Wednesday 27 June 2012

The agility with which Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake are being parted from our money

Leafing through Computer Weekly the other day as no doubt we all were revealed this article by Mark Ballard, Soldiers nail data for agile offensive on $6bn cock-up:
... the effort is part of an emergency reform of IT projects using agile methods, on orders issued by the Department [of] Defense last year after 11 major computer systems went $6bn over budget and 31 years behind schedule.
$6 billion over budget? 31 years behind schedule? So it doesn't just happen in the UK:
The IPPS system was started in 2010 as a clean slate on another spoiled clean slate. It replaced the DoD's previous attempt at an ERP pay system, the Defense Integrated Military Human Resource System, after 12 years work that had cost $1bn. HR system Contractor Northr[o]p Grumman, the fifth largest US defence contractor, was kept on to develop IPPS.
"IPPS" is the US Army's Integrated Personnel and Pay System – you didn't want to know that – and "ERP" is Enterprise Resource Planning, which is an earlier software engineering philosophy which was going to solve all our problems.

Earlier than "agile methods". Agile methods are the latest cure-all. You'd think after a while the gullible would stop falling for cure-alls and that they would notice that the same suppliers hang on year in year out, but no.

What went wrong with the ERP approach to paying the army? It's highly technical, of course, but readers should not be patronised by having the difficulties hidden from them:
"For this approach to work, the first increment is focused on the creation of authoritative data," a US Army spokeswoman told Computer Weekly.

"Subsequent increments will field applications utilising the authoritative data," she said.

Auditors had blamed data problems for wrecking the US military's ambitious plan to rip out pay and logistics systems and replace them with all-encompassing Enterprise Resource Planning systems by vendors such as Oracle and SAP. But with hundreds of different systems being merged, nobody had ensured their data would be compatible.
This won't have occurred to you but apparently, it has been discovered, recent high-level research suggests, if the data is wrong or not "authoritative" that can have an adverse effect on the system. Also, while several billion dollars were changing hands, no-one seems to have noticed that different systems store data in different ways that are not what we software engineers call "compatible".

If only we'd known before.

Actually, we did. Chris Chant told us. Remember his unchallenged 23-point list of what's wrong with UK government IT? Point #19 was "Government should use small and medium size suppliers whose IT practices are more 'agile' but instead they stick with the big ponderous suppliers".

"Agile" is the solution to the problems of ERP, which was the solution to the problems of structured systems design, which was the solution to the problems of the rhythm method.

And what does "agile" mean? What do agile software engineering methods look like?

Ask GDS, the Government Digital Service. They're the IT frontiersmen at the Cabinet Office having praise heaped on them by Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake. They're going to transform government and deliver more for less following the digital by default precepts of Martha Lane Fox.

Let Mike Beaven of GDS explain what it's like to be Riding the Paradigm – where agile meets programme:
There are challenges to running an agile approach to delivery inside a larger organisation where agile is not yet fully understood. We are frequently asked how we approach these challenges and manage them here at GDS ...

... i[n] terms of Cabinet Office and GDS ... we have a pretty established and successful agile software delivery engine. Whilst it is relatively new it has become a firmly established way of working beyond the core delivery teams, and lean/agile methods are used across GDS in a variety of teams ...

The base premise here has been to make the programme processes lighter and more agile, let the project management office take the load from delivery managers but still be in control of our agile delivery streams in terms of money, risk and delivery expectations.

We have made some good progress in terms of the way new work is initiated, assessed and sized up ready for progress onto delivery ...

We are still learning in terms of how we manage the in-flight delivery work and get a view on risks without disrupting the flow of delivery ...

Our main learning so far:
  • You need different methods for different areas of managing delivery – one size does not fit all.
  • Backing to implement programme techniques into agile teams – trust is key and talking with delivery managers beats a written report.
  • Control areas like risk, people allocation and spend control centrally – let one team do the worrying.
For the time being though we will be on that paradigm.
The encounter group facilitator in you will want to thank Mike for that contribution but there's still a niggling sense, isn't there, that it's not clear how the troops are going to be paid, or whatever.

What, for example, explains the enormous pride with which ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken writes, in Digital a key component for Civil Service Reform Plan:
The Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude today [19 June 2012] launched the Civil Service Reform Plan and we were glad to welcome him and Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service, to GDS this morning in advance of the announcement. You can see them chatting to GDS staff Alice Newton and Jordan Hatch in the video below.

I am very heartened to see that Digital by Default is a core theme running through the Civil Service Reform plan [otherwise I wouldn't have a job] with the explicit acceptance by the Minister that “central government wherever possible must become a digital organisation. These days the best service organisations deliver online everything that can be delivered online. This cuts their costs dramatically and allows access to information and services at times and in ways convenient to the users rather than the providers” ...

So it’s a good day for digital in government and I look forward to taking part in the debates that will follow. The Minister and Sir Bob Kerslake will be back in GDS this Thursday 21 June from 4.00 to 5.00, to take part in a Facebook discussion so Civil Servants can give feedback directly on the plan. You can take part on the Civil Service Facebook page and you can ask Sir Bob Kerslake questions directly on Twitter by tweeting him (@sirbobkerslake) using the hashtag #asksirbob ...
All well and good, Mike, but suppose we have to tweet @sirbobkerslake using the hashtag #tellsirbob? What do we tell him? How do agile methods help?

For the answer to that, we have to turn to Chris Heathcote, one of the stakhanovites toiling away in the GDS boiler room, whose blog post The speed of change at last casts light on the matter. There he treats us to the hero's tale of how he went over the top and responded to a tweet about when the clocks change.

Not only did one Caspar Aremi feel that the government website devoted to this matter should show the columns as rows and the rows as columns but he even found the time in his busy schedule to tweet about it. And Mr Heathcote rose to the occasion. Scary stuff. But that's not all – the crucial point is that, presumably because he had nothing better to do, he did it the same day as receiving the tweet. Agile, or what.

Therein lies ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken's pride – at the accomplishment of one of his staff who can respond quickly to a footling request.

And therein lies the confidence that Francis Maude's future and Sir Bob Kerslake's, and our tax money, are all in good hands. "Agile" means sleeping easy of a night, one size does not fit all, trust is key, let the GDS team do the worrying. And the spending.


Mr Heathcote's claim to have demonstrated the true benefits of agile methods is attracting a certain amount of contumely. "One change, one day thanks to Agile? I feel sorry for whoever is in charge when real music starts to play!", says Andres Crespo. Quite. On that day, maybe the US military will give Messrs Bracken, Beaven and Heathcote a job. And Bob Kamall and Paul Downey.

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