Agile in Governance

Irina V. Medvedeva,
senior lecturer, English Language Department #6,
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University

Abstract: To cope with the rapid pace of change in the modern world, public administration leaders need to embrace transformation, apply innovation, and adapt to continuous renewal. To be more effective, efficient and get better value for money governments turn to Agile methods which ensure lean and timely service delivery.

Key words: agile governance, public governance and administration, project management

Main body:

The global pace of change is so high across all spheres of economic and political life that flexible and efficient governance has become an indispensible prerequisite for any country’s sustainable development. Present-day governments are facing an urgent need to employ new models and practices to satisfy the ever-growing demands of the global dynamic environment, on the one hand, and the imperative to ensure good governance on the other. ‘Agile governance’ seems to be one of the most popular and widely used innovative methods opted for by quite a few governments today.

Agile principles were first put forward in the “Agile Manifesto for Software development’’ (1) back in 2011. There, a group of IT gurus shared the idea that it was time to transform the organizational and management approaches to software development. IT products have rather a short market value, since the turnover between old and new hardware and software sometimes happens in months, whereas the R&D, as well as market introduction may take years due to unnecessary paperwork, planning and coordination.

The ‘Agile Manifesto’ introduced a set of new values – and those have forever changed the IT world. Agility replaced regular ‘mechanical procedures’ that have since been regarded excessive. Under the Agile values:

  • regulatory processes and tools are to give way to individual work and interaction within a team;
  • comprehensive documentation is deemed inferior to the production of an actual product (working software);
  • live communication and collaboration with the customer prevails over contract negotiation;
  • any previously agreed plan should be responsive to actual change. 

In fact, it is not just the IT industry that uses agile methods today. As per described above, the main requirement for agility is the ability to move fast, adjusting to the immediate and urgent challenges of the operational process. Once meant to improve software development cycles, these principles have won the reputation of a major working driver for sustainable performance in many spheres, including public governance and public administration. 

In product management, Agile approach has a certain resemblance to the conventional one, but its core difference is that every project is broken down into a number of consecutive mini-projects, handled by independently functioning teams.  All teams take part in the initiation and planning stages of the mega-project. But the development, testing and application stages are carried out separately within each team.  Every group takes responsibility for a certain task and operates on its own, maintaining constant communication. This allows a significant reduction of the total execution time and speeds up the process in its entirety. Thus, flexibility and adaptability within smaller groups ensure the competitive advantage of Agile against any other management style known today.

Agile is an umbrella concept made up by a number of specific methods. Scrum – is the most flexible and structured one among them. It replaces a programmed algorithmic approach to project management with a heuristic one, and is the best method to deal with unpredictability and complex problem solution. Scrum requires fragmenting a project into mini-projects, most urgent of which are given priority and are implemented within the first 2-4 weeks. The client/product owner has access to the first available part of the product as soon as it is done – no matter if it is the software or hardware, while the team proceeds with the following stages. Scrum allows testing intermediate products: the team gets customer feedback immediately, catching the possible faults by the tail at an early stage. This gives both the team and the client the opportunity to avoid unnecessary delays, which are sure to happen if not established early in the production process.

Other agile methods – Lean, Kanban, Six Sigma, etc. – could be chosen for use depending on the properties of the given environment, but are all based on the following principles (2):

  1. The customer’s satisfaction is of highest priority through early and continuous delivery of valuable software;
  2. Changing requirements are accepter even in late stages of development, as “agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage”;
  3. Working software should be delivered for review frequently, from the beginning of the project and months in, with a preference to the shorter timescale;
  4. Business people and developers work together daily throughout the project;
  5. Every project is built around motivated individuals; every leader should give his team the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done;
  6. Face-to-face conversation is the key method to convey information to and within the development team;
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress;
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development: sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely;
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility;
  10. Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams;
  12. At regular intervals the team should reflect on how to become more effective, then tune and adjust its behavior accordingly.

Today, with the better part of administrative and management processes automated, Agile practices are not limited to IT companies only. Governments across the globe have embraced the change and are introducing innovative methods in their mega-projects within state entities.  Thus, the US and UK government accounting oversight bodies issued reports and guidelines on the use of Agile practices for government funded development projects. Both, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the UK National Audit Office (NAO) recommend the use of Agile for building software products in government departments, and provide guidance for agile adoption and governance. (3)

The NAO UK report (4) tells that The Government intends to use Agile in information and communications technology (ICT) procurement and delivery to reduce the risk of project failure.

Similarly, the GAO USA report states that while Federal agencies depend on IT to support their missions, numerous examples of lengthy IT projects involving cost overruns and schedule delays do not contribute to the expected results. To reduce the risk of such problems, the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recommends modular software delivery consistent with Agile, which calls for producing software in small, short increments.

Since 2011, the British government has run an unprecedented Agile transformation, involving thousands of employees across its agencies and departments. The transformation was a success and today Agile delivery is mandatory in British government institutions. A special Government Digital Service (GDS) was created to lead the process, develop and control the provision of efficient digital public services. What is more, it is employing the Agile towards all of its products. The result speaks for itself: the input price of a recent UK government project, normally worth of GBP£1mln, was reduced by GBP£80,000, after removing excessive paperwork and documentation through the continuous interaction of all parties involved .

One of the largest state agencies in the USA, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, decided to embrace Agile to upgrade their IT systems. Once the pilot effort proved itself efficient, Agile was introduced further and taught to the state staff of Texas for better services delivery.

After the 9/11 attacks, the FBI sought to create an up-to-date data system to facilitate information-sharing. Initially they undertook the traditional product development approach and within a decade spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to get frustrating results. Then, in the early 2010es, the agency adopted the Agile approach and was finally able to deliver a working system.  

By 2015, the California Health and Human Services Agency had been working for years on an improvement request proposal for a 500 million-dollar project using traditional approaches. When they were working on their 7th version, which still did not satisfy the contractor, their management decided to switch to an Agile model, and the job was soon done. The agency’s approach included breaking the project into sequenced modules (7).

Following the UK and US example, the Canadian government adopted Destination 2020 guidelines (8) and launched a Digital Service (based on the Agile principles) to deliver services to national government departments and citizenry.

These are just a few overseas examples of Agile application at the government level which allowed authorities to meet the challenges of the modern world, keep pace with ongoing change and get better value for money.

The Russian Federation is still at the initial stage of introducing Agile in governance. Its approaches are not yet incorporated into the legal framework of the country. But there are already quite a few Agile proponents among policy and decision-makers. German Gref, head of Sberbank, is one of them. Gref believes that those who are reluctant to master and introduce Agile today will be among losers tomorrow. For him “Agile that used to be a method of writing a program code is today a method of survival for all organizations.” (9) The head of the biggest state-backed bank of the Russian Federation has already taken practical steps towards adopting the innovation in Sberbank.

In May 2017, over 4,000 Sberbank employees moved to their new Agile Home, an office equipped to satisfy the requirements of multiple cross-functional teams. Under the new approach, all employees were split into divisions, catering for different needs respectful to products and services. Each division now includes 15 teams of about 10 members, and each task is worked on for a period of about 2 weeks. 25% of employees are representatives of business, 75% – are IT staff. The infrastructure allows almost immediate face-to-face contact between the teams, while ensuring independent and undisturbed functioning of each of them. The main objective of the Agile-transformation is to accelerate the introduction of new products to the market. This office and the business environment paired with the new approach allow to initiate, plan, develop and test any product within a few months – something that until recently was unheard of.

In April 2017 the Presidium of the Council of the President of RF on strategic development and priority projects created a group that is authorized to draft guidelines for the incorporation of Agile methods into government projects. Among other responsibilities the group is to study and improve the regulatory framework to remove any barriers for Agile application to state projects.  It will take time to see how this effort, if massively scaled, will play out, but it does indicate a serious shift in public sector thinking toward applying Agile to large, complex projects. (10)

Why is Agile gaining momentum across the globe despite the traditional resistance of any government to change? Perhaps, those are the lengthy delays and cost overruns, so typical of conventional governance schemes, along with the 2008 economic crisis, which led to general avoidance of pending projects at unduly huge costs.

Policy makers and high-profile managers are becoming more open to innovation across all industries. Today more and more governments dub their methods as Agile, even though their initial intension was just to be moving toward shorter, smaller projects.

Agile proposes just that.


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