Friday, March 04, 2011

A Twin-Track Approach to Government IT

#ukgovit @instituteforgov has just published a report called System Error: Fixing the Flaws in Government IT.

The report recommends a twin-track approach to government IT, based on the two concepts of Agile and Platform.

"The platform must standardise and simplify core elements of government IT. For any elements of IT outside the platform, new opportunities should be explored using agile principles. These twin approaches should be mutually reinforcing: the platform frees up resource to focus on new opportunities while successful agile innovations are rapidly scaled up when incorporated into the platform."

The report acknowledges the tension between these two concepts ...

"Treating items as commodities reduces cost but can limit flexibility; coordinating elements of IT across departments frees up resources but may move them further from frontline users; common standards support interoperability but also restrict the freedoms to innovate."
... and offers some general ideas for managing this tension.
  • To act fully in the interests of government, an agile approach requires a light touch form of coordination at a system level. 
  • To minimise duplication of effort in solving the same problems, there needs to be system-wide transparency of agile initiatives. 
  • Existing elements of the platform also need periodic challenge. ... Transparency, publishing feedback and the results of experiments openly, will help to keep the pressure on the platform for continual improvement as well as short-term cost savings.
Trouble is, some of this stuff is really hard. The report talks glibly about "a less than intelligent customer", referring first to business users having an inadequate conception of the possible, and then to the public sector as a whole lacking the collective knowledge and skills to negotiate effectively with suppliers. This lack of intelligence is apparently blamed on the V-model development process, which creates the impression that the adoption of Agile methods would solve this problem. But the idea of Agile as a silver bullet is a dangerous one, as many people have already pointed out on the Linked-In discussion group.

One way of understanding the twin track approach is to think of the different kinds of economics involved.
  • 'Platform' means delivering economies of scale and economics of scope.
  • 'Agile' means delivering economies of alignment.

Combining the two introduces some complex architectural challenges, as I've written about here and elsewhere before. We call this Asymmetric Design. For an example of this approach applied to public sector IT, see an analysis of the CSA Case by Philip Boxer and myself. See also The Impact of Governance Approaches on SoS Environments (pdf) by Philip Boxer and others.

In the current economic situation, the public sector as a whole is charged with making massive cost savings, and it is crazy to imagine that cost savings of this scale would not be associated with significant structural change, including IT systems. This kind of disruptive innovation goes way beyond the economies of scale and scope, and introduces some serious questions about the economics of alignment.

The word "architecture" is mentioned a few times in the Institute for Government report, but only in passing as something that the Government CIO will look after. (Mostly technology or solution architecture, I only found one single reference to business architecture.) So there is an implicit idea of central thinking and hierarchical governance. But there are some architectural challenges here that are some way beyond the current practices of enterprise architecture.

Governance is also a significant problem. The report comments on the pendulum swings between centralized and decentralized provision, which is something we noted in the CSA case, and was also present in the case of ContactPoint (which we were in the middle of writing up when it was cancelled). Such pendulum swings are often a characteristic symptom of weak or unsustained governance.

Not only is this stuff structurally complicated, but there are some commercial stakeholders that have every incentive to maintain the complicated status quo, thanks to a grossly dysfunctional procurement process.

And there is an even bigger problem with the report, which is that it looks at government IT exclusively from within government - in other words, from the perspective of civil servants. For example, the report adopts a supply-side notion of "joined-up government", understood largely in terms of internal linkages and efficiencies between systems, and fails to mention the demand-side notion of "joined-up government" that involves a coherent experience for the citizen. (See my post on Joined-Up Government from December 2005.)

Meanwhile the notion of "user" appears to refer mainly to civil servants and other public sector workers. Surely the purpose of government IT is not to provide direct value to civil servants but to provide various forms of indirect value to individual citizens and socioeconomic communities.

The report regrets that "government IT [is] falling further and further behind the fast-paced and exciting technological environment that citizens interact with daily" and indicates "the potential for IT ... fundamentally changing the relationship between citizen and state". "Around the world governments are using technology to help them deliver better services, be more transparent and accountable, and connect more directly with their citizens." (Examples are cited from Canada, USA and Malaysia.)

And yet the report fails to explain how "agile" can adequately represent the demand side requirements of citizens, interacting with a broad range of government services while going about their public business. There is a completely different notion of "platform" required here - government as a platform, which Tim O'Reilly and others have been talking about for a couple of years. And a different notion of agility, which goes a lot further than agile software development.

Other commentary

See Linked-In discussion group

Harry Metcalfe (2 March 2011) observed that many of the recommendations in the report were really hard, and was one of the first to complain about the insufficient attention to procurement in the report.

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