Cabinet Office turns to agile SMEs to reform Whitehall IT development

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Cabinet Office turns to agile SMEs to reform Whitehall IT development

Mark Ballard

The Cabinet Office and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have called for small software development firms with skills in agile methodologies to help fix government IT and reform the systems integrators behind public sector projects.

Government representatives told an enthused meeting of agile developers on Tuesday night how they were adopting agile methods and counting on specialist SMEs to help them do it.

Steve Dover, head of major programmes at the Department for Work and Pensions, summed up the tone of the meeting by declaring an unequivocal preference for agile methods.

"It's a brilliant, brilliant methodology," Steve Dover said. "Get it right. Don't pay it lip service."

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been training staff, including directors, in agile methods. But the initiative required a change in public sector culture that needed agile characters working from the inside to create a collaborative environment. It required not merely change in the culture of government IT, but a change in the culture of government, Dover said.

The DWP was counting on help from SMEs because incumbent systems integrators (SIs) do not have the skills to manage the change, said Dover.

"What we have out there is a rich vein of SMEs we can tap into for the projects that need to be done in this manner. That's what we need to encourage," Dover told delegates at the BCS Software Practice Advancement conference.

"Are systems integrators big enough and expert enough to do all this on their own? The answer is no. And that's where we are looking to SMEs to come through those prime contractors and we are encouraging that, because we are going to be measured on the number of SMEs that we use," said Dover.

Systems integrators were singled out for being proponents of the dominant waterfall method of systems development that, along with a restrictive procurement system, have been widely blamed for a number of troubled government IT projects.

The packed room erupted in laughter when Dover said Accenture, one of its incumbent systems integrators, told DWP: "We can do agile too!" Accenture did have some expertise in technology and consulting, he said, but DWP is using specialists for coaching in agile methods.

"We put our hands up and we said, 'We can't do agile, so don't assume you guys can do it because you can't'," said Dover.

Richard Stobart, managing director of agile specialist Unboxed Consulting, focused attention on systems integrators by asking, after the DWP had declared enthusiastically for agile, whether incumbent DWP suppliers Accenture and HP had been chosen to lead development on the £2bn Universal Credit system because of their agile credentials.

Mark Anfilogoff, a public sector agile consultant, told the meeting SIs are resistant to change because the money is in the process and the paperwork of existing methods.

"What I want to understand is when we are going to get to the real nub of the problem, which is challenging the major SIs to do things differently?" he said.

Mark O'Neill, CIO at the Department for Communities and Local Government and founder of the government's skunkworks innovation unit, said: "SIs must recognise that the old world is dead and they have to change their model".

"The ones who haven't realised that yet are in for a reckoning," Mark O'Neill said. He called on agile SMEs to join the skunkworks, repeating an assertion made by Dover that the UK had a rich software market the government wanted to tap into.

Malcom Whitehouse, newly promoted DWP deputy CIO, repeated the call for SMEs to get involved in government IT, "because fundamentally it's not going to be the big SIs". He told Computer Weekly he intended to work with the Agile Delivery Network, a group of agile SMEs, to move some of this activity forward.

But he said the DWP was trying to identify projects in which agile could be used and ways in which agile developers could be deployed. He needed the agile community to help determine what the government might need it to do.

"I would invite the people in this room and elsewhere to join in. Then what we can do is start to identify the approach that will allow us to get SMEs to join the process to make this work," Malcom Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse also defined the limits of agile in government by warning there was still going to be "some heavy lifting stuff" that he implied only the big systems integrators could handle.

"If you are building a transactional system that deals with 19-and-a-half million people and pays out £200m a year, you don't do it in a garage," Whitehouse said.

"That is not a skunkworks project. What you do is you look at the pieces around the edge. Let's build a menu and invite people into the tent to see how this works."

Whitehouse was surrounded by agile SMEs after the meeting. One insisted agile developers already built large transactional systems, many worked in financial services and they did things at 70% of the cost, yet were still overlooked by government. About a third of people at the meeting admitted in a show of hands to being unimpressed with what they had heard. The meeting's tone had nevertheless been keen.

NHS CIO Christine Connelly, who recently came out in defence of multibillion-pound contracts with systems integrators and who is renegotiating deals with IT giant CSC after major problems in its National Programme for IT contracts, showed her hand enthusiastically when the meeting was asked who had been encouraged.

Whitehouse said he had been in a meeting that afternoon with government CIO Joe Harley and CIOs from defence, health, justice, the Home Office and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

Andy de Vele, a longstanding government IT consultant who helped found the Agile Delivery Network, said he had been working on agile delivery methods at HMRC and the results had been mixed. Capgemini, which as supplier of HMRC's Aspire project and presides over one of the government's largest IT contracts, was recently ordered to bring more SMEs into the fold.

"We need to involve people who know how this stuff works," he said.

HMRC had an agile project with 40 people in five locations, said de Vele. "None of them have any agile experience at all and they are trying to do things in an agile way," he said.

"In government development, no-one speaks to each other. It's just isolated teams speaking to other isolated teams. What I'd be keen to see would be an open community that allows developers to be able to share and communicate. I'd like to see a cross-government source-code repository."

Steve Freeman, an agile developer, said the UK software industry was being hollowed out as its pioneers were passed over and the UK's software talent ignored.

Can agile work in government IT? Click here to read why one expert thinks it will not >>

Read about how the Alphagov website team is trying out agile development techniques for future government IT systems >>


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