Even a quick scan of the information on the government’s digital drive makes something very clear: they want to deliver a lot.  The Government’s Digital Strategy estimates a potential annual saving of £1.7-1.8bn.  Gov.uk, live since 2012, has already received 1 billion visits and new services go live monthly (read all about that here).  What is also clear is that though Government want to change fast, they also want to be protected against failures.  What does that mean for those of us who work in operating model design?

Agile Working

Agile is the key word.  Agile is one of the core digital standards set out by the Government Digital Service (GDS) for all departments.  Agile delivery has grown out of software development techniques that aim to develop small pieces of a product, iterate them and continue designing based on hard data.  The result is dynamic development and a finely tuned product that avoids the pitfalls of delivering a preset design that looked great on paper and then realising it is less than optimal.

Agile can also be used to deliver an operating model and I would argue that it should.  The reason is iteration.  Here’s what I mean; in an ever changing digital world the risk of delivering operating models without pilots is too high.  Organisations increasingly want to see value delivered during and not just at the end of a project.  So we should implement and iterate operating models as we design them.  The result is a cutting edge and robust solution that provides value throughout the project lifecycle and is tailored perfectly to the organisation as it actually is not how we believe it to be.

Scrutiny in a fast changing world

The reason that this is increasingly important and the way to go in the future is twofold.  First, digitally disruptive services are coming to market with increasing regularity.  This means a traditional design, build, sign off project risks making an operating model that is obsolete before it’s even hit the ground. Secondly, customer expectations are high when it comes to digital because they are used to slick customer-centric online experiences from other sectors, especially retail, and government needs to live up to this if it wants to meet its ‘digital first’ objective.

David Cameron started talking about the power of “armchair auditors” holding government services to account almost as soon as he entered office.  Digital has made this more possible than ever before, and opened digital services themselves up to a plethora of feedback .  The Guardian in 2012 said “this kind of transparent exchange isn’t just important, it’s inevitable” (read the full article here).  If people don’t like something, they will complain and it will be more public than ever before.  This creates an interesting situation where the government is pressured to change fast, but also very aware of the risk of failure. 

Removing Risk…

To avoid failure operating models need a high level vision to aim towards, both to provide structure and to start a conversation about what changes are most valuable.  This is similar to a traditional approach, but this time it is not about adding layers of detail to a blueprint.  It is about creating parts and then tweaking and shifting to add nuance based on the results of pilot deployments.  So this initial model sets the strategic direction and the values government is aiming for, but it doesn’t pretend to have the full answer from the start.  Citizens can have their say on pieces, which they may like or want altered.  However, where changes are needed the impact on the public is small, which would not be the case in the traditional approach where the first comments would be after a full change had already happened.

…and Building Value

With Government forecasted to follow a policy of austerity until at least 2018, and with continued budget cuts in most Departments, there is a need for transformation to rapidly deliver savings.  An iterative approach implements operating models in sections; the high value pieces are piloted and deployed first.  The result is a full operating model that is tailored to what the public want and need most in a way that is as cost effective as possible for the government.  Even better the public can reap the benefits of improved digital services during the project not just at the end and this helps the government fulfil its promise to enact change fast.

So why embrace agile delivery in operating model: because it creates targeted models that are customer centric and provide value as they go, things that are crucial to the success of the public sector’s digital drive.