Agility in public administration

Guest contribution by | 20.04.2018

“Agility and public administration don’t go together.” We hear this more often in the Forum Agile Administration when we introduce our platform. That we see it differently is obvious, otherwise we would not have met in February 2016 in Karlsruhe, Germany, to launch this forum. At that time we were a group of 6 practitioners from small and large offices, authorities and service providers who work closely with the public sector. We were united by the realisation that the challenges facing public administration now and in the future can only be met to a limited extent by traditional approaches.

Public administration does not operate independently of the society and environment in which it operates, but is closely linked to the systems surrounding it. Complex systems that are changing and changing at an ever-increasing pace, and thus demand a more agile “adaptation” from the public administration.

As part of our founding workshop in 2016, we developed 13 theses to substantiate the necessity, which we consider to be more topical than ever after more than two years:

The complexity of the cases is increasing

The public administration is increasingly confronted with complex cases, processes and projects, but also with topics that often become visible only at short notice and generate problems that are hardly foreseeable.

In 2016 – one or the other may still remember – the issue of refugees was extremely acute and is still so today, when gymnasiums were converted into emergency quarters as a short hand, which is no longer as urgent as it used to be. A number of refugees, who had not been there for years, had to be accommodated and cared for. The so-called refugee crisis is still an example par excellence, because it was primarily an administrative crisis. The public administration was completely overwhelmed by the challenge at the time, as its structure was not geared to such unexpected challenges.

It was the citizens who showed how an agile organisation can meet this challenge, while the public administration, in a disastrous confusion, reached the limits of its competence and was limited in its ability to react.

Sudden challenges are increasingly common

Sudden “crises” such as the financial crisis or the flow of refugees come unexpectedly and demand immediate action. And they are more frequent than just a few decades ago. This, too, is the result of a changing, ever more rapidly changing world of upheavals, in which a lasting stability of the environment is becoming increasingly rare. Globalisation and its effects do not stop at public administration. There, too, the age of global interdependence can be felt. It is no longer the case that we in Germany do not need to be interested when a bag of rice falls over in China. Quite the opposite, because today the earthquake can be felt all over the world.

The overall dynamic is increasing

In addition to the sudden challenges of a globalised economy and the global effects of political and ecological crises, an acceleration of social change can be observed. Our society is not only getting older, it is also becoming more colourful. While just a few decades ago we were dealing with a few social milieus, today we are dealing with an often fragmented milieu structure with more diverse needs, desires and problems. The former extended family has long since ceased to exist, and the social structure of the former neighbourhood has also changed massively as a result of growing mobility. The whole thing has an impact on many areas of public services and public infrastructure. From urban planning and development to the design of public services, there is a growing need to respond to these needs and wishes. The cities and municipalities in particular are feeling the pressure to change, because they are the ones closest to the citizens with their everyday problems.

The gap between rich and poor continues to widen

This development can lead to ghettoisation and subculturisation, even if there are hardly any ghettos in Germany as yet, for example, in French suburbs. The trend is clearly discernible and this is a challenge for urban development and planning. But old-age poverty, child poverty and social participation also play a role here. Public administration must also face up to these challenges in order to fulfil its role as a public authority in the name of citizenship and to enable a wide variety of population groups to live together.

Increasing extremism and terrorism

Politics and administration, including at the municipal level, find it difficult to respond to phenomena such as “anger citizens” and “Pegida”. However, this has a strong impact on the local climate. The factual political orientation of local politics, which can often be observed in the local environment, is thus not only questioned, but also put to a serious test the coexistence in the city and village community. Social cohesion, which has prevented conflicts from arising in the first place in social interaction and has promoted a balance of interests, is dwindling. In addition, administrations are increasingly confronted with phenomena such as the “Reichsbürger” Movement, bringing additional burdens with them to which there are no easy answers.

The financial resources of the public sector are getting worse

Cost pressure continues to increase. Local authorities in particular have already reduced their staffing levels to an extremely low level and postponed urgently needed investments in infrastructure far beyond what is justifiable. Many cities and municipalities, especially in structurally weak regions, already have problems fulfilling municipal, voluntary tasks because they need the financial resources for the compulsory tasks. The public infrastructure is suffering. Open-air and indoor swimming pool closures, the desolate condition of some school buildings are just some of the many examples. The federal and state governments – such as the daily reports in print and radio – are also struggling with tight public budgets. Nothing will change in the foreseeable future. Even with growing tax revenues, the investment backlog is weighing heavily on public budgets. It is even to be feared that the trend will continue to intensify – including the burden on pensions that can be expected from the large waves of retirements. However, instead of focusing on improving its own structures, involving users in decision-making processes and making processes more flexible, the public sector is still responding reflexively by privatising public tasks and increasing regulation.

The increasing polarisation of society

At the same time, we are observing an increasing polarisation in society. On the one hand there is the demand for stability and security, on the other there is the call for more agility in the economy, society and politics in all areas of life. The call for more professionalism in more and more areas of life is accompanied by a declining reputation in many professions. The profession of administrative employee, for example, is increasingly being equated with the image of the rule-loving, inflexible bureaucrat who works according to rules. The growing professionalisation is also accompanied by ever greater specialisation, which in turn strengthens the existing silo structures. At the same time, however, more and more cross-sectional topics are gaining in importance and the need for interdisciplinary cooperation across silo boundaries is growing. Project work should be the focus of attention, but this is far too often in conflict with the pronounced hierarchy in organisations, which “inflate” decision-making processes in projects and make quick adjustments more difficult.

Citizens demand involvement in decisions

System boundaries are changing, they are becoming softer. We are experiencing a less “modular” policy. At least the politicians from established parties can be assigned less to the previous “camps”: Conservatives propagate “progressive” solutions, “left-wing” politicians express “right-wing” points of view. Differentiation at various levels (political, official, market) is increasing. At the same time, citizens are demanding a greater say in decision-making. They want to have a direct say in the issues that concern them and no longer be passive objects of administrative action. At the same time, the administration is increasingly dependent on the cooperation of those affected in the execution of tasks.

The “greying” of the public service is progressing

The average age of employees in the PRS is increasing significantly. The attractiveness of the public sector is threatening to decline. There is too little new talent to replace the retiring employees. The public sector is already feeling in some parts what it will face in the future. Nursery school teachers, IT specialists and technical occupations – they are already in great demand and difficult to recruit for the public sector. Over the next few years, a large wave of retirements will break through into the workforce of almost all authorities and offices, which will be difficult to close and will increase the challenge even further. At the same time, this wave of pensions will entail considerable financial burdens for the public sector, as the federal and state governments in particular have rarely set aside sufficient reserves for civil servant pensions. The situation is somewhat better for cities and municipalities, which have been setting aside provisions for years. But even these are unlikely to be sufficient to cover the financial requirements in the long term, so that the financial problem of the public sector will increase considerably.

The need for cross silo cooperation

More and more often the organisation of public tasks is changing from the classical office structure to a functional specialisation of the organisational structure. For reasons of rationalisation, specialist departments are being “tailored” and cross-sectional functions are being combined. If, for example, responsibility for school buildings moves from school buildings to property management for reasons of rationalisation, this leads to a greater need for cooperation between the two offices, but the limits of responsibility become an obstacle and, in the most extreme case, lead to avoidable wrangling over competence.

The obligation to follow instructions becomes an obstacle

Some outsiders may be surprised at first, but the public administration also groans heavily under the growing regulatory frenzy of legal norms. The public sector’s adherence to standards, for a long time the guarantor of the lawful actions of the public administration, is increasingly becoming an obstacle because it threatens to end in regulatory frenzy and over-regulation. The jungle of standards is becoming denser, legal regulations more and more contradictory, jurisdiction more complicated. What is already difficult for an experienced administrative employee to see through is hardly comprehensible to the citizen. The room for manoeuvre is becoming ever narrower, the individual approach to particularities is being restricted and the short-term penetration of complicated and increasingly complex material, often contradictory legal regulations, is becoming more time-consuming and error-prone.

Digitisation does not meet the expectations

Despite the widespread opinion – often held by politicians and high decision-makers in public administration – digitisation does not “automatically” lead to better cooperation between the administration and the outside world. Flexible workflow systems appear as a vision on the horizon, but it is often unclear what the concrete benefits should be and whether they lead to less or more hectic workflows. The majority of previous approaches are little to hardly user-focused and involve neither employees nor citizens in the development of ideas or their implementation, so that solutions are created that do not meet the needs of the users. eGovernment all too often degenerates into an object of prestige, in which the “political” external impact is in the foreground, but the actual potential is not exploited.

Complicated rules of jurisdiction

Not only the over-regulation is a big problem – especially in Germany – but also the return/strengthening of small statehood and church tower thinking. As a rule, tasks are assigned to individual administrative levels and the persistent forces to hold on to these tasks are very pronounced, because in this way (principle of responsibility, local self-administration) one’s own interests can be placed before the common good. We see this at all levels. Thus, at the European level, it is not possible to tackle the refugee problem as a common and supranational task. At the middle level, too, the merging of tasks between local authorities and the BAMF (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees) has been a painstaking process. And even inter-municipal cooperation usually fails because no one wants to give up any of their responsibilities. Then special-purpose associations are formed with huge bodies that are hardly capable of making decisions. This means that laws can make efficient work more difficult through both material regulations and rules of jurisdiction.


The public sector can only respond to these challenges with tools that are designed to cope with increasing complexity. It must succeed in getting the end users on board as comrades-in-arms and regaining their ability to act through iterative-incremental procedures. The agile way of thinking and working fulfils these conditions. It can make a valuable contribution to making the public sector fit for the future and enabling it to remain what it was created for in the future: Service providers for citizens and a stabilising regulatory framework in a chaotic world.



Thomas Michl has published more posts in the t2informatik Blog, including:

t2informatik Blog: Agile Administration and Local Politics

Agile Administration and Local Politics

t2informatik Blog: Scrum Master and Agile Coach in comparison

Scrum Master and Agile Coach in comparison

t2informatik Blog: Humour in projects

Humour in projects

Thomas Michl
Thomas Michl

Thomas Michl is a graduate in administrative science and a MBA. After 10 years in public service, the passionate agilist has been working for Exxeta AG as an agile coach since the beginning of 2019. Mr. Michl is one of the founding members of the Forum Agile Verwaltung and a member of the board of the sponsoring association. The Forum Agile Administration is supported on an honorary basis and has set itself the goal of bringing the idea of the Agile Manifesto into public administration by offering a platform for exchange and collegial consultation.