Hard to be agile

Management: Hard to be Agile?

First published in the Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2018

Peter Stansbury, lead author of the Agile Business Consortium’s Agile Digital Services (AgileDS) training course and qualification, recommends leaving behind traditional management techniques and embracing a forward-thinking behaviour in the public sector.

The establishment of Government Digital Service (GDS) signalled the UK’s commitment to delivering online, user-focused services. Great progress has been made, but more work is needed to both equip the public sector with the skills needed to effect digital transformation and to develop the type of culture that embraces more agile ways of working.

This is acknowledged in the Government Transformation Strategy 2017-20, which pledges a “change of working, of culture and of disposition” in the Civil Service and calls for “strengthening our leaders’ skills in agile project and programme management.”

Cultural transformation in public sector organisations needs to start with the leadership. The challenge is to change mindsets that have been formed by a tradition of hierarchy, risk aversion and onerous governance, replacing them with an approach to work that is better able to respond effectively to a fast-changing world.

As Daniel Thornton, former Programme Director at the Institute for Government, puts it: “The processes and accountability requirements of the public sector, interaction with Parliament, the fact you have so much legacy legislation and processes along with legacy IT – all of that makes it very hard to be agile in government.

Senior people in the Civil Service and ministers need to appreciate that successful transformation is not all about control, it’s about creating the right environment. Set long-term objectives, certainly, but don’t specify how you are going to do something a long way in advance, because you need to interact with citizens and find out what they want, and then test and learn in rapid cycles.

Leadership for organisational adaptability is different from traditional leadership, and in agile thinking consists of nine principles, amongst them:

  1. Actions speak louder than words. Agile leadership is about not only driving and promoting change, but also about being the change you want to see;
  2. People require meaning and purpose to make work fulfilling;
  3. Leadership lives everywhere in the organisation. Realising the leadership potential of all its people helps accelerate the organisation’s ability to learn and adapt;
  4. Leaders devolve appropriate power and authority. Empowering individuals is a necessary skill of the leader as they balance the emerging needs and tensions of the organisation;
  5. Great ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation. People who are close to a problem usually have the best ideas about how to solve it.
  6. This may be uncomfortable territory for senior people schooled in traditional management techniques, but embracing this kind of behaviour is essential if the public sector is to truly rise to the challenge of meeting the modern needs of the country.

Developing the appropriate skills is a crucial step on this journey, and the AgileDS handbook and accredited training integrates GDS guidance with the long-established Agile Project Management approach. The first prototype (private beta) course was delivered to Newcastle City Council and the Ministry of Justice. Using this feedback, it was tailored and then trialled with a further 12 public sector organisations. AgileDS is set to be publicly available later this year.

The course is accredited by APMG and leads to qualifications at foundation and practitioner level. It aims to enable government departments and other organisations to develop a consistent approach, a common language, and a skilled workforce for the successful design and delivery of digital services, whether through evolving improvements or a step-change in transformation.

First published in the Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2018