Can Agile work in local authorities?

Andy Roberts

Andy has worked in many different environments from the military through to challenging corporate roles as CIO and Change Director in industries including engineering, finance, communications, utilities and insurance. Through his management years he has tried pretty much every leadership style and now takes a coaching approach to all teams and individuals, placing less value on hierarchy and authority and instead emphasising competencies and influence.

For our local authority, the idea of adopting an Agile methodology started from attending the Agile on the Beach conference. Held annually in Falmouth and co-founded by one of Headforwards’ founders, Toby Parkins, Agile on the Beach is now one of the most respected Agile conferences in the UK.

The conference sparked the question in the Cornwall Council IT team, “how could they become more agile?” This question turned into action, and Cornwall Council explored working with Headforwards to help them.

Building the foundations of Agile

We started off with foundational advice such as the use of whiteboards and key ceremonies and moved onto exploring ways to move faster, initially in workshops. We use our workshops as an opportunity for our clients to give us a full-on brain dump so that we have the full picture and the vision of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s critical to make sure the correct people attend and everyone is encouraged to share their views openly.

Once we’d had an initial workshop with Cornwall Council, we looked at how to break the whole picture down and identify something which would deliver them value, and quickly. After a half day workshop, our team prepared estimates and started work only a few days later.

In local authority, public sector and even some commercial organisations, I’ve often seen long winded processes requiring mandates and multiple approval stages in order to get started. By the time it’s signed by all the relevant people, the budget has been queried, refined and resubmitted and many months could have passed.

I always say to people to just try something. It might not solve all of your issues, but just have a go and see what it feels like. Agile is often accused of lacking rules, but actually it has a really clear structure. Challenging people and processes aren’t dodged but instead encompassed within the approach, finding the best resolution to work with and accommodate them, rather than worked around.

We were able to start working with Cornwall Council so that developments were delivered right away. We didn’t create an end to end project plan and decide exactly what the final outcome would look like in detail, we just started building.

A focus on customer experience

The Council has placed significant focus on customer experience and our workshop approach meant the team could start looking at things really quickly. In 6 months we have delivered two valuable applications which the team are already using, quickly giving them something of value. Now in use we are continually adding additional features with the ability to test and adjust as we go.

The other area we have focused on is Business Intelligence which is part of a digital transformation. There’s a huge amount of data, but again using our methods we’ve moved quickly and delivered value very quickly. I’ll get into the detail of this in another post.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak hit, the urgent task became less about digital transformation and more about helping establish home working support and working on priorities supporting the people of Cornwall. Because we work to an agile methodology, we were able to change focus and support them in the right way when they needed it.

Aside from software development, our role with the council is supportive and consultative. They’ve been through a process of immense change, restructuring their IT Team and moving from a project to a product based approach. Within the new structure, people have new roles and we’ve worked closely with the core team to identify what products the team are really working on, rather than managing a list of many projects simultaneously that clearly aren’t all being moved forward.

From that little seed planted at Agile on the Beach, our local authority has gone through a real transformation in how they’re structured, how they manage products and, of course in their new Agile approach.

Further reading

How local authorities can deliver an outstanding online customer experience

People increasingly expect their council to provide services quickly and efficiently, using the online technology which makes their lives as easy as possible.

Read more

Building the business case for long term IT investment

As an outsource software development company Headforwards has worked with a lot of people in building the right business case for their products and projects. The impact of structuring a business case can be significant and can determine the success or failure of projects.

Read more


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