By Shelley Metzenbaum, The BETTER Project and Academy Fellow, and Robert Shea, Grant Thornton LLP and Academy Fellow
This post is part of the Academy’s Agile Government Center’s larger body of work. Please follow this LINK to learn about the Agile Government Center and access additional resources on the Academy’s Agile Government Center’s webpage.
“Agile” is a management practice that emphasizes evidence, customer-orientation, incremental improvement, and speed. What does agile mean when talking about government performance? Agile governments use evidence, metrics, and other data to extract insights that help them and others improve the state of the world. Agile governments use and communicate evidence, metrics, and other data to improve performance on three dimensions: outcomes, operations, and trust. To have a beneficial impact on each of these three dimensions of performance, agile governments employ the five A’s:
- Applying, and
Agile governments ask questions and analyze data to answer those questions and uncover additional insights while refining questions with gained knowledge. They apply those insights to amplify and accelerate progress on various policy outcomes. Agile governments also focus their efforts on improving the quality of government operations because good management practices are critical to success. Finally, agile governments continually adjust their actions as experience and insights highlight areas on which to focus and opportunities for further improvement.
Agile governments don’t just ask, analyze, answer, apply, and adjust within individual organizational units. They also continually communicate insights to target audiences, especially those working in the field and implementation partners eager to contribute to progress on policy problems and opportunities. In addition, they communicate effectively to those making choices about which government services to use and when to use them, such as when to visit a public park or the Registry of Motor Vehicles office.
An agile government entity uses evidence, metrics, and data to manage and improve. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines evidence as “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid . . . [it] can be quantitative or qualitative and may come from a variety of sources, including foundational fact-finding, performance measurement, policy analysis, and program evaluation.” Metrics are indicators of program and organizational progress. As distinguished from evidence, metrics help track an organization’s progress but seldom shed light on causality or comparative effects. Data includes metrics and other information collected by government entities and others about transactions and other aspects of program administration. Examples include data on employment and earnings collected through the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program as well as data on medical conditions, payments, and pertinent characteristics of people collected through Medicare and Medicaid. Other examples include data on local pollution levels, key characteristics of regulated parties gathered to administer the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and criminal histories maintained as part of police records or arrests. Evidence, metrics, and data support government agility to realize greater beneficial impacts when appropriately used.
Agile governments and their delivery partners – whether operating at the national, state, regional, local, tribal, or organizational level – use a mix of metrics and other data to keep a constant eye on their objectives and manage current activities to advance in the right direction. They ask many kinds of questions throughout the implementation process. Agile governments continually look for and analyze data they and others have gathered to understand what warrants government attention. They ask whether relevant experience in other places is worth looking at more closely to see what is worth adapting for their own use. They inventory relevant evaluations of potentially applicable practices, products, and services and apply those evaluation findings where appropriate.
Agile governments set priorities across identified needs and opportunities, analyze data to look for high-performing outliers using practices worth promoting for broader adoption in other places and look for laggard performers likely to benefit from external assistance. They continually share questions (and answers) with implementation partners and others grappling with similar questions to learn from each other and collaborate to make progress on similar problems and opportunities.
Agile governments complement data analysis with well-designed trials that use sound scientific methods, some conducted by independent third parties and some integrated into operations. They appreciate that useful evaluations need not be time-consuming nor expensive; rapid experimentation can often produce instrumental evidence in a short period.
Agile organizations ask questions and conduct analyses to generate actionable intelligence. They use evidence to decide whether to accelerate the adoption of a program or practice or adjust current practices to address shortcomings. They tailor available analysis to make it more useful to implementation partners in the field. They also look for and find information channels that successfully communicate data analyses and trial findings to partners in ways they can easily access, understand, and apply to make their own decisions about where to focus and improve.
There are essential cautions to using evidence, metrics, and data. Agile organizations must track progress not just on milestones but also intermediate and long-term outcomes. Also, agile organizations must embrace practices to verify, validate, and improve the accuracy and reduce the bias of the data they rely on for decision making.
In short, agile governments continually analyze evidence, metrics, and other data to find answers to questions to apply to their actions. They return data and analyses to data suppliers and other key audiences with value added through analyses. They adjust goals, strategies, and actions based on analyses and conversations with the field. They frequently engage others involved in implementation to reflect on and decide what to do and what to learn next. They give attention to finding effective ways to communicate evidence and experience to inform implementation, strengthen democratic decision making about goals and strategies, and build understanding of and trust in government.
Agile governments continually adjust as they learn from analyses and experience and as the world in which they operate changes. They adjust goals when there is a reason to do so, explaining why they made those changes to those involved and interested. They similarly adjust strategies and tactics as they learn from experience and communicate those adjustments and their rationale coherently to implementation partners and others.
Summary. Federal, state, and local legislatures have passed many laws over the years requiring the executive branch of their governments to produce and report metrics and use evidence. The challenge governments face working in an agile, inclusive way is avoiding a compliance mindset. Agile governments constantly ask, analyze, answer, apply answers, and adjust to improve continuously on multiple dimensions. Agile organizations collect, analyze, and communicate data and data analyses and run well-designed trials frequently. In addition, they broadly share what they are asking and learning in ways that help their delivery partners make more informed decisions about what to do, where to do it, and when to maximize improvement. Agile governments keep a steady eye and attention to progress on their outcome and operational objectives. They also keep a steady eye on the effectiveness of their efforts to communicate to delivery partners and the public about goals, strategies, and relevant evidence.