By Tony Collins
Harry Metcalfe, managing director of Dextrous Web, has written an excellent article on Alpha.gov.uk.
– test, in public, a prototype of a new, single UK Government website
– design and build a UK Government website using open, agile, multi-disciplinary product development techniques and technologies, shaped by a preoccupation with user needs.
It’s clear from Metcalfe’s post that he understands the unbending ways of government. He sees the opportunities too. He says:
“As a technical solution, this [Alphagov] is brilliant. If you’re going to have a single [web] platform, this is the right kind of platform to have, because it embraces change.
“If you want some new functionality, add an app for it. If you need a new department, add a new instance of the department app, add your content, and you’ll have 90% of what you need.
“If you want to run a consultation using someone’s third-party tool, just have them brand it appropriately and write an app that gives you as much integration as you want, or as the tool can support. But this kind of flexibility is powerful. In many respects it’s anathema to the way government works.
“For a start, it requires something government unwisely gave up on long ago: an in-house development team…”
Alphagov is not yet handling transactions. Indeed there are no agile-developed systems that handle passport applications or tax self-assessment.
As Metcalfe says: “…transactions are complicated, messy beasts, unavoidably bound up with business processes and legislation; empires, politics and entrenched positions; long contracts and vast sums of money.. it’s not primarily a technological problem. It’s a process problem, and those are much harder to fix.”
It may be a matter of time, though, before agile becomes far more prevalent in public sector IT. Universal Credit is based on agile, in a programme run in part by the redoubtable Joe Harley, the UK Government’s CIO.
Harley told the Public Accounts Committee last month:
“In the waterfall it takes quite a while to do a design – maybe a year or two … By the time we come to execute, things have moved on.
“In the agile world, it is a way of providing rapid solutions very quickly. Normally, and in Universal Credit it is monthly, one designs, develops, implements and produces a product very early on in the cycle. It is particularly useful and appropriate when the users themselves – in the universal credit, citizens themselves – can participate in the creation of it. It is about user-centric, rapid deployment solutions. That is what we hope to achieve.”
Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer at the Cabinet Office, told the same committee that the government objective is for the first claims under Universal Credit to be paid by October 2013. He said: “I would have thought that if we achieve that, it will become the precedent and benchmark for Government projects.”
We hope Universal Credit is a timely success and that it becomes a benchmark for government projects. It’s easy to talk down the chances of agile in government on the basis that it ill suits the way government works. But Francis Maude, officials in the Cabinet Office, and Alphagov’s developers want to change the way government works.
To say that agile won’t work in government is like telling someone who’s obese that they need not eat less because history shows they won’t be able to.
Government must spend less. And agile is one way to cut spending. Alphagov is showing the way.
How Alpha.gov.uk came about:
Last year Martha Lane Fox published suggestions on reforming UK Government’s online. At the launch of her report (subtitled “revolution, not evolution”) she recommended:
“…Putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments”
She made a strong case for the UK Government to adopt a single web domain, analogous to the BBC’s use of BBC.co.uk, and recommended a radical change in how gov.uk sites are produced:
“Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users.”