Agility in the public sector – what have we learnt from the pandemic?
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
The last 18 months have been an exercise in agility for all organisations, none more so than those in the public sector, such as education and the health service. Over the last 20 years, the idea of a VUCA world has gained momentum – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are ever-present. We’ve had to deal with all of these over the last year and a half, and have become more agile in the process.
Health services had to pivot away from many aspects of core work and into largely uncharted territory. In the education sector, schools had to set up remote learning services and keyworker provisions virtually overnight.
How did we do all this, and what have we learnt in the process that will help us to be more agile in the future?
McKinsey’s 2017 article ‘How the public sector can remain agile beyond times of crisis’ was written before the pandemic came about, but it highlights the need for dynamism within stable structures. I recognise this in the way my organisation (a large primary school within a multi-academy trust) responded to the pandemic. A strong organisational culture was needed within which we could set up new temporary roles and structures to meet the changing needs and demands we faced.
The ‘Agile Manifesto’ was written by a group of software companies in the US in 2001, and has led to a whole movement in the corporate world around the concept of agility. The 4 key points of their manifesto are:
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
These points are couched in the context-specific vocabulary of their sector, but there is some innate wisdom in what they are trying to say, and much that is of value to those in the public sector, I believe. The key adjustment that I feel is important for public sector organisations, is a reflection of the regulatory and inspection framework we all work within. This is a major factor in our direction of travel.
I would suggest that we re-interpret these four points as follows:
1. The power of teams and dialogue and the importance of trust
2. The regulatory context (including inspection protocols)
3. Stakeholder engagement and collaboration
4. Flexibility – an agile approach to planning
In my own experience as a senior leader in the education sector, during the pandemic, I can see how our effectiveness in these areas dictated how agile we were in our response.
1. During the early days of the pandemic, the team became paramount, having to quickly adapt responsibilities to cover new demands, such as setting up remote learning. This required quality communication pathways and a high level of trust between team members.
2. Documentation and new guidelines from government dominated our lives. We were always preparing ourselves for the next pivot. Coping with this had implications – we had to look after our own and each other’s wellbeing. We had to set new boundaries, for example, about times to switch off from work, as our leadership roles impinged on holiday times. We also had to make sure that we had routes to feed back to the authorities on how things were panning out on the front line.
3. Communications with stakeholders were vital, and we had to get the tone right – assertive at times, yet supportive and understanding. We maximised our use of the internet and social media to get our message across. Regular check in phone calls were made. Picking up on what the issues were from our stakeholders was vital.
4. Our strategic plan went out of the window for a while, as we responded to the changing needs of our client groups and demands from government.
We noticed how some members of staff struggled with the landscape of change and re-prioritisaion while others seemed to thrive on the new challenges. We learned ways to support the struggling staff and help them build their resilience, while (hopefully) we praised and rewarded the staff who were able to go the extra mile when we needed it most.
The framework that these 4 areas provides is useful, I hope, in helping us to take stock of agility in our organisations and build towards a better future where we stay focused on what really matters for our communities and society in general, while adapting flexibly to what the world throws at us! Viewing it via the McKinsey dynamism/stability quadrant, we need to have stability in our sense of purpose and organisational culture, while being dynamic with creative and innovative responses to the new and complex challenges we face.
I have developed a coaching model around this agility framework to help leaders evaluate their organisation and plan for a more agile future in a VUCA world. I suggest that this is worked through over 2 one hour sessions, exploring each of the points in turn, and emerging with a clear action plan of what your organisation needs to do next in order to become more agile.
If you are interested in exploring this with me, please book in for a complimentary consultation chat at
Agile Manifesto accessed at https://agilemanifesto.org/
Dowdy, J., Rieckhoff, K. and Maxwell, J. R. (2017) How the public sector can remain agile beyond times of crisis, McKinsey accessed at https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/how-the-public-sector-can-remain-agile-beyond-times-of-crisis