Iterative. Data-Driven. Customer-Focused.  This was a mantra of the Code for America Summit that focused on civic tech and improving government services.  Not any coincidence, these are also key principles of an Agile approach.  Many continue to think of Agile in application development terms due to all the media attention on the way it has helped transform many struggling development efforts.  However, technologies don’t hold exclusive rights to Agile and it can be beneficial to many non-technical efforts.

The first and unexpected example came from Cecilia Muñoz, President Obama’s Director of the Domestic Policy Council, who presented via Skype from – of all places – the Situation Room of the White House! She described as of the end of May of 2016 that not many Syrian refugees had been vetted and approved for immigration. Just between June and August, over 11,000 were approved without compromising security.  How did that happen? Contrary to popular opinion about the government, Ms. Muñoz’ team was able to re-work the vetting and approval process quickly and effectively.  The result was an order of magnitude speed increase while maintaining control of security.  The way that was accomplished is by using an iterative, data-driven, user-centric approach. In her words, “We solved a policy problem by putting decision-makers & doers (program staff/devs) in the same room”.

Going internationally (to our CEO’s homeland), the next example was from the Right Honorable Francis Maude from the UK’s government.  While serving as the Paymaster General, he led an effort to re-imagine the Government Digital Service. While vast improvements were made to the UK website (e.g., placing the items that citizens wanted most on the front page) and saving the government large amounts of money, the most striking improvement was to the policy.  As Mr. Maude described, a previous 600 page policy document was completely re-worked within a few weeks.  How? It was again an iterative approach.  His advice to others looking to make the same kind of revolutionary changes: “Sometimes you will think you’re going mad. You’re not. Don’t give up”.

While it may seem inconceivable, government services can (and have been) improved through an Agile method.  Through many speakers during the conference, it was stated over and over that the key to real improvement is for leaders to provide the support and cover for the workers to do it.  Said a different way, the problem in government isn’t finding people with good ideas, it’s creating the space for them to take the risk. The alternative is to continue with long periods of discussion, debate and inadequate action due to some who perceive risk in bold steps.  While some in government believe the status-quo is less risky, many times the status-quo is actually more risky for our tax dollars and those receiving services.