Wednesday, April 12, 2023
A Guide to Adaptive Government: Preparing for Disruption

With disruption now the norm rather than the exception, governments need to rethink business as usual and prepare for business as disrupted. Government executives and managers should plan for continuous disruption and for how their agencies and departments will operate under continuous turbulence and change. In 2022 alone, we witnessed the impact of war,  the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Ian—not to men­tion energy scarcity, supply chain shortages, the start of a global recession, record highs for inflation, and rising interest rates. Traditional business continuity and disaster recovery playbooks and many other such earlier approaches—born when disruption was the exception—are no lon­ger sufficient.

Given that disruption is now the rule versus the exception, the next question becomes how to plan for it and deal with it proactively. Should public and private sector organizations simply plan for disruption using traditional business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) approaches or is something more required? Do we simply need resilient systems or something more such as adaptive systems? According to Nick Evans, author of the new IBM Center report, A Guide to Adaptive Government: Preparing for Disruption, governments need to not only trans­form their business models, processes, and services. They also need to create an “adaptive government” at their core, such that support for change and intrinsic agility is engineered into current and future operations.

Adaptability Versus Resilience

Adaptive systems and resilient systems are often confused and thought of as interchangeable, but there’s a vast different between the two concepts.

  • Resilient System—A resilient system can recover or regain to its authentic form or situation after exposure.
  • Adaptive System—An adaptive system has intrinsic agility to continuously maximize value by rapidly reconfiguring its processes in response to major changes in the internal or external environment.

Whereas an adaptive system restructures or reconfigures itself to best operate in and optimize for the ambient conditions, a resilient system often simply seek to restore or maintain an existing steady state. The latter approach works well for use cases such as extreme weather hardening, for example, where the resil­ient system simply needs to stand up to a wide range of weather conditions such as wind strengths, continuous erosion, tidal changes, storm surges and so on.  The difference between adaptive systems and resilient systems also goes back to the philoso­phy behind their design.  The philosophy behind adaptive systems is more about innovation. It assumes from the start, that there are no steady state conditions to operate within, but that the external environment is constantly changing. It’s not about taking what can to do done today driven by specific “as-is” requirements and expand on that, but rather about what can address future requirements and then drive transformation (for example: data fabric/data mesh, automation platform, predictive analytics, etc.).

Preparing for the Constancy of Disruption

To prepare for the constancy of disruption, it’s key to look for physical and digital solu­tions that have this built-in flexibility whether it’s a manually adaptive system such as a moveable bridge or a fully autonomous adaptive system such as a software-defined network. Government executives and managers can accelerate digital transfor­mation while building a new, more agile platform and foundation for the future. According to Evans, it’s valuable to innovate on the fly when faced with new circumstances, but it’s even better to have a playbook in advance for some of the more common situations.

Digital approaches will be key ingredients as government executives and managers prepare future visions and purposefully architect and design operating models. These technologies will create a digital infrastructure enabling the adaptability needed for government agencies and departments, as well as cities and com­munities, to respond to continuous waves of digital and physical disruption. By designing for intrinsic agility, leaders will have a strategic guide for the next wave of digital transformation. This will help agencies develop and execute digital strategies using advanced approaches to innovation and adapting disruptive technologies such that the sum is far greater than the parts.

Action Plan for Adaptive Government

To put the adaptive government into action, Evans advises departments and agencies to pursue a three phased, iterative approach starting with establishing their strategy and vision for adaptability, designing, and building for adaptability, and then operating with continuous innovation. This creates a flywheel effect where lessons learned from one phase are fed into the next phase and the whole cycle is repeated.

  • Establish the Strategy and Vision. Developing the strategy and vision for adaptability within your agency or department requires an in-depth analysis of your current state (i.e., how disruption is affecting your organization and which processes are affected), your future vision (i.e., how disruption may change in the future and which broader processes may be affected), and then your gap analysis and imple­mentation roadmap.
  • Identify Opportunity Areas with a Project Prioritization Matrix. As you prepare your strategy for adaptability, you’ll want to identify opportunity areas for both the near-term and longer-term implementation roadmap. It is key to identify and prioritize these oppor­tunity areas across the organization, where adaptability can lend mission or business value.  By creating a quad chart with business benefit (“minimize disruptive risk” score plus “enhance business value” score) versus ease of implementation (“time and cost to implement and main­tain” score plus “project risk and complexity” score), an organization’s leader will be able to create a project prioritization matrix to identify the “quick wins” and “must haves” for adapt­ability solutions and enhancements.
  • Design and Build for Adaptability. When it comes to implementation, we can think of the adaptive government in much the same way that we think of digital government .Like digital government, we have a set of enabling technologies which provide mission value and business benefit. In this case, the enabling technologies for the adaptive government not only help us further digitize our processes, in many cases, but help us make them adaptive and more flexible and dynamic at the same time.
  • Operate with Continuous Innovation. The best approach is to look for enablers of adaptability and to embed them across the full lifecycle from strategy to operations.  Adaptability should become embedded across the plan, design, build, operate and manage phases in the physical world and likewise across the design, develop, deploy, manage, and maintain phases in the IT environment.

While adaptive systems can respond far better to future shocks, often with preconfigured busi­ness rules and operating models planned for and implemented well in advance, it is really continuous innovation that helps to solve for any outliers that may be unknown or unexpected. A digital government or enterprise only gets an organization halfway; an adaptive govern­ment or enterprise is the real end game. Adaptability is a mission enabler for government and a competitive advantage for business. This report underscores the strategic significance of adaptability to government organizations today. It offers strategies, techniques, and tools to accelerate digital transformation, and better position government agencies to respond to the next wave of both opportunities and disruptive threats.

This report complements the existing IBM Center’s work advancing agile principles in govern­ment by providing practical insights and actionable recommendations to help improve the operation and management of government specifically related to accelerating digital transfor­mation and preparing for “business as disrupted.”

We hope that this report helps government leaders, academic experts, and other stakeholders to infuse adap­tive thinking throughout the public sector, leading to more effective operations, better outcomes, and improved performance in a world where the only constant seems to be the inevitability of change and disruption.