians. 

To refocus policy efforts “on what really matters," as well as to improve transparency and accountability on government priorities, the Government of Canada published a “Basic Architecture of a Quality of Life Framework for Canada” in April 2021

This Quality of Life Architecture, which serves as a True North for government efforts, has five categories - prosperity, health, environment, society, and good governance. For each category, there are clear desired end states defined. For example, under the prosperity category, you find this statement: 

“Affordability of basic goods and services like food, housing and utilities is essential for quality of life, as is confidence in one’s financial security in the face of unforeseen events and in retirement. Publicly-funded services reduce the cost of living and the risks shouldered by families.”

Under the health category, you find this statement: 

“Emotional well-being and a positive outlook on life are key indicators of how Canadians perceive and experience quality of life. Reliable access to timely and appropriate health care provides peace of mind and promotes positive health outcomes.”

Of course, these statements may come across as highly aspirational - and they are. That is the power of a True North. They serve as a lighthouse to guide our actions forward. Without one, our government entities are lost at sea.

Agile Government Practice #2: Use Measures to Learn How to Move Forward

Ideally, a True North is measurable. 

The use of measures in agile organizations is designed with a singular purpose - to learn what’s working, what’s not, and adjust accordingly in order to move closer to our True North. The measures are not used to judge performance, but rather to understand performance and evaluate potential options. 

The way in which the measures are selected is also important. In an agile organization, measures are collaboratively identified and agreed to by all relevant stakeholders. Stakeholders also align on when and how to respond to changes in measures. There is the shared understanding that variation in outcomes is to be expected, and not all changes in measures warrant action or blame. 

It is the shared sense of psychological safety in an agile culture that makes the use of measures conducive for a spirit of experimentation and continuous improvement. 

Unfortunately, this is different from how measures have been commonly used in government entities over the last three decades.

In the early 1990s, the advent of the field of government performance management, ignited by the book “Reinventing Government” and championed by Al Gore, led to the introduction of performance measures and a renewed focus on strengthening management practices

Initially, there was a lot of optimism for applying a “results-based” approach to improving the focus, effectiveness, and accountability of government at all levels. This optimism translated into the institutionalization of 5-year strategic plans with long-term goals, performance measures, and reporting results at the federal agency level with the Government Performance Results Act in 1993. Many state and local municipalities followed suit with their version of performance committees and dashboards. 

While it’s certainly laudable to introduce a level of rigor and thoughtfulness to the work of government, how one goes about it makes a significant difference.

In an article on Governing entitled, “25 Years Later, What Happened to Reinventing Government?”, the publication interviews federal, state, and local leaders to understand how these performance measurement systems have fared. 

The consensus of the interviewees is that, over time, the use of these systems became a form of reputation management, rather than an impetus for continuous improvement. 

Mike Flowers, the chief analytics officer during the last years of the Bloomberg administration in New York City, shared examples of city agencies “pumping up their numbers” and “managers focusing on what they already do well," instead of paying attention to new problems or looking for new methods of problem-solving. 

Kristine LaLonde, Nashville’s co-chief innovation officer at the time of the article, found that the city government emphasis on performance results led to a form of “results PTSD.” She mentioned that the “department heads I have the most respect for hated it the most” and “many people didn’t trust the system” since there was widespread suspicion about the accuracy and meaningfulness of the numbers. 

Stories like these are not exclusive to government entities.

Organizations of all types struggle when performance measures are implemented in a top-down, arbitrary fashion without clear guidance on the purpose of the measures and training in how to use the measures for continuous improvement. 

In contrast, the article also cites how the State of Washington shifted its performance measurement system to take a more collaborative, problem-solving approach. The State has measurable goals around issues such as homelessness, recidivism, and traffic fatalities. But instead of “making presentations to the governor for accountability,” the state agencies have organized themselves into “goal councils” that meet monthly to “review data, discuss strategies, and collaborate on solutions.” The head of their program remarked, 

“Agencies and customers helped build and test this system with us. It’s not just ours - it’s theirs.”

The Government of Canada has taken a similar approach in defining the selection of indicators to measure their Quality of Life Framework.

All of their federal departments were enrolled in the development of the framework and its indicators. Statistics Canada played a lead role in guiding interdepartmental work in data and indicator selection. This was, no doubt, a monumental undertaking. Aligning on measures across functions is critical for delivering well on public services, as making progress on issues such as homelessness or poverty necessitate coordinated action across agencies. 

The following indicators make up the Canadian Quality of Life framework and serve as a guide for the work of all federal agencies.

Canadian Government's Quality of Life Indicators

Agile Government Practice #3 and #4: Deliver the Right Things in the Right Way -  in consultation with those whom you serve

Once a governmental entity has clarity on its True North and progress indicators, it’s time to deliver. 

In agile organizations, figuring out what to deliver is driven by the people you serve - whether those are clients, customers, or citizens.

For government entities, this means getting clarity on the greatest needs of your community. What programs or services exist to meet those needs currently? Where are they falling short? How would you know?

Establishing feedback loops with those whom you serve is critical for making sure you deliver the right things in the right way.

There are many ways that government entities are starting to institutionalize the gathering and analyzing of citizen input for improving programs and services. Groups like 18F, the US Digital Services, Code for America, the U.S. Digital Response have spearheaded a citizen-first design approach that is starting to become more of the norm. 

Examples of citizen feedback loops include: 

  • Design-Thinking Sprints for improving digital services 
  • Participatory Budgeting for designing public budgets 
  • Participatory Data Analysis for the evaluation of programs and services
  • Surveys for generating broad insights across populations 
  • Focus Groups for diving deeper into citizen hopes and concerns 
  • Service and Program Data for understanding usage patterns

Incorporating community and stakeholder input into the selection, design, and evaluation of programs and services is clutch - not only for ensuring the delivery of the right things in the right way, but also for building a deep sense of trust in the governance process. 

The Government of Canada incorporated this approach in its recent Quality of Life endeavor. To develop its framework, its Department of Finance solicited citizen input through surveys and focus groups. They also consulted with experts, a cross-section of agency committees, provincial and territorial elected officials, and indigenous organizations. Gathering a broad swath of input to direct government focus in this new direction enables this initiative to have a greater chance of success moving forward. 

Agile Government Practice #5: Deliver at the Right Speed

Delivering at the right speed is highly dependent on the internal processes of an organization. 

In agile organizations, people pay attention to the flow of work. They design their work systems so that teams work only on a “critical few” initiatives at a time. 

Critical few initiatives are those deemed as (1) providing the highest impact for end users and (2) are the most feasible to deliver with current resources. 

By only committing to a few high impact, high feasibility initiatives at a time, and completing those initiatives to the end before starting new ones, agile organizations deliver in a timely fashion for those who depend on them. 

Unfortunately, most organizations (in the public and private sector) design their work systems not for flow, but for resource efficiency. This means they take on as much work as possible, even if it means delaying delivery to the end user. They suffer from a lack of prioritization and over-commitment, which leads to multi-tasking and chronic burnout of their people. 

There is a growing wave of agile practitioners who are working side-by-side with those who design and deliver programs to renovate the government “pipes” and make sure citizens experience less struggles and delays to get what they need.

Ken Miller’s group in particular, the Change & Innovation Agency, has been instrumental in bringing lean and agile practices to those who work in child welfare and health and human services. For inspiration, check out one of their recent case studies that shows how the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) improved the speed and accuracy of  completing local assessments during the pandemic. 

As for how Canada plans to execute on its Quality of Life framework in a timely fashion, that is yet to be determined. The ability to implement a new approach, while also simultaneously continuing to deliver existing programs, is challenging work. Hopefully, they have good people on board who can help agencies balance the new efforts with existing efforts so they can make good progress on a very worthwhile endeavor. 

Developing Agile Government Practices At Scale

The Diffusion of Innovation Curve

Like all new management practices, it takes intention and time to incorporate new ways of working in an organization.

The good news is that we are already seeing a wave of innovators and early adopters who are gravitating towards the adoption of agile government practices. The Government of Canada and the work of the Change & Innovation Agency with Health and Human Services departments across the U.S. stand out as shining examples. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released an article about agile practices in federal software development. And the National Academy of Public Administration just opened an Agile Government Center to serve as a network hub to develop and disseminate principles and case studies of agile policies and programs.

The most important component to moving in this direction is to start with where you are now. The way to becoming an agile government is to do it in an incremental, iterative fashion. Consider introducing these practices at the program or department level first. Build a coalition of supporters and enthusiasts for the work. Demonstrate the value of agile practices with real world projects and share stories of what's working.

We are just at the beginning of a new wave of governing and we're excited to see the evolution of this exciting field.

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