Multidisciplinary agile teams will become a standard feature of federal agencies as second-wave digital transformation projects take shape. A lot can be achieved in 20 weeks.
The Digital Transformation Office has transformed itself, according to product delivery chief Dan Pulham, and is ready for the second wave of digital transformation after effectively operating as a policy agency for its first year.
The “ultimate goal” is to help other agencies set up in-house multidisciplinary agile teams that work according to the doctrine of the digital service standard, Pulham said, as a “second wave of transformation projects” begin to take shape.
Joined by colleague Rod Molina, one of the office’s digital transformation managers, Pulham continued to promote the new approach to digital government at a seminar in Canberra on Monday afternoon.
“Our goal is to deliver simpler public services,” he told the group of public servants, explaining the DTO stands ready to advise agencies on their own projects — not just to work directly with the larger entities.“What can we deliver during 20 weeks that solves a problem?”
As well as contributing to a new whole-of-government digital strategy that is due in the next couple of months, the DTO is “trying to provide a full suite of services” to all federal agencies by: working directly with them; providing platforms for all to use; and providing standards and advice for in-house agile teams to follow.
“Over the coming months, we will provide much more material anchored around the digital service standard, which shows you how to do it yourself,” Pulham said. “DTO is a small agency, so we can’t do everything. We are taking a broad approach in the services we offer.”
Radical new approach remains daunting
Elements of this new approach, like working to 20-week timeframes, are pretty radical for some public servants. Pulham said making services “simple, clear and fast” was always difficult but he’s up for the challenge; the DTO job he took up four months ago after leaving Telstra was “the culmination of everything” he aimed to achieve career-wise.
“The idea of the 20 weeks is to ensure that you deliver something in the initial period of time,” he said. The key to producing a “minimum viable product” in such a short period of time is understanding user needs and responding to them quickly with some sort of new or improved digital product, he says, as opposed to drawing up a list of requirements once at the start of a long project.
“Our idea is we are checking in [regularly with users],” Pulham said. “Sometimes we start a program with a problem, not with a clear idea of what we will do there. We allow the customers or users to help us focus.”
Molina said a lot of public servants had contacted the DTO to ask about its “secret sauce” and duly offered the audience “a little bit of the flavour” of how the agency is helping public servants get the hang of it.“DTO is a small agency, so we can’t do everything.”
“We have put together this 20-week process to help agencies transform,” the digital transformation manager explained. “They send teams to the hubs, we work with them, and by the end they have delivered and they have up-skilled and got transformed and they can take the transformation back to their agency.”
At first, the idea of coming up with something new or improved in such a short timeframe is “daunting” and most agencies “struggle a bit” with assembling a new multi-skilled digital team and adapting to the new way of working.
“But at the same time, we believe that the 20 weeks really helps teams to focus, to really narrow down what they want to do and deliver on that,” Molina said, explaining it’s more about delivering value than delivering new features.
“What can we deliver during 20 weeks that solves a problem?”
The goal is a minimum viable product that can “maximise the value of all the research … done in those 20 weeks while minimising the effort” but it should never be the end of the process, he added. Expansion and improvement, while iterative, should also be continuous.
“Once the teams go back to their agencies, we keep working with them, they keep delivering value and the team stays together and they deliver a better product for the users,” said Molina. “When they come, one of the big things they struggle with is the fact that we ask them to start small.”
Iterative development means risk is easier to manage, he pointed out. Another advantage is that the sooner the team delivers something usable, the sooner it can get more user feedback to flow into a virtuous cycle.
Agile teams in action: insights from the first wave
James Peterswald, an assistant secretary with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, praised the DTO’s “start small” approach, which DIBP used to speed up citizenship test bookings in one first-wave DTO project, and cut some red tape for importers in a second.“If anyone gets an opportunity, take it up. You will not regret it.”
He also accepted that in practice, it could actually prove “very difficult” to identify the kind of simple aim that is both valuable to users and realistic for a 20-week turnaround. That’s what the discovery phase of the process is for.
“If you skip that critical first part of that, then yes, you are going to get in trouble. Very quickly,” Peterswald said, fielding a question from the audience. It was only in discovery that DIBP realised it could cut the time to book a citizenship test dramatically (in the end, from an average 80 minutes on the phone down to just three minutes).
“I must admit when we started the discovery, it was not on my radar,” said Peterswald, who started out with the vague idea that the DTO would help them make “a better application form or checklist”.
Mike Sibly was digital transformation lead at the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science when it used the agile team approach to make it vastly clearer and simpler for citizens to define what is a hobby and what is a business.
“I should say that time as a product manager, in the discovery phase, was possibly the best five or six weeks of my career,” the assistant secretary said to open his presentation. “If anyone gets an opportunity, take it up. You will not regret it.”
The DIIS project started out with a basic idea about making it easier to start a business. It soon identified there was no clear definition of a business, and as a result, widespread confusion around a basic question: business or hobby?
“There is a grey area and our mission was to narrow that grey,” Sibly explained. “It is the second-most visited page on business.gov.au with people asking this question.”“I think some people see the post-it notes and think it is all fun, but there is science behind this.”
He bravely performed a live demonstration of a new online tool that asks a series of questions to clear up the confusion. The team did a lot of work on simplifying the relevant information on the website, so one doesn’t need to be a lawyer or accountant to understand it. For example, one definition changed from 930 words of dense legalese into a series of simple points that ran to only 10% of that length.
The application gives users a lot more certainty that they are doing the right thing and, Sibly enthused, that is “pretty amazing” for only 20 weeks’ work.
Having the appropriately skilled multidisciplinary team in place right from the start, including members from the Australian Taxation Office and Treasury in this case, was vital to success. The 20-week timeframe meant they couldn’t do anything that would require legislative or high-level policy changes, or any new procurement.
Agile development means avoiding the trap of thinking you already know what the problem is and how to solve it, he said. The discovery phase is the time to break misunderstandings and preconceptions.
“This is about trying to find out information from people in their actual places,” said Sibly. “We went to people in their businesses, and to people’s homes, people who were thinking of starting up businesses. We went to coffee shops where people felt more comfortable and had focus groups as well. Going into somebody’s home and understanding their journey, I found really powerful.”
He assured his fellow public servants that the agile doctrine is a “robust methodology” despite having a less-than-serious appearance. “I think some people see the post-it notes and think it is all fun, but there is science behind this.”