Agility in public administration
nc360° Interview with Münster's Lord Mayor Markus Lewe
// Agility, Corporate Culture
Whether Scrum, Kanban, Backlog, Daily Standup, Product Owner or OKR - for some years now, terms from the world of agility have increasingly shaped change management in large organisations. Teams develop their tasks in fast, intensive and agile intervals in the ongoing process and the customer himself has the chance for concrete participation. Higher customer value, more innovation and greater competitiveness are the goal. Public administrations are also facing major challenges such as the Corona crisis, digitalisation, the shortage of skilled workers or the climate crisis and must review their working methods. Does agile working also fit the mission, thinking and actions of public administrations?
The administrative board of the city of Münster wanted to know and set up an interdepartmental working group under the moderation of the consulting firm noventum to test the first steps on the way to an agile city administration. Lord Mayor Markus Lewe personally initiated the process and thus became an agile product owner. He reports on his experiences in an interview for the noventum info platform nc360°.
Münster's Lord Mayor initiates agile working group to tackle epochal challenges
nc360°: Public administrations have the mandate to represent reliability and stability for the common good and to promote compliance with the law by acting in accordance with the rule of law. Does the flexible basic idea of agility fit this mandate and what prompted you to start this project?
Markus Lewe: I generally perceive that we have a tremendous need for change in German city administrations and that the administrations, as they are currently structured, can hardly meet the major transformation requirements. Digitalisation, climate protection and the issue of employer attractiveness are currently the big topics. I also notice this in our administration. That is why it was important for me to create the framework conditions together with my administrative board to initiate this process of change.
nc360°: Companies often introduce agile ways of working in individual departments first. Why did you start the project from the top of the administration?
"As a board of directors we have to be role models and credible".
Markus Lewe: The first thing is to prepare an attitude. If the process is started in one department and then "launched" in the administrative board, there is a great danger that other departments will react with mistrust. My point was that we first check our attitude and answer the question from the top, "Do we want this at all? Can we do it together? Do we have the framework of trust in which we can carry out such processes together?" As a board of directors, we have to be a role model and credible.
nc360°: How does the agile voluntary principle ("pulling" tasks instead of "assigning" them) fit in with the technical and hierarchical structure of public administration?
Markus Lewe: We have already practised this as the administrative board over the last few months and tested it with the process launched in May this year. In an in-depth analysis, we looked into the question of what our major challenges actually are and what the major disruptive factors are that hinder us. We conducted this process according to agile rules.
nc360°: Do you experience resistance to the idea of "agility" in your administration? How have the individual offices reacted?
Markus Lewe: The reactions were actually ideally distributed. There was no exuberant enthusiasm, but also no rejection. One or two people even said something like, "finally, it's about time we changed".
"Agility is already nothing alien to the city of Münster".
nc360°: Can you imagine involving your customers (the citizens of the city) more strongly and actively in agile projects of the administration? Or to put it another way: according to agile reading, who is the customer and will they sit at the planning table in the future?
Markus Lewe: That is certainly conceivable, but first of all we as the administrative board must learn to work with these methods ourselves. However, we are already familiar with agility and it is practised in our crisis team. The Corona crisis is a good example. When the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians or the police are at the table, these are the groups that are involved in carrying out the task. Today, in the Corona crisis, we are seeing how crisis-resilient the city is and how agile the administration has reacted. In the past, we have already experienced this in the refugee crisis in 2015 or in the flood crisis in 2014. That is very encouraging.
nc360°: What are you doing to professionalise the idea of agility and to bring it further into the administration?
Markus Lewe: This process must become permanent, but like "digitalisation", it must not become an end in itself. Customer orientation and task orientation remain decisive. In our quality management, we have a staff member who acts as a pilot, helping to develop instruments and build structures. She reports directly to me and in this respect also embodies the fact that agility is a top priority in our administration.
nc360°: You have also been the president of the German Association of Cities for a few years. Do you share your agility experiences with other municipalities there?
"The way administration is organised in Germany, we will miss our targets."
Markus Lewe: This exchange is constantly increasing. I have complained for years that on the one hand we formulate very high social demands. For example, we have the task of bringing protest from the streets (keyword climate protection) to the city halls. But the way administration is organised in Germany, we will fail to achieve the goals we are aiming for. For me, this is the reason to demand from municipal and also state and federal authorities that we bring significantly more speed into our processes in order to be able to tackle these epochal challenges. The same applies to jurisdiction and legislation. The instances are too high and disrupt important processes such as the construction of offshore power lines. They disrupt the mobility transformation because rail projects take far too long. The transformation for climate protection and climate adaptation can only succeed if the core instances and core powers change and work in a project-based, interdisciplinary and agile manner in the future.
nc360°: Modernising administrations has been a recurring theme since the 90s of the last century under the heading "new governance model". From legality and legitimacy, administration should open up further to effectiveness and customer orientation. What chances do you see for the renewed push to organise administration with agility in a more realistic, precise and customer-oriented way?
A brand for Münster: "The most climate-friendly city in Europe".
Markus Lewe: It is important that there is agreement on the goals. A concrete example can illustrate how we want to implement the topic of agility in practice. I will convene a "corporate climate conference" on May 9th. The city's core administration, the municipal utilities, housing and urban development, waste management and others will participate.
The day event will be divided into five thematic blocks
1. energy production
2. energy savings in buildings, in industry, commerce, services and housing.
4. economy and research
5. education and nutrition
The classification makes it clear that it is not just an issue for the group, but that it virtually calls for other actors to be involved in the next step.
I will assign "product owners" to the individual blocks, who will then bear responsibility. The core task will be to first take stock and compile the existing regulations and measures, which are still very diffuse and scattered today. In the next step, measures will be agreed upon, which can then be mapped and pulled via Kanban boards. In this way, we want to create the prerequisite for a further application in our future process "Climate Protection and Climate Adaptation", where civil society can then be actively involved. I would like to turn this approach into a brand for Münster: "Münster, the most climate-friendly city in Europe".
nc360°: Respect, Mr Lewe, you've got your work cut out for you!
Markus Lewe: The question is whether it will succeed. But I don't see any reasonable alternative. The agility approach, which noventum introduced to us, convinced me to take this path. How is climate protection actually perceived in the city? We see a confusing situation of measures and positions, partly ideologically underpinned and overlaid with symbolic themes but with little CO2 efficiency. There are voices from the business community that say "we would like to do climate protection, but nobody asks us." This is the situation and we have to realise that this mega issue can no longer be dealt with using the methods of the past, sectorally and sporadically. This leads to the fact that even in the future we will have to consider sustainability data in addition to financial data as an additional steering tool for our municipal budgets.
A word about the German Association of Cities: this is also important to me for my national credibility. I can't always just complain and demand, I also have to show that we are making progress. Our actions are being watched closely.
Take doubts about agility seriously and involve all stakeholders and affected parties in the process.
nc360°: What is your summary of the experience so far? Where do you go from here?
Markus Lewe: When introducing a new working methodology like agility, the psychological situation is just as important as the factual issues. When such serious changes as those brought about by climate change are imminent, all those involved quickly put up their spines because they see change above all as a threat. In my experience, scepticism towards anything new and concern about the continuity of one's own competence and role often determine the beginning of major changes. This must be taken seriously and therefore all those involved and affected must be involved in the process from the beginning.
noventum provided us with significant support in our agility project. Together, through various workshops and other events, we quickly succeeded in arousing curiosity and confidence in the process. We managed to develop fun in change and to eliminate the feeling of threat. Our climate change project has a lot of laboratory quality and we will also be able to use our experience in the other major topics - digitalisation and employer attractiveness.
"The widespread belief that a public administration cannot be agile was disproved in this project. The willingness to change and the curiosity about modern methods was clearly noticeable in the top management of the administration as well as in many offices. It was clear to many managers in the city of Münster that the epochal technical and social changes can only be managed with more interdisciplinarity, more personal responsibility, more adaptability, more customer orientation and more transparency. And this is exactly what agile methods promise and deliver, if they are applied appropriately and consistently to the environment. We at noventum are glad that we were able to contribute to the development of this project, especially in our home town, and that our agile change management method kit, see www.culture-change-management.de, was able to provide good services. We were also able to apply some of the tried and tested "recipes" from the book "Ausbruch aus der Komplexitätsfalle" (Breaking out of the Complexity Trap), published by Springer Gabler 2021 in this project. We would like to thank the Lord Mayor Markus Lewe and his great team for the extraordinarily good and trusting cooperation and look forward to the results for the citizens of the city of Münster, who will benefit in many ways from a more agile city administration. "