The government’s mass testing Moonshot project looks like a 90s Silicon Valley PowerPoint nightmare

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez September 10, 2020
Leaked documents for the government’s mass testing Moonshot project will instil the fear of god into anyone that knows even the tiniest amount about major project delivery.

If you Google the word ‘Moonshot', the following definition is provided:

An ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Well, Moonshot is the codename for the British government's latest mass testing programme, which aims to scale up testing of citizens for COVID-19 to 10 million a day by early 2021. All for an alleged cost of £100 billion. For context, the current testing capacity stands at under 500,000 tests a day - with wide scale unavailability issues already reported.

The idea is that if millions and millions of tests are readily available and results can be delivered in minutes, rather than days, then people can live a fairly normal life knowing their COVID-19 status. That's all well and good, but this major project is being pushed by the same government that has still failed to deliver a contact tracing app and also didn't have the foresight to recognise that maybe using algorithms to predict students' grades would be a disaster. Amongst a litany of other technology blunders over the years…

Not to mention that the testing technology in question isn't yet available and the alleged cost of the project is almost the equivalent of the entire NHS budget.

But hey, we like ambition! And no one ever did anything worthwhile without breaking new ground and trying something new. And as everyone knows, these are ‘unprecedented times' and we'd all like to be able to go to the pub with our mates…

Well, that might be your thinking until you glance over the leaked briefing documents for project Moonshot. A quick scan over the slides - which are full of Venn diagrams, misaligned text, unexplained colour coding, BS consultancy catchphrases - and even the most optimistic amongst us will start to lose confidence.

It honestly looks and reads like a 90s Silicon Valley PowerPoint presentation from a sales exec that knows they're pitching a piece of technology and an idea that doesn't yet exist and isn't achievable.

So, let's take a look at how taxpayer money could be used to deliver 70 million COVID-19 tests a week. Because, you'd imagine that if the government was considering forking out £100 billion it would want a clear, understandable, workable plan in place to instil public confidence and stand up to peer review.

Take a look at the first slide:

Image of Project Moonshot plan
(Image sourced via Twitter)

My first gripe is with the headline - ‘Programme architecture framework'. If you've been around technology projects for a while this is the first indication that this is a copy and paste job from thousands and thousands of other consulting slideshows. It means very little and is used to sound technical and impressive. It would be clearer to even just say ‘What we hope to achieve and how'.

But it doesn't stop there. We are then presented with six boxes that represent the ‘architecture framework', each jam packed with text, charts, diagrams, squares, maps - you name it, they've got it. Again, let it be known that these are just techniques to appear ‘corporate' and present an impression that Moonshot is mapped out and ready to go. Dig a little deeper and it's totally devoid of clarity and meaning.

For example, under the ‘Enhance and scale up digital capabilities' section (enhance what? Scale up how?) we are presented with an ugly arrow that has different coloured circles on it of various sizes (to mean what, exactly?) and then told:

The existing digital capability can be leveraged to deliver mass population testing, with additional builds to build individual/institutional records and enable certification.

Capability. Leveraged. Builds. Enable. It's like BS buzzword bingo, isn't it?

It gets worse. Under the ‘Leveraged scaled-up deployment of supply chain' (lots of leveraging and scaling up going on, isn't there?), we get another ugly arrow and the crystal clear explanation of:

Building large-scale testing capacity along integrated supply chain, based on a scaled up version of the Pillar 2 Winter Plan.

I was wondering how long it would be before we got a pillar! Tech projects love pillars! And finally, under ‘Extended strategic partnerships' we get:

Need to have strategic relationships with multiple potential partners, buying their large-scale capabilities to build a large-scale testing organisation.

Strategic relationships with multiple potential partners sounds more like my previous dating profiles than a £100 billion government project, but here we are!

We then move on to ‘Moonshot Headquarters' (you just know the person writing this fancies themselves as a 007 fanboy). See the following slide:

 Image of Project Moonshot Plan
(Image sourced via Twitter)

A Venn diagram! God, it wouldn't have been complete without a Venn diagram, would it? Not only that but we have more scaling up, as well as very clear and understandable plans for an organisation that include ‘mission enablement', ‘validated learning and blueprinting' and ‘functional leads'. My favourite though is: "secure new capacity", which is putting it politely when thinking about 10 million COVID-19 tests a day, based on tech that isn't yet available.

And then we have the final side, which in all honesty, is just a joy. Take a look:

Image of Project Moonshot plan
(Image sourced via Twitter)

We've got the word scale again, obviously! But we've also got a beautifully disgusting diagram with a bunch of words scattered across it, alongside a gorgeous colour pallet that looks straight out of a knock-off Farrow & Ball catalogue (but doesn't seem to mean or explain anything, obviously).

But if you were in any doubt about whether or not this document is a complete waste of time, the following phrase should really be its nail in the coffin: Leverage synergies. Yup, that's right, the government plans to spend £100 billion and carry out 10 million COVID-19 tests a day by leveraging synergies. I don't know about you all, but whenever I leverage synergies I just know I'm doing a good job.

My take

Well, there you have it. It seems the UK has cracked COVID-19 single handedly with one terrible PowerPoint and made a bunch of private sector contractors rich all at the same time! I don't know why we ever doubted them...