The rollout of Healthcare.gov, the platform to enroll US citizens in healthcare plans under the country’s Affordable Care Act, was one of the most high-profile tech failures of the decade. The US put a man on the moon — why couldn’t its officials figure out how to build a website? It’s not rocket science, after all.
Yet the botched project is part of a pattern. Technology has revolutionised the way we live and work, and large-scale tech projects are dominating the private sector. But the digital cross over into government services is advancing at a much slower rate than in the private sector, although there are a growing number of notable successes.
But public servants are continuously trialling new ways of working and “Agile”, a framework for software development and product management that originated in the tech sector, is gaining traction.
Agile is a user-centered method that reduces risk by enabling civil servants to make incremental improvements to reduce waste and figure out what’s not working so that projects can be scrapped without incurring huge losses.
In this explainer, we’ll describe where Agile came from, why Agile helps to “de-risk” government projects, how to start using Agile, and why it requires a culture change.
Don’t go chasing waterfalls: step away from traditional
Agile is a framework for software development and project management that prioritises short, deliverable iterations of tasks that are completed in an interactive way with end-users and project developers.
The Agile methodology was first devised in 2001 by a group of 17 programmers who were frustrated with traditional approaches to software development. The Agile Manifesto for Agile Software Development emerged as their solution.
The manifesto’s authors were inspired by Toyota’s Production System (TPS). Similar to making cars, developing software is a complicated process that requires the work of multiple teams comprised of people with different specialties, who work on a range of timelines.
The Agile Manifesto balances these differences by emphasising four key values: “customer collaboration”, “responding to change”, “working software”, and “individuals and interactions”.
The Agile Manifesto also sets out 12 “guiding principles”. These highlight the importance of working on short time scales with continuous attention to detail, and building teams that are motivated, eager to work together, and self-organising.
Although the Agile Manifesto was created with software development in mind, the core principles were purposely ambiguous so that it could be applied to any type of project management.
Why does government need Agile?
Colin McIntosh, an Agile Coach at Inland Revenue New Zealand, said traditional methods of product delivery aren’t working for government.
There is less of a political incentive to take risks on innovative solutions in government because public servants are trialling projects with tax-payer money, he said: failures can garner unwanted attention that projects an image of government instability.
And traditional methods of procurement — where contracts usually cover everything from delivery to system performance — limit flexibility.
That means that a project may be delivered on time but may not necessarily be successful.
By contrast, the short timescales involved in Agile working allow plenty of room for experimentation and failure and Agile fosters collaboration and continuous feedback.
“If you’re doing a two-week sprint, the most you can do is fail on something in two weeks. That’s a fast fail, it’s actually learning, not failing or a problem,” said McIntosh. “Don’t be afraid to do something that’s different, and if it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to change it.”
Working with the end-users throughout the design process helps public servants to create services that are better tailored to the people that will be using them.
McIntosh suggests bringing end-users on board at the start of the project. Having users trial the programs while developers work on them will help them make adjustments and add functionalities based on feedback. This will help facilitate a smoother transition once the project goes live.
Government needs to respond quickly to problems and working together with different departments and the end-users of a product accelerates decision-making and problem-solving.
Where to Start
There is not a one-size-all-model for using an Agile approach, but having an understanding of what is required for a successful outcome, and the team that can help you achieve it is the best place to start.
These are three potential ways of approaching Agile:
Scrum: One of the most used forms of Agile, this is a highly structured approach. The scrum method has short iterations, which are known as “sprints”, where focused tasks are usually completed in two-week intervals.
Kanban: This method is based on a tool called a “Kanban board”, which provides visualisations, organisation, and tracking of each element of a project.
Kanban methods don’t have a distinct start or stopping point and don’t have determined timeframes for completing each task within a project.
Lean: This approach focuses on getting feedback from customers quickly. Lean continuously tests products to drive frequent improvements.
Developing a harmonious relationship with contractors, the end-users, and within the Agile team is the key to successfully executing Agile.
Case Study: How Logan city, Australia, used Agile to create a database
Infrastructure projects are often noisy and disruptive to residents.
In Logan City, Australia, when citizens called civil servants to inquire about infrastructure repairs, their questions mainly went unanswered — until the City Council used Agile working to develop a central data repository for information on civil works projects being undertaken.
The City Council used a scrum method to quickly gather and identify different sources of metadata from a range of departments to create a central data hub. It then assembled the repository to help customer service representatives identify progress on infrastructure projects and relay the duration of the work to citizens.
The City Council worked on the first phase for six months with seven different teams including: water, sewage, water infrastructure, parks and customer service to facilitate the project.
Ricardo Martello, the City Futures Manager at Logan City Council, said the council is embedding Agile working internally, and uses it as a mode for experimenting with finding solutions one step at a time.
“We don’t want to invest a lot of time and resources into something that we’re not sure is going to succeed, so [Agile] is a great way of identifying [that] reasonably quickly, without committing a great level of resources and time to any activity that we cannot foresee the outcome of,” he said.
“A lot of the challenges are complex and we can’t address them with any one team, so we have to connect the different parts.”
Governments are driven by rules and strict procedural requirements and Agile requires different agencies, developers and the end-user to work together throughout the process, which can be challenging.
Not everyone is open to making the switch to more Agile ways of working.
In 2015, when Transport for London (TFL), the British capital’s transport agency, decided to swap the traditional waterfall approach for Agile to revamp their digital systems, TFL IT manager Alistair Montgomery was sceptical.
After successfully completing a two week sprint from the scrum method, Montgomery was won over by the quick progress and peer to peer working style.
“[Agile] starts to change the way organisations work, and that’s what I’m seeing in government,” McIntosh said.
Shifting the culture to encourage an agile way of working begins with focusing on citizens that will be using the projects that are developed. Considering the needs of citizens and working closely to gather feedback not only increases transparency but will produce more successful programs, he said.
Even the high profile tech failure of the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov, could’ve been prevented if contractors and agencies had better modes of communication.
In a high pressure policy environment, embracing a culture that uses agile as a flexible framework for project management will help governments become more innovative while putting the priorities of citizens first. – Amelia Axelsen
(Picture credit: Unsplash)