Agile, Tragile, Fragile: Busting the myths around agile approaches in the public sector

Shane Hastie, Global Delivery Lead at SoftEd, part of Skills Consulting Group, uncovers the myths around the concept of Agile and how this mindset or philosophy of work relates to the public sector.

Agile is the ability to move quickly and easily. In the professional context it has come to be equated with an approach to work that is about rapidly responding to changing customer and stakeholder needs, in an environment that puts people first. In this context, Agile is often called a mindset or philosophy, emphasising people and interactions over processes and tools. The approach has been increasingly adopted worldwide by national, regional, and local governments to enhance their services and responsiveness to citizens’ needs.

Agile practices are characterised by small, cross-functional collaborative teams iteratively working on the highest priority work items and responding to change quickly. While many of the practices originated in software development, most of them are applicable in any type of knowledge work and many of them apply in the wider realms of physical work. Today we see Agile practices applied in almost every area of work across the private and public sector.

Along with adopting Agile thinking and practices, there has been a proliferation of ‘doing agile’ rather than ‘being agile’. The practices of Agile can, and often are, applied without the underlying mindset. This results in organisations not getting the expected benefits and a healthy cynicism from the people who have the new ways inflicted upon them.

For example, one of the core practices of most Agile teams is a daily synchronisation meeting often called the ‘daily standup’. The purpose of this ceremony should be for a group of people who are doing work that is dependent on each other to synchronise how they are going to work together and collaborate over the day. Sadly, this practice is often implemented as a micro-management status report for a manager to monitor progress and allocate tasks, an approach that destroys collaboration and self-organisation.

The emphasis on adopting practices without the underlying philosophy has resulted in the proliferation of myths about what Agile approaches are.

Myth: Agile is only for software development

While Agile approaches came out of software development, they can apply equally well to other domains, especially those with a need to be responsive to change and where uncertainty is high.

Myth: Agile means no planning

Contrary to this myth, Agile does involve planning, but it is done in a different way. In Agile, planning is performed per iteration, continually until the completion of the project. This approach allows for more flexibility and adaptability to changing requirements.

Myth: Agile means no documentation

Agile does not eliminate documentation. Instead, it streamlines it to provide what is needed for the work without getting bogged down in minutiae. Agile documents requirements as user stories, with a commitment to elaborate the detail just ahead of when it is needed to implement the piece of work.

Myth: Agile means no governance

Agile does not imply a lack of governance. Organisations transitioning to Agile may need to modify their governance practices to accommodate Agile principles and generally Agile projects are more transparent and visible by their very nature.

Myth: Agile is only for small projects

Agile is not limited to small projects. The main difference between Agile and traditional methodologies is that Agile breaks down large projects into small, manageable deliveries rather than delivering them all at once.

Myth: Agile is a silver bullet that solves all problems

While Agile can help increase project success, visibility, communication, and continuous improvement, it is not a cure-all solution. Its effectiveness depends on correct implementation and alignment with the project's needs.

Myth: Agile is undisciplined

Agile methodologies require a high level of discipline by outlining a clear process and set of rules. Agile promotes self-organisation within these rules.

The benefits of agile approaches

Agile methodologies create a structure that allows teams to organise, evaluate, and adapt work processes more easily. Instead of having a single master plan, Agile focuses on achieving many small milestones. Responsibility is shared across the team rather than being concentrated in a single product manager or executive.

Generally organisations report increased customer satisfaction, reduced time to deliver tangible outcomes, improved employee engagement, and greater transparency in the flow of work when they adopt Agile approaches.

Agile in the public sector

There are several published reports of Agile adoption across public sector organisations around the world. Here are a few:

General Services Administration of the US Government (GSA): The GSA has made significant progress in using Agile methodologies to modernise applications and integrate flexible architecture. Their success story demonstrates the potential of Agile practices in the public sector.

Port of Rotterdam: The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands adopted Agile development to improve its software development processes and deliver better services to its stakeholders.

Dunedin City Council: The council adopted the Lean Agile Procurement (LAP) approach while selecting a Contract Lifecycle Management (CLM) solution. This collaborative approach reduced the usual procurement process from three months to three days, ensuring that the solution (Portt) was the best fit to automate supplier contracting activities, streamline approvals, manage flows, and capture rich data for the council.

Digital Transformation Agency, Australia: The agency applies Agile to streamline public services. One instance is the myGov portal, a one-stop-shop for government services. Using Agile, the agency has continuously improved the portal based on user feedback, delivering frequent value to users. Another success story is the simplification of obtaining the Australian Business Number for businesses. With Agile methods, the agency broke down this complex process into manageable parts and delivered a user-friendly service.

Challenges to Agile adoption in the public sector

Adopting Agile methodologies in the public sector can be challenging due to various factors, such as resistance to change, bureaucratic structures, and unique requirements of government projects. Some common challenges and pitfalls include:

Changes to processes, structure, and culture: Agile implementation requires significant adjustments to existing processes, organisational structures, and workplace culture, which can be challenging to achieve in the public sector due to its hierarchical nature and perceived resistance to change.

Limited understanding and experience with Agile: Public sector organisations may have limited exposure to Agile methodologies, leading to a lack of understanding and expertise among team members and stakeholders. This can impact the success of Agile implementation and lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Resistance to change and cultural differences: Public sector organisations may resist change, particularly when adopting new ways of working. This resistance can be driven by various factors, including a lack of understanding of Agile’s benefits, concerns about cost and resources, and a preference for traditional approaches.

Stakeholder expectations and management: Public sector organisations have a larger set of stakeholders to satisfy and more complex social, political, and economic objectives that may be subject to change. Managing stakeholder expectations and aligning Agile teams with these objectives can be challenging.

Lack of documentation: Agile methodologies prioritise working products over comprehensive documentation, which can pose challenges for government teams in ensuring compliance, accountability, auditability, and transparency.

To overcome these challenges, public sector agencies can invest in training and resources for team members and stakeholders, effectively communicate the benefits of Agile, address concerns, and develop a customised Agile methodology that meets the unique needs of the project and the organisation’s culture.

Is Agile worth it?

Adopting Agile in state and local governments involves a shift in mindset and organisational culture. Agile is not a panacea of preset tools and practices but a mindset of organisational change. As a process of continuous improvement, Agile approaches must themselves evolve over time with doing, testing, and improvement.

The Agile Government Center, an initiative of the National Academy of Public Administration, has developed a set of Agile principles to drive government improvement. The network continues to develop case studies of Agile government in action. It acts as a source of assistance to those who want to adopt and implement Agile to provide public goods and services that fully meet customer needs and build public trust.

To successfully implement Agile approaches, organisations need to focus on people over processes, build quality into the work that is done (excellence in delivery), establish self-organising teams, identify clear success measures for Agile projects, encourage team communication, make documentation important, and organise sessions, forums, and regular reviews of the implementation to adapt the ways of working to the local context.

In conclusion, an Agile way of working is a powerful tool for the public sector to respond quickly and effectively to changes. By debunking the myths and understanding the principles and benefits of Agile working, public sector agencies can harness the potential to improve their services and meet citizens’ needs.

What is NOT Agile

Agile working is often confused with flexible working, but they are not the same. While both allow for some degree of flexibility, Agile working is more about the ability to adapt and respond to changes quickly. It involves a shift in mindset and a focus on individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change.

Another concept that is often confused with Agile is Scrum, which is a specific Agile framework used in software development and project management. Scrum is characterised by its use of sprints, self-organising teams, and specific roles such as the Scrum Master and Product Owner. However, Scrum is just one of the many methodologies that fall under the Agile umbrella. Agile itself is a broader philosophy that can be applied to various industries and projects.

Lean is a methodology focused on maximising customer value while minimising waste. It aims to create more value for customers with fewer resources. Although Lean shares some similarities with Agile, such as the focus on continuous improvement and customer value, it is not an Agile methodology.

Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology aimed at reducing defects and improving processes. It focuses on identifying and removing the causes of errors and minimising variability in business processes. While Six Sigma shares some principles with Agile, such as the focus on continuous improvement, it is a separate methodology with its own set of tools and techniques.

Kanban is a visual workflow management system that helps teams manage their work more efficiently. It is often associated with Agile methodologies because it focuses on continuous improvement, flexibility, and collaboration. However, Kanban is not an Agile methodology itself but can be used in conjunction with Agile frameworks like Scrum.

This article is published in the Public Sector Journal - Summer 2023, Issue 46.4.