The coronavirus pandemic underscored the need for fast, flexible, inclusive, and mission-centric government. Governments around the world have shown they are up to the challenge, using agile problem-solving to collaboratively tackle pandemic-related challenges ranging from public health to economic recovery. Once-lengthy and inflexible regulatory processes became more agile and adaptive, as did procurement processes, disproving the old orthodoxy that procurement must be rigid and time-intensive. Many government agencies have also sped up their hiring practices to respond to unprecedented demand for services.
Though governments are sometimes criticized for being slow to innovate, many have made significant headway in making policies more adaptive, anticipatory, inclusive, and sustainable to navigate the pace of change. Agile policymaking deploys key elements of agile methodology such as user-centered design, prototyping, rapid iteration, and continuous feedback loops. Approaches to agile policymaking include:
Policy labs provide a testing ground for government innovation. The UK government’s Policy Lab, for instance, uses human-centered design, data, and digital tools to explore transformative solutions to some of the country’s most complex problems, from homelessness and policing to health and child care.1
Such labs have also been set up at the state and provincial level. New South Wales’ policy lab works to develop user-focused policies. The lab has developed digital government policies, rules-as-a-code project, and an Internet of Things policy framework.2 The rules-as-a-code project aims to convert rules into machine-readable codes that can be interpreted by computers. Coding rules can make compliance easier for businesses, automate administrative decision-making, and allow policymakers to test policies in various scenarios to model potential outcomes.3
Traditional policymaking can lack iteration, a prototyping mindset, and laser-focus on users. Policy prototyping, on the other hand, allows governments to model and explore potential policy solutions. Harvard University’s Digital Kennedy School Initiative, Stanford University’s Cyber Initiative, and IDEO’s Ecolab have collaborated to develop eight policy prototypes for the future of work using human-centered design tools. One of the prototypes, iterated during a make-a-thon, aims to design better machine interfaces and protect the rights of workers who engage with intelligent machines.4 Policy prototyping, with its iterative short sprints, diverse teams, and design thinking tools such as user personas and journey maps, can yield diverse and innovative policy solutions.5
Policy simulations provide government leaders an opportunity to explore the potential effects of different policies before real-world implementation. Ireland’s Innovation Policy Simulation for the Smart Economy models the Irish economy, giving decision-makers a chance to simulate policy effects before implementing policies.6 In the health sector, the US Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the Prevention Impacts Simulation Model to inform chronic disease policymaking.7
Digital-ready policies are designed to be future-proof, interoperable, and less burdensome for public administrators, citizens, and businesses. These policies are developed in an agile manner keeping in mind the ever-evolving landscape of digital technologies.8 Denmark has made it mandatory to assess whether new legislation is digital-ready based on seven principles developed by the Danish Agency for Digitization,9 supplemented with five principles for agile regulation.10
User-centered policymaking brings the voice of users to bear before new legislation is enacted. The European Commission, for example, conducted user research to redesign how internal documents can be shared with citizens, academia, the press, and nonprofits. It organized a five-day design sprint that used customer journeys to understand user needs, develop prototypes based on those needs, and pressure-test those with end users.11 The Commission has undertaken similar user research to design its future digital visa application policy. Through design sprints, the Commission aims to understand the needs of both consular officers and border police and to get their feedback on a digital visa application process. The input provided by both user groups will inform the European Union’s new policy on short-stay digital Schengen visa.
For its part, the UK Ministry of Justice established a User-Centered Policy Design unit to involve users at every point in the policymaking process. The unit has worked on policies aimed at modernizing court systems, creating rehabilitative prisons, and reducing the recidivism rate of young offenders.
Throughout the pandemic, governments have increased their capacity for responsive, agile, and flexible regulation by shortening inspection periods and adopting “soft laws” to guide their pandemic response and allow for private sector innovation.12 This has been particularly important in terms of coordination as adjacent regulatory bodies need to innovate concurrently and accelerate the feedback processes.
Regulatory sandboxes make space for innovations in a controlled environment that allows for government oversight. In April 2020, the UK Civil Aviation Authority admitted a drone operator to its sandbox to test beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations in a shared airspace.13 India’s Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority launched a regulatory sandbox for insurance providers, allowing one company to test a new need-based insurance product tailored to COVID-19.14 Malaysia’s National Technology and Innovation Sandbox aims to promote the use of advanced technologies in key sectors such as health care, travel and tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and education as part of the country’s COVID-19 economic recovery plan.15
Soft laws, while not legally binding, allow governments to quickly adapt to issues as they arise, providing necessary guidance to the public sector and private sector without stymying innovation.16 Such regulation can include guidelines, standards, or ethical frameworks, which generally take less time to implement than formal legislation. The European Commission, for instance, developed the better regulation toolbox, which sets out guidelines and tools for commission services to consider throughout the policy and legislative process—from policy proposals to existing legislation evaluations.17
During the pandemic many governments adopted soft laws to respond to rapidly changing conditions. In India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare notified guidelines to expand telemedicine in response to COVID-19.18 Western Australia’s Department of Health issued guidelines for community-based care organizations on the use of personal protective equipment kits and testing, transport, and accommodation of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients.19
Government agencies have also adopted soft laws to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. In 2016, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines for autonomous vehicles. The guidelines have subsequently been revised four times to keep pace with the evolving technology landscape.20 In 2020, New Zealand published its government algorithm charter, a set of principles to guide the use of algorithms and data by government agencies. Over two dozen government agencies have committed to the charter.21
Risk-based regulation gives governments the flexibility to assess products and services on a case-by-case basis, allowing for more leeway when it comes to low-risk innovations and more stringent rules for those considered high-risk. The European Aviation Safety Agency has divided drone regulations into three risk-based categories: open (low risk); specific (medium risk); and certified (high risk). For drones that stay within the line of sight, no formal authorization is required. Those that fly beyond the line of sight are subject to the same rules as manned aircraft.22 Combined with analytics, risk-based regulation is a very cost-efficient way to achieve regulatory objectives.
Governments have been moving toward more agile sourcing processes in recent years, a process accelerated by COVID-19.23 Through agile procurement, governments can quickly and efficiently acquire supplies and technology as needs arise. For instance, India reduced its procurement time for COVID-19–related supplies from two weeks to five days by introducing a dedicated e-portal for such purchases.24
The inherent flexibilities of agile procurement processes also enable agencies to tap into innovative solutions. For instance, the US Department of Defense has accelerated its procurement processes through “other transaction authority” agreements, under which, innovations in certain categories that are valued below US$10 million are exempt from many federal acquisition rules.25
The US Department of Homeland Security launched the Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL), a framework that allows the department to experiment with new acquisition techniques. PIL promotes innovation and risk-taking by offering continuous feedback and sharing best practices across departments.26 PIL has been able to shorten the contracting cycle by 20–50% in each of the procurements in which it has been involved.27 Given PIL’s effectiveness, the US federal government is looking to replicate the PIL model in at least four agencies in 2021.28
Agile procurement is often used to rapidly assess the outcome of initial solutions rather than rely on documented product specifications. For instance, the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) created Pilot IRS to accelerate the procurement process for new technologies. The process helps the IRS determine whether a solution, technology, or service is a good fit for the agency before it receives additional funding.29
Further, the agile approach also offers flexibilities to add additional contractors, if required. Singapore debuted dynamic contracting in 2019 for multiyear bulk tenders.30 The process includes a way for new suppliers to come on board throughout the contract period, rather than restricting access to a single entry point.31 European institutions are procuring cloud infrastructure and related professional services using an online dynamic purchasing system (DPS) that allows vendors to join the platform and offer services throughout the procurement life cycle. This allows institutions the option to change vendors, if necessary. The procurement lead time has fallen 80% with the use of DPS.32
Agile development is an iterative and collaborative approach to software development in which software is developed in an incremental manner rather than delivered all at once. Government agencies around the world have been moving toward agile development for more than a decade. By 2017, 80% of US federal IT projects were characterized as agile or iterative, as compared with 10% in 2002.33
The UK government built its government website using agile development. Within three years, the site had replaced the websites of 1,882 government organizations.34 More than eight years since its launch in 2012, Gov.uk continues to evolve based on user feedback.35
Agencies are also adopting DevOps, a complementary approach to agile software development. DevOps brings software developers and operations teams together to work on IT projects, rather than operating under siloed structures. By fostering collaboration between these two branches of IT, DevOps allows for more integrated software and a shorter development life cycle. The UK Government Digital Services and the US Digital Service organize their teams using DevOps.36
DevSecOps takes the DevOps model a step further, by integrating security along with development and operations. The goal is to build security upfront, increase automation, and enhance agility and speed. The US Food and Drug Administration launched an ambitious DevSecOps initiative within its Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.37 The National Background Investigative System, a key to security clearance reforms in the United States, was also developed using an agile software delivery process and a DevSecOps approach.38
An agile workforce is key to nimble government, and COVID-19 catalyzed numerous flexible workforce initiatives. But to sustain that flexibility over the long term, government agencies should adopt new approaches to bring structural and cultural changes to how work gets done in the public sector. The US Office of Personnel Management authorized agencies to bypass the typically lengthy hiring process for workers hired to respond to the pandemic. Under the authorization, federal agencies can also recruit former federal employees or rehire retired workers without adhering to the standard competitive hiring process.39
Even before the pandemic, governments were experimenting with different approaches to increase flexibility and agility in the way they acquire and deploy key talent. Australia introduced a digital marketplace to make it easier for government agencies to find and hire digital specialists, seek project-specific quotes, or receive digital training.40
In Canada, Talent Cloud aims to shift toward a skill- and project-based talent model by developing a marketplace of cross-sector talent that agencies can tap into for specific project needs.41 A spinoff project, Free Agents, allows a select group of public servants to move from one department to another based on their interests and skills.42
In Australia, more than 200 New South Wales inspectors from the NSW SafeWork and NSW Fair Trading agencies were given food, health, and safety regulatory powers in an effort to bolster the number of inspectors available to monitor businesses such as gyms and pubs to ensure compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.43
Finally, the shift to remote work precipitated by the pandemic has reinforced the notion that work can be done outside the office environment. As a result, government agencies are testing new hybrid models with employees working from home two to three days a week. When implemented, these changes will open the door to greater flexibility and catalyze greater digitization.
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