With the recent Digital Nations event still fresh, we sit down with the Product Owner of our Open-source Common Web Platform team, Benn Crawford, to talk all things Agile, Product and Collaboration. With Benn’s experience in both public and private sectors, he has a unique and informed perspective on how the two sectors relate and where there are opportunities to learn and improve for both.
So Benn, how does Agile work in the public sector?
You’d be interested to know that Agile working principles are becoming more common in the New Zealand public sector, but Agile is probably most common on a project basis than as the status quo organisational methodology. The Government Information Services (GIS) team at the Department of Internal Affairs, of which I was part of prior to joining SilverStripe, has been a champion of Agile in government for a number of years. With the challenge of resourcing more than half a dozen digital products, Agile and lean practices have been essential to GIS’s path to success.
What are some of the challenges faced by the public sector when it comes to Agile processes and teams?
The challenge for the public sector is scaling the benefits of an Agile approach to support the broad range of core activities the public sector is responsible for. The cycles driving compliance and governance activity along with policy development make applying Agile principles difficult. Certainly not an impossible proposition, but applying an Agile mentality to all core activity would require a significant paradigm shift at the C-level, and even perhaps require ministerial buy-in. The two big reasons are that to be Agile (and not just do Agile) there needs to be organisational wide support for the tempo of Agile work and, most importantly, the way risk is managed. In the public sector context, organisational support would also need to extend to broad acceptance by the public sector system - arguably the most complex organisational ecosystem there is.
Agile makes a very strong argument that it actually lowers risk. By moving in smaller increments, say a two week sprint if practicing Scrum, uncertainty and risk exposure can be identified, quantified and reprioritised around as they are encountered. With the expectation that every project will have an element of uncertainty and risk exposure, the adaptable nature of Agile factors in this reality. However, it’s that strength of Agile that is problematic in situations where work outcomes are publicly accountable and therefore political in nature. In this latter context, which is true for much of the work the public sector is responsible to deliver - the desire to map out work in advance, identify all risks and how they will be managed, and detail the deliverables agreed and budgeted for - Agile perhaps feels too risky an approach to be the norm.
What have your observations been from working in an Agile environment at SilverStripe? How does this help your team, what are some of the challenges?
SilverStripe has the organisational buy-in to not just embrace the uncertainty true to every piece of complex development work, but also to evolve its Agile environment. SilverStripe actually practices several variations of Agile methodologies reflecting the composition of its workstream. This empowers teams to move quickly on their priorities. The challenge however, is that the alignment between teams becomes a constant effort to avoid pulling the business and the product in different directions. The ideal picture might best be thought of as creating healthy tension, rather than perfect balance, in terms of managing priorities.
Any opinion on how the two sectors can learn from each other in regards to Agile?
The New Zealand public sector places a significant emphasis on achieving outcomes for the benefits of its inhabitants and citizens. Those working in the public sector see themselves as stewards of resources and in the most idealistic terms, their goal is to create the most value for the public. This mentality is quite similar to what is required to shepherd open source software. The aspiration of egoless service and development is definitely something SilverStripe takes inspiration from. On the flip side, SilverStripe is continuously improving its product and the way the business works, with no loss of appetite for the next iteration or prototype in search of something better. The tolerance for learning through testing a hypothesis and being proved wrong is high. This tolerance is something the public sector could embrace more.
How does shaping a product differ for a defined segment vs all New Zealanders?
The challenge of creating something that is available for everyone, is very, very difficult. That’s why in many cases only the public sector is the sensible agent to provide public services and products. But when it comes to targeting a segment, the case can be made that a non-profit or business can do that more effectively and cheaper.
The chief factors are how long it takes to get something into ‘people’s hands’, how quickly adjustments are made from customer feedback, and the trust people have in the provider. Though a generalisation, organisations focused on a narrower audience tend to have the advantage of responsiveness and this plays a big part in building trust. With that mind, it can often make sense to even segment a segment in order to identify specific needs that an organisation can focus on addressing. With the ability to not-cater for everyone and target specific needs (and build competencies around them), products can be honed faster and evolve with less friction.
How does reaching consensus based product decisions differ between public and private sector digital teams?
From my experience the big difference is autonomy to make decisions - that being private sector teams have more autonomy than their public sector counterparts. Though not pain free by any means, consensus is easier to achieve for private sector digital teams as they typically have less diversity in the stakeholder groups they have to account for. SilverStripe’s a little different to the normal private sector organisation in that we also help to shepherd a globally-based open source community of developers who need to have the opportunity to speak into important product decisions. As is the case with the public sector, but obviously to a significantly lesser extent, we have found drawing a consensus from all stakeholder input tricky at times.
Perhaps where the public sector really distinguishes itself on product decision making is in the governance and accountability expected of them. With parameters set out in the legislative and ethical frameworks of the public sector, reaching consensus for an organisation acting on behalf of the public takes substantially longer.
Government organisations and the private sector are already collaborating together (not just working together) to bring innovation to public services and products using Agile practices. There are a number of examples of private and public sector organisations coming together in sophisticated and responsive ways (e.g. CWP, the Lightning Lab GovTech Accelerator, and The Innovation Fund). The next evolution is to devise structures to bring constituents into the same collaboration process in a meaningful and scalable way - especially at the problem solving/solution design stage of projects and not just at the discovery or testing phases.
What was the key takeaway for you personally from the D5 conference?
The conference was a unique moment to gather some of best minds in GovTech together. Though not all necessarily covered at the conference, there were an number of meta-questions that came to mind which I think are the next big opportunities for those of us working in the space:
- How do we create public value digital products that limit, if not remove all together, the Bad Actors and outside influences which are interfering in democracies around the world? The safeguarding of digital utilities and services while still being open in design for those with legitimate reason will only become more important.
- With longer life expectancies (something I hope affects me personally ;) ), how do we get/keep an older workforce engaged in meaningful work while still providing opportunities for the younger generations to usher in new ideas?
Some further recurring themes from the speakers at the conference:
• Decentralised democracy is a growing area of interest for democratic governments around the world and will provide both opportunity, and perhaps, tension-points for how societal issues are tackled in the future.
• Digital inequality is a major barrier for delivering transformative public value through digital initiatives. Without also addressing access and removing constraints, especially for those at the margins of society, the aspirations of transformational change won’t be met. Digital equity = giving all people access and empowerment.
• Developing and attracting talent to grow the economy is a puzzle that doesn’t have one simple answer. All D5 nations would gladly welcome more capable people to help create the public value products and services of the future. But there simply aren’t enough digitally talented people (globally) right now with the expertise to lead nations towards largely ‘digital economies’.
• Changing institutional stability as an outcome to institutional agility and dexterity is the path to transformational change. There needs to be a mindset change at the leadership level to combat the inertia in the system.
My favourite quote of the conference:
“Providing services as people want to get them, not how you at the center want to give them” - Liam Maxwell, National Technology Adviser, HM Government (United Kingdom)
If you found the comparison of Agile in the public and private sectors interesting, take a look at our Agile Product Owner handbook for more Agile insights.