Are GDS agile?
Or are they digital-by-default?
When it comes to Universal Credit,
it may not be possible to be both.
GDS, the Government Digital Service, are committed to making public services in the UK digital-by-default.
They are committed to achieving this goal by using so-called "agile" methods.
What are agile methods when they're at home?
As noted by the National Audit Office in their report Universal Credit: early progress (p.53), agile methods derive from the admirably short Agile Manifesto published by the Agile Alliance in 2001 and reproduced opposite.
The Agile Alliance acknowledge that their thinking is based on earlier methodologies in software engineering – it wasn't new in 2001 and it certainly isn't new now, 12 years later.
The reader may note en passant that "agile" is just a word. The Agile Alliance could have been called the "Lightweight Alliance", please see opposite, and they could have published the Lightweight Manifesto.
More important, please note the 12 principles that the Agile Alliance distilled from their professional experience in the world of software engineering.
Universal credit to be first service 'digital by default', said the Guardian on 3 February 2012, when Steve Dover was still the director of major programmes at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The article quotes him as follows:
Mr Dover is no longer the director of major programmes at DWP.
The starting point, I said to our telephony collaboration teams based in Newcastle, was just think of a contact centre, but it has got no people in it and think of an operating model that has got no back office, and start from there.
The Cabinet Office's Digital Efficiency Report estimates the savings to be made by introducing digital-by-default. These savings would be made only if 80% or more of public service transactions take place on-line. The report estimates that it could take 11 years to reach that goal. On p.19 the report says:
"Digital-by-default" means empty call centres, unmanned back offices and 40,000 fewer public servants, minimum, all replaced by computer systems.
If the proportion of savings estimated to relate to staff costs ... is applied to the total estimated annual savings and then divided by an average cost per FTE [full-time equivalent, what we used to call a "person"], this amounts to a total FTE savings estimate of at least 40,000. This represents the number of FTEs [people] that could be saved [scrapped] if a shift towards digital transactions right across government were achieved.
This is Tony Blair's deceased transformational government agenda. Dead, but still walking.
Take a look at the principles behind the Agile Manifesto reproduced above. Particularly principle no.6:
"Requirements elicitation" as it's known. The best way for a development team to understand or elicit what is required of them is by "face-to-face conversation".
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
As keen followers of agile methods, GDS may be expected to adhere to that principle. They will not rely on documentation printed on paper or displayed in browsers, they will not rely on emails or texts or instant messages or phone calls or memos. Face-to-face conversation. That's what works.
We can think of other scenarios where face-to-face conversation works best. Teaching children in class, for example, and diagnosing a medical problem.
Let's call this class of requirements elicitation scenarios "Class H", where the "H" stands for "human".
And let's distinguish Class H requirements elicitation from Class D, "digital".
Amazon doesn't need a teacher or a doctor to find out which book you want to buy. That simple piece of requirements elicitation can be accomplished digitally. Buying a book on Amazon is in Class D. You want to buy a heated towel rail on eBay? Ditto. Class D. You want to hire a car at Catania airport for five days beginning 12 December 2013? Class D. Etc ...
Now suppose that you don't want to buy a book or hire a car, instead you want to register for Jobseeker's Allowance or any of the six state benefits that Universal Credit is meant to replace. DWP need to elicit your requirements. Is that a Class H or a Class D requirements elicitation?
The answer isn't obvious. We need an intelligent argument based on facts to convince us that registration for state benefits could be achieved exclusively digitally.
GDS simply assume that registering for state benefits is comparable to buying a book on Amazon – they haven't provided any argument to support digital-by-default in this case.
And in the absence of any such argument, it is imprudent – to put it mildly – simply to assume that registration could be digital by default. If we look at the evidence, we may find that the Agile Manifesto is right and that, in this case, "the most efficient and effective method of conveying information ... is face-to-face conversation".
Are GDS agile? Or are they digital-by-default? When it comes to Universal Credit, it may not be possible to be both.
Should G-Cloud and the GDS be taken seriously as contenders to run Universal Credit?
Among the offenders are those who trumpet "digital by default" as the "answer", without considering the question.