Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Is there a place for Agile in policy development?

The Agile software development methodology has changed the way many software companies operate.

The approach replaced production-line sequential and hierarchical 'waterfall' methods of developing code and services (based on the automobile production line), with iterative and responsive processes involving self-organising teams, continuous engagement and the division of bigger goals into short-term objectives - systems more attuned to the iterative modular nature of software.

Many of the top software and online services available today simply would not exist without Agile, or would be considerably less developed, from Microsoft Office to Facebook. Agile is also widely used by IT teams in government agencies, at varying degrees of sophistication and rigour.

Agile is said to increase productivity, reduce risk and improve ROI. However, that said, it isn't for the fainthearted, requiring organisational buy-in, discipline, commitment and a willingness to put customers and stakeholders at the centre of the development process, ahead of ideological or expert beliefs.

The question I have is whether Agile methodologies can be adapted to another process, which is still largely based on hierarchical systems, embedded interests and sequential design - government policy development.

The UK is currently committed to a major step towards an Agile-like policy approach, with a reform process to adapt an 'Open Policymaking' approach.

Detailed in http://my.civilservice.gov.uk, Open Policy mirrors a number of the attributes of Agile methodologies.


The approach intends to shift UK policy processes from being driven by top-down authority and fixed policy teams, towards co-design processes deeply involving stakeholders and managed by flexible policy teams drawn, based on skill, not status, from across government and other sectors.

The UK is even introducing the concept of contestable policy making, whereby the government is making funds available for organisations outside of government to develop policies, which would then be considered and potentially adopted by government as legislation, or integrated into agency-developed policy deliberations.

While open policy doesn't entirely reflect Agile methodologies, it draws from it in an attempt to create a new, more iterative and responsive approach to policy development.

With the UK's reforms still underway it is hard to yet assess whether the move to open policy will bear fruit. Trials of similar approaches (with varying levels of political and public sector commitment) elsewhere in the world are also still in early stages, so it is hard to identify successes - or failures - for open policy processes as yet.

However in an environment more complex and fast changing than ever before in history, open policy making attempts are likely to at minimum provide insights and significant lessons to governments who are prepared to innovate - learnings that could lead to improvements or changes to existing policy development processes.

To my thinking the key to this isn't necessarily the outcome - the key is to innovate in policy making, just as governments are seeking to innovate in other areas. If governments don't constantly try new things, measure the extent of change (improvement or otherwise) and share these learnings, then agencies and public sectors will ossify and undoubtably become fossils in a fast changing world.

To read more on open policymaking, see http://openpolicy.demsoc.org

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