The hottest two ways of working in UK public sector today are “agile” – delivering in rapid, iterative ways – and “out loud” – talking (often incessantly) about what you are doing, why you are doing it and seeking feedback (on blogs, twitter and doubtless other places too) on both of those. Both of these approaches are plainly to be encouraged.
You can, of course, do (or be) one of these at a time, or both at the same time. The finest proponent of both together is the Government Digital Service – motto “we may not quite know where we are going,but we are going to get there fast and elicit your comments at every possible step so that, rather than doing the wrong thing faster, we are more likely to do the right thing” (mottos need not be agile where I come from). The gCloud team are certainly working out loud – louder and more controversially than perhaps any project in government has ever worked before – and they are agile too (slashing away at the bureaucracy that has encumbered government for the agile equivalent of eons).
But then there are the big projects in government. At least one of those is apparently working in an agile way, but is remarkably reticent about how things are going. I speak of Universal Credit – one of the single largest IT programmes in government (ever I believe, but certainly in today’s land of austerity). Hundreds of millions will be spent on this programme before it is done and it is treading the path of less than successful forbears like Tax Credits. UC involves significant changes to the way government operates at both a central and local level – the management of benefits will be moved in both directions, substantial integration will need to be achieved with HMRC’s Real Time Information (where real time doesn’t quite have the definition that we usually give it), legislation is changing, it will rely on the creation and rollout of a new identity scheme to replace the ageing government gateway (that I helped put in place a dozen years ago), billions of pounds will be moved (or be prevented from moving in the case of attempted fraud) and up to 30m people will be affected (thankfully not all at once, but in a phased rollout) by changes to what they claim, how they claim it and how much they receive.
So it’s big. It’s so big that offshore workers will be involved (not for the first time but it’s still rare). The technology is certainly big, but the operational changes are even bigger.
Agile they may be – though I am sceptical to be honest because it is hard to imagine hundreds of millions spent in an agile way, with vast teams from multiple suppliers working on the programme, complex dependencies that are very likely binary (it works or it doesn’t) in each case and some monolithic systems that it will replace entirely (gradual replacement of such systems in the agile style seems unlikely). Another fact that counts against it being agile, for me anyway, is that at a conference late last year I heard a senior member of the team note that they were now 34% code complete for the core of the system. I don’t think agile people count in percentages (who can do maths when you’re sprinting?). Great is the enemy of good but if you want to be agile, you need to know when you can leave things out, switch track and maybe never come back to what you planned; that doesn’t align with a precise figure on code complete.
But what I don’t think UC is, in any way, is “out loud”. And that’s a shame. Stakes are high for this one as I outline above. The potential for a re-run of NPfIT is very high. Yet, there are no official (or unofficial that I can find) blogs, little activity on Twitter (the brilliant @pubstrat notwithstanding, though he comments only occasionally and even obliquely on UC) and no sign of an alpha, beta or demonstration release (the front end will be delivered by http://www.gov.uk but they plainly have a lot of other things to do right now). Please correct me in the comments if I’ve missed something – google lists 37,000 pages with “universal credits” and 13,000 when I add the word “blog” to that phrase; nothing obvious appears in the first dozen pages.
The uncertainty over how it will all work has already caused one supplier to local government, Capita, to write to all of their customers and say that they won’t be ready for the changeover from how things are to how they will be under UC. Other suppliers may be keeping their heads down or perhaps may not even know what is coming and whether they can deal with it.
UC, in my view, needs to be out loud and proud. At least twice as out loud as any other project – even when that project is http://www.gov.uk – given the stakes involved and the vast amount of scepticism out there. And it needs to do it now.