I was delighted to be at the launch event last night for System Error: Fixing the flaws in government IT. This is the report from the Institute for Government thinktank about how classic problems with government IT projects might be avoided. The event was tweeted under the hashtag #ukgovit.
I need to declare the same interest as Glyn Moody and Harry Metcalfe: I was also involved in the research (and am the source of the Guardian case study: one of eleven).
That said, it addresses one of the things I’ve found most frustrating about government IT, as an outsider: how can you so often spend so much money and fail to deliver such little value? What would happen if government departments tried an agile approach, of delivering little and often? This report proposes a two-pronged approach: a platform based on commoditisation, co-ordination and common standards; and agile project management.
Mark O’Neill, the DCMS and DCLG CIO, described the traditional government approach to IT needs (this from memory):
We come to a river and decide we want to cross it. So we say “I know, we’ll commission someone to build a bridge”. And they spend five years designing and building a bridge, and for those five years we’re stuck on the river bank because 99.9% of a bridge is no good. But, oh, it will be a lovely bridge.
The proposed two-pronged approach outlined above ensures quicker, faster and cheaper delivery. The research included a live agile project with the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office. One of the authors told me that of all their recommendations in all their reports, they had never felt so strongly about the benefits of agile.
Still, I went into the launch wary about the support the report would receive in government — after all the IfG is a thinktank and sits outside government. So I was really impressed with what I found. Not only was Mark O’Neill on the podium endorsing its recommendations (and confirming he would be implementing several of them), but so was Ian Watmore of the Cabinet Office. And he confirmed that only that morning the permanent secretaries had approved an agile approach to the implementation of the universal credit system. I also found out afterwards that the report had also been approved all the government CIOs.
There is still a long way to go. Culture and bureaucracy will have to change within the civil service. But there is a plan for trying this out and ramping it up. There is a new hope.
Here are further sources of information: