Agile government in action: a practical example

'I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.'

Thomas Jefferson, 1816

In recent years Governments have experienced an era of economic downturn, increased unemployment and budgetary cuts, coupled with rising expectations and demands from citizens for improved public services. It is an age which, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, could be described as one of ‘frequent changes in laws and Constitutions,’ where there are increasing demands on institutions to advance and to ‘keep pace with the times.’ It has also been a period where, based on manifesto commitments for policy reform, there have been many changes and transfers of power in elected Governments.

Typically, a new Government has a period of three to four years to implement their policies 

Typically, before an electorate is asked to judge a Government on the success of its term - and they become accountable for the actions of their administration - they have a period of three to four years to implement their policies. Also in terms of what should be done, the present economic crisis has produced no shortage of commentaries on the need for an acceleration of public sector modernisation and reform as one element of overall recovery measures. 

Since the 1980s a wide range of terms has been used in relation to the strategies and approaches put forward for this modernisation and reform. These include: New Public Management, Joined-up Government, eGovernment, One Government, Open Government, Connected Government and Citizen-Centric Government. 

Although a number of different public administration traditions can be identified in various regions and countries, and the policies and strategies adopted to reform and modernise these systems also vary, few would argue that, compared to other sectors, Government organisations are still perceived as being slow to change to meet the evolving demands for their services.

And with respect to existing differences of traditions, structures, priorities and cultures in various countries, how this change can practically be achieved within an accelerated timeframe is less obvious. New ways have to be found to make Government administrations more agile so that their policy reforms can be implemented faster and they can be held directly accountable for their own policy commitments, rather than those of a preceding administration. 

In this paper we leverage our industry and strategic consulting experience to introduce some practical approaches for embedding agility into Government Administration processes and organisational structures as well as building flexible technology architectures that can be used to support the public sector reform agenda.

New ways have to be found to make Government administration more agile so that they can be held directly accountable for thier own policy commitments

Using a case study from the Irish Government’s Department of Social Protection (DSP), we examine their 10-year Service Delivery Modernisation programme. We look at the approaches they took as they made the transition to becoming a more agile agency. And we highlight the benefits and results that they have achieved by using an agile approach, giving them the ability to more quickly and effectively implement Government policy at macro level, and improve flexibility and efficiency in their day-to-day operations.

While the use of ‘agile’ terminology can originally be linked to the field of software development we look at how the DSP embedded agility within their organisation by taking a much broader and transformational view which encompassed the following four core aspects:

  • Their business model and organisational structures
  • Their organisational capability in terms of the roles of their employees
  • The enabling technology and systems
  • The process for continually and consistently delivering business change

We believe it is only by taking an integrated approach to these four aspects that real and sustainable benefits can be achieved.

Agility is not just about taking a different approach to technology change – an integrated strategy which also encompasses agile business processes, organisation structures and people is required to achieve real and sustainable benefits

This call to action is for central Government organisations in comparable countries, and to business units in local, state and federal administrations in larger economies. It is relevant not just to CIOs in the Government and Public Services, but to anyone faced with planning and leading major business and technology transformation in organisations, or in business units, operating in rapidly changing markets and industries. 

Approaches to government administration modernisation

Despite the apparent global nature of public management reforms, the ways in which they have been translated into specific policies and programmes have been far from uniform. In some countries reforms have advanced no further than the level of political rhetoric. In others they have considerably reshaped public administration structures, policy making processes and operational practices.

Successive waves of public management reform have concentrated on developing new approaches for governments and their institutions on how best they can meet the emerging challenges. From the Weberian bureaucracies of the early 20th century with their emphasis on hierarchy, authority and standardisation of services, to the efficiency and accountability drives of new public management in the 1980s, each wave of reform has changed the way in which public services are developed and delivered.

During the 1980s and 1990s, governments sought to absorb the best practices and lessons from the private sector. Public sector agencies looked to develop a stronger market orientation, greater efficiency in service delivery, and greater accountability for results and transparency in decision making. This approach, known as ‘new public management,’ brought significant reform: services were delivered in new ways, including outsourcing to the private and non-government sectors; public managers were given greater freedom to do their jobs and they were rewarded for achieving clearly defined performance targets.

There is, however, increasing recognition that such is the complexity of the challenges facing Governments today, that they require different and more sophisticated solutions to those that were applied in the past.

The literature on international reform trends shows that nearly all cross-national comparisons of public management reforms focus on countries with similar backgrounds. From a European perspective four main public administration traditions can be identified, Kickert, 1997 (note 1); Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2000 (note 2); Peters 2000 (note 3):

  • The Germanic countries that are characterised by a basically Weberian bureaucracy model, an administrative practice marked by an overriding legalistic philosophy (Rechtsstaat)
  • Anglo-Saxon - the United Kingdom, the United States, and Anglo American administrative systems – the antithesis of the Germanic tradition as the state as such does not exist as a legal entity
  • Southern Europe like France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium, referred to as Napoleonic countries (Ongaro, 2009 note 4), legalistic states
  • The Nordic countries that are unitary states with a citizen-oriented public administration and have evolved from a legalistic to a pluralistic/consensual government style

Cross-country analysis (Demmke; et al, 2006 note 5) shows that public administration modernisation in Europe is strongly driven by economic and budgetary pressures. Also, current reforms seem to be strongly driven by technological developments, reflected in the strong central role of e-government on the current modernisation agenda in EU public administrations. EU legislation and integration also seem to be relevant, although they are not seen as very strong-drivers for reform. 

Typically public administration modernisation is a strongly top-down driven agenda with national parliament and legislation as key factors driving the modernisation momentum. Public administration senior executives and employees as well as staff representatives and unions play a less important role in setting and deciding the direction of the agenda (although it was noted that when it comes to the implementation of the modernisation agenda their role increases significantly). 

In Europe e-government remains as one of the key pillars of public administration modernisation

The media, private sector enterprises and lobbyists as well as other interest groups and supranational organisations do not appear to play a significant role in public administration modernisation in Europe. And the different public administration traditions seem to vary considerably in their assessment of the relevance of different reform drivers.

In their annual report (note 6), the OECD outlined the following topics as the main themes of public administration modernisation in OECD states throughout the past 20 years:

  • Open government
  • Enhancing public sector performance
  • Modernising accountability and control
  • Reallocation and restructuring (decentralisation)
  • Use of market-type mechanism
  • Modernising public employment.

Besides e-Government reform initiatives, efforts to strengthen accountability and customer orientation, as well as reforms related to good governance, currently seem to be high on the modernisation agenda. On the other hand the alignment of public and private sector employment is considered to be less influential, as has been described in other reports.

International research and commentary in relation to public services modernisation and reform acknowledges the traditions and cultures influencing approaches and emphases in different countries. However, there are also many common drivers and challenges evident across jurisdictions.

Irrespective of these differences or shared challenges though, the key objective for Governments everywhere must be to implement the changes in public service delivery required so that their policies can take effect and yield benefits. And as a result we believe the emphasis needs to be less on what needs to be done and more on sharing and developing practical examples of how to do it.

Geoff Gallop, Professor and Director of the University of Sydney’s Graduate School of Government (and Premier of Western Australia from 2001 to 2006), illustrated the complexity of the Government operating environment and the many expectations imposed on public servants, both individually and collectively when he stated (note 7):

On the one hand, we ask them to be fully accountable and yet on the other hand, we ask them to be creative and innovative. On the one hand, we ask them to be efficient and on the other hand we insist that they be effective and produce real change in the community. On the one hand, we ask them to be inspirational and purposeful in respect of their agency responsibilities and on the other, we expect them to join up, co-operate and compromise with others. And finally, we ask them to perform to particular targets and at the same time to be agile and flexible in the way they operate.

Geoff Gallop, Professor and Director of the University of Sydney’s Graduate School of Government

In the following sections of this paper we set out our views on taking an agile approach to delivering change in complex organisations more quickly, and with lower risk, than traditional sequential or ‘waterfall’ approaches. We also introduce some high-level views on the characteristics of organisations who have adopted these agile principles. We then examine a practical example, based on our experience with the Irish Department of Social Protection in terms of the approach they have adopted and the benefits that have been realised.

Taking an agile approach to business and technology transformation

The term ‘agile’, when used to refer to an approach or methodology for delivering change, has its origins in the software development industry in the late 1990s (note 8). At that time an increasing number of large and high-profile IT-enabled change projects in both the public and private sectors were running over budget and falling behind schedule with the result that they were failing to deliver the anticipated benefits to the business. So much so, that it was clear that the traditional approach was failing far too often and a new approach was needed. 

Up to then, the generally accepted delivery mechanism for business change was the “waterfall” type project – a series of sequential steps that when performed together in a predetermined order would lead to the desired outcome. First a problem was identified and defined, then a business and technical solution was designed, following which the various components were built and integrated and finally, after successfully passing a series of tests, the complete solution was put into operation.

From a public sector perspective this approach has, and still does, work effectively for delivering solutions in certain areas, such as a large infrastructure projects where the requirements are clearly defined and not liable to change. 

An example of such a project might be where two cities need to be linked by a motorway, or where a new gas or oil pipeline is required to transport these natural resources to consumers. Both of these examples involve large, expensive and complex projects that may take many years to complete. They both have an important common defining characteristic, however, which is that the stakeholders can allocate resources to the project with a high-level of certainty that the original problem to be solved will remain constant and will still be valid at its completion. 

However, experience has shown that over the course of a project, the dynamics of the economy, market and society coupled with changes in the internal priorities of organisations themselves, often mean that the original problem to be solved may evolve or change at best, or at worst be replaced by a different problem or higher priority one. The challenge for organisations operating in this dynamic environment is to create a business and technical environment where its people deliver change on a more continuous, business-as-usual basis as opposed to via traditional large, high-risk and typically multi-year projects. 

In the UK’s Institute for Government’s report “System Error: fixing the flaws in government IT” the argument is put forward that government’s approach to IT is fundamentally flawed. 

The report goes on to state that without a radical re-think in this important and often controversial area of government, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and government time are at risk. The report concludes that public sector organisations have adopted an approach to IT that incorrectly assumes that the world works in a rational and predictable fashion, where specifications are drawn up in advance, ‘solutions’ are procured and delivery is then managed against a pre-determined timetable.

For the road engineer or motorist it can be very easy to explain and measure the tangible benefits of building a new motorway – journey times are shortened, savings may be made on transport distribution costs, the number of traffic accidents may be reduced and so on. However, the benefits of IT-enabled business and organisational change projects are not always this clear. That’s why, historically, many such projects suffered from their stakeholders’ inability to clearly link quantifiable benefits of the project with the required investment and to deliver these benefits in an appropriate timeframe to solve the original problem. 

Let’s take an example – assume that we have 50 features or requirements to incorporate into a new business solution that needs to be delivered. Taking an agile approach – rather than the traditional one where we need to get a full understanding of all 50 features, gathering all of the requirements, and defining all of the design at the beginning of the project – we partition these features across the planned duration of the project. The approach is based on an iterative process structure where we use a divide and conquer approach to solving a large problem: we take the total project and divide it into smaller pieces.

So instead of setting out on a marathon to get to where we think we want to go, we embark on a series of sprints. Half way through the marathon it can be difficult to remember where you started or see where you will end. However after each sprint we can still look back to where we started and validate where we will be after we complete the next one. The diagram on the following page illustrates the two different approaches – on the top half we have implemented based on a traditional sequenctial or waterfall process. At the end of our project we deliver the solution, including all 50 features - for the first time. In the bottom half of the diagram we have divided our 50 features across five sprints of about one month each. At the end of each sprint, a working solution is delivered to the customer for them to validate and use.

Agile principles (note 8) therefore look to focus on the business needs through delivering a solution iteratively with constant feedback, and to realise benefits such as:

  • Complete visibility into a customer and quality-driven delivery process. The customer is much more likely to get what they want because they have a more direct and enduring involvement in the project.
  • Delivered iteratively so that constant feedback is received. Customer input is incorporated into the overall delivery approach and they have an iterative opportunity to see and provide feedback on each solution as it is being delivered.
  • Frequent communication to avoid misunderstandings and avert delays. This means that the real customers for any solution can give fast feedback very soon after the project starts. In this way they can actively avert a situation arising where something that they don’t want or can’t use is developed.
  • Regular project checkpoints with demonstrations of working solutions. Frequent checkpoints and planning on agile teams focuses the team on short-term goals, and allows for shifts in feature priorities based on actual needs. Newly created features that have become more important are scheduled sooner and those that are less important are delayed and may even be allowed to slip out of scope. In addition, by delivering actual working solutions after each sprint, in the event that a project is prematurely terminated (or “canned”), benefits can be recouped as real business value that reflects the highest-priority features delivered early in the project.
  • Flexibility to respond to changing requirements, adjust scope and reshape priorities. A key agile principle is that frequent, incremental planning and adjustments to the plan must be actively encouraged as opposed to rigidly sticking to a pre-determined detailed plan. It is this attention to frequent incremental adjustments in the plan that will allow organisations that have traditionally delivered solutions after many months or years of work to be able to adapt to their changing environments and deliver more often.

But in the end, agile methods are about much more than just an implementation approach, they require a business and technical environment that allows projects to evolve and adapt as circumstances dictate. An evolving plan and iterative implementation approach allows teams to focus on what is really important. As Kent Beck (note 9), one of the founders of the agile movement states “Agile doesn’t have a risk management strategy; agile is a risk management strategy.”

4 characteristics of "agile"

  • People – Agile encourages & empowers teams, self-organisation and accountability
  • Solution delivery – Agile is iterative & incremental – delivering business solutions using time boxes, and promoting the rapid delivery of high quality applications
  • Customer collaborative – With Agile the customer and the development team work side by side
  • Responsive to change – Embedded within Agile is the flexibility to accept change

The anatomy of an agile agency

Agile approaches, where capabilities are delivered in sprints over a period of weeks or months as opposed to years, have therefore emerged as a viable alternative to often expensive ‘waterfall’ approaches that carry with them risks and uncertainties that the final result may not turn out to be a solution for the original problem. 

It is particularly valid for public service organisations to consider agile approaches to ensure that scarce funds are invested in requirements that will most satisfy the user’s evolving and current needs, rather than delivering stale or unwanted solutions. For years, traditional government projects have run into this problem - especially given the multi-year plans and timelines of so many of their projects. The result was that projects often delivered well-crafted solutions to problems that were relevant months - even years ago. Regardless of the approach taken however, it is recognised that the full benefits that any business solution delivers can only be realised when the appropriate emphasis is also placed on the related process, organisational, technology and people aspects in an integrated way. 

The evolution of agile from its origins in software development to include these areas was, therefore, a logical one. The concept of agile government – responsive and efficient, if not leaner – isn’t new. A.T. Kearney, for example, argued that government agencies could “set in motion a cycle of improved productivity and effectiveness” by becoming more “agile”. This research, which included representative Government agencies from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, the UK and the US, led to a definition of an agile organisation as one exhibiting a number of key aspects and characteristics which are highlighted in the chart below (adapted from AT Kearney note 10). 

In their 2008 study (note 11) for the State Government of Victoria, Australia, Demos a UK think tank, defined an agile government organisation as one which exhibited the following four characteristics:

  • Strategic adaptation – Governments operate in unpredictable and uncertain environments and therefore public sector agencies cannot rely on static modes of operating. The public sector needs to be able to adapt its structures and processes to medium term trends and challenges. Strategic adaptation means that public sector agencies can reconfigure their operations as the environment changes, from an economic downturn to the introduction of new technology.
  • Outcomes focus - A focus on outcomes is a critical component of agility because it often helps governments to focus on the complex and cross-portfolio challenges facing society that can only be addressed through joined-up approaches. This does not mean, however, that every area of public sector activity will entail a joined-up approach. Many programmes and services that are well suited to traditional structures will continue to operate under vertical lines of delivery and accountability. Nevertheless, agile agencies are increasingly joining up to deliver outcomes and address cost cutting issues which could not be achieved by a single agency acting alone.
  • Preventing or reducing problems before they arise - The role of government is not simply to meet current needs, but also to shape society in the longer term for the public interest. Some commentators argue that such ‘shaping’ is becoming more important as we move into a ‘post-consumer’ age in which government needs to change people’s behaviour as well as respond to their demands in the short term (Mulgan, 2007 note 12). Governments do not control all the organisations and resources that they need to achieve outcomes. They need a broader sense of how their actions will interact with those of others. In addition, ‘unlike business, solutions rely in part on the users themselves, and their capacity to take shared responsibility for positive outcomes’ (Demos, 2003 note 13). This suggests the public sector needs to be more agile in the way it influences different kinds of behaviour, both internally and externally.
  • Short term frontline responsiveness - Frontline responsiveness extends beyond notions of organisational flexibility. It encompasses the empowerment of individual public servants to exercise judgement and take decisions that address individuals’ immediate needs. In an environment where the needs of one member of the public can vary significantly from those of another, reliance on fixed rules and procedures can result in highly restrictive service delivery. This challenge of heterogeneity requires alignment between systems of authority and accountability that are supported by sound decision-making frameworks. 

Agile organisations can also be defined as ones that are ‘hyper strategic’ tackling challenges wrought by turbulent external environments, while also preparing for future changes that are not yet apparent (Pollard, 2004 note 14). They move through an agility cycle, seeking out and interpreting information to inform short, medium and long term decision making and action. Demos defined the agility cycle as a four-step process, as illustrated in this diagram adapted from their paper.

In summary, agile organisations and governments are those that strive for short term responsiveness to day to day needs, medium term adaptation to emerging opportunities and challenges, and long term influence over the shape of future operating environments. 

Agile public sector agencies move through a continuous process that involves: scanning and making sense of information, responding to stimuli, and shaping change.

Agility is a useful concept for identifying the public sector trends and practices that are at the forefront of shaping contemporary approaches to public management.

To this process they apply public management practices that have emerged subsequent to the new public management reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. 

These include personalising services to both individuals’ and citizen’s needs, creating the incentives for behavioural change to influence policy outcomes, and joining up services and systems across portfolios, jurisdictions, and sectors to address cross-cutting issues. Government agility means re-thinking the basic components that are used to deliver policy. It means making the mechanisms of Government far more adaptable to doing things in different ways. It is more than just an IT challenge, however. It goes to the very heart of the organisational structures, delivery mechanisms and contracts that are used by Governments as their levers for policy delivery.

Agile government in action

In this paper we move beyond these varying definitions and theories to introduce a practical framework and approach for structuring an agile transformation programme in Government ministries and agencies. While the principles are, we believe, relevant across many 10 industry sectors, our example is based on a significant business transformation taking place in the area of scheme administration and payments, which is a core business area for Governments worldwide. To illustrate the approach we discuss the lessons learned and results achieved from a significant agile transformation programme initiated by the Department of Social Protection (DSP) in Ireland in 2002 and which continues to evolve and deliver on its original objectives today.

The DSP is involved in a major business transformation programme which involves significant changes to how they are organised and how they deliver services, along with the introduction of enabling technologies.

The background is a historically high-level of change and a very high level of relative unknowns – typified by late policy changes that are politically driven, changing priorities and the sheer complexity of the entire transformation.

From the year 2000, the Irish economy was experiencing a period of high growth, and moving towards a position of almost full employment in the coming years.

However, it was recognised by senior management in the Department of Social Protection that the organisation needed to significantly increase its ability to cope with change in the social welfare system both at macro and micro levels.

Launched in 2002, several years before the present economic crisis, the DSP’s Service Delivery Modernisation (SDM) programme is a multi-annual programme of continuous development. It involves the redesign of business processes, procedures and work practices together with the introduction of new organisational structures, new technology and the replacement of legacy computer arrangements with modern systems. 

The SDM philosophy is to transform business processes by building customer-focused systems, utilising common modules and re-usable functions; and focusing on business process improvements that will benefit all stakeholders – the government, the organisation itself, its customers and its staff.

To achieve this, the Department has adopted an object-oriented, organisation-wide business and information technology architecture – where they build the systems and processes to actually represent the way the business works rather than the other way around. This meant that they could more easily meet their strategic objectives to:

  • Respond to customer expectations for a more modern and efficient service
  • Give priority to better customer service
  • Assist in meeting the commitments to provide electronic access to public services in the Government’s Modernisation Action Plan for the Information Society
  • Facilitate the integration of public services
  • Provide for improved efficiency and give better value for money in the use of resources
  • Improve the working environment for staff

The SDM programme not only supports the Department’s day-to-day customer processes but it is also the platform for delivering eGovernment services through multiple channels such as online, SMS and telephony. 

With an annual budget of over €20 billion, the Irish Department of Social Protection accounts for approximately 40% of Irish Government spending.

Its responsibilities include social protection and welfare policy, service delivery, scheme administration and payments to over 2 million citizens, resulting in over 85 million transactions per annum. 

The Department currently administers over 70 separate schemes and services, on a national basis with its responsibilities including:

  • The development of social protection and social inclusion policy
  • Promoting and supporting the incorporation of anti-poverty and social inclusion objectives in public policy development, and monitoring the implementation of these strategies
  • The administration of a wide range of social insurance and social assistance schemes for children, people of working age, carers, people with disabilities and pensioners
  • The activation of employment and community services and programmes to promote development, progression, participation and social involvement of its clients
  • The administration by the General Register Office (GRO) of the Civil Registration Service (for the registration of births, adoptions, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths in the State).

Each week approximately 1.4 million people receive a social welfare payment and, when qualified adults and children are included, a total of 2.1 million people benefit from weekly payments, resulting annually in:

  • 2.5 million applications processed
  • Almost 85 million payments made
  • 450,000 assessments conducted by inspectors
  • Over 900,000 control reviews
  • 6.5 million telephone calls answered
  • Over 28,000 social welfare appeals finalised
  • Over 200,000 applications for Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers for clients from 200 countries processed.

The DSP’s SDM programme is being implemented in a number of self-contained projects, each of which aims to deliver key business benefits, extend the business object model (which describes how the business works) and, where appropriate, strengthen and enhance the underlying technical architecture. 

These developments allow the DSP to be more agile in responding to changes in Government policies and customer needs.

The aim of the programme is to have a comprehensive service delivery for the benefit of the customer. This is based around efficient customer centric transaction processing and streamlined integration of services.

It maximises resources while delivering considerable business benefits for the Department and it provides a much improved working environment for staff.

Head of Transformation in DSP, Assistant Secretary General John McKeon, outlines the key business drivers behind launching what is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and ambitious business and e-enabled transformation programmes ever undertaken in the Irish public service:

"The Department had to undergo fundamental organisational and structural change unlike any before in its history. Services, processes and staff from a range of organisations are coming together to form a new entity that is greater than the sum of its individual parts in providing a transformed model of services to our clients. This involves changes for staff at all levels, in all areas and requires all of the flexibility, adaptability and agility that has traditionally been the fundamental strength of the Department."

 John McKeon, Assistant Secretary General, DSP

Underpinning the approach to the transformation programme was the principle that agile concepts should be embedded into the organisation, both in terms of implementing the future state and in maintaining and continuously improving it. The DSP looked to embed agility by taking a broad and transformational view which encompassed the following four core aspects:

  1. Their business model and organisational structures. This referred to the ease with which the organisation itself could respond to new Government policy or future changes in the business environment
  2. Their organisational capability. This meant providing more flexibility in the way that business is organised and conducted day to day. One way to characterise this is that the processes and applications would treat the business user more like a ‘problem solver’ and not merely a ‘process follower’
  3. The enabling technology and systems. This included isolating the business model and logic from the current technical architectural configuration so that the same logic could easily be redeployed onto very different platforms or configurations.
  4. The process for continually and consistently delivering business change. This meant embedding the idea of continual improvement and change in the organisation, providing the environment to seek out better ways of doing things and implementing change.

DSP believed that, only by taking an integrated approach to these four aspects, that real and sustainable benefits could be achieved.

The business model and organisational structures

Earlier in this paper we summarised some of the different approaches that have been taken to Government modernisation and reform. It should be noted, however, that regardless of the varying legacy traditions and drivers for change, existing organisational structures are often a major barrier to effecting and sustaining change. 

Put simply, legacy Government organisation structures were originally designed to provide control, policy, administration and appropriate expertise which cannot just be tweaked to instantly transform themselves into the flexible, agile and responsive organisations that citizens require.

Also, although they exist within a highly regulated environment, a government organisation has to operate within an ever-changing business and political environment. Citizens are demanding a more open style of Government with greater emphasis on accountability and transparency. These are difficult goals for a Government organisation to achieve without having the benefits of a cohesive method for creating and maintaining better organisational structures and more effective work processes, both supported by technology. 

Conventional methods for architecting and building new business architectures or organisational structures and systems are not particularly agile and are rarely reusable or based on best practices. It can often take months or even years just to establish the high-level requirements that are needed to change an existing situation. And it can take even longer to deliver the specific business solutions. For this reason, a new business architecture, and a mechanism for migrating the existing organisation to it, is required.

Re-architecting the business

While business users are not experts in systems design, they are experts on the way their organisation operates and does business. This is where a Business Object Model can really help as it lays out essential real-world facts about their business entities and the associations among them: it is a true reflection of the business user’s image of the business. Effectively, the new business object model can provide a five-point solution that is:

  • Stable - The structure is prepared for unanticipated queries as it is based on real-world objects
  • Flexible - New relationships and new objects may be added without altering the initial structure
  • Intuitive - Users can quickly find the information they need because the design structure matches their own view of the world
  • Complete – It contains all the business objects and relationships (and therefore, information) that business users care most about
  • Compact – It eliminates redundant processes and information

Design structures that meet all five aspects of the above criteria - stable, flexible, intuitive, complete, and compact - provide significantly more value to an enterprise than those that do not.

What is a business object model?

It is a (non-technical) model of the business that lays out, in a highly readable format, essential real-world facts about their business entities and the associations among them. The result is a very clear representation of the essential nature of a business, easily readable (and therefore verifiable) by the business experts who built it.

The DSP’s Business Object Model

Typical of many public sector organisations (and large private sector organisation too), the DSP had a number of key systems in operation, based on different platforms, all with different standards and each one aligned with various business units. 

In addition, because different, and often conflicting, organisational structures, processes and practices had built up in each of their separate business units and support systems over the years, the DSP’s challenge was to transform and realign the entire business and make the whole organisation more agile in order to respond to change.

A key building block facilitating this agility was the development of DSP’s new Business Object Model (BOM), which constitutes the essential nature of their business, expressed in a common language shared by both the business users and developers who were directly involved in the BOM design.

In designing their new solutions the DSP sought to provide an overall view of how real-world business factors such as: a customer, an application form, a decision, etc., are related to their organisation and to demonstrate how these are used in real life – this was done by creating their Business Object Model - an accurate and complete representation of a business area or of the organisation itself comprised of a small set of behaviourally-complete business objects that can be shared among all of the business solutions.

By placing the business users themselves in the centre of the design and specification process, the foundation was established for designing stable, flexible and scalable business solutions.

Realising the benefits

In the DSP, as well as elsewhere, the challenges faced in designing and delivering key business solutions and systems could be summarised as...more, better, and faster. 

The challenges faced can be summarised as more, better, and faster

Using a good Business Object Model as the basis for meeting these three objectives enabled them to increase agility by improving their:

  • Ability to respond better to changes - as the model is more flexible and caters for unanticipated requirements
  • Service and access for the citizen – the customer is at the core
  • Ability to allow the development of solutions to be independent of one another

While at the same time reducing risk by eliminating:

  • Complex environments created through years of silo-style development
  • Reliance on critical legacy skills, both business and IT
  • Propriety infrastructure – encouraging reuse and “plug and play”

Also significant was the positive impact that these factors had on the systems development process itself. The business object model provides a common language between the developer and the business customer and this significantly improved communication during the process of exploring requirements.

The tangible benefits have been clearly evident. Historically, constrained by legacy organisational structures and systems, it was previously a challenge for DSP to deliver major change on an annual basis. Today, with their new Business Object Model and organisational structures as key enablers, a significant reduction in the time required to implement Government policy and Departmental priorities has been achieved:

Annual Government budget changes – announced in week 1 December each year can be implemented by 31 December in time for the new financial year

  • Merging of Government Departments and Agencies as part of Public Sector Reform – relevant functions, people and systems have been migrated from the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation within a non-negotiable 4-month window
  • Public Services Card – new processes and systems to support the introduction of the national public services card – a key Government priority, developed and implemented in 6 months
  • 36 consecutive monthly releases of new business functionality in the last 3 years alone
  • 16 major new business applications delivered to support core social welfare services in the last 6 years
  • Increased customer satisfaction ratings
  • Stronger controls for scheme administration and payments and reduction in fraud

Organisational capability

The current economic downturn has resulted in an increased level of private sector unemployment in most economies. There is also pressure to reduce the number of public sector employees in areas where the demand for services has fallen. However in both sectors the demand for new skills in certain areas continues to increase, exacerbated by a lag in the ability to supply these skills for a variety of reasons.

Skills shortages exist in certain areas, in spite of the economic downturn and high unemployment

For example, in Germany, a survey undertaken by the research institute for the federal employment agency (IAB) (Feb 2012, note 15) showed that a total of 1.13 million positions are vacant, in spite of the economic downturn and high unemployment rates.

Similar situations exist for most other economies, with 2 million job vacancies in the United States, 246,000 job vacancies in France and 441,000 job vacancies in the UK (note 16). These are just some examples of mismatches between the skills of available workers in particular countries and those that are required to meet the needs of the changed economy. In the public sector there are traditionally restrictions on the mobility of staff – geographical locations, grade levels, experience and skills to do a particular job, etc. – that further compound the problem. However, strategic workforce planning and the ability to deploy appropriately skilled public service personnel to the areas where their skills are required – irrespective of Departmental or geographic boundaries – has assumed increased importance and emphasis.

If the workforce and the organisation is to perform at greater speed and with more nimbleness and agility than before, the knowledge and skills must be available in the right place and at the right time. In many cases, the skills, experiences or innovation required to meet a new need exists somewhere in the organisation. The challenge is in finding it and then deploying it effectively.

An agile workforce is therefore an organised and dynamic resource pool that can quickly deliver the right skills and knowledge at the right time, as dictated by business needs and events. It can be compared to the just-in-time principle found in the manufacturing industry (Kniberg, 2009note 17). The core strength of a successful organisation is its ability to adopt and adapt. Adopting an agile workforce approach is ideal during times of economic uncertainty and will put the organisation in a much stronger stead, as it will be better able to respond to business change.

The core strength of a successful organisation is its ability to adopt and adapt

The DSP solution for empowering people

The DSP faced some key challenges in relation to their workforce. They had critical skills shortages for certain areas of the business while a surplus existed in other areas, yet for a number of reasons these staff could not be re-deployed. There existed an inappropriate allocation of people to business areas, instead of the appropriately skilled staff, leading to errors and poor quality outputs. The increasing demand for service resulted in significant overtime requirements, leading to budgeting issues. And all of this created low staff morale in the affected business sections.

The DSP recognised that adaptability and flexibility of its employees was an essential building block to becoming an agile organisation. To remedy this they focussed on creating an environment where they could develop and deploy the right people at the right time to effectively meet changing business demands.

Empowerment involves preparing staff by boosting their confidence and competence, and by communicating a clear vision and goals, leading to higher levels of customer responsiveness, innovation, motivation and satisfaction. The following are some of the guiding principles the DSP implemented to increase workforce agility by empowering people:

  • Staff members possess diverse skill sets. Staff will function as generalists first and specialists second. In DSP even staff at the lower levels in the organisation have the authority to make decisions and take action on those decisions in order to limit bureaucracy and speed up outcomes.
  • Management layers are lightweight. Purely administrative managers will become less common than the current norm for public service organisations. If resources are tight, most managers will be able to work in a hands-on capacity side by side with their staff. A manager’s span of control will become broader than the current norm because leadership and decision-making responsibilities will be delegated downward.
  • Learning is ingrained and continual. Opportunities to develop skills are actively presented through exposure to new tasks. This creates a vibrant continuous learning environment with a focus on skills diversification and improvement. Informal on-the-job learning will be highly leveraged by pushing staff on a daily basis outside their comfort zones into new task areas.
  • Adopt a “train the trainer” approach. Cutting down on training because of cost reductions reduces agility. Instead of dropping training the DSP plan to adopt a “train the trainer” approach. This involves having one staff member trained and then getting that staff member to transfer the new knowledge to others. This is a much more cost effective approach as it enables continual training to be provided by identifying key staff members who can assist in the training of others.
  • Cross training. The DSP trains staff across a wider range of skills and roles so that they can be more easily moved across a wider range of tasks and business areas. Resourcing gaps can be reduced by thinking horizontally, not just vertically.

Overlaying good management practices on to all aspects of business and IT operations provided a good communication framework from which to start, as well as building knowledge-transfer activities into every operational and delivery activity. Even though this process of introducing agility had started well before the current economic downturn, it has certainly proved itself. DSP, as a social services organisation, has seen customer demand for its services soar as the economy deteriorated while also reducing its own staff numbers to save costs.

By taking an agile approach, the DSP saw more than a 20% rise in overall productivity, and a significant rise in both employee and customer satisfaction

Despite these two conflicting situations the DSP was able to maintain its service levels and deliver to its customer service charter. By taking an agile approach, the DSP saw more than a 20 percent rise in overall productivity, and a significant rise in both employee and customer satisfaction. This is a very considerable achievement.

Realising the benefits

In terms of its people and organisational capability, improvements that the DSP has recognised or implemented include:

  • Strong evidence of increase in self-motivation and organisation of teams and individuals
  • The ability and willingness of staff to take on different roles at the same time
  • Non-modal interaction giving staff freedom to act as a problem-solver, not a process-follower
  • Increased collaboration between business owners, users and IT teams, as well as a common business language
  • A clear set of operating principles and practices that guide all activities
  • The capacity to change
  • Empowerment of staff at all levels to make decisions and take initiative
  • Mechanisms that allow an open and effective transfer of knowledge
  • An understanding of available resources and how to mobilise them
  • A team-oriented atmosphere with a strong collaborative infrastructure

The enabling technology and systems

In today’s environment, public sector organisations are undergoing more transformation than ever and need modern technology to deliver their products/services in a more responsive manner. Compared to other methods of development, applying agile principles and practices, supported by enabling technology, offers them many essential benefits in handling the demands of change.

However, these organisations still face unique challenges in agile adoption and many are unable to realise early benefits in the transition process. Going agile with existing traditional technology impedes the true ability that an agile method has to offer.

Enabling the business through adaptive technology

From a technology perspective, the following were some of the DSP’s key guiding principles:

  • Implement technology which supports the business and its users, not constrains it. The technology platform that BearingPoint helped deliver for the DSP handles the following in an integrated way: rapid design, development and deployment of working business applications, legacy integration and process and change management.
  • Treat users as problem solvers, not process followers. This gives users a stronger and more empowering sense of direct engagement. The net effect is that business systems treat a user as a problem solver, not merely as a process follower (Pawson, Matthews, 2002, note 18). This can have significant benefits, not only in terms of employee motivation but in improved customer service and operational decision making as well.
  • Standardise the look and feel of the systems used across the business units. This supports familiarity with different business applications and can facilitate the transfer of staff and makes support from one business area to another easier.
  • System usage must be intuitive. The system flow must support the business, be easy to understand and use and should mirror the business process, rather than constrain it,
  • Set up a strong communication infrastructure. In an agile environment news, information, and knowledge need to travel quickly. Good channels of communication and knowledge transfer are essential. 

Enabling delivery through better tools

A technical infrastructure of collaboration tools that permits the creation of central information repositories and online teamwork environments is also essential to the agile organisation. Highly successful agile teams are taking full advantage of modern technology to shorten the delivery cycle of their projects and increase their development agility.

These new tools enable business and development teams to quickly and effectively realise the full value of agile methodologies for agile solution delivery. Not only do they enhance project predictability but they also fine-tune responsiveness to business change and increase overall development team productivity.

  • Importance of establishing a robust and comprehensive common architecture framework. Detailed design may change during delivery cycles, but overarching framework and design principles guide throughout.
  • Importance of establishing an “architecture authority” to make strategic decisions, involving business and technical stakeholders. Avoiding point-solutions. Working to a shared ‘vision’
  • Technology choice and roadmap is driven by the needs of the business, but informed by the IT organisation (IT should be viewed as a contributor and not purely as a cost base – a contributor that brings ideas to the table for solving business problems)
  • Importance of sharing a “domain language” between the technical delivery teams and the business (e.g. an “Entitlement” is business terminology which is represented in the system as an “object” and understood on both sides).
  • Systems built using Object Orientated models (such as the Business Object Model) are agile. This means that they can accommodate changing business requirements. This is important because behaviourally-complete objects carve the functionality of the system at its natural joints. (Pawson, Matthews, 2002, note 19). Moreover, the simplicity of the business objects means that if change or enhancement is required, there are fewer things to change.

It is true that “individuals” and “interactions” are in a large part the key to success in an agile venture. However, equipping the agile team with more flexible and agile technology will propel your project, your people and your business in building a successful agile application delivery and management capability.

Realising the benefits

By designing and implementing both a new technology architecture – encompassing the technology implementation of the DSP’s Business Object Model and new tools, agile techniques and practices for systems design, development and implementation, the DSP can point to the following as the key results that have been achieved:

  • DSP now have the capability to build rapid prototypes of new applications, which result in extremely high levels of user acceptance, with new schemes implemented in less than 3 months
  • Delivery of 16 new and complex business systems in the last six years, along with 36 consecutive monthly software releases for their key applications to the business
  • Reduction in silos of information and duplicate systems through implementation of a common technical object model for the enterprise
  • Significant increase in reuse of software code and components
  • Reduction in technology layers requiring redevelopment from 4 to 1
  • Strong support for test-driven development
  • Improved ease of use and consistent interface for enabling systems

Delivering Continuous and Consistent Business Change

So, how does a government organisation speed up the delivery process and thereby stay ahead? The answer, for DSP is through ‘continuous delivery’ and maximising efficiencies.

The major difficulty with many large scale transformation programmes is that by the time they are finished, the user needs or the business case has changed radically. Much can change in the 12 to 18 months typically required to implement a significant business change, which is why many software implementations fail to meet expectations or end up as ‘shelf-ware'.

Niall Barry, IT Director, DSP

Continuous delivery

Continuous delivery is a fairly new concept in agile management and its premise is that the most important thing a delivery team can do is identify pieces of new business functionality that can add value to an organisation, and deliver them as fast as possible.

Many large organisations such as banks, insurance companies and government organisations typically release updates to their core business applications two to three times a year, and yet Google, Amazon, Facebook, Flickr typically release software up to 10+ times a day (note 20). Yet the requirement of both types of organisations are the same – business systems that need high-level uptime, changing the systems is risky, quality is paramount, and the companies need to manage the risks as they could damage their reputation.

But both types of organisation have taken a different approach to managing the risk – traditional organisations look to reduce the risk and effort involved in managing changes by doing fewer deployments with a resulting larger release each time. The newer more agile organisation tries to reduce the risk of deployments by making them far smaller and far more frequent.

Flickr, the photo sharing site, attributes its ability to deploy new features in such a rapid fashion as a large part of its success as a dot com company. This means they can continue to innovate, try new things and stay ahead of the curve in a very aggressive fashion – a major part of this comes from thinking about their deployment strategy as part of their project planning from day one.

One of the key principles of continuous delivery is to create a repeatable and reliable process for releasing software. It solves many problems by providing fast automated feedback on the production readiness of the application – every time there is a change to the code, infrastructure or the configuration. So in continuous delivery, the definition of Done means Released.

Process efficiency

A process is how work gets accomplished. As service demands change, the processes that produce those services must also evolve. Without constant re-evaluation, processes stagnate – resulting in increased costs, poor quality, inefficient service delivery and constituent dissatisfaction. As part of the SDM programme the DSP focussed on eliminating non-value added activities, optimising processes, improving the customer experience and balancing capacity and demand in order to become agile and cost-effective. The following are some examples of the success achieved.

  • Automate the mundane tasks in the system and allow the people who are currently doing these tasks to focus on doing the higher value-adding activities. In the DSP this fostered better morale, an increase in job satisfaction and demonstrated a continued investment in staff growth.

  • Implement a Lean Six Sigma approach to achieve efficient and repeatable processes. For decades manufacturers have excelled at developing highly efficient and reliable processes by applying Lean Six Sigma principles. Following the successful adoption of these methodologies by commercial service-based organisations, providers of public services are now looking to Lean Six Sigma (LSS) to eliminate efficiencies and deliver process transformation.

For example in one instance DSP looked to transform its pension process by applying Lean Six Sigma (LSS). Customer application at that time took on average 33 days to process, from initial receipt to award decision. The LSS approach provided a systematic data driven way of thinking about the process and together with the use of appropriate techniques the DSP was able to reduce the process to a 5 day claim process.

  • Implement a “once and done” approach so that a single staff member can complete each task in its entirety where possible. This can involve simplifying each process.

Given the importance to processes within government organisations to meet their three core expectations: meeting customer needs, providing quality services, and employing efficient operations; these organisations need to put more focus on the efficiencies that can be a key determiner of success.

Realising the benefits

DSP now releases new business functionality on an at least a monthly basis with a four week delivery cycle between releases. Coupled with continuous integration, where the delivery team ensure quality by integrating and testing their work frequently, continuous delivery in DSP has resulted in:

  • Increased ability to plan and deliver change based on business priority
  • Greater responsiveness with the ability to respond to changing priorities or urgent updates
  • Significantly reduced analysis time through transition from paper-based requirements documentation to interactive and rapid prototyping of functional applications
  • Higher visibility of progress to all stakeholders
  • The confidence that they are building the right solutions by allowing them to explore new ideas and test them quickly with significantly less effort and cost.
  • A delivery process that significantly lowers the risk of delivery compared to traditional “big bang” releases at the end of a long project
  • Improved ability to commit to, and meet, delivery dates
  • The ability to delivery new functionality to their customers faster and with less lead-time

Innovation is the vital spark of all man-made change, improvement and progress.

Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business Review (note 21)


The Department of Social Protection’s approach was arguably not a traditional one in terms of delivering change in the Public Service. That’s because it included many innovative approaches and methods to solving the business and technology challenges at hand. But innovation without the associated tangible benefits – defined by them as measurable improvements in their strategic, operational and technical agility – was never going to be considered a successful outcome for the DSP. After almost a decade of their journey, in full recognition that it is a continuously evolving process, the success that has been achieved to date, coupled with sustainable benefits achieved, is clearly evident.

Commenting on the results, Assistant Secretary General of the Department, Teresa Leonard, with responsibility for a number of the mordenised business units, summarises the improvement and the progress that has been made:

The result is that the Department can quickly and efficiently implement business value on a regular and consistent basis, and clearly demonstrate how we are delivering a far more efficient and effective public service.

Teresa Leonard, Assistant Secretary General, DSP

In a sector that has traditionally been risk-averse and slow to embrace or implement change, it is time to recognise that by using innovative practices and new business models, increasing workforce mobility and enabling technology, increased agility can be achieved. For too long, governments have employed 20th century tools, structures and processes to solve 21st century problems and all too often, this has resulted in waste and slow, inadequate, service by governments to their customers.

But agile government is not about completely discarding the culture of government, or to blindly copy the practices of the private sector. Instead it is to leverage the core values of public service and to adapt practices, seek new standards of quality, understand citizen expectations, and to create innovative partnerships among public services and with the private sector. This approach applies at every level of government (central, regional, local). 

If you can book dinner on OpenTable, or a flight on Southwest or United online, then why shouldn’t you be able to make an appointment at your local Social Security office the same way? If you can track your UPS package with your iPhone, then why not be able to check the status of your citizenship application on a website, rather than having to write a letter, and wait for a letter back?

Barack Obama, forum on Modernising Government, 2010

Observe too, that when forced to do more with less - there is usually only one viable option, which is to create better ways to get things done. When this option is chosen, real breakthroughs occur. Because when times are tough, visionaries and risk-takers can tap into underutilised human capital, technology, information and other resources, to create something that is completely new and better. 

Any government agency can become agile - regardless of size, service or country - and the most agile agencies focus on customer service, organisational change capabilities and on leadership. The benefits of pursuing agility, as an organisational vision and strategy, are clear. They include improved productivity, enhanced employee and customer satisfaction in addition to a higher quality of services for customers.

A new approach is emerging with a clear focus on outcomes. It is an approach which emphasises the benefits and advantages of collaboration, participation and innovation.

Agility as a concept provides the dynamic framework for drawing together these new and emerging approaches and enabling the public sector to far more effectively meet both the challenges of today and the expectations of the future. new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.

 Thomas Jefferson, 1816


  • Notes and bibliography
    1. Kickert, W. J. M. ed. (1997), Public Management and Administrative Reform in Western Europe, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing,
    2. 0  Pollitt, C., S. Van Thiel and Homburg, V (2007) The New Public Management in Europe: Adaptation and Alternatives, Palgrave Macmillan,
    3. Peters, B. Guy (2000), Institutional Theory: Problems and Prospects, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna,
    4. Ongaro, Edoardo, (2009) ‘I sistemi di indirizzo e controllo nelle relazioni agenzie-ministeri’ [Systems of steering and control in the relationships between agencies and ministries] (with D. Barbieri, P. Fedele and D. Galli) Rivista Italiana di Politiche Pubbliche,
    5. Demmke Christoph (2006) Decentralisation and Accountability As a Focus of Public Administration Modernisation: Challenges and Consequences for Human Resource Management, Gerhard Hammerschmid and Renate Meyer,
    6. OECD Report (2005),
    7. State Services Authority and Demos (2007), Agile Government: A Provocation Paper,
    8. Beck, Kent et al. (2001), Agile Manifesto,
    9. Beck, Kent (2000), Planning Extreme Programming, Addison-Wesley,
    10. Durante, Carlo & Sanín-Gómez, Eulalia (2004), The Agile Government: It’s Not an Oxymoron, A.T. Kearney,
    11. State Services Authority and Demos (2008), Towards Agile Government,
    12. Mulgan, R. (2007), Truth in government and the politicization of public service advice, Public Administration,
    13. Bentley, Tom & Wilsdon, James (2003) The Adaptive State: Strategies for personalising the public realm,
    14. Pollard, David (2004) Being strategic about change: the agile organisation, Mt Eliza Business Review Vol. 7, No. 1
    15. The Local, (16 Feb 2012),
    16. OECD figures (2012 Q1),
    17. Kniberg, Henrik (2009), Kanban and Scrum: Making the most of both, QCon, San Francisco,
    18. Pawson, Richard & Matthews, Robert (2002), Naked Objects, Wiley,
    19. Pawson, Richard & Matthews, Robert (2002), Naked Objects, Wiley,
    20. O’Reilly Velocity conference 2009,
    21. Harvard Law Bulletin (2011),
  • Acknowledgements

    The authors would like to thank the following contributors: Vera Dervan, Teresa Leonard, Niall Barry and John McKeon at the Department of Social Protection; Hughes Verdier, Jon Abele, Angus Ward, Axelle Paquer, Peter Minogue, Michael O'Dwyer and Martin McKenna at BearingPoint; Robert Hayes-McCoy

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