Since its birth in the mid-90s, agile methodology has become the star of the software development and project management world. Findcourses.co.uk lists 43 different agile courses available, 3M post-it notes sales are around £1 billion per year and ‘scrums’, ‘burn-downs’ and ‘sprints’ have come off the playing fields and into offices.
While agile reigns king in the software development world, it is a relative newcomer in policymaking. Google returns 14.6 million results for ‘agile’ when combined with ‘software’ and a measly (!) 164,000 when teamed with ‘policymaking’.
But this is starting to change. In the UK, Nesta are trying out rapid 100 day cycles to develop and implement ideas as part of their People Powered Health project, and NHS Citizen has taken an iterative and reflective approach as they co-created the workshops that generated the ideas for their health assemblies. And we (Policy Lab) have been leading policy sprints (short project bursts) at different stages of our demonstration projects (which you can find out more about how to commission here). We’ve been thinking carefully about what the ‘minimum viable products’ - or prototypes - are in the policy world, and have been trying out sketches, paper prototypes and testing things out in the field.
People are experimenting and interest is abounding. Which is why we have been asked to run a session on agile for policymaking at today’s global gathering of Innovation Labs from around the world. And so others can also join in, we are also publishing a prototype set of cards to help you think how to develop policy projects in an imaginative and iterative way. They are a set of hypothetical ‘what if’ style questions to push your thinking, generate ideas, and adopt a more flexible approach to your work.
Through our practice, we have been able to reflect on how agile methodology can be translated into the policy sphere. Building on Lisa Ollerhead and Dr Lucy Kimbell’s previous thoughts, it is clear that there are clear opportunities and challenges with adopting this way of working for policymaking, and that it will take more than new words, morning stand-ups and post-its.
So first, the opportunities. In a way, agile should be perfectly suited to policymaking. Theoretically, agile works in times where things are uncertain and non-linear, where there is often no clear cause (sound familiar policy people?). It forces us to come up with guesses or germs of hypotheses (abductive reasoning) which we can then test (deductive reasoning) rather than starting with a continuation of what we know already. Big challenges such as financial restraint, climate change and inequality mean that we need to jump out to innovative and transformative new ideas rather than iteratively improving what we already do.
More practically, agile recognises that specific groups of people do not have all the expertise and asks us to form multi-disciplinary teams, including those who will experience what we produce (‘the user’). It encourages us to ‘prototype’ or mock-up a tangible version of our idea so that we can test it and get feedback. This means not only are we not wasting money by creating things that the user doesn’t actually want, we are also identifying flaws really early on. Both avoid costly waste later, which is essential in the current economic climate.
But there’s a catch right? Well, yes, its not all that easy as we have experienced.
During our demonstration projects, we have built multi-disciplinary teams, but it is sometimes difficult to maintain everyone’s time, especially if they have other commitments, which busy civil servants always do (there are other policies to develop). And while we are able to involve our ‘customer’ (whether this be the user or Minister), this is by going out to them at certain points, rather than them being an integral part of the team. We have gone out to service users early on with ideas to get feedback, but we have had to be really clear that these are just ideas that might not go any further, as the expectation is usually that external engagement is around a consultation which will turn into policy. And we are thinking carefully about what those minimum viable products after each sprint are (and co-creating them naturally, as Dr Andrea Siodmok’s tweet asking for feedback on a prototype stage 1 policy canvas shows).
More broadly, there are questions around how open to different solutions projects can be from the outset, the continued need for high quality evidence to underpin decisions and how to encourage bespoke processes for different projects in large departments that can sometimes prefer standardisation to ensure quality.
These are all questions that I hope to explore at today’s workshop and learn from others that have similarly been experimenting. Stay tuned for the outcome of that as we, well, iterate, this together.