Agile government: What the UK can learn from the US

The UK has a unique window of opportunity to learn from the US approach to agile project management

The Institute for Government (IFG) recently published a report from its research into progress of the UK Government’s adoption of Agile Project Management

It interviewed all significant government CIOs and their procurement staff, along with representatives of IT suppliers – both large and small. The IFG found that progress towards using agile approaches has been slow.

It noted that the US has effective direct intervention from a strong government chief information officer. In the UK, it found that the implementation of agile and the strategy overall was poorly coordinated, incoherent and still without clear objectives or success criteria, despite the warnings in the National Audit Office (NAO) report of the previous year. 

The IFG noted that although senior leaders in government and technology suppliers supported the concepts proposed in the 19 strands of the strategy, they were not convinced about the approach to implementing it.

The IFG found that there were concerns that the agile projects that were underway were “often very minor projects running on the fringe of the departments” and that “in some areas projects may be being labelled as agile without having really changed the way in which they were run”. 

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The NAO has since issued a report surveying the use of agile project management in the 17 central UK Government departments. The report aims to identify elements of agile practices that are being used in central government departments, and concludes that there is still no specific plan for tracking the adoption of agile throughout government, and it is unclear how many agile projects are actually underway.

Both the Obama and the Cameron administrations have similar aims with regard to flexible IT development, but they have taken different approaches towards making the changes.

The US IT strategy has measurable targets, but they mainly relate to deadlines for the production of:

  • Yet more guidance material on modular development
  • Running training courses
  • Setting up clear project management career paths.

The UK IT strategy has a vaguely defined target of half of major ICT-enabled change programmes being agile by April 2014 – a great intent, but one that is difficult to measure.

There is a window of opportunity here, I suggest, to reassess the implementation of agile in the UK government.

We need to survey:

  • How many projects are actually using agile
  • Which strategies for making the switch have really worked
  • What evidence is there that a switch to agile has brought an economic benefit.

This is a fertile area in need of more research – perhaps some collaborative, transatlantic work.

Will the US resolve and clarify how "modular" approaches relate to agile approaches – are these terms synonymous? Is the latest US guidance really any more than a new set of regulations – how can the culture change that is needed be enacted? And can the vigorous and decisive leadership during Vivek Kundra's term as US Federal CIO be sustained now that he has moved on to fresh pastures?

A unique opportunity to improve and cross-fertilise ideas is offered by the existence of two similar agile strategies, being enacted in two different countries in similar timeframes.

Brian Wernham has more than 30 years' experience in adaptive project leadership. His first book, Agile Project Management for Government, was recently published by Maitland and Strong.

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