Digital reimagination using “Agile Labs” allows government to profoundly enhance user experiences of public services. The UN is a bureaucracy of tangled and overlapping agencies, silos and barricaded budgets that reflects a world made in 1945. Equally, the ownership of many government service-products remain diffused across countless departments, agencies, and geographic units, each with cloistered legal independence. It is therefore not unforeseeable that a provision may become entangled in the interstices among the Double Taxation Team, the Financial Intelligence Unit and the Treasury Division. The role of a whole-of-government digitization program is to provide the practices and resources required to operate labs.

Governments are notoriously bureaucratic with layers of formal legal procedures built to inhibit bribery, fraud, embezzlement, nepotism, extortion, patronage, and collusion. Other measures serve to create an equitable state. Civil servants adhere inflexibly to these regulations and schedules. Very often, legal frameworks must be amended to permit digitalization. The affiliated mind-set is not helpful when it comes to creating digital products for service excellence. Many public authorities have initiated in-house digitalization projects to build bespoke websites and Apps. Motivating these actors to contribute to integrated journeys and to migrate to a common digital channel is not straightforward.

In post-Corona, a new priority must be the avoidance of uncontrolled proliferation of digital access points linked to the operations of specific units. Privacy and data protection create additional hurdles to digitalization. Social services are often accessible via intricate bureaucratic language, and users must visit different websites or offices for each service. Applications routinely require notarized printed backup documents, and many digital forms are as knotty as the paper versions. User experiences vary across government websites, and often require multiple accounts and digital IDs to manage queries.

Some governments focus on making modular IT building blocks for repetitive elements of service transactions. In Denmark, public authorities have interlaced the national digital ID scheme (NemID) and a secure mailbox (Digital Post) with all online services. Dubai built a development platform that renders screens in a mobile application based on the desired process flow for a transaction. Civil servants tailor the front-end experience for each process step, using a catalogue of design elements and functions using a low-code no-code approach. This Citizen Developer approach builds developer density, and public authorities focus instead on creating rich user experiences and more effectual internal workflows.

Projects that once took years and consumed capital now take days and incur little incremental cost. Investment in modular design and low-code no-code development capabilities pays dividends. Smart Dubai—the government office responsible for digital transformation—created an in-house “agile tribe,” in which one squad is focused solely on helping public authorities run design sprints for digital service journeys. The tribe itself has become a common services platform of builders. To get stakeholder alignment, governments must convene a thread of Agile Labs, each responsible for a specific client-centric journey. It requires public authorities to collaborate directly with users to reimagine user experiences.

Sprint teams can plan a phased release—from nominal viable product to fully automated service transaction. By editing design and stakeholder alignment into a string of agile sprints, labs deliver inspiring results. In the US, several state governments established Agile Labs to stand up straightaway and build-out digital applications and processing tools for Pandemic Unemployment Aid. The German government established 30 labs for priority service journeys, sponsored by a common playbook, trained implementers, and with committed budget allocation. German public bodies therefore participate without committing resources beyond the time of their staff.

The coronavirus pandemic emphasized the need for mission-centric, agile, quick and inclusive government, leaving behind established waterfall approaches to project management. Instead barriers are tackled using collaborative agile problem-solving techniques. Traditional project management tools take too long and the results often fall flat. Projects are prolonged and costs escalate and the delivered solutions are products that the public fail to adopt.

Implementing changes that require less data uploading into forms by pulling information directly from government databases or via texts or push notifications is not routine work. It entails coordinating countless stakeholders across many agencies to map out the pain-points within a single user journey and to offer digital status notifications. Several public authorities are usually involved in any single transaction, and each agency owns different touchpoints along the user journey. The complexity increases exponentially when Municipalities and Assembly Houses take responsibility for service delivery. Recruiting savvy talent with advanced digital skills is also difficult because they often choose the open architecture of private sector firms over government rigidity.

Pertinent regulators must also be involved. Condensing design and stakeholder alignment into sequences of sprints allow agile labs to deliver inspiring results with speed. To build service engines for unremitting and sustainable change, governments must not only reimagine service journeys with the relevant public authorities and users inside agile labs, but must also enable rapid deployment and simplify integration with back-end systems using a scalable IT infrastructure. In parallel to the thread of Agile Labs, governments must also establish an integrated nerve centre that pulls together public authorities, fashion incentives to reward outcomes for users, and navigate an efficient portfolio communication management strategy.