An Agile Approach to IT Solutions

Public officers show their moves in developing swift and effective IT solutions. Take that, slowpokes! 
An Agile Approach to IT Solutions

When the National Library Board (NLB) had an idea to use social media to engage the public in its book-buying decisions last April, it approached an “agile” team in the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) to develop and test out a microsite prototype.

With feedback from the NLB and using the agile software development method, the IDA team quickly designed and developed the “Suggest A Book” microsite, which allows the public to suggest and vote for books they want in the library. It went live within three weeks.

Had the microsite been set up with the usual waterfall software development method used by government agencies, it might have taken up to six months to launch.

Though the waterfall method has its merits, it is more time-consuming – agencies have to determine all the requirements for their system, call for a tender and then hand the specifications over to an external software development team to implement the project.

Nowadays, more time-efficient solutions are needed. “In today’s environment, everybody wants things yesterday,” says the IDA’s Assistant Chief Executive and Government Chief Information Officer James Kang. “Now, we cannot wait a year for a programme to be rolled out, so the agile approach becomes very appropriate.”

The 14-man team, the Citizen Engagement Technology Division under the IDA’s e-Government Group, consists of developers, user experience designers and gamification experts. Since February last year, they have been giving talks to agencies and collaborating with them on using the agile method to develop social media tools and mobile applications – the new frontier in government-citizen relations.

So far they have created six applications for various agencies, with the average turnaround time being two to three months. Besides “Suggest A Book”, the team also used the same approach to develop the platform and mobile application of the NLB’s “Singapore Memory Project” – an initiative to crowdsource stories of Singapore from the public. A further seven to eight projects with other agencies are in the pipeline.

An Agile Approach to IT Solutions

Fail early and safely

The agile method, which aims to develop a product quickly with real-time feedback, is increasingly the preferred approach in view of today’s fast-changing technology landscape.

Contrast it with the traditional waterfall method – the requirements are usually established at the beginning, making changes down the road difficult.

A lengthy development process also ensues as officers spend large amounts of time defining the specifications to avoid making mistakes and paying for changes later. But such a “scared and kiasu” attitude could backfire. “They end up putting in a lot of specifications, just in case they miss out anything, which leads to wastage of resources in building more than what is actually required,” says Mr Kang.

With the agile method, public officers need not stress themselves out getting things perfect right from the start. Instead, they can improve upon the project as prototypes are rolled out iteratively and ideas can be tested on a smaller scale before reaching the public, giving public officers in charge of the project the assurance to “fail early and safely”.

Mr Mark Lim, Assistant Director of the Citizen Engagement Technology Division, explains: “We are able to know the ‘mistakes’ early and change the code early – even on the spot.”

In today’s environment, everybody wants things yesterday. Now, we cannot wait a year for a programme to be rolled out, so the agile approach becomes very appropriate.

Quick results

It helps that there is an agile division in the Public Service as government agencies can tap on the team to test out their innovations before scaling up the projects.

For example, the “Suggest A Book” microsite, which has completed its three-month pilot run, attracted at least 2,000 book submissions. There are now plans to take the project further.

Public officers want something to show their management so that they can get more buy-in before engaging external vendors, says Mr Lim.

With the waterfall method, they would have to wait for a year before they have an actual product. But with the IDA agile team, public officers can develop a prototype within two to three weeks. How’s that for efficiency?


While response to the newly formed agile team has been favourable, a shift in mindset is needed for the approach to take off in a big way within the government, says Mr Kang.

Agencies must learn to work together in partnership, he says. “Using this approach, you’ll have to meet almost every week. It’s no longer a case of you giving the specifications one time [to the developer] and seeing if it works two years down the road.”

Mr Lim adds that the agile method requires the public officers to be very involved in the project but some agencies are not ready for that. “They are still used to the traditional way, where they manage the vendor instead of the project.”

While it is still work in progress, he is optimistic the efforts to promote the agile method within the government will eventually pay off.

“We have to prove the concept first, or else it’s very hard to move forward,” he says. “Once we have taken the first step, the second and third steps will become easier. With that, it’ll be easier to change the whole government, and to bring in agile in a proper way.”

Beyond agility

Adapting to the agile approach is not the only thing agencies have to grapple with if they wish to develop quality IT products in record time.

Some organisations are still not receptive to using social media tools, such as accepting comments on their applications. “During the consultation phase, they’ll find these features very interesting. But when we reach the development stage, they become unsure and they drop the features, so the final product is not as good,” says Mr Lim.

It seems that the Public Service does not just need to speed up its processes. Taking calculated risks and having the courage to venture into new territory is an art to master as well.

    Mar 11, 2013
    Jamie Ee
    John Heng
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