Beyond GDS – it’s the method that matters

Jane Roberts looks at how the Agile methodology is evolving to meet the needs of government digital projects.

It was always going to be a tough year for the Government Digital Service (GDS) as it sought to find its feet and secure budget after the election. But an exodus of senior officials from the unit has seen a flurry of speculation over its role. Will GDS get the green light to continue with the original government as a Platform  (GaaP) model as proposed by Mike Bracken? Or will the new head of GDS, COO, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, be pressured to adopt the departmental model said to be favoured by Civil Service CEO, John Manzoni?

In some ways, it’s a moot point as the digital transformation of government is an inevitable and necessary process that does not begin or end with GDS. What does seem likely is that GaaP will metamorphosise in some way due to both political pressure and budgetary constraints. This in turn will see a demand for steerage and accountability which is seeing a resurgence of interest in the Agile approach. Matt Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office and overseer of the GDS, is a keen champion of the Agile model which has been so effective in the private sector. But can Agile work in a legacy government environment?

Is Agile inadequate?

Evidence to date suggests Agile alone is insufficient to deal with the complexities of government projects. The DWP ceased using the Agile approach on the Universal Credit Programme, two years ago, for example, when it was revealed the £2bn welfare reform programme had spiralled to £12.8bn. The Major Projects Authority has just rated it Amber/Red meaning the entire project is now in danger of failure. There’s been fierce debate over whether the project was ever truly Agile in approach in the first place – with some arguing it was simply a waterfall project – but the general consensus was that applying Agile to large scale projects, involving numerous systems integrators, just didn’t work.

Agile suffers from a number of fallabilities. The scope is often varied to fit within the budget, leading stakeholders to mistakenly believe Agile will deliver more for the money. It’s greatest strength – adaptability – can also be its weakness as projects can become mired in variables that delay completion. Government organisations are large, and they have lots of stakeholders, both internal and external, so there may be several stakeholders that must be consulted to reach a consensus.  Moreover, GDS-led Agile focuses on putting the user needs at the heart of the method. This doesn’t go down well in top-down government organisations since it means that senior management views can be challenged by conflicting user needs. All of this puts pressure on rapid Agile timescales, and inevitably leads to disappointing overruns or the delivery of projects that are costly to maintain.

One of the biggest barriers for organisations implementing Agile has been the lack of wider governance and control that can put projects and budgets at risk. Agile is only a development method, it’s not a project management method, so it doesn’t bring anything to the table to alleviate these dependencies and risks. This is where PRINCE2 comes in. By bringing together the best elements of Agile and PRINCE2 to manage and govern it’s possible to combine the flexibility and responsiveness of Agile with the clearly defined, specific framework presented by PRINCE2.

Synthesising methods

PRINCE2 methodologies seek to minimise risk where possible, contain budget and take into account any dependencies of working with other suppliers or internal teams and any integration challenges presented by an organisation’s existing technologies. Together, PRINCE2 and Agile take into account the context of the project: the impact on and by the IT environment, from data storage to networks and all backend systems. Essentially PRINCE2 provides a structured and controlled approach to Agile delivery.

This combination of PRINCE2 and Agile has come to be known as Agile project management and is perfectly compatible with GDS design principles and accessibility guidance. Projects are broken into three phases of discovery, implementation and assurance, and use agile sprint cycles with an opportunity for review and input.  For larger projects, milestones are used to confirm progress and ensure final deliverables are on time and on budget and these can be mapped to the GDS delivery method of Discovery, Alpha, Beta, Live.  Prince2 project plans and highlight reports confirm progress and identify risks and issues to keep work on track while the Agile aspect sees testing and development carried out throughout the project, leading to iterative improvement from the very start.

Yet theory only gets us so far; the proof is in the project. Are there any proven cases of this combined method working in practice? Ofsted elected to use this synthesised approach, combining Agile and PRINCE2 in a project to create an online registration service for childminders with facilities for Ofsted staff to process the applications and collaborate with the applicants. The six month project, delivered by Toplevel, went live on time and on budget in May 2013. Today, the British Council is implementing a case management system using the same Agile Project Management approach, as is the Charity Commission in its Digital Services Project, In fact, the Charity Commission has conformed to the GDS Discovery-Alpha-Beta-Live Agile Model which likes to list services as still in the ‘Beta’ stage for some time after ‘Go Live’ to accommodate revisions and improvements.  All three projects demonstrate how well a hybrid approach can work even when driven departmentally.

This bodes well for the GDS. Should the next phase Matt Hancock alluded to take the GDS down the departmental route, with greater departmental control over digital projects, an Agile project management approach could work well, accommodating the user-based elements of GDS Agile while allowing the  department greater autonomy over project timescales. Unlike a waterfall method, which is embedded in government and which makes it extremely hard to make adjustments and refinements, Agile will allow these departments to fine tune, creating a greater sense of commitment to and empowerment from the process. There’s no reason Agile can’t work if offered with a complementary project methodology and it makes sense economically. But to be implemented effectively it will require a change in mindset. Government needs to be willing to learn from failures, become more receptive to change, and confident enough to adapt the methodology to work it, rather than the other way round.

Jane Roberts, is strategy director for public sector digital management firm Toplevel

Colin Marrs

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