Agile Government: Foundational Skills
Achieving educational outcomes that support the agile government principles2 and build agility requires that program pedagogy rely heavily on case studies, engagement in real time/real life public problem dilemmas, cross-disciplinary team collaborations and exposure to practitioners who are successful because of their agility in managing and leading public services.
Opportunities to learn the value and practice of agility should be available to a broad audience: students in academic graduate and undergraduate programs, those beginning their public service, those in mid-career, and those who have achieved top leadership positions. Those who simply wish to obtain basic understandings of and skills in public affairs, but who are not entering public service careers, should also be welcome.
Ernest Boyer identified elements of scholarship that track closely with the ability to be agile in facing challenges and seizing opportunities affecting the public good.
- The scholarship of discovery refers to the pursuit of inquiry and investigation in search of new knowledge.
- The scholarship of integration consists of making connections across disciplines and advancing knowledge through synthesis.
- The scholarship of application asks how knowledge can be applied to the social issues of the times in a dynamic process that generates and tests new theory and knowledge.
- The scholarship of teaching includes not only transmitting knowledge, but also transforming and extending it.
- The scholarship of engagement connects any of the above dimensions of scholarship to the understanding and solving of pressing social, civic, and ethical problems.
Another element may be the scholarship of participation—welcoming those seeking or working in other career paths to join in and enhance the learning and dialog by offering different expertise and viewpoints. The IBM Center works with NAPA and academic experts in this area to define and develop research that points to improved understanding of actionable steps in applying agile principles to government policy and program implementation at the state, local, federal, and international levels. This work addresses how agile concepts can be part of the toolbox for public managers and teams working at all levels of government, focusing on agile’s alignment with the core values of a modern government and how practical applications can help project teams become agile.
While these elements are presented in the frame of scholarship, they are relevant to the acquisition of the skills that reflect agility. How one operationalizes these elements and measures their mastery are key. The following discussion attempts to define macro-level skills that reflect these elements.
Significant work has been done to define skills and competencies required in the public sector. Each is important and addresses a specific audience, for example, see the skills set forth in the Executive Core Competencies for the Senior Executive Service3, or in private sector recommendations to frame categories of skills within different federal executive agencies.4 This post offers a full portfolio of skills that when learned, result in agile practices in public management and leadership across levels of governments and agencies.
Foundational Skills for Agility in Public Service
- Influencing without authority. This is one of the most powerful and valuable skills a public leader can have, requiring one to identify, seek, secure and maintain resources to successfully undertake work. Often this requires developing high-performance teams made up of individuals from multi-disciplines, for whom one does not have direct administrative control.
- Possessing an appreciation for action and a sense of timing and perseverance. It is important to know when the status quo presents an obstacle to solving a problem, and how to mitigate limitations presented by policies and procedures to affect the necessary actions needed to address a problem or to exploit an opportunity.
- Being curious. By engaging one’s curiosity, one nurtures the impulse to ask questions, seek new information, and test new ideas. Curiosity can mitigate the effects of confirmation biases and stereotyping people and ideas, and lead to new insights and alternative ways of approaching problems.
- Possessing adaptive capacity. Responding effectively to changes in technique, platform, perspective, and innovations creates flexibility and encourages innovation. For example, medical schools teach students the latest techniques, but their training pivots on the acquisition of knowledge that will enable them to adjust to whatever changes occur in medical technology/discoveries, and practice.
- Knowing how and when to use the levers that affect policymaker’s receptivity to analysis. Understanding the perspectives and contexts of those who could benefit from one’s work is critical to the relevance of that work for policy. Being informed about the motivations, challenges and timing that drive policymakers’ actions provide the contexts in which this work will be assessed and valued.
- Taking Risk. This involves knowing when to take action when the expertise, experiences, information and data available are limited or nonexistent: being comfortable with the unknown and when consequences are not clear; understanding how to construct action to allow for the identification and correction of potential problems; and developing ways to initiate the collection of missing or limited data and information for future considerations.
- Designing a series of steps/procedures to adjust options or approaches that reflect the learning that occurs as work is conducted/projects undertaken.
- Ability to shift quickly to new procedures/methods that mitigate problems/shortcomings identified in ongoing work.
- Identifying cross-sector and diversified stakeholders in setting goals, defining roles, identifying benchmarks, and facilitating deliberations.
- Learning how to make it easy for others to help.
- Understanding target audiences and the differences among them, including the challenges they face, how they seek and use analysis and data, etc.
- Creating and sustaining coalitions of members who do not agree, like, or respect each other.
- Securing multi-sector partners by understanding how to bridge systems and solve issues across sectors.
- Learning how to find and recruit allies, idea people, special assistants, gatekeepers, opinion makers, key media contacts, people with a large following, and leaders. Effective allies need to be doers who do what they say they are going to do.
Solving Policy Issues/Problems
- Using facilitation, convening, building space for dialogue, design thinking, building a meaningful agenda, and mastering the pitch.
- Learning how to develop an agenda rather than reacting to someone else’s agenda:determining what one is trying to do, how one goes about doing it, and how one knows when successful.
Making Decisions with No or Incomplete Data
- Learning when and how to make decisions when reliable data is not available.
- Mastering how to track these decisions to correct the course.
- Using gaps in data to advance collection of relevant data for future decision making.
Mastering the Regulatory Environment
- Knowing regulations, what they are, how they are proposed, implemented and changed.
- Understanding how to use the regulatory environment to support agility. Adjusting to allow agility while protecting the intent of the law.
Engaging the Community
- Engaging in authentic “listening,” creating a space for community to inform practice and policy.
- Defining community broadly, to include all those with a stake in the problem and policy.
- Establishing and collecting relevant data and information.
- Adopting rigorous computational analysis, dashboards, road maps, and project plans to evaluate success and identify shortfalls.
Managing Projects and People
- Procuring sufficient resources.
- Implementing strategies and facilitating groups.
- Removing barriers that exist between generations within a workforce, and creating workplace environments that are welcoming, challenging, and engaging to newly minted talent.
- Leading deliberations among those holding diverse viewpoints.
- Separating truth from opinion by critically evaluating various sources of news and information.
- Convincing others of the value of your work by communicating the essence of your idea.
- Understanding the importance of self-reflection and knowing one’s motivations; identifying your strengths and weaknesses and how those affect others.
- Constructing pathways for learning outside of schools that will offer a broader education.
- Building a relevant and constantly growing set of leadership and management skills, and master the craft of knowing policy tools—how they work, when, and at what cost.
- Identifying one’s own biases and privileges.
- Learning the historical context of discrimination.
- Recognizing structural and social determinants of policy and their structures within public management.
- Applying an equity lens in all skills.
Identifying the skills and expertise needed to advance agile governance values and principles is critical to successfully embedding agile practices in public service, but is merely the first step. How these skills are taught, by whom, and where are essential considerations for the adoption and practice of agile governance.
Curriculum and matriculation patterns will vary by public affairs program and by student. Adopting competencies that advance the practice of agile governance will require a full review and potential remake not only of the courses taught, but how they are taught, and by whom. Since course content is primarily developed by faculty within public affairs programs, it will be necessary for faculty to accept the competencies as foundational. This may be a challenge for some programs, especially those in which faculty making up the governing body of the program have little-to-no experience in the practice of public affairs, and who do not regularly seek input from faculty colleagues outside of the program -- both within the home university and collaborative universities and/or with the public affairs communities writ large.
Coming posts in this series will suggest ways in which major forces in developing and sustaining a highly skilled public workforce can integrate agile government values and skills in their work.
2. See “The Road to Agile Government, Driving Change to Achieve Success.” A report of the IBM Center For the Business of Government for a discussion of the 10 principles of Agile Government.
3. See the Executive Core Competencies as published by the Office of Personnel Management: