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Applying discipline to agile techniques to fix the flaws in UK government IT

The recent 'System Error - Fixing the flaws in government IT' report from the UK Institute for Government (IfG) recommends that government teams adopt agile approaches and common platforms to deliver IT faster and cheaper.

Dan Rossner, PA Consulting Group's agile IT expert supports these recommendations. However, to ensure that agile projects deliver successfully we believe it is important to recognise that agile projects must be run in a disciplined manner. Many teams misinterpret agile guidance as meaning that much of the formality of previous “plan-driven” approaches is unnecessary. This is a mistake. Successful agile delivery of IT must maintain appropriate project discipline and planning if the benefits of quicker time to market, reduced cost, lower risk and greater flexibility are to be attained.

To achieve the best outcomes we believe that public sector organisations should undertake a staged transition to agile approaches, maintaining core project management practices. Public funds are protected by mechanisms such as risk-based project stage gates. These disciplines should be retained in agile projects to secure supplier accountability and avoid regression towards ad-hoc approaches to public sector IT projects.

The IfG report correctly identifies that agility is enabled and supported through common platforms. We believe that achieving cost-effective IT delivery will require more hands-on involvement with the development of IT solutions. Typically, government IT programmes use outcome-based requirements to avoid constraining supplier solutions. All too frequently, differences emerge in solution capability versus customer expectation as a result of under-developed requirements and design elaboration. Closer management is required to enable a more agile approach. Greater customer engagement and review of iterative deliverables can help to close the gap between customer expectation and technology capabilities, driving cost-effective and timely delivery.

The most successful agile teams will be those that take the time to understand what a disciplined agile process looks like and combine discipline and flexibility to provide an approach that is transparent, reliable and nimble. The productivity prize for agile approaches is there for government IT to seize, however the risks and corresponding controls must also be recognised.

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