It’s the agile mindset that matters for local public services

Local public service organisations need to be more agile – it’s pretty much axiomatic. Particularly in our technology and digital related work, the success that many organisations have had in adopting agile delivery approaches seems to indicate that it’d be a good thing for them to do more of.

The local digital declaration advocates it, for example, by committing signatories to following the service standard and the technology code of practice, both of which strongly encourage the use of agile working in digital projects.

There are a bunch of reasons why this is hard though. Local public service culture is heavily business case driven, where funding is unlocked by making promises around outcomes in one, two or more years’ time. There’s also decades of learned behaviour to overcome, where people are just used to things being ‘finished’ and having projects plans with lots of lovely milestones in them.

There’s a further problem though, and it’s not one that is peculiar to this sector, but it is definitely something that happens there. And that’s showing what looks like external adoption of agile – having stand-ups, running retros, using post it notes on walls – but under the cover, just doing things in the same ways as before. People keep writing requirements documents, but just call them user stories.

Partly this is just classic change avoidance. But it’s also a result of a focus on the nuts and bolts of the practices of agile, rather than an adoption of the agile mindset – and it’s the latter that really matters.

I like to boil down the agile mindset to three core, very simple ideas. That work is better when:

  • We break big problems down into smaller, more manageable ones
  • We get working things into the hands of real users as quickly as possible, and act on their feedback
  • We work collaboratively in multi-disciplinary teams

These are three things that everyone in a council ought to understand about agile. Scrum v kanban, how to put a backlog together, running a card sorting session – all that stuff is important, but it’s detail. These three things can be understood and adopted by anyone, and that’s the way to start changing a culture.

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