March 25, 2023
By Larry A. Rosenthal, Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley
Just the sound of “making government more agile” summons pleasing images to the civic mind: resilient response to changing conditions; innovation and ingenuity; immediacy in problem-solving; citizen-centered service; bureaucracy getting out of the way; experimentation leading to progress.
These ideas center upon government’s role as implementer. That role presumes both existing authority and relatively stable consensus politically. And that’s no fantasy, really: the magnetic appeal of agile government stems from near-universal political agreement that government can and should do better, however we may task it.
By comparison, “agile policymaking” as a vehicle for better government understandably sounds more obtuse. Representative democracy involves debate, disagreement and, with any luck at all, compromise and movement forward. The floor of the legislature in its natural state – noisy, polemic, untamed - doesn’t quite mesh with “agile” in any meaningful sense. Indeed, if raucous legislative processes could only become more productive – or perhaps just more orderly and predictable – we would delight in that progress. Yet such minimal improvement would seem to fall well short of anything we’d wish to describe as agile.
Nonetheless, bringing agile vision and principles to policymaking should draw our attention, if only as a provocative heuristic. And the time couldn’t be riper for introspection and questioning of standing practice. Who says there’s nothing new under the sun? Perhaps there is little that’s inevitable in the way modern policymaking gets done. With the persistence of incivility and outright paralysis in too many legislative settings, we ought to be restless. We ought to insist on higher function. Whatever it may come to be, needless to say, agile policymaking will be anything but “politics as usual.”
A number of ambitions fall gently into place. Like the practice of traditional policy analysis (“TPA”) that helps guide lawmakers’ judgment, agile policymaking would aim to be more objective, and evidenced-based, than politics usually is. Like TPA, agile policymaking might couple i) applied social inquiry and leadership insight with ii) a desire to distinguish among more and less preferable proposals for collective action. And like TPA, agile policymaking would be undertaken by dedicated teams of hard-thinkers, rigorously pursuing problem-solving in the public interest.
Unlike TPA, however, agile policymaking ought to reorient conventional lawmaking and governance. Among the areas of potential ferment:
Agile-policymaking reforms could focus upon not only substantive ends but procedural means, from hyper-structured budgeting processes to siloed subject-matter jurisdiction among legislative committees, from majority prerogative over parliamentary rules to hierarchical party-based agenda control.
If we believe agile policymaking can foster more enlightened practice in the public realm, we might first set a baseline of how policy professionals are currently trained to do their work. Then, agile policymaking’s leading edges can be applied, either buttressing existing features harmoniously or disrupting them constructively.
As taught in leading universities and practiced across the government spectrum, TPA orients analytic activity toward the predilections of “clients” (typically, elected and appointed officials, exercising democratic and delegated authority, respectively). Narrowly framed and carefully defined problems are researched, so that policy practitioners can conduct business in an informed and evidence-based manner.
Problems and evidence: Agile policymaking would reimagine both. Unexploited social opportunities would become more prevalent, and evidence-practice would move naturally from aggregate social trends toward the lived experience of the most impacted stakeholders, taking a page out of the playbooks for user-based research and human-centered design.
In TPA the solution-space is built through an ideative process, constructing the alternatives for government action. Often those policy options are generated in path-dependent terms, based on extant legislation and administrative activity. Next come the performance standards for those alternatives; these social values and specialized objectives provide the selected criteria, metrics by which improvement can be meaningfully measured.
Alternatives & criteria: Agile policymaking would emphasize invention over replication. Proposed solutions would include untried approaches based on processes of social discovery. Metrics of success would be situational, both readily measurable and newly revelatory.
With alternatives and criteria in place, TPA proceeds into more technical forms of projection and calculation. Empirical methods and decision modeling allow the outcomes of various policy-options to be predicted in terms of the designated metrics. In the atypical case of dominance, a singular option prevails on all specified dimensions, making policy choice straightforward. More frequently, however, trade-offs are evident, in which case methods of weighting, social priority, and balancing attempt to triangulate the most desirable policy to recommend.
Outcomes & trade-offs: Agile policymaking can regularize data collection, make the projection of outcomes less costly, center stakeholders, and design deliberative ways to confront trade-offs and reveal undiscovered modes of consensus and cohesion.
As analysis concludes, suasion gets underway. Once the final recommendation is reached, an evidence-based narrative (telling the resulting story in written and presentation forms) is delivered to the client. The aim is to have the recommendation win the day. The narrative supports the chosen policy, demonstrates its advantages over the alternatives, reflects upon the criteria and trade-offs which were weighed, and cements in place the expected advances in the public interest.
Story: Agile policymaking would exploit innovative information networks, make communication more multilateral and interactive, and treat the evidence-based case for a recommended policy as a dynamic social conversation, not a static “official” report.
Against the canvas of TPA-informed disciplines, therefore, agile policymaking frontiers appear numerous and provocative. But reinvention shouldn’t sacrifice smart practice. The notion that social choice can be made more objective, even scientific, has a lot to recommend it. Government should remain careful and methodical, especially when the aggregate stakes are large. For these reasons, traditional policymaking is rightly considered “analytic” in a number of respects. The drive toward deep understanding should proceed apace.
Complex issues of social choice – particularly vexatious ones making political consensus most elusive – can be unraveled to reveal their constituent features, causal chains, and knowledge gaps. TPA’s working parts (problems, evidence, alternatives, criteria, outcomes, and trade-offs) each require their own styles of thinking and decision-making approaches. Political considerations can be temporarily “held constant” as applied, evidence-based inquiry proceeds with rigor. At the same time, the TPA disciplines recognize the power to elevate political concerns as criteria unto themselves. And just as problematizing social conditions is the hallmark of all policy choice, the process by which recommended courses of action get approved by clients, authorized, enacted, budgeted and implemented is inescapably political in nature … and should ever remain so, in an open and inclusive democracy.
However, TPA’s known advantages in these respects also present opportunities to make policy analysis itself even more agile. Thus agile policymaking ought to build upon TPA, not usurp it. Where analysis is cumbersome, it should be streamlined. Where analysis lags behind technological change and sociocultural progress, it should accelerate. When the client’s prerogatives stand in the way, analysis should loosen the bonds and break free.
Agile policymaking sets a constructive tone for these improvements. Among the enhancements we might envision:
Viewed in appropriate relief, agile policymaking charts an important trade route for the agile-government journey writ large. At least three strategic emphases can be made explicit moving forward: increasing the adaptive capacity of policymaking bodies under conditions of not only dynamism but turbulence; fostering policymaking in the promotion of technological innovation across industrial sectors and institutional settings; and policy development for open data architectures and digital-government expansion. As one forward-thinking observer notes, “The main point of this is that agile is a mindset, a culture, around delivering small steps forward fast and often: that’s what we need to bring into policy making ….”
 See, e.g., Bardach, E. & E. Patashnik, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving (Sage/CQ Press, 2019 [6th ed.]); Meltzer, R. & A. Schwartz, Policy Analysis as Problem Solving (Routledge, 2018); Patton, C., D. Sawicki & J. Clark, Basic Methods of Policy Analysis and Planning (Pearson, 2013); and Rivlin, A., Systematic Thinking for Social Action (Brookings, 2015).
 Cf., Child, C., B.G. Gibbs, and K.J. Rowley, “Paying For Success: An Appraisal of Social Impact Bonds,” Global Economics and Management Review 21(1-2): 36-45 (2016).
 The elements of traditional policy analysis (“TPA”) set forth below are based upon Bardach & Patashnik (id.) in a sequentially organized but iteratively undertaken method titled by the authors, and known affectionately among practitioners, as “the Eightfold Path.” The approach was invented by political scientist Eugene Bardach, now Emeritus Professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, and is the Goldman School's hallmark policy-analytic method.
 See UK Design Council, et al., “Design for Public Good” (Sharing Experience Europe [keep.eu], 2013).
 See Head, B.W., & J. Alford, “Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management,” Administration & Society 47(6): 711–739 (2015); Dunn, W., “Structuring Policy Problems,” in Public Policy Analysis: An Integrated Approach (Routledge, 2018 [6th ed.]), ch.3 (pp. 68-117).
 See Volkery, A. and T. Ribeiro, “Scenario Planning in Public Policy: Understanding Use, Impacts, and the Role of Institutional Context Factors, “ Technological Forecasting and Social Change 76(9): 1198-1207 (2009); see also Guston, D. H., “Understanding ‘Anticipatory Governance’,” Social Studies of Science 44(2): 218-242 (2014) and Tõnurist, P. and A. Hanson, “Anticipatory Innovation Governance: Shaping the Future Through Proactive Policy Making,” OECD Working Papers on Public Governance, no. 44 (2020).
 Room, G., “Agile Policy Making” presentation (link: https://prezi.com/brr81qqctqyi/agile-policy-making/), based on the author’s book, Complexity, Institutions and Public Policy: Agile Decision-Making in a Turbulent World (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2011).
 Howlett, M. and M. Ramesh, “Designing for Adaptation: Static and Dynamic Robustness in Policy-Making,” Public Administration [online symposium article] (Apr. 2022); see also Kasianiuk, Krzysztof, “Towards More Agile Public Policymaking,” Studia z Polityki Publicznej 3(11): 41-53 (2016).
 Mergel, I., “Open Innovation in the Public Sector: Drivers and Barriers for the Adoption of Challenge.Gov,” Public Management Review 20(5): 726-745 (2018).
 Parcell, J. and S. H. Holden, “Agile Policy Development for Digital Government: An Exploratory Case Study,” Proceedings of the 14th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research, https://doi.org/10.1145/247972... (June 2013).
 Ollerhead, L., “The Limits of Agile – Can We Apply It To Policy Making?” Policy Lab Blog (Gov.UK), [https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk...] (January 27, 2015).