Lessons from a government agile success

By Tony Collins

Some central government departments spend a great deal with large suppliers on the development and maintenance of their websites (more on this in a separate post).  They could save millions of pounds if they followed the example of the Government Digital Service (and were not locked into mega-outsourcing contracts that include website development).

Agile teams within the GDS are responsible for GOV.UK, which largely replaces Directgov and offers a one-stop site for government services and information.

Simple, clear, fast

The guiding principles for GDS’s agile teams were “simple, clear, fast”. Lessons from the open-source project are on the GDS website. These are some of them:

“When things get tough and you want to go back to old ways, go more agile, not less”.

Less is more (a rare attribute for a government IT project).

Use independently-verifiable data to track your programme

Agile can work at scale. “We’ve embraced it culturally and organisationally…”

The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said:

“In stark contrast to the way IT has been delivered in government in the past, GOV.UK can rapidly accommodate new standards for development and security, catering to emerging technologies and user requirements quickly and effectively. It has been built the way Amazon built Amazon, and in the way that BA transformed their online business, by being agile, iterative and focused on users.

“GOV.UK has also been built using open source technology, which means we don’t have to pay expensive software licensing costs.”


A good result for the Government Digital Service. Will others in central government follow?

What we’ve learnt about scaling agile – Government Digital Service

Agile can fix failed GovIT says lawyer


5 responses to “Lessons from a government agile success

  1. Tony, thank you for your quick response.

    Some questions/points:

    • GOV.UK is meant to replace not only Directgov but also Business Link. Testing whether it successfully replaces those two huge sites is a long process involving more than just you or me taking a quick look. We’ll have to await the verdict of the public on GOV.UK before declaring a success.

    • Who developed Directgov and who developed Business Link?

    • Who maintained Directgov and who maintained Business Link?

    • How much did development cost in each case?

    • What was the annual maintenance bill in each case?

    • How much did it cost to develop GOV.UK?

    • What is the expected annual maintenance bill for GOV.UK?

    • Only when we have answers to these questions and the experience of maintenance costs can we say whether GDS have set an example for other government departments.

    • GDS announced that they had signed a contract to host GOV.UK on Skyscape, a cloud service supplier. This came as news to Akamai, who currently host GOV.UK, as you can easily check. Something a bit clumsy there? Not very agile?

    • Skyscape is a start-up so young that it hasn’t yet filed any accounts with Companies House. It has no track record. How did it get onto CloudStore? How did GDS come to entrust GOV.UK to the care of a company with no track record, with only £1,000 of paid-up ordinary share capital, all registered in the name of one man, who is also the only director of Skyscape? Something a bit irresponsible there?

    • HMRC also, have signed a contract with Skyscape to store all the data currently held at its local offices. Presumably all our personal and company tax returns and related data. What are HMRC and GDS up to?

    • Why did GDS re-develop Directgov and Business Link? Why not just take them in-house and maintain them?

    • GOV.UK comes under GDS’s single government domain project and is due to be expanded to include every central government website. Under the same project/Inside government, HMRC.GOV.UK will be subsumed under GOV.UK. Ditto EDUCATION.GOV.UK, etc … Why? What’s the point? Why expend the effort on what looks at first like nothing more than a self-indulgent re-branding exercise?

    • The answer is presumably all to do with Martha Lane Fox’s digital by default ideas. Public services should be delivered over the web, and only over the web. Applicants for Universal Credit, for example, will register on the web using GOV.UK and their claims will be dealt with on the web.

    • We already have a tool to handle transactions between people/companies and government – the Government Gateway – and which therefore supports digital by default. GDS want to throw the Government gateway away and replace it with another project of theirs, identity assurance (IdA). Why?

    • GDS were due to announce the winners of the IdA tender by 30 September 2012. That date came and went. Then they were due to announce the winners on 22 October 2012. That date came and went. This is not an example for the rest of government to follow.

    • In a comprehensive leak to the Independent newspaper, GDS let it be known that the winners would include banks, mobile phone companies, credit referencing agencies, the Post Office, Facebook and Google. Facebook and Google? They want to replace the security of the Government Gateway with Facebook and Google? The Andy Smith affair last week will have put paid to that. And it will have made the banks and mobile phone companies think twice do GDS know what they’re doing when it comes to identity assurance, any more than they do when it comes to choosing a hosting service.


  2. Thanks for the questions David. You may not agree but Gov.uk works well, at least the parts of it I tried. It’s simple in appearance and to use, not showy; and GDS isn’t dependent on an external supplier that charges thousands for a small code change. Agile implies that Gov.uk can be adapted to change without affecting the national debt.

    Why should others in government follow? Some central departments rely on familiar names to develop and support their IT, including websites, sometimes at huge cost. The Cabinet Office doesn’t have that dependency. The GDS is not perfect but I suspect that if others in government followed its principles it would make a big difference to the costs of running central government. Tony.


  3. For the first time ever, Tony, your Comment section does not follow logically from the facts set out above.

    Why is this a “good result” for GDS?

    Why should “others in central government follow”?


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