A more agile democracy

21 August 2011

More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition arguing that convicted London rioters should lose all benefits. This provided an opportunity to evaluate whether a new form of ICT development called agile can be made to work in government.

This latest form of democratic engagement was enabled by the Government’s new e-petitions website which went live 2 weeks ago. This democratic innovation allows any member of the public to create a new petition or support an existing petition for debate in the House of Commons. The site has enabled the public to call for debate on important social and economic issues ranging from petrol prices to capital punishment to an EU referendum.

It’s not the first time this government has pro-actively sought the views and opinions of the general public. The coalition has, arguably, gone further than any other government in its attempts to engage people with consultation exercises including the Spending Challenge and the Red Tape Challenge.

But the recent riots provided an opportunity to see whether the new technology could hold up to an unprecedented level of activity. At peak, the site attracted over 12,000 hits per minute. Mark O’Neill, Head of HM Government’s Skunkworks, helps to put this figure into context, by explaining that it is the same number of visits that would be expected from the entire Directgov. The e-petitions site has had over 2 million visitors since launch, over 12 million page views, 12,000 petitions raised, and 700,000 signatures collected. The first petition hit 100,000 signatures in 5 days.

As impressive as these stats are, the hidden story is how a new method of ICT development called ‘agile’ is being exploited in government. At its most basic level, agile techniques are about projects becoming much more flexible, innovative and responsive to change. Development is modular and iterative, based on user involvement and feedback. In our recent report System Error, we outlined how an agile approach can be used to improve the way government uses ICT. By using an agile approach, the Government commissioned the e-petitions project for around £60k and it was completed in 6 weeks.

For too long, government ICT projects have over promised and under delivered. By adopting a more flexible and agile approach, government can exploit the opportunities technology has to offer. The e-petitions site is just a small example of this new way of working in action.

The Government ICT strategy, published earlier this year, committed every government department to trialing at least one agile project over the next 12 months. These are all likely to be small scale, along the lines of the e-petition project (although as this example shows small scale doesn’t necessarily mean small impact).

The real challenge for government will be whether they can apply the same approach to some of the really big ICT challenges such as Universal Credit where billions rather than millions of pounds are on the line.

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Comments (6)

  1. Chris Puttick on 22 August 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Agile development is not new, even slightly, which is maybe part of the reason government now feels able to adopt it; one early form of agile development was known as XP (eXtreme Programming) was so popular by the early 2000s Microsoft borrowed the name for a generation of its main profits generators.

    A major reason the site could be up so fast and scale so well is the use of open source technology in its foundations; relatively little needed to be coded as much code could just be reused from other projects.

  2. Frudac on 22 August 2011 at 10:19 pm

    As the comment above says…agile is nothing new at all. Government’s IT suppliers will have been developing in this way for donkey’s years. And agile has been much discussed in the world
    of public sector project management for just as long.

    This blog makes government sound more antiquated and out of touch than it really is.

    Surely the real story here is the appeal to lowest-common-denominator democracy informed by pathological hysteria?!

  3. Dot Tudor on 16 September 2011 at 11:00 am

    I think the comments above miss an important point in Jerrett’s text. Most interesting to me is the fact that the government is now so much more willing to consult with the people. This heralds a growing cultural change in society as well as business – much more collaborative, much more Agile. Yes, Agile has been around for over a decade, but maybe now, more than ever, is the time for its general acceptance. As Victor Hugo said, “You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”

  4. Peter Measey on 16 September 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Great stuff, there are now real signs that the UK goverment will move towards more agile delivery. I totally agree with Dot’s comments above, agile has been around a long time, however, it is only now that the profile of agile has been so high in UK government, agile’s time has come. Let’s all hope that agile gains more penetration in government, as a taxpayer I certainly like the idea of getting better products faster and cheaper.

  5. Dave Marshall on 28 September 2011 at 12:26 pm

    I hope with all my heart that the government start to use agile delivery techniques, and indeed start to think about the real principles of agile in so much more than “just” application development.

    Small teams of smart, adaptable and committed people working together to create value with minimal bureaucratic constraints and clear focus….hardly describes the people I’ve met in Government.

    So many of our government functions have happily embraced the huge outsourcing contracts where they spend months defining requirements, package it into work units and then several years later something comes back (late and overpriced). The challenge with agile is that it is so counter intuitive to almost everything the career civil servant has had drilled into him it will require truly brave, smart and visionary leadership to change – again something that is hardly over abundant in the current Government functions.

    So what we will get will be a load of smoke and mirrors and proclamation of agile with lots of talks of process and frameworks and methods….

    …its probably a fair observation that one of the few genuinely smart agile delivery organisation that has global reach – Thoughtworks – has not exactly rushed to try and build its reputation in Government. Why – because they’re smart and agile!

    Dave

  6. Jon Hyde on 29 September 2011 at 9:49 am

    Hi Jerett,

    I’d like to congratulate the team behind the new website, and in particular the senior managers who were brave enough to authorise an agile approach. I’ve been trying to introduce agile by stealth into local government for about 3 years now. It is very difficult. Changing the organisational culture of the public sector to embrace agile is like trying to turn an oil tanker.

    But one step at a time… we’ll get there.

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