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Agility Meets Austerity

by Christopher Goldsbury on Dec 06, 2011 |

 The United Kingdom is interested in adopting agile practicesas part of its Government ICT Strategyto save millions. The UK government is looking to achieve substantial cost savings on its IT efforts through the use of agile practices among other initiatives.

Among several bullet points covering the ICT strategy:

identify a pilot “agile” project within each department and create a virtual centre of excellence across government and the private sector that can enable fast start-up and mobilisation for such projects

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister, said:

This is not just a plan to reduce the cost and inefficiency of departmental ICT.  Effective implementation of the Strategy has already begun in programmes that will radically reform front line public services. For example, the Universal Credit programme is one of the first ‘Digital by Default’ services, using an Agile approach to reduce delivery risk and improve business outcomes. 

The UK government isn't alone in trying to reduce the cost of IT in the face of mounting national debt. Most western governments are now seeking austerity of one form or another and information technology projects, with big price tags and often unpredictable delivery, are feeling the pressure to become more efficient, effective in execution. 

But the UK's new rush toward agility isn't without its critics. Alistair Maughn, a government ICT lawyer, has a different view toward agile software development in government.

The Agile methodology is meant to deliver IT projects flexibly, in iterations. It's meant to involve customers more directly and adapt quickly to their changing needs. This means the final system only emerges gradually. It means customers don't pay a fixed price for a complete project. They pay for a commitment of resources. 

He goes further to identify four reasons agile practices won't work for government IT projects, paraphrased here: 

    • Government customers want to know up-front how much a system will cost.

    • Agile offers insufficient means of remedy if things go wrong.

    • It is inevitable that Agile decisions will go through management hierarchies in central government. This will be like kryptonite to Agile projects.

    • Agile can't give you a clear specification of outputs up-front. So comparison sourcing is not possible per legal requirements for procurement. 

Almost in reply, the UK's first agile experimental effort materialized as a prototype website in May 2011, shortly after Alistair's comments. Since then other successeshave shown how governments can use agile practices in their IT efforts. The United Kingdom hopes to use agile practices in 50% of it's ICT initiatives by 2013.

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So does the current system work? by Ben Waugh

I suspect there are many cases where the project goal and the solution are well enough known early on that it is reasonable to demand up-front specifications and prices, but agile methods are most relevant in the more complex and one-off cases where this is not the case.

Of course government customers want to know up-front what they will get and how much it will cost, and to have means of remedy if things go wrong. But do they get that at the moment? Need I mention the NHS's "Connecting for Health" and the "National Programme for IT"? No, Agile project management is not a panacea, but comparing it to what customers want in the ideal world rather than to what they have now is not really relevant.

If the government's management hierarchies are rigid and bureaucratic, perhaps it is something else that needs to be reexamined.

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