"The Strategy was flawless, but I could not get anything done."

In his Digital Transformation Blog entry on “The Strategy is Delivery,” Mike Bracken quotes one of his predecessors describing his frustrations in trying to implement the then Government Data Strategy: “The Strategy was flawless, but I could not get anything done”.  It reminded me of the old cry: “there was nothing wrong with the system. it was the users”. 

As a trainee programmer (in spring 1969), I was told by the DP manager to write a project management (alias reporting) system for the department. It did all he asked, but no-one would use it and he would not order them to. I was upset. The rest of the department knew that my system was never expected to go live. He and they had “merely” wanted to see if their first ever graduate trainee could produce a working system that did what the users said they wanted: from design and specification to working code and sucessful test running. They also wanted to see how long it would take me to realise why no-one would actually use it for real.

It was not until they relented and told me in the pub that I realised it had been my “apprentice masterpiece” (beautiful but useless) before being trusted with an arms length, unsupervised job that actually mattered to the department and to those who had taught me. I had not actually been banished in disgrace when I was assigned to support the auditors with ad hoc file matching and analysis programmes as they crawled over our production control and product costing systems (with their duplicated and semi-incompatible part number file, product structures and time costs) to produce a “real” value of the work-in-progress. That was also intended as the next step in my “education” – to understand just how dodgy our data was and why.

Forty years on I watch the growing disconnect between Cabinet Office (and its Government Digital  Service) and the rest of the Civil Service (and the Great Departmental Delivery Silos with a sense of deja vu. It is “merely” a phase in a ten year cycle that I am now seeing for the fourth time. That cycle appears to mirror the centuries old “Trade Cycle” of boom and bust which Gordon Brown was going to abolish, like Keynes and others before him.

I am told that, as part of the next round of “reforms”, the GDS and GPS are about to mandate the use of agile technologies adminstered via a single OJEU advertised framework contract with a third party consultancy. I assume that will, in practice, operate in a similar way to the framework for Civil Service learning . The latter will soon be able to report significant “savings” by making it nigh on impossible to get customised training through the gateway process for delivery when when and where it is actually needed. Departments will therefore stop wasting time trying. [I hope that does not mean they will also stop trying to train their staff in the skills they so departately need].

This raises the interesting question of whether the other “savings” reported  in the recent National Audit Office report on the “Impact of Government ICT Savings Initiatives” represent improved value for money or merely cuts. Does the report indicate success or failure? Like many NAO reports, it is dry and equivocal while revealing the questions that should be asked to those who have been guided where to look. Do read – and enjoy [assuming you have same dry sense of humour as myself].  

An old friend recently reminded me of the importance of looking at the small print and foot notes in NAO reports. Thus a report issued in December revealed that DWP had switched from quarterly to six monthly reviews. “The Department originally planned to release data on the Programme – referrals, attachments and outcomes – every quarter. When it released the first set of outcome data on 27 November 2012, it announced that outcome statistics would be released on a six-monthly cycle – the next set would therefore be released on 28 May 2013. The Department would then realign publication of referral and attachment data so that it is released alongside outcome data on the date. The Department indicated that it was not possible to align the validation procedures for outcome data with a quarterly publication schedule.”

I am trying to work out if this also implies that there will be no report of the experience from the Universal Credit “pathfinders” [due to start in April] before the commencement of live running, [due in October]. The new CIO, Philip Langdale died before he was able to complete his review of the programme, including the monitoring and progress reporting procedures.

In this context it might be worth quoting an earlier NAO report The Department will also not be able to use its IT support to generate management information on how many job and sustainment outcomes the Work Programme, or individual providers, are delivering until September 2012 at the earliest. (Page 8, Para 15). There are also comments like:The Department estimates that it will make payments to prime contractors of £60 million (excluding VAT) based only on a simple check that the claim is reasonable. In the period from March to May 2012 there will be a full reconciliation of payments made and providers will have to pay back any claimed inappropriately. In the meantime there is an increased risk of fraud and error.”  and The Department’s processes for developing the IT system were slower than the speeded-up processes for managing the rest of the Work Programme. The Department should identify the main lessons from this and, in line with current good practice, should adopt a more agile and timely approach to managing IT

At this point I will make a distinction between “agile management”, “agile procurement” and agile methodologies for producing trial systems. All three have weaknesses as well as strengths when it comes to large organisations with multiple stakeholders who will not simplify and prioritise their needs to facilitate the incremental approach that is essential to success if thousands, or ten of thousands of staff are to be trained, motivated and enthused into new ways of working.

If I were in the shoes of the Minister I would use the death of the CIO, after the departure of so many near the top of the previous programme management team, as the trigger for a thorough review – with the setting of any new date for live running announced only after the lessons have been learned from the “pathfinders”. That may not, in practice lead to much end-over-delay in achieving the benefits because there is so much essential good work which can continue in parallel: cleaning files, removing opportunities for fraud, expediting payment when fraud is unlikely and removing unnecessary complexity.

The most intersting problem is who to ask to conduct the review. The answer has to be some-one with experience of running major programmes which depend on the expected performance of partners over whom you have little or no control (from HMRC to UK Borders and from Local Authorities to employers, large and small).

The nearest relevant UK programme was indeed that of overhauling the systems of a major airport. His BAA experience, including having to interface with the systems of the airlines and freight forwarding operations. made Philip Langdale uniquely qualified for the job of DWP CIO. Then next was probably the transition of the UK payments system to on-line networks using internet protocols. But that was “simple” by comparison. Or to be more precise, the banks “conspired” to make it simple because failure was not an option for any of them.

How does one engineer such a “conspiracy” (to acheive success at all costs) across the tribes of Whitehall?

The best answer I have seen was a CIO Council, with most members having many years experience as public servants (its a cultural “thing” which does not confuse “innovation” with being “entrepreneurial”). Perhaps more important was that most reported to Permanent Secretaries with whom they had worked off and on – as each made their way up the various trees in the jungle until they could swing from branch to branch, like Tarzan, near the top. 

At this point you will begin to appreciate why I can sympathise with, but not entirely share, the frustration expressed in Mike Bracken’s Digital Transformation Blog and by his colleagues and predecessors in Cabinet Office and Number 10. I do not entirely share it because, despite what some readers may think, I also have great sympathy for those responsible for running the great Departmental Silos on which Government depends, while kowtowing to the enthusiasms of the current minister. Some of mandarins have been quietly setting their houses in order over recent years – developing in-house programme, project and change management skills for when the cycle runs its course and they are allowed to kick out the contractors and consultants and reform themselves.                

Only then are we likely to get the hybrid approaches necessary to use agile approaches to building the dams, slipways, tunnels and generators necessary to harness, not just control, waterfalls.