Launching ‘Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age’

Repost via “Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age

Launch page

Digital has changed the way that billions of people live their lives. It has transformed the way that couples meet and friendship groups evolve. It has allowed millions to shift their place of employment during the pandemic. It has given nations new ways of going to war.

Governments have done their best to cope with this un-asked-for revolution. Sometimes they’ve adapted brilliantly, but more often they’ve struggled. Citizens deal with the consequences of that struggle on a daily basis with critical online services that don’t work or are difficult to navigate. Leaders struggle with IT budgets that continue to expand, and fear the ever present danger of the ‘Government IT disaster’.

Governments struggle because there has been a significant shift that has occurred in the skills that they need. In the digital era effective services and policies can only be designed and delivered by teams that combine traditional public service skills with a raft of new skills. Whilst there have been many strong successes, developing and acquiring these new skills has proven an insurmountable problem for many government departments and agencies, as has been tragically exposed by the Covid-19 crisis.

A community of fellow travellers – including you?

‘Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age’ is a new, international community of professors, teachers and practitioners who are worried about the modern skills shortfall inside of too many governments. We have come together to develop both a friendly community, and a set of practical initiatives with a shared goal: to increase the supply of digital-era public service skills into governments.

Our primary mechanism for doing this is to give teachers, professors and decision-makers in universities world-class teaching materials, and a supportive community of peers.

If you are someone who wants your university or your government academy to do a better job of teaching vital digital era skills to current or future public service leaders, we’d absolutely love to have you on board. We’re interested in meeting people who want to bring all parts of the public affairs curriculum into the digital era – Economics, Statistics, Policy Analysis and more. Our project is not just about having a ‘digital module’ in your wider programme.

There’s no specific role of qualification required to be part of our community other than you should be directly or indirectly connected to the mission of teaching future public servants. This might have you at a university, professional school or government academy or an organization or entity we’ve not contemplated.

Perhaps the simplest single way of being involved is to sign up to our low-traffic email news list (see bottom of page), or follow us on Twitter. But if you read on, you’ll see we’re keen to engage people much more deeply too.

The Foundations: Digital Era Competencies

Every project about making the world a better place needs firm foundations. Ours are a set of eight Digital Era Competencies every public service leader or manager needs to have, regardless of where in the public sector they work.

We developed and agreed these Digital Era Competencies during a six month iterative process that involved faculty and practitioners from several countries. You can read about them and why they’re helpful here.

Coming soon: An open access syllabus that you can teach

We are developing a masters-level full-semester syllabus that will be released as an open educational resource this autumn/fall. To be clear, we are not releasing a MOOC for direct use by students: we are releasing a set of teaching guides, designed around the needs of people like you. Read more here.

Want to get involved? Consider becoming a Contributor on the syllabus development.

We aspire to grow a community that both gives and takes – to have formal Contributors. To that end we’re asking today for interest from people who may wish to assist with the development of parts of the new syllabus.

Useful activities we would appreciate include:

  • Reading draft teaching materials
  • Helping find or develop case studies, especially outside the English speaking world
  • Point us to existing teaching resources
  • Experiment using our teaching materials in your classes

If you’re interested in helping out, please get in touch. We aspire towards being a highly inclusive, truly global community in which different backgrounds and different perspectives make our teaching materials more valuable for more people. We welcome community members of any nationality, race, gender, sexuality, religion or ability.

We will also ensure that anyone who becomes a Contributor and whose work is included in our published materials is recognised in a clear and unambiguous manner.

Who are you supported by?

We have financial support from the Public Interest Technology University Network, for which we are very grateful. We have been incubated within the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Lastly, almost everyone involved in the project so far has been contributing as a volunteer. We’re hugely thankful for the efforts of everyone in the founding group.

Image Credit: UX Indonesia

Call for Papers: Special Issue “AI in the Public Sector” in PMR

AI in the public sector

PMR Special Issue call for papers

Guest editors

This special issue will be edited by an experienced team comprising Professor Helen Dickinson (University of New South Wales, Australia), Professor Ines Mergel (University of Konstanz, Germany),  and Professor Jari Stenvall (Tampere University, Finland).


This special issue will provide a resource to academics and practitioners working within the field of public management and public services. It will take stock of where the field is so far with AI, offer empirical insights and then develop signposts where the field of public management needs to go next with respect to this technology. It will delineate what it is we already know about this area, clarify terminology, set out the major areas of debate and provide helpful guidance around implementation for those working in a public management context. 

This special issue will focus on implementation and public service management-related issues. The public management academic community has often failed to give sufficient attention to aspects of technological change. AI provides an opportunity to rethink public service delivery and co-production models. The public management literature can offer some helpful insights into guiding the role that governments play in overseeing these technologies. The intention is that this special issue should play an important role in doing this with respect to AI technologies. The end product will seek to set out what is known about this topic and where the major gaps in the knowledge base reside. 

AI is interesting from the perspective that it is a new tool for those in the public management space to draw on and proponents argue that it will have a number of important impacts on the design and delivery of a range of public services. AI has the potential to drive efficiencies in areas of public services such as surgery and traffic management. The attraction of AI is that it is able analyze information faster than humans, at lower cost potentially creating new service models.

We also know that there will be a number of unanticipated or unintended consequences as a result of the use of these technologies. Indeed, much of the current scholarship surrounding this concept relates to potential challenges that may arise as a result of the use of AI. However, these technologies also have the potential to have an impact on public management and public managers in other interesting ways. AI applications may fundamentally change the work of public managers and public servants. By automating services and offering proactive public service delivery, AI has the potential to free up human capacity for complex decision making processes that require interaction between different types of human decision makers. Applications of AI technologies may also fundamentally alter organizational routines. While some consideration has been given to how AI might replace humans, automating aspects of service delivery, for example through the use of chat bots, arguably more interesting areas of focus for public managers resides in how AI will augment the skills and capabilities of humans and how they will work alongside one another. As with all technologies the challenge is not controlling the technology, rather it is controlling the people who control the technology.

Paper topics sought

This special issue calls for papers that fill the above gaps by asking for papers to be submitted that provide evidence of failures and successes in the implementation of these technologies.  There are some papers in this space already that are largely normative or which do not offer empirical data and these are not the core target of this call. We are seeking empirical papers that do not just describe AI initiatives, but are evaluative and build on this evidence. We are open to the submission of literature reviews, but only where they substantially develop existing thinking or integrate literature from a range of different fields and make this relevant to a public management audience.  We welcome case studies or large scale survey studies that explore the use of AI from a Public Management perspective dealing with issues such as the governance and/or management of AI, how AI is changing public management practices and the work of public managers. These cases may include, but are not limited to, how AI supports decision making in services (e.g., emergency management, health, police, defence), how AI is used to create citizen-centric services, the implications of AI for the capabilities and capacities of the public service workforce, and how other stakeholders influence the adoption of AI in the public  sector. We therefore welcome studies from a range of fields and cross-disciplinary studies, which make contributions to the public management understanding of AI.

Topics may include, but are not limited  to:

  • The implementation of AI as a public management task
  • The ethics and risk governance of AI and algorithms in public management implementation
  • Linking AI implementation, evaluation and the political agenda
  • The behavioural impacts of AI – e.g. on motivation, trust, etc.
  • Comparative studies across different public service fields

Authors are welcome to send emails to the editorial team to check if a submission is in scope for this call.


15th June 2020: PMR open call for special issue

31st December 2020: Submission of article manuscripts to PMR special issue editors

1st March 2021: First review of papers complete. Authors informed about acceptance, necessary revisions or rejection

1st June 2021: Resubmission of articles (2nd ms version)

1st August 2021: Second review of (revised) papers complete

1st October 2021: Resubmission of articles (3rd ms version)

1st December 2021: Electronic publication of articles

2022: Hard copy publication

Agile: A New Way of Governing

By Ines Mergel, Sukumar Ganapati, Andy Whitford

Pre-print accepted for publication in Public Administration Review

Full reference: Mergel, I., Ganapati, S., Whitford, A. (2020): Agile: A New Way of Governing, in: Public Administration Review, published online on May 18, 2020.


The evolving concept of agile has fundamentally changed core aspects of software design, project management, and business operations. The agile approach could also reshape government, public management, and governance in general. Here, we introduce the modern agile movement, reflect on how it can benefit public administrators, and describe several challenges managers will face when expected to make their organizations more flexible and responsive.

Evidence for Practice

  1. Agile is antithetical to traditional hierarchical/bureaucratic line organizations.
  2. Agile requires a new form of self-selected, team-based organizational structures; it also requires leadership that serves such teams (e.g. servant leadership).
  3. Agile flourishes in innovation-oriented organizational cultures.
  4. Agile requires new, flexible forms of contracting and procurement.


Government agencies are creating policies for agile government and introducing new practices and playbooks (e.g., U.S. GAO 2012, HUD 2018). For instance, digital service teams such as the United States Digital Service, the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, and the Canadian Digital Service have paved the way for working in an “agile way”. State and local governments have adopted agile and related practices through innovation labs and civic service design teams (e.g., the Georgia Technology Authority, New York City). In these specific cases, “agile” is a paradigm for better software development and project management to avoid large scale project failures at the end of the project and funding period (e.g., Mergel 2016; Project Management Institute, 2017). Agile is usefully contrasted with the traditional “waterfall” method, in which each project phase has to be carried out in sequence see, for example, Whitford 2020). Planning and building often takes years – and working software is often outdated when finally released. Agile project management values and techniques allow the project team to work on smaller increments, review their work often, and include feedback right away to avoid costly failures.

A quiet government transformation is already underway with practitioners who are investing heavily in working in agile environments and applying agile approaches from software development to other types of government problems. Traditionally, major changes in the way government works are either introduced through policy changes or public management reforms. Agencies are now changing their project management techniques and even procurement practices, incorporating new values and methods that are foreign to classical “bureaucratic” organizations. Historically, only emergency managers typically have to deal with crisis situations in an agile way to deal with the shifting ground realities. In both practice and academic settings, people often use “agility” interchangeably with more familiar terms such as responsiveness or adaptive governance – highlighting momentary change of the standard operating procedures, and leading to a conflation of the terms (e.g., Wise 2006; Janssen & Van der Voort 2016). Moreover, the canonical public administration literature has largely neglected agile and more fundamental changes it introduces to hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations. For instance, our search in Web of Science for the topic “agile” revealed that 26 research articles in “public administration”, most not related to the agile concept.

Based on years of collective experience interviewing practitioners and documenting these changes, this Viewpoint article aims to introduce the agile concept to the public administration community – bringing clarity to the use of the concept and integrating it with other more established concepts in public administration like responsiveness, resilience, and adaptability (in contrast to more monumental public management reforms such as NPM) (e.g., Greve et al. 2019). For clarity, academics can think of agile as a new package of routines and processes embedded within formal work groups and structures – as a pathway for “nudging” organizational behavior toward higher-valued outcomes. We proceed by describing its roots in the area of software design. We then highlight key advantages and challenges of an agile working environment in government beyond its origins in software development.

What Agile is and why it matters

Agile is such a recent phenomenon that most governments are still learning how to apply it when searching for innovation and performance improvements in government operations and service provision. Agile government is inspired by agile software development, but in wider administrative parlance it means responding to changing public needs in an efficient way. In the redesign and digitalization of public services, agile methods are applied in the initial requirement analysis. Service designers use ethnographic methods to understand user needs along the journey they take to access a public service. They interview process owners (to understand the formal requirements based on the law) and internal and external users (to understand their experiences throughout the full user journey). This reveals pain points but also things that work well, which shows how to design a better public service from a user perspective.

Service designers then compare these informal requirements with the formal requirements – and hand over a prototype to the software developers. These design steps emphasize inclusiveness and transparency – not only with respect to citizens, but also because public servants continue as core project team members and are not left out of the decision-making processes. In contrast, in “waterfall” or other traditional approaches involving vendors, contract officers help decide about the product’s attributes but rarely with the input of those who use the tools daily. Users, when they are involved at all, provide feedback or assessment information after the new process, software, or approach is deployed. In contrast to a traditional bureaucracy where decisions are made top-down and complaints from users emerge bottom-up, agile government procedures reframe traditional decision making by making internal and external users part of the process from day 1.

As such, agile is not in inherent conflict with democratic or other classical administrative values. In internal project management, agile is a method for improving the efficiency of service delivery. Yet, agile governance implies being responsive to public values like equality and social responsibility. This is because even if agency officials only care about how they deal with external users, agile shapes how the agency discovers and then integrates the changing needs of the public – itself a democratic value (Beck et al., 2001). Rather than focusing only on the provision of products or services, agile deeply values the voices of both team members and citizens. When present at all levels of the agency, successful self-governing agile teams prepare and make decisions, with the broad support of top management; this creates greater openness to the broader adoption of successful reform elements (Greve, et al., 2019).

The concordance of agile and classical public administration values can be seen in the role of the “Agile Manifesto” in the movement’s evolution (Beck, et al. 2001). In 2001, an array of software engineers and developers articulated four core agile values that they wanted to guide efforts to fix common problems in how virtually everyone builds and deploys complex software (see Table 1 below). Agile’s core values were established as a way of changing how software is produced. It is easy to see the main points here: users and makers were the main starting points; software should work first (even if not comprehensive); collaboration gets more done than a conflict-based process; and, change is inevitable – so responsiveness and adaptability are key:

  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.

From these four values, the architects of agile developed 12 key principles for software developers to follow when they were building and deploying complex software projects (see Table 2). These four values and 12 principles establish an infinite feedback loop. Developers are asked to figure out what the software should do, how it should be designed, how it should be built, and to test it all at the same time. Working software produced quickly is the most valuable outcome. Users then test that build as a way of guiding developers about what changes will most improve the overall project. Those user experiences as they interact with prototypes show developers what aspects they should fix first. After rapidly deploying new versions of working software to the user base, they then gather new information about what should be fixed next. The overall point here is that this cycle should take as many iterations as is needed to make user experiences better – and it may be that the feedback loop lasts forever.

  1. Seek to fulfill the customer’s needs. Do so through the early delivery of software. Continuously improve that software.
  2. Respond to the demand for changes to that software because doing so better positions the customer for success.
  3. Shorten the timescale for the delivery of working software. Deliver changes frequently.
  4. Developers should work hand-in-hand with business users.
  5. Center fabrication around individuals motivated to succeed.
  6. Emphasize face-to-face conversation within the team and between the development team and the broader organization.
  7. The most important benchmarks are working software.
  8. Sustainable development is the goal. All involved parties should be able to maintain a constant pace of engagement.
  9. Continuously focus on technical quality and good design.
  10. Emphasize simplicity.
  11. Self-organization in teams improves design and production.
  12. Regularly reflect on how to improve this process.

Because agile centers on working and learning from customers about how to build better software – about finding what core needs should be fixed next – it is easy to see how people in government have latched onto this approach for improving software development in the public sector. For instance, a 2014 IBM Center for the Business of Government report (Gorans & Kruchten 2014) focused on how waterfall approaches (the most common way government builds software and, indeed, most programs and projects) are rigid in their laying out of project requirements (often taking years) before they moved on to the actual design, development, testing, and deployment of working software.

While waterfall is slow and plan-based, agile is fast and light. Agile invests in initial planning but assumes that those plans will change as experience with working software provides new information about what users need. In many settings, those learning experiences are carried out by teams organized as “scrums” known for high-paced, rapid iteration – perhaps even with the goal of producing new versions of working software in less than a day. While waterfall approaches center on planning, agile succeeds when working software is deployed. Agile projects had four times more successes and one-third less failures than waterfall projects (Standish Group, 2015; Serrador & Pinto, 2015); this balance indicates why so many people are drawn to agile as a way of doing their work.

In some important ways, agile’s core assumption is that innovation is not linear – that it does not proceed in a rational, deterministic manner (e.g., see, Mackenzie and Wajcman 1999). Organizations, cultures, and need entwine when moving forward with an innovation; in many senses, the process from beginning to end is path-dependent and builds upon the actions and preferences of builders, operators, and end users.

Agile embeds this understanding – either purposively or intuitively – in its focus on rapid learning, which naturally means that agile requires high levels of collaboration between technical staff and the user base. For this reason, we now see agile as a way of doing more than just designing and deploying working software. Indeed, agile has evolved from a software design method to a central way of handling the design, production, and deployment of any customer-facing processes and includes not only IT specialists but also generalists, managers, and process owners at the user level. In this respect, while it is impossible to escape the social shaping of technology, agile respects those processes.

Because of its roots in and permeation of software design and deployment (to the point where it is difficult now to find software shops that are not agile in some shape or form), we see agile as more than just a way of making apps or bots. Yes, agile has continued to evolve – many organizations now use higher-level integrative practices (e.g., DevOps) for the continuous integration and delivery of code – we see the bigger picture here as being this new focus on all customer-facing processes. We know that “customer” is a loose word – in fact, users, employees, citizens, stakeholders, and any word we want to use can be the target of an agile design method to improve government; yet, agile works for both internal and external users.

Advantages of Agile

Overall, agile is a mindset that initiates a cultural change in bureaucratic command-and-control organizations. Agile administrations would be open to reforms, adapting to the changing environment, public values, and public needs. Here we outline how it can contribute to a more effective and efficient administration.

1. Agile assumes situations are fluid and change over time. As new information, constraints, or opportunities emerge, agile drives practitioners to revise and update early working versions to improve processes or services. Improvements might include speed to delivery, product or service quality, or to the program’s existence itself. While in traditional processes “results” are often mostly about “reporting,” in agile the goal is to satisfy constituents by solving their problems (outcomes are achieved) rather than just producing detailed documentation. Transparency and accountability are improved by knowing why things changed and who was in the room when decisions were made.

2. Agile privileges adaptive structure over hierarchies and silos. Unlike in traditional bureaucracies, in which administrative divisions are meat and bones of everything, in agile administrative divisions are only for backend purposes. External users do not know (or even need to know) administrative constraints. In this way, agile is like other cross-functional administrative arrangements intended to improve transparency, resource sharing, and capabilities. Like other arrangements (e.g., matrix designs), agile is intended to make it easier to know what works and avoid what does not work. In agile, policy or product designers need the input of users, citizens, or customers because their own experiences are not as useful or representative – so they have to leave their silos. In several ways this is what also lays behind the move toward single points of contact instead of dealing with multiple agencies for resolving issues (e.g., permitting in local governments, 311 call centers). In agile, coordination should be seamless at the frontend.

3. Agile emphasizes responsible individual discretion over bureaucratic procedures. Rather than following traditional standard operating procedures, workers with expertise are liberated to solve public problems in an efficient and effective manner. As discussed above, agile emphasizes bottom-up change over top-down direction (or even outside-in from vendors or consultants). Of course, this focus on the individual resonates with broader approaches to change management. Agile’s emphasis on the individual can improve public servants’ engagement if the organization’s culture values individual contributions. In agile, no worker is just “another cog in the wheel”, which changes the perceptions of those who are involved and might increase ownership and, subsequently, acceptance during the adoption.

4. Agile emphasizes continuous self-reflective learning processes. Agile assumes failure so agencies that experience failure in first iterations are better equipped to improve. As such, public managers are pushed to abandon a zero-failure culture so that workers are free to make mistakes. Of course, trial-and-error and experimental approaches can be difficult in environments that traditionally do not reward mistakes. Likewise, managers drive the process. For instance, agile “retrospectives” require managers and teams to revisit policies and procedures periodically to ask what happened and how things can improve. Agile cultures learn fast from past mistakes.   

5. Agile increases knowledge about processes, procedures, and requirements for new processes and services. We know that agencies with agile purchasing processes – often “blanket purchasing agreements” (BPAs) – learn more about what they need and how things should work. For instance, co-authoring and adapting buying requirements for products and services often improve overall quality. Inagile BPA processes, contract managers verify legal prerequisites but knowledge owners (who need to use the products and services) write content requirements. This helps ensure that products and services are usable, while maintaining oversight. Users then also assess what external contractors deliver. In domains like information technology, many vendors are required to follow agile principles in their work with private-sector entities, so an agile layer in the governmental sector is de rigueur. In turn, many agencies now require agile buying approaches, including the delivery of prototypes up front to demonstrate ability to deliver on tenders and improve transparency. We are already seeing this change in the service delivery industry (although it is still early stage days) (e.g., Whitford 2020).

Challenges in adopting Agile in Government

We also see several key challenges in importing agile into traditional agencies, especially in scaling new practices or experiments to the rest of the organization.

1. Agile is antithetical to many typical bureaucratic line organizations. In those settings, managers who need to take responsibility for actions may not be willing to do so given how cross-functional agile teams work. This is classical blame avoidance – a natural response in risk-averse settings when asked to take responsibility for new methods and especially their outcomes. If experimentation is not part of the toolbox, and if bureaus value organizational reputation and avoid public failures, agile never gains traction. Managers need to take responsibility for the final product and defend the outcome, even though it might not have been developed with their explicit input. Agile civil servants cannot rely on established standard operating procedures, so their actions run headlong into legalistic administrative culture. Because agile can also contradict administrative law, its application must be evaluated case-by-case. Moreover, in organizations largely characterized by “we have seen this before, let’s wait until the next wave comes in…”, traditionalists could see agile as another fad that will be replaced.

2. Agile requires a new form of leadership. Most notably, agile requires consensual decision making and acceptance of trial-and-error approaches – leadership styles not often represented among middle managers. Agile requires handing over decisions to groups of non-leaders; agile requires protection of teams from external political and other influences. In a number of ways, agile is consistent with servant leadership, which is less-represented in public administration (Greenleaf, 1970). Agile emphasizes putting subordinates first, helping them grow and succeed in the organization, empowering the team, and creating value for the community. Many private-sector information technology companies using agile emphasize servant leadership.

3. Agile requires new forms of contracting and procurement. Traditional contracting processes are oriented toward waterfall, which focuses on the delivery of specified products in a stepwise fashion. Agile does not quite fit the traditional processes since there is not a single finished product, process, or service – the thrust is on continuous improvement. Agile requires a contract management approach that is flexible and stretches beyond a fixed-price, one-time project. Such new modes of contracting and procurement focus on the holistic team, service delivery process, and creating long term trust relationships (Opelt et al. 2013).

Conclusion and future opportunities

Agile requires at its core a change of rigid bureaucratic cultures (top-down, zero-failure). This is not a small feat. Generations of civil servants were trained to follow the hierarchy principle. They have been told to obey a command-and-control structure without questioning the legitimacy of its decision-making model. They have learned to stick to their guns respectively in assigned roles and leave innovation up to the upper echelons. Change in organizational culture is hard, especially if there are no incentives to change. We know that there are many internal organizational and cultural features that influence these changes and adopting new reform elements (Greve et al., 2019; Jun and Weare, 2011; Venkatesh et al., 2003).

Agile culture turns traditional organizational principles of the bureaucracy upside-down. Agile values individual team members and teams. It requires responsible discretion – and great flexibility in organizational procedures and principles. Many organizational settings have experienced remarkable transformation through the application of agile principles. The same is possible in the public sector – if leaders embrace its advantages and are mindful of its challenges. Here, empirical research together with practitioners is necessary to understand the expectations of organizational members, such as necessary competences, decision-making structures, or expected outcomes.

Yet, we recognize that it is early days for our understanding of the prospects for agile in the public sector. For instance, one area ripe for theoretical and empirical contributions is the political aspects of agility. We know from our collective empirical understanding of the practice space that theoretical or empirical contributions that disentangle agility in policy making, agility in emergency policies, or other types of proactive or reactive policy making issues would be beneficial. An obvious example is that emergency management or public health responses may be especially attuned to agile principles. However, the development of such a contribution is beyond the scope of this short essay.

Another area that needs greater elaboration is how agile practitioners see the relationship between the framework they know best and the broader classical public administration values elaborated in this journal and taught in public affairs programs. A number of methodologies (e.g., Q-sorts) could be used to elaborate that relationship but to our knowledge no systematic information is currently available.

Even though our knowledge base remains incomplete, the practice experience makes clear that agile is gaining traction as a new way of governing. We hope that this contribution helps build a bridge for further collaboration between practitioners and academics in the search for new ways of enhancing public value.

Works cited

Beck, K., et al. 2001. The Agile Manifesto. Agile Alliance.

Gorans, Paul, and Philippe Kruchten. 2014. “A Guide to Critical Success Factors in Agile Delivery.” IBM Center for the Business of Government. 2014. Available online:

Greve, Carsten, Niels Ejersbo, Per Lægreid, and Lise H. Rykkja. 2019. Unpacking Nordic Administrative Reforms: Agile and Adaptive Governments. International Journal of Public Administration, DOI: 10.1080/01900692.2019.1645688

Greenleaf, R. K. 1970. The servant as leader. Newton Centre, MA: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Janssen, M., and H. Van Der Voort. 2016. Adaptive governance: Towards a stable, accountable and responsive government. Government Information Quarterly, 33(1), 1-5.

Jun, Kyu-Nahm, and Christopher Weare. 2011. Institutional Motivations in the Adoption of Innovations: The Case of E-Government. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21 (3): 495–519. DOI: 10.1093/jopart/muq020

Mackenzie, Donald and Judy Wajcman, Eds. 1999. The Social Shaping of Technology. Open University Press.

Mergel, I. 2016. Agile innovation management in government: A research agenda. Government Information Quarterly, 33(3), 516-523.

Opelt, A., B. Gloger, W. Pfarl, and R. Mittermayr. 2013. Agile Contracts: Creating and Managing Successful Projects with Scrum. Wiley.

Project Management Institute. 2017. Agile Practice Guide.

Serrador, P. and J.K. Pinto. 2015. Does Agile work? – A quantitative analysis of agile project success, International Journal of Project Management. 33(5), 1040-1051.

Standish Group. 2015. CHAOS Report 2015.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2012. Software development. Effective practices and federal challenges in applying agile methods. United States Government Accountability Office. Available online:

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 2018. Agile Methodology Policy, US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Available online:

Venkatesh, Viswanath, Michael G. Morris, Gordon B. Davis, and Fred D. Davis. 2003. User Acceptance of Information Technology: Toward a Unified View. MIS Quarterly 27(3): 425-78. DOI:10.2307/30036540.

Whitford, Andrew B. 2020. “Transforming how Government Operates: Four Methods for Changing Government.” IBM Center for the Business of Government.

Wise, C. R. 2006. Organizing for homeland security after Katrina: Is adaptive management what’s missing?. Public Administration Review, 66(3), 302-318.

Making Government Agile

by Ines Mergel, Sukumar Ganapati, Andrew Whitford


We sometimes dismiss Agile methods too easily – that they are nothing but colorful post-its and hype. Our goal here is to help public managers see how Agile concepts can be part of the standard toolbox of teams and managers working at all levels of government. We have two main messages: 1) Agile fits well with the core values of modern government, and 2) through practical ways project teams can become Agile. We also highlight a few useful resources for public managers.

What is Agile?

Agile came about as a way of developing software in IT projects where requirements could change rapidly. The 2001 Manifesto for Agile Software Development formalized Agile’s values and principles. In a nutshell, Agile values interactive development, working products over grand plans, collaboration with customers, and rapid response to changes (Box 1). 

Box 1. Agile Values

•          Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

•          Working software over comprehensive documentation

•          Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

•          Responding to change over following a plan

Box. 1: Agile Values

Consider the alternative, sometimes called the “waterfall” approach, where project phases are never revisited after they end. In contrast, Agile as a distinctive project management approach, is more flexible and iterative. Waterfall is linear and process driven, with detailed documentation, and predetermined products. Agile is results-driven, with frequent delivery and rapid adjustments in response to environmental or market changes.

As such, Agile can rapidly modify its planning and take into account new input from feedback sessions to achieve better performance (in terms of cost, time, and quality). Agile emphasizes frequent delivery of small outputs and collaboration with clients throughout each project phase – not just at the delivery time. Agile works through frequent face-to-face communication, self-organizing teams, and team self-reflection through retrospectives. Interactions among individual team members and trusting relationships are crucial for Agile teams to succeed. Teams follow time-bound routines to deliver a working product, usually within 2-3 weeks. 

Federal, state, and local agencies are already on the Agile path. At the federal level, 18F has played a crucial role in promoting Agile across federal agencies. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) has undertaken several initiatives for promoting Agile in state governments. Agile Government Leadership (AGL) and private consulting firms (e.g., Accenture, Deloitte) have also been instrumental in encouraging government agencies to adopt Agile. The Project Management Institute began to offer an Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) credentialing program in 2012. 

Government can be agile just like software development can be agile. Government can respond to changing public needs in an efficient and timely way – if it is citizen-centered (emphasizing value creation from a user/customer perspective) and if end users are integral throughout the development process (not just at the very end of the value creation process). The input of both citizens and internal users are required throughout the project management process. For instance, Agile does this by capturing end user’s priorities through user stories (descriptions in plain language) that are then reflected in the to-be-built service. 

Agile is an organizational culture where both internal and external users help build an Agile mindset. It reflects core values of modern government in its orientation toward citizen needs and the common good. To get the job done, Agile relies on small self-selected teams without strong hierarchies – something not always seen in government.  As such, they need top-down support so they can prepare decisions and make them; Agile teams need supportive public managers. 

How can government teams use Agile methods?

While there are many aspects of Agile and many different ways of getting to similar results, here are a few things a government team can do to adopt Agile methods:

  1. Start simple. As Agile guru, Steve Denning says, Agile is a journey. 
  2. Find ways to teach your teams the simplest and most useful tools that are employed in agile and design thinking – this includes kanban boards, divide tasks into small and manageable work packages, review progress each day, include frequent feedback, talk about what can be done and where you need help.
  3. Build on small successes: deliver smaller parts frequently, instead of working toward one large end goal.
  4. Empower and protect teams: give teams the right not only to prepare decisions, but also to make them and protect them from above.
  5. Document what you plan to do and why you plan to do it: visualize your process using free software (e.g., Trello), or boards where you highlight what still needs to be done, what is underway, and what is already accomplished.
  6. Work with clients, customers, and internal users to document the most risky parts of the plan and where that risk comes from.
  7. Help teams learn and deploy testing strategies. It is especially useful to test the most risky parts of the plan.
  8. Help customers, clients, and users reveal how much they care about the problem that you are trying to solve.
  9. Help teams decide how much they know about the problem and where there are gaps in their knowledge. 
  10. Help teams find ways to determine which users, clients, or customers are the hardest to reach, the least likely to participate in the process, and thus the most at risk of their perspectives and feedback being omitted – or not receiving the service they are entitled to.

Where can you find more Agile resources?

Agile Government Leadership (AGL, is an association of civic professionals formed in 2014 to bring agile practices to the public sector. AGL created the Agile Government Handbook and an online AGL Academy to help public agencies learn how to bring agile culture. The AGL hosts virtual panel discussions where participants can learn about new trends and lessons learned.

The National Academy of Public Administration, in partnership with the IBM Center for The Business of Government, is forming the Agile Government Center (AGC) to develop, disseminate, and implement agile government principles around the world. AGC will be a hub for governments, non-profits, foundations, academic institutions and private sector partners to assist in developing and disseminating agile government principles and case studies of agile policies and programs. 

For individuals seeking to advance their career path in Agile project management, the Project Management Institute (PMI, offers a course on Agile project management. It also offers the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner. 

Useful practical readings:

  • Denning, S. (2016): The Age of Agile. New York: Amacom.
  • Whitford, A. B. (Forthcoming). Transforming how Government Operates: Four Methods for Changing Government. IBM Center for the Business of Government.
  • Mergel, I. (2016). Agile innovation management in government: A research agenda. Government Information Quarterly, 33(3), 516-523.
  • Project Management Institute. (2017). Agile Practice Guide
  • Beck, K., et al. (2001) The Agile Manifesto. Agile Alliance.

Competencies for the digital transformation of public administrations


The digital transformation makes it clear that public administrations lack skills for its implementation. This article reports on the results of expert interviews and shows ways to achieve digital maturity in public administrations.


The digital transformation of public administration is increasingly shifting the focus to competencies instead of processes and tasks. HR departments and managers must now consider in which areas their employees have special skills that can be adapted to meet the new challenges in a digitalised workplace. In the future, administrative processes will be partially automated. This means that tasks can be completed proactively and with little human intervention by machines. This will make it possible for administrative staff to focus on complex processes. In other words, processes in which there are individual or multiple human decision-making processes and negotiation requirements that can only be met through interaction between different employees.

Distinguishing different types of competences

It is often pointed out that every administrative employee now needs more in-depth programming or data science skills, without specifying exactly what these skills should be used for. Therefore, we should first distinguish the different forms of competences and then clarify who needs which competences.

Individual competences include, for example, technical competence (“digital literacy”), which mainly includes the ability of individuals to access and evaluate information in different media. Information literacy then additionally requires that administrative staff have the ability to know when there is a need for information, to identify this information and to use it effectively for a given problem. In addition, the need for digital fluency, such as an open-minded attitude towards the usage of alternative technologies in order to be able to switch seamlessly between different applications. However, all this does not happen in a vacuum, but instead requires the digital readiness of organisational capacities (see figure for an overview of the forms of competence).

Since the New Public Management governance model has promoted the outsourcing of the technological competencies to external IT service companies or consultants, these competencies must first be understood and then successively built up again inside public administrations.

Required competences of different personas

In order to understand which competencies are necessary for the digital transformation of public administration, expert interviews were conducted with digital transformation experts. It turned out that far fewer technical competencies are needed to implement the digital transformation of public administrations, instead the focus is on other forms of competencies that cannot be derived in a generalized manner for all stakeholders. The interview partners highlighted four different personas: Citizens, managers, employees and IT service providers or consultants.

■ From the experts’ point of view, citizens do not need additional or dedicated digital competences, as they often have far more experience through their own personal use of online platforms and mobile devices. Here it is rather necessary to increase trust in the privacy of formal digital communications and to encourage citizens to use feedback channels, as this interviewee confirms: “(Among) citizens themselves, I do not see that so many competences are required. Digital administrative services should also be simplified so that advanced digital skills are not required.”

Managers in public administrations, on the other hand, are particularly challenged and must form a digital mindset to be able to rethink all processes digitally from now on. A distinction must be made here between management responsibility for large units, which can also be run with less specific IT expertise, and the management of specialist teams, for which specialist IT knowledge is required. Managers must be able to define implementation standards and, above all, understand digital ethics. They are expected to understand and support new forms of work, for example, with regard to the digital workplace or the home office. Here, a readiness for so-called “shared leadership” is expected, that is, a readiness in which leadership responsibility is broadly distributed so that people within a team and an organization lead each other – especially if they cannot attend physical meetings in person. However, the most important competency for managers is that they need to understand technological trends to reduce their dependence on external IT providers.

Administrative staff must learn skills in the form of self-organisation skills, especially when they move to a digital workplace. In the transition from old to new forms of work it is therefore important to develop communication skills, which are necessary for distributed teams, but also for new project management and implementation methods. Here it is important that discretionary powers are understood in relation to complex issues. This means that employees in the administration must understand their thinking “away from the request to the order“: What do citizens actually need? Where do they need more time and support? It became clear in the expert interviews that administrative employees do not need advanced technological knowledge and skills for the digital transformation, because from the interviewees’ point of view technology will become increasingly simplified.

IT service providers and consultants need an understanding of the logic of the public sector. The customers are both citizens and the administration itself, and it is necessary to understand that it is not about their own – market-based – logic. As one of the interviewees points out: “We don’t need consultants who suggest that we abolish federalism.” It is important to understand that even if the public sector appears to be a single bureaucratic model, from the interviewees’ point of view each organisation is different and so-called “one-size-fits-all” business models should be abolished.

Establish digital maturity

Digital maturity describes an increased maturity level of public administration in order to be able to implement digital transformation. This requires above all an understanding of digital topics and trends: How are disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, block chain or cloud services currently discussed? Which new project management formats like Agile, DevOps or cross-functional teams are necessary for their introduction and implementation?

Public administrations should also work on change management approaches that remain consistent with the public sector’s value propositions, while proactively addressing the challenges of digital transformation. Despite many changes, there must therefore be sufficient resilience to preserve the values, and at the same time new needs should be derived from the business areas of the departments.

Many countries have begun to establish government-owned digital academies and, with the help of internal and external experts, specialized digital topics are being brought to public administrations in formal training courses. These include, for example, the Government Digital Service Academy in Great Britain, or the Digital Services department of the Canadian School of Public Services. Here, programs for entire teams can be taught in the form of accelerator models, and individual digital evangelists can be trained as multipliers for the rest of the organization.

Public managers should also support informal learning. Actions in this area can include the provision of “open laptops” permission, so that administrative staff can install and test new technologies. Other forms of informal learning are communities of practice on the Social Intranet. Germany has, for example, focused on recruiting IT personnel from other administrative or economic sectors with the Tech4Germany or Work4Germany programmes. Here it is important to understand the motivation – possibly higher paid – of experts to apply for a job in public administration. Often these jobs are perceived as rather inflexible or burdened with excessive administrative burdens. Nevertheless, the above-mentioned programmes are extremely successful because they address the prosocial motives of the specialists recruited – temporarily or long-term – for the public sector. They demonstrate that the use of their IT skills can bring about change in an entire sector and for many citizens.


Special analytical skills for handling complex administrative problems based on empirical knowledge will not be replaceable by machines in the future either. Nevertheless, members of the public administration must prepare themselves to build up digital competences, as the working methods of public administration will change in the course of the digital transformation.

Key points:

  • The digital transformation of public administration requires both digital skills and digital agility.
  • This includes skills for changing the world of work, such as project management skills, but also leadership skills.
  • Digitisation is shifting the focus from tasks to competences that can be acquired through both formal training and informal learning.

Recommendations for action

  • Digital transformation has little to do with IT skills, but rather with digital readiness and maturity.
  • In order to achieve this digital readiness and maturity, training programmes should be designed in the public sector that do justice to different individuals.
  • The focus should be on the change processes within the framework of the organizational culture and on concrete measures for change management.


Mergel, et al. (2019): Defining digital transformation: Results from expert interviews, in: Government Infor­mation Quarterly.

Mergel, I., Bellé, N., Nasi, G. (2019): Prosocial Motivation of Private Sector IT Professionals Joining Government. Review of Public Personnel Administration.

Mergel, I. (2016): The Social Intranet: Insights on Managing and Sharing Knowledge Internally. IBM – The Center for the Business of Government.

This blog post builds on three publications from the EU Co-VAL project:

Mergel, I., Bellé, N., & Nasi, G. (2019). Prosocial Motivation of Private Sector IT Professionals Joining Government. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 0734371X19886058.

Mergel, I., Edelmann, N., & Haug, N. (2019). Defining digital transformation: Results from expert interviews. Government Information Quarterly, 36(4), 101385.

Mergel, I. (2020). Kompetenzen für die digitale Transformation der Verwaltung. Innovative Verwaltung, 4, 34-36.   /var/folders/pp/j21y057d0zv272sfwpxhzr680000gn/T/

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 770356.  This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Agency cannot be held responsible for any use, which may be made of the information contained therein.

Prosocial motivation of IT professionals joining government (new article)

Together with Nicola Bellé and Greta Nasi, I analyzed the motivation of IT professionals joining government. At times, when IT workers have a large amount of choices and are more likely to get higher paying jobs outside government, how can government align incentives to attract talent to the workforce?

To answer this questions, we analyzed statements of IT professionals during the onboarding process joining 18F, one of the U.S. federal government digital service teams. It turns out they want to make a difference – at scale.

Read the full paper in open access format online:


Mergel, I., Bellé, N., & Nasi, G. (2019). Prosocial Motivation of Private Sector IT Professionals Joining Government. Review of Public Personnel Administration

New article analyzing the context in which digital service teams emerge

I just published a new article in Government Information Quarterly on digital service teams. In this article, I apply an existing framework of context to explain how digital service teams emerged in nine different countries. The paper is available in open access format online:

Suggested citation:

Mergel, I. (2019): Digital service teams in government, in: Government Information Quarterly, in press:

New article: Defining digital transformation

As part of the EU Co-VAL project, we interviewed 40 experts to understand what the next wave of digital government looks like. The paper was recently published in open access format in Government Information Quarterly.

Here is the abstract:

Digital transformation approaches outside the public sector are changing citizens’ expectations of governments’ ability to deliver high-value, real-time digital services. In response to the changing expectations and triggered by supranational agreements, governments are changing their mode of operation to improve public service delivery, be more efficient and effective in their designs, and achieve objectives such as increased transparency, interoperability, or citizen satisfaction. However, beyond the availability of consultancy reports, there is little systematic insight into the way that public administrators themselves are currently defining digital transformation in their own day-to-day practices, how they are approaching digital transformation projects, and what their expected outcomes are. We provide an empirically-based definition of digital transformation derived from expert interviews and develop a conceptual framework with reasons for, processes to, and expected outcomes of digital transformation in the public sector.

Based on the responses of the experts, we define digital transformation as:


First prize for good public administration!

Together with the city network ANDI (agile network for digital innovation), I won the first prize for good public administration (Verwaltungspreis). We were selected for our work combining human-centered design in the classroom with real-life digital transformation projects in several cities in southern Germany. The partners include Konstanz, Freiburg, Karlsruhe, and others.

Exciting times, when innovative teaching and knowledge transfer concepts are recognized with a prize!

Open Public Administration Scholarship (OPAS) – a platform to display research-based teaching results in digital transformation of the public sector

I built a platform to quickly share the results of my courses with the public so that public administrators can access the information in plain language: Open Public Administration Scholarship (OPAS).

The knowledge for the short memos published here comes from my research-based seminars on the digitisation of the public sector. The students work together with a writing tutor and use an author’s guide developed by me to rewrite their (empirical) learning results in short memos in a generally understandable way. We translate the content into English, and, if possible, link directly to the administrative partners in order to be able to present the direct transfer into administrative practice.

This idea is based on discussions at the 2008 Minnowbrook III conference and published in this article in the Journal for Public Administration Research and Theory.

I am looking forward to feedback and further suggestions!

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