Digital transformation and agility in government
Keegan McBride, Departmental Research Lecturer in AI, Government, and Policy at the Oxford Internet Institute
- 🌎 Keegan's website
- 🌎 Keegan on LinkedIn
- 🏫 Keegan at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
- 📄 Agile Development for Digital Government Services: Challenges and Success Factors
Maximilian Kupi, Computational Social Science Researcher at the Hertie School, Agile and Human-Centred Methods
- 🌎 Maximilian on LinkedIn
- 📄 Agile Development for Digital Government Services: Challenges and Success Factors
About this podcast episode
Can the words 🏢 Government and 💨 Agile work together? When thoughtfully considered
Today’s podcast guests are Maximilian Kupi and Keegan McBride, who introduce digital transformation and agility in government.
They share thoughts on how governments should consider agility and how to focus on where it matters. Keegan and Maximilian share concerns about keeping up with digital transformation and balancing these challenges while remaining dependable, structured, and reliable.
In this podcast, you will learn the following:
✅ The difference between agility in private and public sectors
✅ The dichotomy between agile delivery methods and procurement
✅ Ideal environments to adopt agility in government
✅ How the German government is sharing with the private sector
🎉 A case study that showcases where agile techniques can work
(transcripts are auto-generated, so please excuse the brevity)
[00:00:00] Quote from the podcast
Bill Raymond: Are there any opportunities from the private sector to help out the public sector, Max?
Maximillian Kupi: Sure.
There’s another great idea that German government is currently doing mostly on the federal level, if I’m not mistaken, for example, people that have experience from startups or from consultancies, they can come into the public sector for a limited period of time.
And then sure, one last point that we also found out in a study that’s a bit more broad, it was about data science and AI capacities in government. But I think the same applies also to agile methods in government. Is that you might want to have these centers for excellence or you might want to have these hubs, but it’s also important to build the base, so to say, to make sure that people on all fronts and in particular, because that’s where most of the innovation happens, right? It happens at the interplay between our government officials and the citizens.
Speaker: Welcome to the Agile in Action Podcast with Bill Raymond. Bill will explore how business disruptors are adopting agile techniques to gain a competitive advantage in this fast-paced technology driven market.
[00:01:12] Podcast start
Bill Raymond: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. Today, I’m joined by Maximillian Kupi and Keegan Mcbride. Hi Max. Hi Keegan. How are you today?
Keegan Mcbride: Good. How are you?
Maximillian Kupi: Hello. Nice to meet you.
[00:01:21] Balancing Agility and Structure in Government Digital Services
Bill Raymond: Today we’re going to be talking about balancing agility and structure in government digital services, and I’m really excited to talk to you today.
We’re going to raise some awareness of the government sector and how it works, because it is different than the private sector, and where agile can play a supportive role. Before we get started, could you share a little bit about yourselves and where you’re calling from today? Maybe start with you, Keegan.
[00:01:45] About Keegan Mcbride
Keegan Mcbride: Yeah, thanks. Happy to be here. My name’s Keegan Mcbride. I’m originally from the Seattle area, but I am now at the University of Oxford, working as a departmental research lecturer in Artificial Intelligence, government and policy at the Oxford Internet Institute, and also running the Master’s in Social Science of the internet here at the Oxford Internet Institute.
[00:02:04] About Maximillian Kupi
Bill Raymond: Great. And how about yourself, Max?
Hey, I’m Max. I’m a PhD researcher at the Herde School in Berlin. I work on the digital transformation of the public sector more generally. And I met Keegan, wemet here in Berlin when he did his postdoc here. Cool. Thank you. Let’s get started with the basics because I don’t like going into any podcast assuming that the listeners know exactly what we’re talking about.
So we’re going to be talking about agility today in the government sector, which is a public sector and we’re also going to talk about how we maybe comparison contrast the private sector. Maybe what you could do is just give us some sort of a broad overview as to what you mean by private sector.
[00:02:42] The private sector
Maximillian Kupi: Yes, sure. Private sector basically is all companies, small or larger firms basically that do business. And the difference with the public sector is basically, in the private sector they mostly focus on shareholder value maximization.
And the structure is, again, depending on which size of the company we are talking about, whether it’s small or big, it can be very bureaucratic and in this sense, not so different to the public sector, but it can also be, in a case of a small startup, very, very flat hierarchies and so on and so forth.
And on the value side, if you look at what basically are the values of the private sector, these are primarily financial and economics or shareholder value maximization. Slowly, one could say that nowadays, stuff like sustainability or being sustainable in business also plays a major role, but also always coming from a moreeconomic or financial perspective on it.
[00:03:35] The public sector
Maximillian Kupi: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think maybe just to recap a little bit about what Max just said. The private sector is made up of companies of various sizes that are focused on innovation, customer acquisition, profit maximization, returning value to shareholders.
Keegan Mcbride: The public sector on the other hand, is government institutions, public sector bureaucracies, things like the DMV, for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s the offices that you’re interacting with, hopefully not on a daily basis, but when you need to go to the government, this is basically what we’re talking about on the public sector side of things.
[00:04:09] The difference between the public sector and the private sector
Keegan Mcbride: The difference that you have between the public sector and the private sector is that the public sector doesn’t really care about profit maximization. It doesn’t care about returning value to shareholders. The goal of the public sector is essentially to run the state, to make sure that things work, to make sure that if you go to the doctor, somebody will be there to take care of you. To make sure that if you fly on a jet, that it’s not going to break down in mid-air because they have the regulations and training in place.
So this is the thing. Government and the public sector, they’re concerned with running the state, with setting the rules, setting the regulations, collecting taxes and then creating the conditions for the market to exist, which private sector is then creating value within.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, so there’s two very different types of organizations and I suppose that the private organization has a lot more flexibility in how they organize.
Maximillian Kupi: Exactly. They have more flexibility and they also do have more pressure in organizing more, let’s say more agile if you’re talking about that, because if they don’t manage to deliver the value to their customers, they’re out of business. On the other hand, the public sector, if they maybe are a little inefficient in what they do or don’t deliver the best services, there’s not so much that citizens can actually do. So unless they as we say, vote with their feet and move to a different place, but that doesn’t really happen so often, or it’s not as easy as changing from one mobile service provider to another, for example.
[00:05:30] Projects in the government space
Bill Raymond: Keegan, can you share what types of work we might see in the government space?
What do some projects look like there and the differences in what you might see in the private sector?
Keegan Mcbride: Yeah, sure. I would be happy to. Before I jump into that, I just want to take a step back and pick up on something that Max was saying, because I think this is a really important point and also what you were saying. If you’re sitting in a car, let’s say you drive a Toyota and you’re driving down the freeway and you crash, or you have to buy a new car because it broke down.
You’re going to go to the marketplace and you’re going to do your research. You’re going to say, okay, I want to drivea Ford or a Chevrolet or a SAAB or insert brand here. And there’s going to be different reasons that you’re going to choose one car over another. There are different choices, which means that the private sector companies are forced to be more agile.
They’re forced to respond to user needs. They really have to care about this stuff because if you do something wrong or you don’t provide the customer opportunity, they’re just going to go somewhere else. Now, if I have to get a driver’s license, maybe I go to a different DMV in the state, but I still have to go to the DMV.
If I live in the United States, I don’t really have a second option, I mean, yes I could get a visa so I could go to another country, there’s this whole process. But realistically, the public sector doesn’t have this sort of competition that the private sector does. So there’s not really an incentive to innovate and be more agile and more flexible in the same way that the private sector is required to do.
So, if we think about some of the services on the public sector side of things, anytime you’re interfacing or interacting with the government, this is basically what we’re talking about here. I use the example, the DMV a lot because it’s something that a lot of people can relate to and a lot of people know it’s not a fun experience.
But let’s say you’re a single mom raising multiple kids, then you’re eligible for different welfare benefits. This would be a service. How do you access these benefits? Do you have to go to an office? Are they available online? What is all the process happening in the background to make these benefits available for you?
During Covid19 we saw a lot of innovation that was required around unemployment insurance. There was even an advertisement in New Jersey, if I remember correctly, where they put out a nationwide news article looking for COBOL developers because their mainframes couldn’t handle the new sort of innovations that they needed to do.
So, really anything you’re doing with the state related to welfare provision, to licensing, this is a service that is important and that they would be working on, let’s say.
[00:07:41] Digital Transformation in the Public Sector
Bill Raymond: Great. Thank you. I appreciate that. Now, let’s talk a little bit about this term that we started with at the top of this conversation, which is digital transformation and to specifically, we’re going to be talking about digital transformation in the public sector. We’re going to also be comparing and contrasting that with the private sector.
So can one of you define what you mean by digital transformation in this conversation?
Maximillian Kupi: Sure, I can try. So well, digital transformation is related to the term digital and to the term digitizing, but it goes way farther than basically just taking whatever is in the real world, whatever is on paper, for example, and making it digital, into a digital file.
But actually transforming the whole organization around it in the sense that you would transform the service delivery to make it more user centered, for example. You would also transform the organization or culture. And a relationship with the citizens in a way that it’s more responsive to the citizens. And basically, digital transformation at its core, if you look at it, is about finding new and more efficient and effective ways of value creation for whatever, in the public sector case for the citizen, right?
[00:08:48] Life Event-Based Services
Maximillian Kupi: So, there are different examples that we could be talking about. And a topic that’s kind of discussed is life event-based services or services that basically are proactive from the side of the government.
So if you look atfor example, if you give birth to a child, you know, there’s a couple of steps. Keegan probably could go through this a bit more in detail or a more closer because he just had the experience. But there’s a couple of steps that everyone needs to take, and so far what happens is you need to go to the government and ask them to get your kid registered.
In Germany, you get already your tax ID basically at this age, it’s not a tax id, it’s basically the social security number at this point.
And all of this, you as a citizen have to do, basically going to the state and demanding for it. But what this idea of this life event-based services is that the state does this proactively.
So they know you’re checking into a hospital becauseyou’re pregnant, and then automatically all this line of services gets triggered and will ultimately deliver all these things that now people have to ask for and run to.
And that’s in particular in Germany, many different organizations require you to give them the same information a couple of times because they don’t talk to each other, et cetera, et cetera. And this can be very, very tedious.
And digital transformation is about making this less tedious, basically. It’s about focusing the state not on the state itself, not on the structures, but on the citizens. So that for them, it can be as easy as possible to interact with the state.
Bill Raymond: And
[00:10:19] Different levels of digital transformation
Maximillian Kupi: There are many different levels of digital transformation, basically on a scale. and this holds true in the public sector as well. So digital transformation is in part about service delivery as Max was saying. And I think there is a lot of important work going on around proactive public service delivery. But this requires huge transformations behind the scenes.
Keegan Mcbride: You need new legislation. You need new regulations. You need to have the data in the first place. You need to be able to connect people to specific data points. You need to be able to observe when these life-based events happen. So how do you even know somebody just had a baby? Well, probably somebody needs to type something into a computer somewhere.
Okay. Now that they typed this into a computer, how do we know, you know, that it’s true? How do we know who to attach it to? How do we know that this human being is this person that now has this data entry? So there are many, many things that happen behind the scenes from organizational changes, to legislative changes, to regulatory changes, to business process changes, to the technological changes, to human resource changes.
You need to understand how this stuff works. You need to be able to build it. You need to be able to interact with it. So digital transformation is very big and the implications of it I think are also quite important.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, absolutely. And I feel like anytime, you just mentioned quite a bit there, you talked about legislation, you talked about coming up with new ideas to improve how you interact with citizens and even are more proactive, if you will. Those are all things that, I guess when I think about government, and this is not, believe me, I know that people that work in the government sector, I have to appreciate what they do every day because I know that they have limited budgets. There are so many walls put up, between what one person can do and another person can do.
[00:12:01] Does agile work in the public sector? Examples
Bill Raymond: So when we talk about this it feels like, you know, some of this legislation and some of these things that we’re talking about, they sound great, but in practice, you know, how are we going to accomplish that? I’m wondering, is that where agile comes into the conversation or is this even a bigger conversation than that?
Keegan Mcbride: Yeah, I will answer and then I’ll hand it over to Max. I think that when we’re talking about the public sector, how this idea around agile is being used is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous. And the reason for this, it’s because of what we were talking about earlier about the difference between the private sector and the public sector.
Okay. Let’s take some famous sort of sayings around agile development, right? Move fast and break things, fail fast and fail often. I don’t want a healthcare sector that fails every week, right? The government needs to be, it needs to work, it needs to sort of support fundamental rights for all citizens.
It needs to be dependable, it needs to be structured, it needs to be reliable.
Let’s take another example. Let’s say that you’re 75 and you have to get your unemployment or medicare or welfare every month. If I’m doing something agilely and I’m changing how this works and every single month my grandma or my grandpa who barely knows how a computer works, has to go through a different process because they’re trying to optimize for user experience. The motivations and the needs of the service users in the public sector context are completely different than the use cases and the needs in the private sector.
So I think this is an important point to mention, which is, agile can make sense in the public sector, but when we are using it, it’s not about describing the broader transformations of the public sector. Specifically, where agile makes sense is when we are doing new software development projects, when we are launching new digital services and we are using agile methods to develop these service.
And having some sort of spillover effect, you should be able to work agilely, let’s say. But basically, it just means being able to talk to your neighbor. So is that agile? I’m not sure. It depends on who you ask. Some of it is pretty much common sense. But anyway, I just wanted to make that disclaimer now, but then maybe Max, you want to add something to it.
Maximillian Kupi: No, basically I can just underline whatever you just said. And also, if you look at where agile, I currently looked at over 50,000 job postings from the German public sector and looked at where they require agile methods or stuff like concrete frameworks like Scrum or related stuff like design thinking, for example.
This isin most of the cases, this is in the IT or digital realm of the public sector. So this is basically the main area where it does make sense or it might make sense to, use agile development. But apart from that, in the German public sector, or also in the private sector, there’s kind of a trend nowadays, which is called new work.
And people are all about, okay, let’s work on whiteboards. And in particular, the public sector in Germany is facing a lot of troubles in the future because many people will leave their jobs. The average employee, public sector employee in Germany is quite old and many of them will leave soon.
So, in order to attract new talents, they also need to ramp up or innovate the way that that public sector work is being done. And in this sense, also new kind of methods like agile or design thinking come into play. But as I said, if you look at the data, that’s very limited. The area where you see agile the most is really just IT projects and very, in very, say contained environments basically.
Bill Raymond: Yeah. Thank you. And I guess it would be really interesting too, and we already kind started down this path already, but maybe we could compare and contrast what agile efforts might look like when we compare them to public and private sector. Keegan, maybe you can share a little bit about on the public sector and Max, I think you might even have some sort of a case study you might be able to share.
Keegan Mcbride: Yeah, as I was just saying, I think what’s important to highlight here is that agility in the sense that we’re talking about, and let’s actually take a step back. You know, what is agile, right? I mean, everybody has some different understanding of it. Are we talking about the agile manifesto?
Which is quite old at this point. Are we talking about Scrum? Are we talking about kanban? Are we talking about, I don’t know, LEAN development? Are we talking about any other sort of insert framework here? Usually when people use the word agile, they basically just mean let’s get rid of regulation and be flexible, which is not the way to be using it.
And I think that’s one thing that Max and I tried to highlight quite often in our research, which is, when you are talking about agile, please explain what you mean and which framework you’re using and what you’re actually talking about. Because saying you’re going to run the government as a Scrum team is just not going to happen.
It’s just not, and you wouldn’t want that anyway. So I think it’s important just to sort of like demystify that a bit and call for people to be more clear about what they are trying to say or not say.
Anyway, from the public sector side of things, I mean, the best example that you see is the sort of launch of President Obama’s healthcare website which failed. And everybody has, you know, written about it, there are many studies. And one reason that people consistently sort of highlight as a reason of failure was the lack of agile project management and agile development. The problem is, I think we can all agree that agile development makes sense in the public sector when developing new digital services.
Doesn’t really matter on the service, but if you’re developing these things that are going to be like citizen-focused, perhaps have a lower level of risk attached to them, that need some higher level of citizen government interaction, it probably makes sense to try this agile type of software development.
The problem is most government services are not built in house because, though they may have some internal IT capacity, oftentimes they’re just going to be contracting out. It is very hard to go as a public sector employee to the lawyers who are writing a procurement and saying, Hey, we want to build this service, but I don’t know when it’s going to be done and I don’t know how much money it’s going to cost because we’re going to do it agilely.
It’s very, very hard to procure things to be built in this way. So even though it might make sense, it’s incredibly difficult to do. And I mean, yes, there are some examples like also New Zealand, they had a service called Smart Start, and I think this launched in December of 2016, I believe. And it was a new innovative, proactive, event-based service.
They tried to build it as a waterfall model approach. It failed. They didn’t understand user needs. They, you know, things weren’t aligned right. So they relaunched it. They started taking a more agile approach. They identified the importance of cross sector collaboration and so on. And then it worked really well and still working to this day.
So, I mean, there are examples. It does work, but it’s just very hard to do it inside the public sector at the moment because of many reasons, but procurement is a big one.
[00:18:38] Procurement process
Bill Raymond: Yes. And we actually have a really good podcast where we walked through the procurement process, so I’ll also link to that in the show notes for this podcast so you can get a sense for what that looks like. It’s very complicated trying to ask for services if you’re the government and then to respond and provide those services if you’re the contractor providing the services.
Keegan Mcbride: Definitely.
[00:19:00] Case study - City of Chicago
Bill Raymond: So I think there was a case study that you wanted to mention around the city of Chicago.
Keegan Mcbride: I think that’s me again.So this was basically, it’s I think a bit dated at this point and it’s related to a research paper that I did a couple of years ago. And what they had done was built a forecasting model to predict food safety violations in the City of Chicago. And this was a cooperative project between the City of Chicago, the Department for Public Health, they have an innovation unit and then some data scientists who are working as a civic activist capacity. And it worked very well. I don’t think they’re actually using the same model anymore, but it was open sourced, citizens were able to provide input. It was quite effective, it was used for multiple years.
And one sort of driving success factor that emerged from this was being able to work more agilely, being able to develop this thing in iterative way. And the reasons for this, I mean, for example, it allowed you to test assumptions, it allowed you to make multiple iterations to make sure that everything was correct.
It allowed you to have conversations with all the different stakeholders, making sure that you understood what they were talking about and they understood what you were talking about. So I think there’s a lot, this is something that is important about agile is this, you know, validated learning, talking with different stakeholder groups, making sure you’re in line with user needs, making sure that the service that you’re offering is actually something that they want.
And so, I think that is a nice example of how it can work.
[00:20:19] What was different in this case study that made it successful?
Bill Raymond: So when we’re talking about implementing agile in government, you just mentioned a whole bunch of things that even though we’re not saying throw everything away, follow
the Manifesto for Agile software development, we talk about kind of reworking things, throwing things away if we don’t like them, trying to move fast and break things as you mentioned. And so I appreciated all of those statements, but you did talk about a very particular project here that was very successful. What might have been different here that might have not been in another project?
Keegan Mcbride: In the context of Chicago?
Bill Raymond: Yeah, just using that as an example.
Keegan Mcbride: Yeah, so in that paper we actually identify what we call the sort of like perfect storm of factors. And there were a few different things. One was being able to work agilely. I think probably the most important, and this is going to be the most important thing across the board, from software development to digital transformation, especially in the context of the public sector, which is having innovative leaders who have the right mindset to try things.
So they said they can use an algorithm, and I said, okay, let’s try it. Having this innovative mindset is really, really important. You know, being able to say, okay, I don’t understand it, but maybe we try it out. And being willing to test things, it’s a lot harder in the public sector, right? Because there’s a culture where saying no to everything is the sort of default. And this is, oh, we can’t do it for this reason. You don’t want to risk your job. It can be very political. The choices that you make can have real negative impacts on many people if you get something wrong. So there’s a lot of risk aversion.
Now, this isn’t to say, throw all this out and just be completely risky and give all your business to the private sector and get rid of regulation and don’t do procurement, but it is to say that, you know, if you are working in the public sector and your mission is, let’s say, to make sure that your residents or your citizens are able to live a happy and fulfilling life.
One component to this will be some sort of interaction with the government, whether they like it, whether that they don’t, it’s going to happen. The question then is, how can we make this as painless as possible? How can we make sure we’re doing our job with the best as possible? How can we make this as easy as possible for the citizen?
And this requires you to think creatively, it requires you to harness the potential that digital technology offers, but to integrate this within the sort of framework that the public sector operates within.
Bill Raymond: And so I’m wondering if we have these projects where we’re going to start adopting some of these agile concepts to bring products to the people that we provide services for faster, more efficiently, higher quality, add some additional service on top of that. I have to imagine, you know, I’ve worked in many government projects before, I’ve worked with a lot of great people. But it does always feel like anytime I go into those spaces, because of all of the, I guess the word was red tape, all of the things that need to happen, all the regulatory things, things seem to be a little bit slower there. But you do want to introduce these ideas.
[00:23:12] Opportunities from the private sector
Bill Raymond: I think a lot of people will tell you, they would like to do their services better and so therefore agile concepts sounds like a good idea, but they may not have built up that internal knowledge of how to kind of live that. And I’m wondering, are there any opportunities from the private sector to help out folks with the public sector, Max?
Maximillian Kupi: Sure. I mean, there’s multiple ways that the public sector can make use of the expertise from the private sector basically. Which is first, they could try and hire people that would normally go to the private sector. That means they would need to adapt the recruitment practices and make the jobs in the public sector really compatible with private sector jobs.
So that means, in Germany they have already started to do that a little bit, raising the IT salaries in particular because they are very different in the private sector, especially for specialists than in the public sector, and then of course, besides just hiring people to stay with you long term.
There’s another great idea that German government is currently doing mostly on the federal level, if I’m not mistaken, but this is a program where people that have experience as coaches or also it’s both, it’s happening both on a technical level as well as on a coaching or agile methods level, so to say. So for example, people that have experience from startups or from consultancies, they can come into the public sector for a limited period of time. I think, if I’m not mistaken, it was half a year or a year. And they would be working with particular teams that would basically apply in this program and say like, Hey, I would want to, I see a big opportunity to maybe use such methods or new technologies or this new skillset.
And then the public sector organization would apply and so would the people from the private sector, and they would do kind of a matchmaking. And then these people would go there for say, half a year or a year and then leave again. And with this basically show, and if they’re lucky, they’ll be able to implement some things or change some things.
Of course, in half a year or in a year, you can’t do much, but you can give an idea of what’s potentially possible. And if you’re looking more long-term, then sure, besides adapting the recruitment practices, you would also want to build communities inside government and kind of centers of excellence so that people that work with the same tools and methods that they could exchange each other.
You would also want to collaborate with unis or with other experts if possible and strengthen the networks all around that as a public sector agency. And another thing that Germany has been doing, when it comes to Covid, so we did a hackathon where people came together to work on digital solutions related to the Covid pandemic or dealing with the Covid pandemic. This is also a great way to, not so much to really get stuff or to deliver solutions that would then potentially be long-term successful, but I think more so, some of them might, but more so it’s about raising awareness amongst the outside community, amongst the people that are not in the public sector, that there’s actually cool things that you can do in the public sector and that you can help with.
And then sure, one last point that we also found out in a study that’s a bit more broad, it was about data science and AI capacities in government. But I think the same applies also to agile methods in government. Is that you might want to have these centers for excellence or you might want to have these hubs, but it’s also important to build the base, so to say, to make sure that people on all fronts and in particular, because that’s where most of the innovation happens, right? It happens at the interplay between our government officials and the citizens. So that’s where innovation happens and you want to make sure that they actually have the capacities to innovate. So they have the technical and the methodological skills to do so.
Bill Raymond: Those are great examples. I actually think that one of the things that we talk about all the time is agile. And I hear people say, well, agile didn’t work for us, or agile’s great for us. So sometimes it can be a little bit confusing to figure out how you might go about doing these things. I love this idea of a hackathon.
I love this idea of bringing folks in from industry that maybe can provide some insight. Those are great ideas, and I see that here, you know, I’m living in San Francisco, we have a lot of nonprofits, which I guess kind of live somewhere between private and public sector, but I see people donating their time all the time.
And one of the things that I did notice about this community, even just starting this podcast is, I just reach out and ask people for some advice and support, and I’ve found that the agile community as a whole are very open to sharing their ideas and spending some time with you. Both of you are doing this on the podcast right now and I appreciate that and I think it’s very good to know that if you feel like maybe you could bring some of these capabilities on, it’s okay to just reach right out to people that are talking about these things.
They are more than willing to provide support, sometimes just on their own time and I appreciate that.
But as we get closer to the end of this podcast, I’m very curious, we’ve talked about digital transformation at a high level.
[00:28:17] Starting to make change
Bill Raymond: We’ve talked a little bit about the differences between the two, but if someone’s listening to this podcast right now, and they’re in the public sector, they work in the government, what are some things that you might do to start thinking about making change within your department or the area that you’re working?
[00:28:35] Differences exist
Keegan Mcbride: I think that one thing that we have to acknowledge here is that public sector has a problem, and that problem is they’re often underfunded, understaffed and given quite a lot of responsibilities. You’re doing this podcast from Silicon Valley. Everybody there knows about agile at this point.
You know, not everybody, but it’s much more common here in the Silicon Valley versus if you’re in Appalachia or if you’re near the Balkan oil field in North Dakota and Montana. When I went to school in Montana, I used to helpsort of mayors of rural towns of a couple hundred people build websites, right?
So there is a context where this agile will make sense. It tends to be in larger public sector organizations, which are already actively engaged with electronic service delivery, which have some experience with it, which who are able to procure, who are able to build these things themselves. And so I think it’s important acknowledge that these differences exist and that agile is not going to be the solution for everybody.
[00:29:25] Effectiveness comes first
Keegan Mcbride: And point 2 is that if you are a public sector person listening to this, the response that I hear a lot is, you don’t understand my problems, I’m not able to address everything already as it is, who are you to say that I should just start doing things agile?
And I agree. You shouldn’t start to do things agile in this case. You need to do the job first. Effectiveness must come first. If you’re not able to provide these services or if you don’t have digital technologies or whatever the issue is, stop thinking about agile and you need to be able to do your job first.
And so I think that this is, you know, it’s an important, once again, to acknowledge that agile is not going to fix every single problem. It’s not going to fix bad management. It’s not going to fix poor internal processes. It’s not going to fix budgeting issues. It’s not going to fix any of these things.
Agile is a tool that can be applied in very specific situations, so I think it’s just important to be realistic.
[00:30:15] Ensure buy-in
Keegan Mcbride: And the third thing that I would say, and this also comes out of this case from Chicago, which is, if you’re going to build a new digital service, it’s important to have buy-in from everybody who’s involved.
You need a motivated leader, but you also need support from the parties who are going to be a part of this. And the best way to do this is to talk with people. Say, I understand you’re struggling, I know that you have too much to do, I know you don’t have enough money and all that we are trying to do is help you so you can do your job better.
So it’s about contextualizing, it’s about, you know, refinding the purpose and the motivation for being in the public sector in the first place, and then trying to use a new digital service if it’s like an internal one to improve some sort of business process, whatever, to make their life easier and externally, also to make life easier for the citizens.
But I think this is the important point, which is agile is something which comes at the very end of this process. You need to have the foundations in place, you need to be able to do what you need to do. And only then should you start thinking about, okay, now that we’re already doing this, now that people like it, how can we start to do it a little bit better?
To give an example from the UK, we have public healthcare here. And there’s a big crisis at the moment because it’s underfunded. And what it means is there’s long wait times, that not everybody’s able to get an appointment fast enough, there’s strikes happening. Agile is not going to fix this.
There was just a report by the public sector that said, okay, you know what we need to do? We need to start cutting funding, cutting jobs and relying more on technology and becoming more agile and flexible. That does not make that problem go away. Sometimes you have to have bureaucracy, sometimes you have to have funding.
Sometimes you have to have structure and this is especially the case in the public sector. So I think that this is my main message, which is just agile will not fix everything. Government needs structure. There are specific times and cases where agile makes sense.
If you’re working in the public sector, you know if it does or doesn’t make sense, but if you do think there’s an opportunity to become more innovative or to become more agile, it is okay to talk about that.
It is okay to think about how you could do that, but it’s also important to know it’s not a cure all.
Bill Raymond: Yeah, maybe I can just share, so we once did a study about agile development for digital government services and we had six case studies in there. And we have some final recommendations, which probably will not be too different to what people might have heard in this podcast before. And they are basically, and this is maybe also summarizing what we’ve discussed before, it’s basically to know when agile makes sense and when it does not make sense. Then getting the upfront investment right, which means you need the funding, managerial support, motivated and experienced, multidisciplinary team, et cetera. Then you need to ensure thateverybody basically understands which development method you are following, as well as the goals and the operating procedures that you’re following the project and you need to, and this is particularly something that came up with regulations, et cetera, you need to have legal support at one point, so make sure that you get the lawyers on board as well as early as possible.
Maximillian Kupi: And maybe one last thing, especially in the German public sector, people can be very risk averse. So that’s also something that we’ve put up in the discussion of this paper. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. So if you have the space where you can actually do it, and Keegan went very much into detail that in government you don’t always have this space, but if you have the space to actually test out things and try out things, then don’t be afraid to be wrong in this space and do MVPs and test out whether your assumptions about the user needs and expectations actually, right or not.
But that’s probably as I said,not very different to agile projects in the private sector.
Bill Raymond: That’s a great way to wrap up this podcast. I really appreciate both of your time. As a matter of fact, we actually found you through that research that you both did, which is Agile Development for Digital Government Services, Challenges and Success Factors and we’ll provide a link to that on the Agile in Action Podcast, and of course, in the show notes for this podcast.
Maximillian Kupi, how can people reach you?
Maximillian Kupi: Linkedin, I guess.
Bill Raymond: And how about yourself, Keegan Mcbride?
Keegan Mcbride: Yeah, you can find me at my personal website, KeeganMcbride.ee or you can just look me up on Linkedin or in my staff profile page at the University of Oxford.
Bill Raymond: Wonderful. And so along with that research paper, I’ll also include Maximillian Kupi’s and Keegan Mcbride’s Linkedin and other links that Keegan just provided there on the agileinaction.com podcast website.
And if you’re in a podcast app right now, just scroll down to the show notes to description and you’ll find the links there.
Again, Maximillian Kupi and Keegan Mcbride, I really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Keegan Mcbride: Thanks for having us.
Maximillian Kupi: Thank you.
Speaker: Thank you for listening to the Agile and Action Podcast with Bill Raymond. Subscribe now to stay current on the latest trends in team, organization, and agile techniques. Please take a moment to rate and comment to help us grow our community. This podcast is produced in affiliation with Cambermast LLC, and our executive producer is Reama Dagasan.
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