Friday, April 3, 2015

Blessed are the Flexible.

"Flexibility" credit: Shelley Rodrigo
Is agility in government even possible? According to a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Canada's Public Policy Forum, it may be. While I would certainly applaud any effort to make government more effective and efficient, my experience in the software industry tells me that their biggest risk will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Software development methodologies have evolved quite dramatically since the days of Alan Turing. Usually, its evolution was brought about by advances in technology that made the next methodology possible. Where programmers once had to manually colour in little numbered boxes on punch cards in order to convey their instructions, we can now write computer programs that are almost natural language. I don't imagine the day is too far off when computers will be programmed in a conversational manner similar to the science fiction of the 1980s.

I had the good fortune to witness the evolution into Agile Software Development. This approach did away with complex, fully documented designs that required multiple sign-offs in order to proceed, and even more sign-offs to change; and was intended to replace it with high-level designs, and multiple smaller steps allowing for course correction as needed. The problem that many development shops faced was that the move to "agility" was misinterpreted as doing away with all up-front design. They effectively threw their software babies out with the design bathwater. The promises of agility were often not realised because entire sections of code had to be rewritten for the lack of forward planning.

The authors of the above mentioned report make some very good observations. The identification of: AdaptabilityInnovationCollaborationVisibility, and Velocity as key elements that define agility is a good start. Furthermore, the approaches they suggest for the public service leadership to achieve agility certainly have merit. However, I feel that two elements still threaten our proverbial baby. A clear definition of agile, and buy-in from all stakeholders.

It is imperative that the pillars of public service such as accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency be preserved. They may be modified to reflect the new reality, however they must not be abandoned in the same way that many programmers abandoned forward planning. As a tax payer, I still expect my government to work for me in the most efficient and effective way, and I still expect them to be accountable. There is no more room for multi-million dollar boondoggles.

In order to succeed, this move to agility will involve a complete organizational transformation. Anyone who has studied the subject will tell you that one of the key elements to success in such transformation is obtaining stakeholder buy-in. And at the risk of sounding cynical, I suspect THAT will be the biggest hurdle. Whether it is the combative relationships between management and the various unions; or the partisan political influences on the civil service; or the arm twisting of the unions and other lobby groups on politicians; or the fiefdom building efforts of middle-managers; I find it very difficult to imagine a restructuring plan that would satisfy the various stakeholders enough that they would not only tolerate it, but become its champion.

I hope I am wrong. As with the software industry; when it is done correctly, there are huge benefits to be had by being agile and receptive to change.

There's a proverb to the effect of:
Blessed are the flexible.
They shall not get bent out of shape.

Here's to flexibility.


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