Agile already a failure in public sector?

The DWP has ceased all agile software development work for the Universal Credit (UC) programme. This is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. Warning bells should have been clamouring loudly when it was announced by the Major Projects Authority that “conventional contracts with large suppliers” were in effect. Yet, In July 2011, we were told that addenda had been written to the contracts in place favouring an Agile approach, and “incentivising velocity”.

Failure was, in fact predicted, back in April of 2011 by IT lawyer Alistair Maughan, who argued that:
1. Under Agile projects… you can’t guarantee a specified outcome for a specific price
2. Government is legally required to follow open procurement rules.
3. Agile offers insufficient means of remedy if things go wrong
4. Agile is not suited to public sector management structures

Maughan concluded: “You can have an ICT project with a watertight contract, clear deliverables, openly and legally procured, with a fixed price and appropriate remedies if you don’t get what you want. Or you can have an Agile project. You can’t have both.”

I disagree. Here’s my take on those four factors :

1. Agile does not necessarily mean you don’t have a fixed scope. It is perfectly reasonable to fix high-level requirements and guarantee delivery of the essential elements of those high-level requirements, while retaining flexibility in the details through prioritisation and in the solution. This creates the contingency needed.
2. I don’t see why procurement should be an issue if the tender process specifies high-level requirements and requires those tendering to estimate their delivery dates and costs. If the delivery date is fixed in the contract, with contingency in the features also guaranteed, then I can’t see a problem. But then, I don’t fully understand the procurement rules.
3. There are other ways of constructing an agile contract than just fixed-scope or time-and-materials, as Susan Atkinson is aware. I suspect that the problem lay at least partly with the fact that the ‘agile nature’ of the contracts was contained only within an addendum, which may have been at odds with the main part of the contract. It would be interesting to see them.
4. No, Agile is not suited to public sector management structures, but did the consultants involved really neglect to mention this to the DWP? Or did they simply “Keep Calm and Carry On”, ignoring the obvious flaw in the plan? What, I wonder, was the nature of the contract for their consultancy.

Agile (or a flavour thereof) can and does scale. IF you do it in a disciplined and well-controlled fashion, as SITA (Sociéete Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques) are doing with their 5 year, $155m programme, and their contracts were essentially time-and-materials. I am not suggesting that the approach SITA have adopted is the only one, but the balance between central management, governance and control on the one hand, and distributed, empowered iterative delivery on the other are clearly key factors in making Agile work at this sort of scale.

I sincerely hope that other government departments learn that a) a £2 Bn programme is not the place to pilot a completely new delivery philosophy, and b) Agile at Scale does work, but it does require certain pre-requisites.

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About aterny

Agile enthusiast and evangelist, DSDM practitioner, trainer and coach. Specialist in Agile project and programme management, governance and organisational transformation
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One Response to Agile already a failure in public sector?

  1. Pingback: Back to blogging… | THE BEARDED TESTER

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