The government has committed itself to using agile methodology for software development in 50 percent of IT projects by 2013, in its recently published cross-government IT strategy. The possible gains are enormous. Government IT failures carry an £16bn annual price-tag, and a raft of out-dated and inefficient systems operates in almost every area of the public sector. Government IT also has, as Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude puts it, ‘a really bad name’. It is dogged with a reputation for high-profile failures wasting terrifying amounts of public money. Agile, with its potential for creating more robust systems with less waste, is seen as a possible answer.
With so much riding on its success, it is unfortunate that the adoption of agile is likely to fail – but because of the way in which people, not systems, work together in the corridors of power.
Working in an agile way means letting go of the fear of failure, and being ready to learn when it happens. This is always challenging, but next to impossible in a ‘command and control’ organisation, without a revolution in management culture – replacing enforcing and dictating with encouragement and support. Empowering staff means giving them freedom to ‘fail’ and treating ‘failure’ as a learning opportunity. It does not mean telling people they’re empowered then taking them to task when their decisions are deemed to be ‘wrong’
Agile systems and processes flex and change as they develop. Users often won’t know at the outset what the finished system will look like, because it will have been adapted according to circumstances and feedback from users who will be testing it out at every stage. But this makes it almost impossible to track an agile system’s progress using benchmarks laid down at the beginning – in exactly the way in which government projects operate.
It may be comforting to be able to tell the Secretary of State that a project is on schedule at ’28 percent complete,’ but this is nonsensical if you don’t know what 100 percent is, because it’s something that was plucked out of the air at a project planning meeting. Stepping outside this comfort zone is tremendously challenging, and requires a change of mindset, but the change can lead to highly-motivated teams working with creativity and intelligence.
In Whitehall organisations – operating to political timescales and priorities, and in the constant glare of a hostile media – agile development is exquisitely difficult to achieve. This does not mean we shouldn’t try, for the potential gains are enormous. But the first step is a culture change, and an unflinching look at some of the behaviours that operate in government management culture.
One of the most damaging of these is the reluctance to tell politicians bad news – for instance, that what they want cannot be delivered before the next election.
Government IT failures end careers, send public money cascading into a black hole, and mean that the public sector is stuck with ancient, inefficient systems. I am convinced that agile development methods represent a possible solution – but only when Whitehall and local government drop their addiction to a culture of blame and develop the trust in the abilities of their staff that true empowerment demands.