Government Projects As Moonshots

Much has been written, especially in the last few weeks, about the USA’s manned space flights.   The original “moonshot” programme was everything that today’s projects aren’t.  It began, in the late 50s, with the Mercury programme (one rocket, initially empty, then with an animal and finally with a human in earth orbit for about a day), before progressing to Gemini (two astronauts in low earth orbit) and then on to the Apollo programme (which, again, was incremental – unscrewed, crewed, on the moon, space walks, lunar rovers etc).

Roughly in the middle of that was Kennedy’s speech. Note: roughly in the middle.  Put a man on the moon, bring him back alive, do it by the end of the decade.
There was already a sense of the possible – because of Mercury and Gemini and early work was already underway with Apollo – but it’s certain that Kennedy’s speech was the catalyst of more investment and effort, resulting in the original Space Race.  Along the way there were highs and lows – tragedies too.
Each project built on what had been achieved in the previous one.  And each mission within each project learned from what had already been accomplished and added more.  The envelope was pushed a little at a time – building on even earlier risky adventures with beyond the speed of sound flight.

Imagine the outsourced version of the Apollo programme.  The 200,000 page version of the Kennedy speech expressed as tens of thousands of individual requirements, all written at the very start of the Mercury programme.  I don’t even want to think about an outcomes based contract.
For at least the last twenty years, government projects start with the Kennedy speech before there’s any sense of viability:
– We need a new capability to replace Airwave (the network that supports, amongst others, the Police, Ambulances and Border Guards).  Let’s build it on top of the 4G network that doesn’t yet exist, using standards and technologies that are not deployed anywhere, learning the lessons from absolutely no one as there isn’t anyone else in the world trying to do this.
– We really need a single identity number for everyone in the UK, but one that isn’t tied to any other numbers that exist already and doesn’t replace them.  Let’s not consider the privacy implications or the business case, let’s just get on and do it.
– We should replace all of the various benefits offered by central and local government with a single cohesive benefit, changing who gets paid and when and introducing new elements to the claims process.
– We should replace all of our existing ways to pay farmers with a single system that digitises everything from the launch of the new CAP scheme, notwithstanding we don’t know what the policy changes are, that we have existing contracts that will run for decades and that we could put £2.5bn of annual subsidies at risk in a vital part of the rural economy.
We have done comparatively well with digital projects – in most cases, relatively small, discrete bolt-ons to existing services.  But when we tangle with the difficult stuff, things go badly wrong.

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