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Adopting Agile Methods in the Public Service


Agile has emerged as a promising practice and is increasingly making its way into the public sector’s approach to program and service delivery. Where did Agile come from, and how and why is it being used by not only software developers, but teams across government?

In 2001 a group of software developers met to discuss how they could speed up the process of new software development and deliver more value faster to their customers and users, codifying and expanding on emerging practices. A year later, the Agile Manifesto was published. It’s a document that enumerates the values and principles behind the Agile mindset and helps development teams work more efficiently.

The 4 Agile Values:

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

2. Working software over comprehensive documentation.

3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

4. Responding to change over following a plan.

*That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

The 12 Agile principles:

1. The highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early, and continuous, delivery of valuable software.

2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.

3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference for the shorter timescale.

4. Clients and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to, and within a development team, is face-to-face conversation.

7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.

8. Agile processes promote sustainable development — the sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

10. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.

11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

Although Agile has been around for over two decades, we’re still working on incorporating it into the Government of Canada (GC).

Why is Agile important and how is it relevant to my work?

It depends on your role in the public sector. Agile – capital-A Agile, referring to the Manifesto and applied to digital development work – is increasingly important for service delivery in the GC. We need teams who can work with this approach, colleagues who understand and can enable those teams, and we need to be able to identify when to choose Agile versus alternatives or hybrids.

However, you’ll also hear of teams outside the development world borrowing Agile principles, or using practices typical of Agile such as Scrums (a meeting and collaboration structure) or Kanban boards (a method of visualizing work). Agile’s flexible values and principles can be adapted to various fields and can provide teams with guidance on how to be more user-focused, iterative, and incremental in their approaches. These values and principles are slowly becoming a new cultural norm in the public service and provide a safe space for teams to fail, adapt, improve, and iterate repeatedly to deliver value to the people served by the GC.

An agile person updating Kanban board.

Agile ways of working are a response to complexity. In short, it’s effectively impossible to capture every imaginable need and predict, ahead of time, exactly how a wide diversity of people, with a wide diversity of lived experiences, will interact with a government program or service. Accordingly, the practices focus on iteration, experimentation and frequent assessment of both outcomes and the processes used to achieve them. Short iteration and continuous delivery cycles with feedback can help you avoid going down the wrong path for months before testing your assumptions about your users and their needs.

Trust is the foundation that supports the Agile way of working. Trust at every level, in all directions. In Agile teams, there is little room for the overhead of micromanagement and daily scrutiny. This is a key element of the mindset shift that is essential to successful Agile adoption. Successful Agile – or lower-case agile - teams are highly collaborative within and beyond a single organization.

Skydivers holding hands making a formation. High angle view.

Ultimately, the goal is greater efficiency, more value delivered, and higher satisfaction for everyone.

Are you interested in learning more about how you can implement Agile principles in your daily work and how it can be beneficial for you and your team? The Canada School of Public Service’s Learning Catalogue has a lot of resources to get you started. You might want to look at our most recent course that introduces Agile in the public service: Introduction to Agile in the Public Service (DDN208).

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans' Agile Centre of Excellence is dedicated to promoting, enabling, and supporting enterprise agility across the GC. It is a useful tool for both individuals and teams trying to improve their understanding and use of agile practices. Visit the Agile Centre of Excellence to discover various resources, training opportunities, and success stories.

What’s in it for me?

Agile mindset values innovation and recognizes the importance of experimentation and problem-solving skills within your team.

Things to take back to your team

  1. Are you ready to reflect on your role being (more) Agile in your daily work?
  2. How can you encourage your team to adopt Agile practices?
  3. Discuss with your team what Agile approaches you can try in your workplace and their potential outcomes.


Check out what courses and resources are available in the CSPS catalogue:

Camille Dupuis

Camille Dupuis

Conseillère principale en gestion de curriculum/Senior curriculum management advisor

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