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DevOps in the public sector: Assessing the challenges and the benefits

Public sector IT leaders trying to transform the way their organisation works using DevOps talk about the challenges they face

DevOps, the unifying of software development and IT operations, has lived up to Gartner’s 2015 prediction of evolving from a niche to a mainstream strategy.

The analyst company suggested then that 25% of Forbes Global 2,000 organisations would instil a DevOps strategy by 2016. The presumption is the public sector will follow suit – as it does with many other IT trends.

This is backed up by research from hosting services provider Claranet, with 18% of public sector organisations having developed a DevOps approach, compared with almost a third of private sector organisations.

Research from Splunk and the Ponemon Institute reinforces the view that DevOps is becoming more widespread in the public sector.

Working together to gauge confidence among UK IT decision-makers across a wide range of local and national government departments, the two companies found that, despite a lack of confidence overall regarding IT, public sector IT organisations were optimistic about the future of DevOps.

Three-quarters of respondents (74%) said they had either adopted or were planning to adopt DevOps, with more than half (54%) stating that their DevOps spend would increase over the coming year.

This suggests public sector organisations may be lagging behind their private sector counterparts with DevOps, but are more enthusiastic about adopting it successfully compared with other areas of IT.

Driving DevOps adoption

So what is different for the public sector, compared with the private sector? And why is there such enthusiasm about DevOps, perhaps more so than for other areas of IT?

According to Aaron Powell, chief digital officer at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), DevOps is more of a culture and a “state” of operating, rather than a particular prescribed method. As such, adopting it is an evolution rather than a jump, which NHSBT is in the throes of working its way through.

“That evolution involves progressively adopting more agile development, increasing automation and continuous integration, simplifying structures and systems, and focusing on the flow of change over the stages it goes through,” he says.

This step change enables public sector organisations to deliver services to citizens faster, which is crucial as more services become digital.

The financial downfall

Powell suggests the huge cultural change required for DevOps takes time, but financially constrained organisations – which many public sector organisations are – do not always have access to such luxuries.

This, in turn, makes it harder for public sector organisations to attract and retain staff, says Graeme Park, a senior consultant at consultancy Mason Advisory.

He says civil servant pay grades cannot keep pace with what DevOps engineers can expect to make in the private sector, so public sector organisations are having to spend money on outsourcing or in-house training.

Mayank Prakash, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), tells Computer Weekly that recruiting the best talent is just as much of a challenge “despite shaking off the old stereotypes of working in the civil service”.

But there’s no reason why the in-house training Park mentions cannot work. Graham Lane, development manager at the Greater London Authority (GLA), says the organisation has an in-house team managing pre-production environments, along with responsibility for testing and quality assurance, for example.

“We have mainly acquired DevOps skills through the training of our existing staff and this has worked well,” he says. “The development of in-house DevOps skills has been part of a broader programme to do with digital transformation and the adoption of agile methods.”

The right tools for the right job

While salary is an important consideration for prospective employees, it isn’t the sole factor. IT staff often look at the variety of DevOps tools and technologies public sector organisations are using to see if any opportunities exist to boost their own skills and experiences.

“The public sector is often saddled with a significant burden of legacy systems which must be maintained and, where possible, modernised,” says Jason Rolles, CEO of software development monitoring software supplier BlueOptima.

This means making use of open source development tools, such as Git and Jenkins, but also having the right IT environment to reap the benefits of these DevOps tools. It is inevitable that legacy systems will slow down a DevOps approach which is meant to bring an organisation both flexibility and speed.

This shift away from incumbent providers and legacy infrastructure is to do with finance too. But, without the budget needed to move away from legacy technologies, recruiting DevOps personnel gets even harder, and this becomes a vicious cycle that encourages departments to remain the same.

Punching up

DWP’s Prakash says people are often surprised by the tools, methods and scale of the department’s DevOps transformation.

“Our engineers work with modern DevOps tools, frameworks and open source technologies, which we connect with solid test-driven engineering practices. This is done in a truly agile environment and on a massive scale,” he says. In fact, it is this sheer scale which is DWP’s biggest challenge from a DevOps perspective.

“For us, the scale of our organisation is the major issue – we transact more than £170bn every year and have one of Europe’s largest IT estates, operating across 850 buildings and 90,000 desktops. That requires a lot of orchestration, and DevOps is key to this,” says Prakash.

“DevOps culture and agile development in general is informed by user activity. Our users’ interaction with DWP is complex to profile – it spans repeat contact with multiple services, often over years or decades. As our services are unique, we are determined to test and learn as we move on,” he adds.

This challenge may entice DevOps engineers to join DWP, but the majority of people join because of the wider work the department does. “Our social purpose sets us apart to people who are interested in applying their skills to make a difference to society,” says Prakash.

No chance to experiment

Another difference between the public and private sector is that operations are invariably mission-critical in the public sector environment, such as apps and portals for citizens, patients and blood donors.

BlueOptima’s Rolles suggests in the private sector, business-critical operations are developed alongside innovative software.

“Exploratory innovation departments are ideal testbeds for new methodologies that don’t place risk on core business operations,” he says, giving the example of banks partnering with financial technology (fintech) innovation labs, giving the bank the opportunity to derive experimentation from business-critical software development.

“Public sector organisations are understandably reluctant to change methodology when unable to initiate new approaches at a safe distance from business-critical operations”
Jason Rolles, BlueOptima

“In this sense, public sector organisations are understandably reluctant to change methodology when unable to initiate new approaches at a safe distance from business-critical operations, especially in a way that would have no adverse effect on day-to-day public services.”

This is also part of the vicious cycle mentioned earlier, as organisations with operational software that is mission-critical will take a cautious approach to making changes to it.

Some of this experimentation is also impossible because of the pace of the public sector organisation and the regulation surrounding it.

“There are flavours of DevOps, and the more ‘radical’ flavours may not lend themselves to the base of change or regulation of some public sector organisations, but the principles behind it are still relevant for most,” says NHSBT’s Powell.

In the UK, at least, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is on hand to help public sector organisations to implement the right flavour of DevOps.

GLA’s Lane says many of the GDS Service Standard’s 18 principles are relevant to DevOps, including using agile methods to iterate and improve frequently, using open standards and platforms, and testing the end-to-end service.

DevOps is the way forward

The general consensus is that moving to DevOps is worthwhile regardless of how “radical” the approach is.

“DevOps is the same in every sector. The major difference in the public sector is that our product development teams pursue outcomes which change the future of people living in the UK,” says Prakash.

“By adopting a DevOps approach, we’re able to bring services to life more quickly and more reliably, respond more reactively to user needs, and benefit from cloud capabilities,” he adds.

Prakash suggests a culture of close-knit collaboration is even more important to ensure the DWP maintains a regular release cycle which delivers value to its users.

“In this environment, the old service models and over-the-wall handovers don’t work efficiently. DevOps provides us with an opportunity. We’ve had to adapt and develop tools, techniques and, most significantly, a culture that enables us to deliver securely, reliably, resiliently and quickly,” he says.

It is this opportunity that public sector organisations understandably want to grab with both hands. 

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This was last published in December 2017

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