Long ago, a wise and experienced civil servant cautioned me upon my arrival at the Inland Revenue that my job would often feel like “wading through treacle.” He wasn’t wrong, though he posessed the supreme skill of somehow skating over that treacle and so got things done.
I often think back to that quote. It’s not unfair to say that the civil service is heavily driven (some would say constrained) by bureaucratic and cumbersome processes that, if anything, are designed to contain change rather than enable it. “Governance” is the thing – slow down the ability to do things and certainly the ability to spend money and thus keep everything on an even keel. Of course, all of that governance and process designed to slow the spending of money has not prevented eye watering project failures and associated write-offs.
More recently the move to more agile methods has resulted, in some places and in some ways, those processes being thrown away. More lightweight processes have replaced them with the aim of giving product owners and developers more freedom to get things done.
The trouble is, the new and old processes usually come together at key points – most obviously at the business case sign off stage. There, it’s more like two strips of velcro coming together and interlocking so perfectly that nothing moves – forwards, backwards or sideways.
I recently wrote a standard “5 case” business case for an iterative and highly experimental project (at a relatively low spend – certainly one of the smallest projects I’ve ever worked on, in public or private sector). It’s tough to write such a thing when you’re not sure what the final outcome will be – on the basis you’re running an experiment and will certainly have to change course during the project, and probably several times. It’s also tough to evaluate competing options in such an environment. And yet such documents are part of the rite of passage for a project.
“We must demontrate Value for Money” is the mantra. Technically, you can only do that in the past tense – show what value you have delivered, not show what value you will deliver.
Business cases for such projects can’t be done of course, at least not in the expected supposedly gold standard 5 case way. Efforts have been made to update the templates, but they are still far from adequate where spend certainty increases with the time spent on the project (subject to good management) but scope certainty can remain high throughout.
I fear whilst this is a process that is ripe for, ahem, transformation, it’s not likely to be on the list of processes successfully transformed any time soon.