By Tony Collins
Alistair Maughan, a lawyer who specialises in large ICT projects, argues that agile won’t work in government ICT.
My thanks to Jerrett Myers, a senior researcher at the Institute, who has written the piece below, in response to Maughan’s comments.
Agile government ICT – a question of innovation
Like any management innovation, there are plenty of challenges in adopting an agile approach, but fortunately none are insurmountable. The innovation guru Everett Rogers outlines a series of factors that influence the rate of adoption of an innovation – in effect setting out a test for how likely it is for an innovation to be implemented.
The first is test is the relative advantage of the innovation – the degree to which a new way of working is perceived as superior. Government departments and agencies have reported extremely positive results from agile projects. Indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ordnance Survey and the Ministry of Defence have all used agile methods for delivering ICT projects.
Regularly changing priorities, advances in technology and the desire for more cost-effective and user-led solutions require a far more responsive approach to running ICT projects. Of the thousands of people who have downloaded our recent report, we have had an overwhelmingly positive response to the idea for government.
So how can government make it work? The second innovation success factor is ‘trialability’ – can departments test out this approach on a limited basis. Again, the good news is that at relatively low cost, departments can use an agile approach for running ICT projects – and indeed they are committed to doing so.
The third characteristic is ‘observability’ – are the results of the innovation visible to others. Whitehall has committed to creating a centre of excellence across government and the private sector which can enable fast start-up and mobilisation for agile projects. It will also establish a cross government approach and capabilities for agile. This should serve to raise the profile and ‘observability’ of agile projects.
The fourth factor is complexity – how difficult is an innovation to use and understand. Here, the government faces a greater challenge. New skills will be required which are ‘in-house’ rather than bought in through contractors. This includes making difficult trade-offs and prioritising effectively. Regular testing, planning and demonstration will need to take place to handle risks. And by taking part in agile projects, it can serve to internalise agile values, build skills and help to foster support, understanding and momentum for change.
The final factor is perhaps the greatest barrier to overcome – compatibility – the degree to which an innovation is consistent with existing values, norms and operating procedures. Maughan underscores how different the agile approach is for running ICT projects. The project approval processes and legal arrangements governing contracts need to be adapted to be far more responsive and receptive to agile delivery.
Equally important is the culture of empowerment that needs to surround projects. Fortunately, the experience in other large organisations in the public and private sector suggest this transition is possible.
At a large government agency, budgeting and governance processes have changed to accommodate and encourage more agile projects. Its new investment approval process involves obtaining early permission to fund development immediately without a fully specified business case being approved (although a robust justification must still be provided). The projects are given permission to spend at a particular rate over a period of time and return to the investment board at specified intervals for further approvals and to update on progress.
On each of these points, it appears that agile can succeed with the right leadership and determination for change. Ultimately, however, this isn’t just about adopting a new approach to government ICT, reforming the procurement process or taking a more sophisticated approach to managing risk. Instead, it is a test of Whitehall’s capacity for innovation.
Jerrett Myers is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government. The Institute for Government’s report, System Error: Fixing the flaws in government IT can be downloaded here.
Alistair Maughan’s blog post for Computer Weekly is here.