UK government is spending millions on agile development coaching and training

SUMMARY:

The traditional waterfall approach to project development is out and agile is in – but who has the skills?

digital-governmentIt has been over a year now since the UK government launched its first digital strategy, which outlines plans to get central departments to transform their high transaction public facing services into user-friendly online products, in a bid to save £1.7 billion after 2015. This is being carried out via a number of strategic approaches – with the help of the Government Digital Service (GDS), new digital chiefs being appointed within each department and a number of new frameworks that are available for use (e.g. G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework).

GDS has chosen 25 exemplar services for departments to transform, with one already live, 16 in Beta, 7 in Alpha and one other in discovery. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude recently said that the world is watching the UK because of its digital activities and that it is proving to be a global showcase for how to execute digital transformation. In a ‘one year on from the report’ briefing with some other journalists, Maude said:

“One of the problems we had early on was a credibility issue – you’d go around Whitehall and say: well actually this piece of work could be done for a tenth of the cost you expected. People were so accustomed to being told if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

“But we have shown that we can do things for staggeringly less than people expect. There is now a high degree of credibility. We are way beyond the stage of trying to get the attention of government departments, we are now at the stage where we are beating off demand.”

Sounds like it’s all going very well so far doesn’t it? However, there was something that caught my eye today that makes me wonder how well some of the government departments are coping with the changes and how well they are adapting to developing digital products….

Skill me up

I try to keep an eye on the government’s public tender notices (or RFPs if you’re in the States), just because they sometimes give you a good insight into what is coming up before you get a watered down version in a press release. This week I saw that GDS is on the hunt for a number of coaches to help departments shift from developing within a waterfall framework, to development using agile methodologies – the now preferred approach within Whitehall. The notice states:

“As the GDS transformation programme progresses, the focus is increasingly on building and maintaining the Francis Maudeinternal capabilities of departments to effectively govern, deliver and run the digital services being built and provide an environment that enables continuous delivery in perpetuity. 

“The input of an Agile Coach is integral to ensure departments’ agile practices and team capabilities are set up to support this. This extends to providing advice to organisations on to govern delivery and ongoing improvement of digital services.” 

Agile has been pushed in the UK public sector for several years, but never really took off until GDS appeared and started applying internal pressure. As anyone who has worked with agile before will know, the name is deceiving. It is far from a ‘soft’ way to develop software for projects and requires a really tough approach to governance in order to ensure that all of the pieces in play don’t end up in chaos. But if you get it right the benefits are there – you don’t have to commit to a specific list of specifications that take years to develop and then are outdated when the project finally goes live. Instead, teams constantly reassess and prioritise what the user needs, which is constantly tested and deployed iteratively.

However, departments have failed to get this right a lot of the time and there are numerous examples of where it has gone wrong – which was most recently seen with the government’s flagship welfare reform project, Universal Credit. The project was meant to be one of the first ‘major’ systems to be developed within government that stepped away from the traditional waterfall approach to procurement and made use of the agile methodology. This isn’t exactly how it worked out, however. A damning National Audit Office report into the project found that agile failed for Universal Credit and the Department for Work & Pensions largely reverted back to traditional practices. It stated:

In 2010, the Department was unfamiliar with the agile methodology and no government programme of this size had used it. The Department recognised that the agile approach would raise risks for an organisation that was unfamiliar with this approach. In particular, the Department:

  • was managing a programme which grew to over 1,000 people using an approach 
  • that is often used in small collaborative teams; 
  • had not defined how it would monitor progress or document decisions; 
  • needed to integrate Universal Credit with existing systems, which use a waterfall 
  • approach to managing changes; and
  • was working within existing contract, governance and approval structures.

You can see the problem here – departments start out with the best intentions, but everything operating around the project still has processes that are aligned towards the traditional procurement practices. Departments need to fundamentally redesign how they operate in order to take advantage of the benefits of agile, and given that GDS is now looking to contract with coaches, I’d place bets on that many are still struggling with getting this right.

G-Cloud spend

When I noticed the tender I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the G-Cloud figures to see how much departments are spending themselves on agile services, which are available on the framework and can be compared online via the CloudStore. For some reason the latest spend figures for the G-Cloud don’t have the detailed descriptions of what was bought – but for the period up until December 2013 (just before the framework’s second birthday) the information is there. From what I can make out there have been at least 423 purchases for agile coaching, training or strategy help via the G-Cloud, totalling just under £7 million in g-cloud-concept-370x229spend across departments.

Total G-Cloud spend up until December 2013 stood at around £77m, meaning that as a percentage agile coaching, or some variation on it, accounts for over 9 percent of all G-Cloud spend. How ‘cloudy’ these purchases are is up for debate, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Clearly departments are looking to spend money on external help in getting skilled up in agile.

Now, as I said, I don’t have access to the full breakdown for the latest G-Cloud figures and spend has soared to over £150 million now, so this might not be a completely up to date analysis. However, a few short months ago this was most certainly the case.

Verdict

  • Agile is the way forward – digital projects require an approach that allows for change and constant testing, whilst still allowing innovation to be introduced. This just doesn’t work within the confines of a traditional waterfall environment.
  • However, departments need to be aware that it isn’t just the development team that needs to be skilled up – it’s all of the governance surrounding the procurement that needs to change. You can’t be working in an agile way, but still reporting using waterfall structures.
  • If the money needs to be spent, it needs to be spent. But I’d like to see agile advocates within government being pushed around departments to evangelise the benefits and help get teams on the right track.