By Joe Garvey

Ron Carlee

A partnership between Old Dominion University’s Strome College of Business and the City of Norfolk recently reached a milestone.

The city’s Agile Academy, the flagship program of Agile Team Norfolk, celebrated the graduation of its 10th cohort at the Slover Library on March 23. The program, developed by ODU in 2018, is designed to enhance the efficiency, effectiveness and equity of service delivery by the City of Norfolk. With these new graduates, nearly 700 city employees have been trained and have participated in projects to improve their workplaces and benefit the lives of city residents.

“They are people deeply committed to public service,” said Ron Carlee, clinical assistant professor in ODU’s School of Public Service and the lead staff for the development, presentation and administration of the Agile program. “They are driven to fight inefficiency, ineffectiveness and inequity. They are eager to develop new skills to apply to improvement projects. They are committed to making a positive difference in the city’s organization and in the lives of the people of Norfolk.”

A total of 23 projects from 13 city departments were approved from this graduating class. The issues they are tackling include streamlining the scheduling of parking attendants, improving the computer training of public works employees, establishing a kitten nursery to provide better care for abandoned or orphaned felines age 6 months or younger to give them a better chance for survival and an improved pothole discovery and reporting system.

The program is getting results. Betty Meyer, coordinator of Agile Team Norfolk and program manager for the Norfolk Civic Lab, recalled a previous project that reduced rework on permitting paperwork by at least 50% by simply ensuring that clear instructions were available on the appropriate website.

“I hear the little, day-to-day stuff that we all put up with that doesn’t take much effort or much money to just get the right people in the room to figure out a solution,” Norfolk Deputy City Manager Catheryn Whitesell said. Those are the kind of issues Agile is designed to address.

A project from 2022 addressed filling hard-to-fill entry-level positions and providing self-sufficiency for residents.

“One of the challenges we’ve embraced is figuring out how we can do things more efficiently and effectively to help make sure that, with the resources we have, we get as big a bang for our buck as we can,” said Meyer, who earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from ODU.

City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer said the Agile training started with city leadership.

“Then as we started doing the cohorts, we realized, ‘Wow, we need to integrate this at all levels in the city,’” he said. “And, in fact, some of the best ideas come from those that are on the front lines, dealing with something every day. We’re really happy that we’ve been able to move this through all the various ranks in the administration.”

The Agile Academy, which is conducted twice a year, is based on developing a mindset of continuous improvement that is team-oriented, customer-focused and data-informed. The Academy consists of 40 hours of training over nine weeks. The program culminates with participants presenting improvement project proposals to Filer and his deputies for their approval.

The program applies concepts from Agile software development and public administration to the work of city employees: teamwork, critical thinking, program evaluation, performance management, project management and equity. Class size is limited to 30 people. Any employee may participate with a supervisor’s approval.

Others from ODU who lead the training sessions are Aaron Arndt, chair of the Thurmond School of Professional Sales and Negotiations and professor of marketing; Vickie T. Carnegie, lecturer in the Strome College’s School of Public Service; and Tancy Vandecar-Burdin, director of ODU’s Social Science Research Center.

The program’s roots date to 2016, when Whitesell, then Virginia Beach’s director of strategy, transparency, innovation and resiliency, asked Carlee to help implement an innovation program similar to the Denver Peak Academy.

After Whitesell came to Norfolk as a deputy city manager in 2017, she “asked me to figure out how to deliver this program, this concept of a culture of innovation,” Meyer said.

Carlee’s background in local government – he served as city manager for Charlotte, North Carolina; county manager for Arlington, Virginia; and chief operating officer for the International City/County Management Association – made him an ideal choice to lead this effort, Meyer said.

“Parks and rec – he’s done that. Libraries – he’s done that,” Meyer said. “It’s not just delivering the skills, it’s a matter of being able to relate it to what the Agile participants do on a daily basis. That’s so important.”

“What Dr. Carlee has done over the past five years is provided not just a willingness of our staff to be engaged and innovative, but really laying out a roadmap of how to do it effectively,” Filer added.

The original three-year memorandum of understanding between ODU and the city was renewed for another three years in 2021, running through June 30, 2024.

Meyer hopes the program can be expanded to three training sessions a year.

“We’re looking forward to the future,” she said. “We’re using the training to help improve the lives of our residents. That’s what it’s all about.”

Top photo: A total of 23 projects from 13 city departments were approved from the latest graduating class. Photo courtesy of the City of Norfolk