“Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”

This is the first of 12 principles of agile software development, which is in practice across many industries. In the age of seamless service delivery enabled by cloud computing, it is no wonder that governments everywhere want to be agile too, so they can serve their citizens faster and better.

Agile development flies in the face of how bureaucracies traditionally worked – speedy and responsive, versus slow and unchanging. But the Singapore government in particular has found a formula that works, according to experts at open source software leader Red Hat.

Two speeds

Richard Koh, General Manager, Singapore at Red Hat, notes that the ‘two speeds’ phenomenon is one key challenge holding back governments in their digital transformation. This refers to the juxtaposition between older, legacy systems, usually record-keeping ones, and “systems of engagement”, usually citizen-facing applications built with modern tech.

“These two types of systems, built in very different ways, introduce a challenge in terms of how we can holistically look at providing digital services to the citizens,” Koh remarks. “We need to get these two systems to ‘talk’ to each other.”

“One way to achieve this is through APIs, or application programming interfaces. This allows different systems to interact in a seamless way, it also means that each system, regardless of how it was built, can evolve very quickly and independent of each other”, Koh observes.

“An API is a way of clearly defining the interfaces between two different systems”, explains Koh. It sets out certain ways to package information, based on who is going to consume it, allowing older and newer systems to seamlessly work together.

‘Open, transparent, encouraging’

In 2016, Red Hat worked with GovTech Singapore to build NECTAR (Next-Generation Container Architecture), a platform-as-a-service for hosting government digital services, APIs and apps. NECTAR enables any agency to build, host and scale applications quickly, while meeting stringent government requirements. Red Hat’s OpenShift Container Platform provided the flexibility that GovTech needed, and was aligned with the agency’s DevOps approach, according to Koh at Red Hat.

“Just like Singapore, other governments can overcome the rigidity of their legacy systems, continue to deliver seamless digital services, and put “absolute focus” on citizens they serve”, shared Koh. “They can design and push out services faster, in a matter of days or weeks, and embrace more collaborative ways of working and citizens are guaranteed a consistent user experience every time.”

This methodology is deeply embedded in the DNA of the open source community at large – and within open source giants such as Red Hat, says the company’s Senior Principal Product Marketing Manager, Jim Craig. “Our DNA is being open, transparent, encouraging,” he says.

Open source innovation would not be possible without a corresponding shift towards a more open, collaborative culture, and a flatter organisation structure, Craig believes. By learning from the successes of the open source community, government agencies create an environment that is more conducive to innovation.

Come together

What would an agile agency look like? First and foremost: people coming together across teams, working without siloes, according to Craig.

Often, the security, development and operations teams work independently of each other to build services. But if there is a space for all these experts to come together and collectively work on business issues, the design process can improve exponentially.

This way, “things don’t get lost in translation. There is a common language that’s used,” Craig says. “Soon enough, they evolve from a collection of experts to a tightly integrated team of product owners. This new way of working boosts the agency’s social and emotional intelligence”, as Craig puts it. But all this is only possible through a change in organisational culture, he emphasises.

“The bottom line is that innovation doesn’t have to be large-scale or daunting, Koh adds. Agencies can start at a team or project level, “where people are encouraged to have different ideas, with experimentation openly advocated” – and than work their way up.”

The core tenet of Agile is neatly summarised in this line from the Agile Manifesto: “Responding to change, over following a plan”. This new way of working will help governments react and respond more quickly and effectively in a changing world – which in turn will benefit every citizen.