The importance of agility in the public sector

agility in the public sectorMario Devargas, former CIO for a police force and a large council, talked at the recent IP Expo about the challenges of moving to an agile culture in the public sector. He suggested that this was vital to deliver the holy grail of ‘more for less’.

A traditional environment, changing rapidly

Perhaps more than most organisations, the public sector is highly traditional. Organisations are often highly procedural and methodical, which creates its own challenges in moving to an agile culture. How do you move from an organisation where everyone has their own desk, their own PC, even filing cabinets, to a position where everyone works flexibly?

Fortunately, changes in technology have made flexible working look much more attractive.

The demands on IT are increasing. Everything needs to be faster, and more flexible, but there are fewer resources to go round. The public sector can’t afford to invest in technology just to see if it’s any good; CIOs must be confident that what’s they’re buying will improve the way that services are delivered. While security is crucial, it’s certainly not vital for everything, and it is sometimes used as an excuse not to do things differently.

There are huge challenges in the public sector. The economic situation has squeezed spending, and political changes, both local and national, can mean that priorities change fast. The workforce is also altering, and public sector organisations also have to address the way in which technology is changing the world. As a simple example, theft used to be a matter of someone physically taking your belongings. Police on the beat helped to prevent that. Now, with cybercrime, the perpetrators of theft could be thousands of miles away. A policeman walking outside your house won’t stop that.

Finally, customers and service users want access 24/7. They don’t want to have to go into a physical building between the hours of 9 and 5 to complete a transaction. They can buy (almost) anything at any time of the day or night, so why should they not be able to access public services in the same way? Public sector organisations have a responsibility to the community for what they do. They also have to work collaboratively with their customers and service users, to deliver what their customers want.

The role of technology

IT is crucial to managing this change, but it also requires changes to ways of working. There are three main elements to this, digitisation, self-service and agility.

Digitisation is perhaps the most straightforward. Put simply, you can save huge amounts of space and storage by digitising information. Instead of being stored in paper form, records can be stored electronically, which also means that individuals can access their own records more easily. And interactions are cheaper if the customer does most of the work. It makes sense in supermarkets, hence the rise of self-service checkouts, but it also makes sense in the public sector. By providing HR information online, managers are enabled to manage more effectively, and with less personal support from an HR team. HR teams can be smaller, and space can be reduced. Likewise, moving from face-to-face to online customer interactions reduces interaction costs. The problem is that this new interaction has to be via the customer’s chosen channel, which means that the organisation loses control. This can be a serious cultural challenge, and requires the CIO to support change by ensuring that secure interactions are possible by multiple channels.

Like self-service, agility also enables both reduction in costs and better support to customers. Flexible working can be a challenge to managers, because traditionally people have been considered to have been doing their jobs when present in the office. Moving to a system where they are judged only on outputs is a cultural challenge. But flexible working allows workers to work when they want and where they want. It means much more chance of addressing customers’ needs for 24/7 access. It also means that less office space is needed.

The key role of CIOs

CIOs have a pivotal role in this change. They need to understand technology, but also the business need, and recognise and promote the way that the technology supports that. They need to foster interaction between people and technology, and provide education and training to support change, by winning hearts and minds. They need to plan for the unexpected, and most of all, they need to recognise that survival demands agility. Staff and customers both need to work in an agile, flexible, mobile way, and public sector CIOs are crucial to supporting that.

Image credit: Agility by Chris Teso

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