New York City Councilman Ben Kallos has long been an advocate for open technology. His work, which over the years has spanned law, tech, and politics, is founded in part on the conviction that open source platforms and open access to civic data give both technologists and citizens the tools that they need to transform information into advocacy, and to do it in as efficient and flexible a manner as possible. In the past couple of years, he’s embraced Agile practice as an important tool in these efforts toward transformation and efficiency.
CivicActions led an Agile training workshop for his staff this past spring, helping put some momentum behind practices that Kallos had learned in the tech sphere, and had already begun to apply in his Council office. His staff’s adoption of Agile workflow is now garnering attention in high-profile tech media, and his “Twelve Principles of Agile Government” (adapted from the Agile Manifesto’s “Twelve Principles of Software Development“), is a good foundation for anyone interested in taking “Agile Gov” beyond the realm of software and technology, and into the ways that governments themselves are organized and approach their work.
We recently sat down with Sarah Anders, Kallos’ communications director, to discuss their office’s adoption of Agile, and take a look at the learnings, successes, and shortfalls of the past six months, bringing Agile practice to bear in a busy office-in-motion.
Anders mentioned a number of ways in which Agile practice has been effectively integrated into the office’s pre-existing workflow:
- Their team has instituted regular 10 minute stand-up meetings. These have become a transparent and efficient forum for status reports across all sectors of the office (“what I/we accomplished yesterday, what we have planned for today, what if any blockers need to be addressed in order to allow the day’s work to proceed”). Each day’s work is thus informed by the needs of the entire group, and by the check-ins that have come before. Smaller group follow-up huddles are arranged at the stand-up as needed, with input from all relevant staff.
- Kallos’ office has rolled this practice of the check-in out to the public as well. At the monthly “First Friday” meeting, open to all constituents and anyone who wishes to attend, the staff outlines a recap of the month with this Agile check-in. The public has been widely supportive of this format, for the same reasons that it’s taken hold in the office: for its transparency, efficiency, and ease.
- The office began holding 100 days retrospectives. These frank and open discussions occur throughout the year, and allow the team to examine what’s been successful or has worked well, and what’s been difficult or has been found wanting. The conversations highlight ways of working, strategies, tools — topics that apply to the team’s workings beyond the specific context of the work at hand. Anders reports that these retrospectives gained real traction in the office as the team saw that the “less than successes” discussed in prior retrospectives — the shortcomings, wrong turns, missed opportunities — were handled more successfully in future iterations. Thoughtful examination of these shortfalls, at the hands of the whole group, opened up ways to work the problems through toward resolution.
- The team adopted the use of Trello, a project management tool that is built to facilitate transparency and flexibility, and one that works especially well to reflect changing priorities and daily adjustments to work assignments, as informed by Agile processes. The team has become fairly wholly taken with the tool and uses it for a number of needs and formats.
Speaking more generally, though, a fundamental embrace of Agile methodology has allowed the team to see progress and evolution where others might have perceived failure and dead ends. Legislation fails to pass? Press event does not turn out the hoped-for coverage? These are not simply ends in the themselves, or lost opportunities, despite the many hours invested in hopes for very specific ends. Each action of the team, each success or shortfall, is seen as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and modify future behavior.
This departure from all-or-nothing planning is Agile’s biggest contribution to the office’s workflow, yet in an arena like civic government, where practices are deeply formed, Agile’s “pivot” mentality can sow some confusion among peers, partners, and constituents, who may be more accustomed to a more traditional “well, did it work: yes or no?” approach to governance. Agile’s notion of a minimum viable product, for instance, an early iteration of a project that is tested for its utility and effectiveness, is difficult to stand by when every public action is counted and evaluated by peers and voters. This model requires an understanding of government as a set of relations and actions that are fluid and adaptable, a model which, though it may be more accurate to political goings-on on the ground, can be hard to frame or present for others. Kallos’ challenge, then, becomes something larger than adapting Agile practices to suit the needs of his office; it becomes a question of how one might represent government’s potential to serve people more effectively by becoming more nimble and self-reflective.
Kallos’ commitment to open technology is evident in the policies of his office, and the imprint of Agile processes are evident in the ways that his office handles their mandate to serve constituents’ needs. You can follow his progress along these lines by subscribing at BenKallos.com, and we look forward to another conversation with Anders in 2015 to look at the next steps along the Agile path!