Could Agile help solve the government's IT problems?

Computer Weekly published today a call by the British Medical Association to halt what it calls a rushed roll-out of an imperfect Care Records Service.

Responding to the article, Rob Bowley has reminded me of a petition on the Number 10 website which calls on the Prime Minister to:

 “demand a review of the current approach and look at adopting a more incremental and agile approach to Government IT projects”  

His email to me says that the petition is aimed at persuading the government to review its outdated software development processes.

“‘This may not sound like much, but the petition is getting hugesupport in the software development community and the list reads like aWho’s Who of people who care about software in the UK including manywell known authors, thought leaders, influential bloggers andconference speakers.

“It was created in response to an articlein the Independent reporting the Government had wasted £26 billion on”failed” IT projects.

“Of the projects mentioned in the articleI’ve particularly been following the NPfIT failures for some time andit’s quite clear that most of the reasons it has failed so badly can beattributed to following ‘Waterfall’ type project management processes,dooming these behemoth to failure from the outset.

“Thefrustrating truth is that there is an alternative which is proving afar more effective way to procure and manage software developmentcontracts.

“The private sector is increasingly and rapidlymoving away from the “Waterfall” or big design and planning up frontapproach to more incremental (or “Agile”) practices.

“Most ifnot all of the leading technology firms, such as Google, BBC, Guardianand IBM, now follow Agile in some form and it is totally unacceptablethat our government continues to waste billions of pounds blindlyfollowing out dated practices which simply do not take into account forthe inherent unpredictable nature of software development.

“Thisissue needs to be raised to the level of visibility it deserves.Literally millions, if not billions of pounds taxpayers money, arebeing wasted for no better reason than a Kafka-esque, failure-demand,”software projects are always delayed” mindset which permeates theentire public sector.

“I would be exceptionally grateful if you would consider running a piece on the petition.”

This is the petition.


Stephen O’Brien, the Conservative Shadow Health Minister, has replied to an email by Bowley on Agile and the NPfIT. Says O’Brien:

“Whilst I have not come across the Agile approach before, I will certainly bear it in mind as we seek to develop our policy of giving local NHS Trusts a choice of IT system through a central catalogue of open standards/accredited systems. I will keep on record any further information you are able to provide in writing about the Agile methodology and would welcome any such information in response to this email.”


Rob Bowley’s website.

A call to action to UK software developers to stop money being wasted – Rob Bowley

Waterfall v Agile – Agile introduction for dummies

BMA says: halt rushed roll-out of imperfect Summary Care Records –


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Not if what I've seen of "agile" approaches in government IT is anything to go by.

One of the key prerequisites for any agile/RAD approach is surely the close involvement of key user representatives with the commitment, business knowledge and authority to say what they want the system to do.

But this is one of the main areas where all government IT projects fail: either people do not understand their own business processes well enough, or they are actively out to undermine the project in fear for their own jobs, or they refuse to commit themselves to a decision, for fear of being held accountable if they get it wrong, or they hide their own ignorance behind the idea that their requirements are uniquely complex and cannot be reduced to anything as crude as a clearly defined use case.

Then you have the fact that the usual consultancies with friends in high places who are awarded these projects are financially motivated to maximise their earnings - and their potential ability to clean up on any outsourcing of the resulting system - by introducing unnecessary complexity, gold-plating bespoke solutions to requirements that could be met with off-the-shelf solutions, aiming for all-encompassing and complex "generic" solutions to cover multiple business processes that nobody understands in the first place, and stuffing the project with as many expensive "architects" as they can.

On some projects, the response to this chaos is to introduce heavy-duty RUP-style "agile" methods in order to manage the process better, which simply add to the bureaucracy and introduce extra barriers between users and developers, as well as effectively representing a return to slow and bureaucratic "waterfall" development but without the rigour of older software engineering approaches.

And of course it is in nobody's interests to save money anyway, because the provider wants to make as much cash as they can, while the government client (as reported elsewhere in CW) will lose clout in Whitehall if they stop spending so much on IT.

So you often end up with a client who doesn't know - or won't say - what they want, dealing with a provider who doesn't care what the client wants or needs, because they're going to deliver the most complicated and expensive solution they can come up with anyway, and both sides almost totally paralysed by bureaucracy, inertia and poor communication.

And now that Whitehall is planning to increase direct UK taxpayer subsidies to the Indian IT industry by handing the pension system contract to TCS, which will shift most of the work offshore, does anybody in their right mind think that communications between government clients and system providers are going to become any easier? Hardly a recipe for "agile" success, surely?