Why and how I built Agile Government Leadership

AGL, which has since evolved into Technologists for the Public Good, was the testing ground for an experiment in what I now call an open civic community of practice.

By Luke Fretwell · July 28, 2022

I started Agile Government Leadership (AGL) in 2014 as a way to bring awareness to open and agile methodologies for better digital government.

AGL, which has since evolved into Technologists for the Public Good (TPG), was the testing ground for an experiment in what I now call an open civic community of practice.

Open civic community of practice

My working definition of an open civic community of practice:

Mission-minded people, powered by open culture, joining together, learning from one another and making better democracy.

They are:

  • Self-organizing
  • Contributor-based
  • Agile/iterative
  • Asynchronous
  • Building collaboratively
  • Publicly sharing ideas/work

I’ve shared this framework of an open civic community of practice with folks in private discussions and presentations, and it’s still something I need to refine and eventually socialize more widely. I’ve started to do this in a slide deck and will share more later.

In various ways, this framework has inspired my work with Code California, the CA.gov Alpha project, Proudly Serving and other smaller civic tech efforts, such as CityCamp.

Inspiration

The idea for AGL was sparked by intuition — that a new culture and network around digital government service delivery was desperately needed. The void was more obvious in the aftermath of the Healthcare.gov launch debacle.

I envisioned an informal organization where anyone interested in digital government services — government, industry, academia, nonprofit and even civic hackers — could gather, share ideas and build together. This, in my opinion, had to operate less like the social construct of a traditional, formal organization, and more like an open source project. It doesn’t mean traditional organizations can’t be open civic communities of practice, but they must be more intentional when adopting a culture of collaborating, making and sharing, because the traditional forces of resistance are real.

At the time, there wasn’t really anything like it. The Beltway-based industry and professional organizations had amassed the network, but none of them were working anywhere near in the way I imagined (they still don’t). Code for America was close, but its focus was still much different from what I envisioned.

This initial AGL effort was funded by a digital services vendor that I worked with at the time. I pitched them the idea, they believed in it, and gave me the freedom to execute. Considering the resourcing — while not nothing, it pales in comparison to the funding of the new crop of civic technology, digital service organizations — the output was substantive.

Principles

The ethos and guiding principles of this new organization were simple. We followed the spirit of the agile manifesto and its 12 principles. We also leaned heavily on former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst’s book “The Open Organization.”

Branding

The name, Agile Government Leadership, was intended to address big and little “A” agile, but more so the latter.

We knew we wanted to use “agile” and “government,” and one of the government folks in the working group came up with the clever idea to use the AGL acronym. We landed on “leadership” for the “L.” Hence, Agile Government Leadership.

It seems intuitive now, but anyone who knows about branding, the exercise in naming something is far from it. We weren’t whimsical, but we were intentional and deliberate in not overthinking or letting it consume us.

Operations

We worked very much in an agile fashion, and held check-ins and retrospective meetings. We set up the basic free tools such as Slack, Google Workspace, GitHub and Trello. While this may seem trivial now, then it was still unconventional. In many government organizations, it still is.

Building

Despite the research and data-driven world we live in — especially in civic tech — I did limited user research and talked informally with less than 10 folks from industry and government (mostly federal). There were no surveys or extensive, formal user interviews or design processes. There was definitely no committee.

We didn’t spend much time on values or mission statements. Powered by intuition and basic principles, in true agile fashion, we started building, prototyping, testing and iterating.

I brought in other folks from the digital services firm I was working with, and they were instrumental in building out core components of AGL. We recruited government and industry people for a working committee, with “working” being the operative word.

I would joke — but really wasn’t — that this is a “You better work” committee.

I didn’t want people to show up just so they could add it to their resumes or use it to create the impression they were doing something impactful when they weren’t. There are other traditional organizations that serve that purpose and are very good at this.

I wanted this to be focused on the work. And, because of the principles, we attracted folks who wanted to build because they were passionate about the objective.

And this was more than just white papers and pontification. We wanted to build artifacts that would be useful and sustainable.

I knew it was an idea that could only be understood by a working, evolving prototype. Early adopters would join as they understood it. We knew there were more people like us out there. We just needed to find them and bring them together and build things.

During that time, we developed an agile government handbook, case studies of how governments were using agile, blogged about anything agile government was doing, and held YouTube Live discussions with influential agile leaders. There were other artifacts created I know I’m forgetting.

AGL 2.0 and Technologists for Public Good

After a few years of building AGL, I started to lose interest in the project, especially because I wanted to focus on creating a non-traditional government technology company. I also just felt like it needed new energy, so I turned it over to other folks.

During that time, a collective decision was made to move AGL into a formal nonprofit. It held a few government-industry events and other activities, and then eventually re-branded and transformed into what is now Technologists for Public Good. I’m not familiar with how all of that unfolded. There are others that can better detail the history and decision-making behind AGL 2.0 and TPG, as well as its current operations.

From afar, much of the inspiration for starting AGL seems to have been lost in transition. It appears to now be more of a traditional organization, but I’d love to see it get back to some of its AGL roots.

(Note: Technologists for Public Good is now hiring for its first executive director, and I encourage you to apply.)

Retrospecting AGL

I write all of this for two reasons: over the years people have encouraged me to be more open about my role, but more because I think it’s important for the civic tech community to understand the origin of an organization that continues to gain traction and has great potential.

So much of the origin story of what we now call civic tech is lost on newcomers. But historical context is important so that we can learn the deeper meaning and purpose of what was done, why and how we can build on this, rather than just recreate traditional ways society has offered us to create impact.

Retrospecting plays a key role in the iterative process, especially for organizations.

The government technology market is awash with new capital. Funding for civic technology and digital service nonprofit efforts are also enjoying an influx of funding. People who are well connected are having little trouble getting this capital, whether you’re a govtech startup or a civic tech nonprofit.

What’s important is that these organizations spend this capital with principles that sustain our civic culture into the future. This has been a challenge for organizations like this in the past. Working more as an open civic community of practice can help.

My advice for folks working in (or who want to start their own) civic tech or digital service focused organizations:

  • Follow your intuition if you see something is missing in the industry.
  • Bring folks along, especially those not in your personal network.
  • Build to scale, think in systems.
  • Create things, don’t talk.
  • Be unconditional, open.
  • Continuously retrospect yourself and your relationship to the effort.
  • Let it go when you no longer find joy in it. Give it to others who are excited about it.

If you’ve done the above, your work will evolve into something bigger than you, just as TPG has, beyond me.

I’d love to see newly-emergent civic tech, digital service nonprofit and governmental organizations — Technologists for Public Good, Digital Service Coalition, Bloomberg, Beeck Center, the federal government’s communities of practice and the Code for America Brigades are a few examples — use this open civic community of practice framework as a guiding star for building exponential impact.

There’s much work to be done, and we need more open civic communities of practice. We need people to show up and build openly, collaboratively and sustainably.

If you’re involved in a civic technology or digital service focused organization, advocate for a different construct of change. It won’t happen in the context of yesterday’s operational framework.

And remember: You better work.

Luke Fretwell is founder of GovFresh. He is the co-founder and CEO of ProudCity.

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This work by GovFresh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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