To become nimbler and more user-focused, First Citizens Bank was the first local bank to embrace the disruption created when web and mobile technologies unsettled the global finance industry. Larry Howai made First Citizens first. The result of Howai’s hard work is what Ralph Hamers, CEO of the global banking group ING, calls “banking on the go”. But releasing an App that sits on a remote state-of-the-art hardware and software backbone only touches the surface.

To be truly “agile lite” and “talent thick,” Hamers replaced the bank’s archaic bureaucratic organizational structure, inherited from the post-World War II era when manufacturing dominated the industrial landscape and talent practices were linked to goal setting, budgeting, and operations that guaranteed a reliable five-year rollout plan. Hamers noticed that changes in the economy and work itself rendered five year plans irrelevant. Business was less predictable. Old methods were bending. But habits-of-mind did not break. Lateral hiring from the outside- to get more flexibility- started to replace staff development. Contract employment flourished.

Hamers felt that the genius of 3,500 employees at ING’s headquarters in the Netherlands was suffocated by post-war ideas of talent management and bureaucracy. He replaced most of the bank’s traditional structure with a fluid, agile organization framework composed of tribes, squads and chapters. This reorganization of talent within the bank harmonized with the disruptive changes emerging externally at the interface of web and mobile technologies.

Squads were self-steering, cross-functional groups. They were disbanded at times while others self-organized as talent drifted across tribes. A tribe was a collection of squads. Tribes were created to address specific aspects of work like private banking and securities. Chapters were responsible for developing expertise and knowledge across squads. Implementing an agile talent system is far from embracing chaos. Clearly defined rules safeguarded institutional stability. Daily “scrums” – a rugby strategy that packs players tightly together to restart play – became an information sharing session allowing the team to fail-fast and improve a service or product. Learning from failures was applauded.  Scrums allowed squads to solve problems that may have bounced eternally from one department to the next inside the old bureaucracy.

Vincent van den Boogert, the present CEO of ING Netherlands, has started to roll out this new way of working to all 40, 000+ employees outside ING’s home country.  The Bank of Montreal has already adopted agile practices like cross-functional product development teams. Top-down models have bowed to nimbler, user-driven approaches like task centred “sprints” that are better suited to adapting in the near term and allowing the organization to embark on institutional strengthening efforts geared towards achieving a future state.

Building an agile civil service thick with talent will help the state to achieve its stated objectives. In Trinidad and Tobago, Regulation 13(1) of the Public Service Regulations provides that, as soon as it is known that a vacancy will occur, the Permanent Secretary or Head of Department is to communicate to the DPA in writing and shall make their “recommendations regarding the filling of the vacancy”. In July 2012, there was a vacancy for the office of Senior State Solicitor. The process of filling that vacancy led to a legal challenge. The case was heard by the Privy Council on 27 March 2019.

The principal issues in the appeal concerned the interpretation of, and relationship among, regulations 14, 15 and 18. Lord Carnwath held that regulation 15 is self-standing and clearly gives the Commission a choice between two alternatives, neither dependent on the other. The first applies where the Commission considers that there is no suitable candidate within the service. The second by implication may apply even where there are suitable internal candidates. It requires no more than that the Commission should consider it “advantageous and in the best interest of the service” to secure the services of a person not already in the service. That view must be formed “having regard to qualifications, experience and merit”.  He stated that “seniority is a matter to be given “greater weight” only where promotion is to an office “that involves work of a routine nature” (regulation 18(2)(a)).

Their Lordships opined that “Once the decision has been made under regulation 15 to advertise a vacancy, there is nothing to indicate that internal and external candidates should be treated any differently. The Commission’s duty, in the absence of provision to the contrary, is to secure a level playing-field between all candidates, whether internal or external.” In considering the eligibility of officers for promotion under subregulation (1) “for an appointment on promotion, the commission shall attach greater weight to (a) seniority, where promotion is to an office that involves work of a routine nature, or (b) merit and ability, where promotion is to an office that involves work of progressively greater and higher responsibility and initiative than is required for an office specified in paragraph (a).”

This judgement takes the state closer to merit based-filling of vacancies and talent searches outside the service. The Deloitte 2017 report on Institutional Strengthening of Service Commissions recommends a transition to, merit-based policy and practice, along with process redesign that will result in agile practices, new policies and nimbler processes.