Good governments depend on good policy making. Repeated failure in this domain erodes public confidence and is massively costly.

One of the biggest problems the government faces in delivering good policy is simply the sheer size of their policy commitment. To deal with this, government processes for policy delivery attempt to match the scale and scope of the legislation that underpins it.

Why is this a problem? The sheer scale forces policy-makers towards traditional, “waterfall” methods of designing and delivering policy that involve deciding upfront on all requirements before embarking on a large programme of work.

With this approach, a number of problems commonly arise:

  • By the time you complete a project, circumstances have changed and the original requirements no longer apply.
  • Because your project is untested in the hands of users, it doesn’t properly meet their needs or comes up against unforeseen issues.
  • Project managers can’t predict the future and their original scope for time and budget are almost guaranteed to be inaccurate.

Todd Park, CTO of the Government of the United States, described the result of this approach in a recent speech: “spend six months coming up with some brilliant strategy, another six months doing a great operational plan, then six more months building a great systems plan. A year and a half later or more, you launch an aircraft carrier that sinks immediately.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in the digital realm. Governments commission IT projects of enormous scope to match the enormity of the policy commitment that the project is designed to carry. Currently around a quarter of UK government IT projects are at a high risk of failure, with complexity cited as a major factor.

In turning policy into reality, they bite off more than they can chew. The result is failure, the erosion of public confidence and massive cost.

Rethinking the Policy-Making Process for the Digital Age

Legislation is necessarily broad, but the policy that emerges from legislation need not be, especially when it comes to digital government.  

The Institute for Government, in their white paper Making Policy Better, comments that “Whitehall policy makers need to reconceive their role increasingly as one of creating the conditions for others to deal with policy problems using innovative and adaptive approaches”.

What’s an innovative and adaptive approach to digital policy?

It’s here that we enter the world of Agile. Agile asks you to put the user first, thinking about what they need, rather than what might be easiest for our organisations. You can then co-design and develop ideas iteratively, with feedback from users improving them.

In other words, it’s a way of flexible, adaptable approach that prevents you from biting off more than you can chew, or building aircraft carriers.

In the business world, Agile has been used to great success in delivering small, incremental change to products in response to market conditions. The same approach can be used within government to quickly deliver digital services incrementally and then respond rapidly to how citizens engage with them.

Accordingly, interest in agile policy-making is rising within government. James Rogers, on the governments Open Policy blog, tweaked the foundational values that the original Agile Manifesto authors laid out to see how they would help in government:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Viable solutions that benefit citizens over endless papers
  • Ministerial input and user research over bureaucracy
  • Responding to change over following a plan

By focusing on creating minimum-viable solutions, testing these with actual users and then rapidly responding to change, citizens are much more likely to get a service that meets their needs than via the big launch of an “aircraft carrier”.

But how is it possible to start a shift towards more agile policy design and delivery?

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Proving a High-Pace Model of Digital Policy Delivery

As the Institute for Government puts it in their white paper Policy Making in the Real World:

“Whitehall prizes ideas, intellectual prowess, and problem solving. These tendencies are likely to place a heavy emphasis on the ‘invention’ aspect of innovation – coming up with ingenious solutions to pre-existing problems. At the same time, the current situation discourages other aspects of innovation, such as prototyping and experimentation.”

Yet, this is exactly what is required, experimentation.

By deploying a short, sharp experimental project means that you can empirically prove the case for innovative ways of working in a very low-risk fashion.

I call these lighthouse projects. A lighthouse project is a short-term, well-defined, measurable project that serves as a model — or a “lighthouse”  — for other similar projects. This could be building a new cloud-based platform for delivering a new web app, or trialling automated role-based access control. The point is to create sandpit to test new ways of working.

Lighthouse projects demonstrate the effectiveness (or not!) of new, untried approaches without risking large pools of resources. This can then form the bulkhead of proof on which to build further, larger experiments along lines that have shown promise.

Currently, there is no way of tracking the return on investment of transformation (ROI) initiatives. The programmes are so complex that measuring them is impossible. The small scope of lighthouse projects makes it easier to track ROI. Define key metrics in advance and you can quickly get feedback from citizens on how they use a digital service and measure the added value. This helps to work out whether a given feature or initiative actually relates to the policy commitment made to citizens.

Within the public sector, the stakes are higher than in business (these services affect people’s livelihoods, not just their Twitter feed!) but the principle still applies. Agile policy design, fed into digital lighthouse projects can reveal opportunities for experimentation that will help prove the best ways (and disprove the worst ways) of delivering digital services that match up to government commitments.



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Alistair Smith

Client Delivery Director

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