Calling out acts of government IT self-harm: The playbook of anti-patterns

Reading between the lines of official government digital standards and policies might help you make out the horrors that led to their creation, but it’s rare that acts of self-harm are called out, says the Department of Health’s Dan Sheldon. Here, he calls on departments to stop doing this to themselves, and argues in favour of the spend controls he spent 18 months helping to enforce.

The playbook of government IT fails – Photo credit: Fotolia

At a time when other governments are getting a grip on their ITthe UK is in danger of reverting back to the “mandarin-led lands of authority”.

For the past year, the Government Digital Service has been under serious attack. 

Others have written what a folly it would be to break apart or diminish the role of GDS. I agree. Government would be poorer, users would lose their champion and the corporatist vendor-bureaucrat axis would win.

And now we have the prospect of spend controls – an essential tool in getting out of the mess we were in –  being watered down.

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Let me explain.

Any business embarking on digital transformation should study the two sides of digital government in the last parliament.

The talented digital teams now redesigning the welfare state and the justice system for the Internet age wouldn’t have got anywhere without Liam and his team creating the right environment for this kind of transformation to succeed.

You couldn’t have had digital-by-default without better-for-less.

This meant getting a proper grip on government IT for the first time to stop the bleeding. It worked.

We started to fix legacy systems, rather than buying more band-aids.

We started saying ‘no’ to the small oligopoly of big systems integrators that dominated government IT.

We made it easier for a new breed of supplier to work with us.

We stopped pretending government was special and started to use open standards, open source and cloud computing like everyone else.

We tackled the friction in things like procurement, information security and funding.

Because the truth is you can’t do proper transformation without also doing all of this. If you try to, you’ll just end up with some shiny apps on top of a mountain of expensive, messy crap.

You’ll have made things more digital, but probably not any better.

In praise of… spend controls

I spent 18 months at GDS helping with some of this stuff.

You’ve probably never heard of the team I worked in. The public face of GDS was GOV.UK, exemplars, G-Cloud and Government as a Platform. Delivering services, making things better for users and fixing government from the inside. Big, important stuff.

Within departments, however, GDS is known for another thing – spend control.

The spend control has been around since 2010. Officially its there to ensure value for money — a delegated authority from Treasury to stop government overspend on IT.

The spend control team review all spend over a certain threshold to ensure it is in line with the Technology Code of Practice.

In practice, my job was to stop really bad things from happening.

The spend control is a blunt tool, but it is effective. It has saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds that would otherwise be wasted on moribund projects, badly designed contracts or services that don’t meet user needs.

That small team of around eight were the first responders of GDS, sent out to sniff out things going badly and help make things better.

We weren’t always popular – saying ‘no’ usually isn’t.

We weren’t always right either – working across government requires pragmatism and understanding, not paternalism.

Nor do we always have to say ‘no’. Nowadays, it is the exception rather than the norm.

The worst practices of old Big IT are no longer accepted in polite society (in central government at least). There’s now lots of really good things happening and some really talented digital people across government.

We’re still bleeding

But despite the progress over the past five years –  whisper this quietly – there’s still quite a lot of bad things going on.

You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but it’s not all service design, user needs and bunting in the world of digital government.

The idea that spend controls can now be relaxed is worrying. To anyone who takes a passing glance at headlines in the tech press, it’s laughable to think that departments – even the big ones – are now capable of avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Big departments are sprawling empires of agencies, intra-departmental turf battles and odd teams in obscure buildings that you forget exist until they sign a 10 year extension deal with their incumbent supplier.

Even for a super C/T/D/IO with a brilliant team supporting them, turning round the oil tanker whilst designing new digital services without getting shafted by suppliers or the mandarins is a mammoth task.

Government isn’t there yet. It may never get there. No matter how well intentioned, when it comes to IT government has an awful habit of messing things up.

Liam had a word for these bad things – he called it self-harm.

It’s a neat term to describe the self-inflicted digital mess government tends to get itself into. Simon Wardley talks about inertia and bias. Same idea.

Whatever you call it, in my time in government (and healthcare) I’ve seen an awful lot of it.

This stuff isn’t limited to government, either – not by any stretch. Big private sector organisations are riddled with these problems, too.

Read between the lines of official government digital standards and policies, and you may be able to make out the horrors that led to their creation.

But it’s rare that the acts of self-harm themselves are called out explicitly.

So, over at my Medium blog, I’ve created a little list – an A-Z of IT self-harm. You can read it in full here.

Consider this the opposite of a playbook. These are the things you really should avoid doing. Anti-patterns, if you will.

This stuff is still going on, every day, across government. 

I’ve not written this to call anyone out. There are many smart, dedicated people doing these things often because there’s no alternative within the constraints they’re working in.

But it’s 2016. We really need to stop doing this to ourselves.


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