The voice of Australian public sector ICT sentiment supporting the use of agile development methods appears to be growing louder daily, with a number of personnel in the Federal Department of Finance becoming public advocates, joining other public sector CIOs including Andrew Mills and Chris Robson in supporting the move away from long duration, high risk and high cost approaches to developing IT solutions.
For some time, a number of public sector CIOs, including Andrew Mills, the Queensland Whole of Government CIO and various senior executives across NSW government, have been supportive of the notion that Government agencies should not embark on big ICT projects due to their high risk of failure, their high cost and their inability to meet user requirements. Most of these problems are sheeted home to the traditional waterfall methodology used for such projects.
Agile methods are based on incremental and iterative development with projects evolving through discovery and partnership between the different groups working on the project. In contrast, a traditional waterfall approach involves an extensive business case and a stringent, often inflexible, statement of requirements that does not keep pace with the evolving needs of the agency.
Offshore, there is strong recognition of the value of the use of agile methodologies by governments. Two years ago, the US’s Government Accountability Office published a report entitled ‘Effective Practices and Federal Challenges in Applying Agile Methods’ and the UK Government’s, Government Service Design Manual was provided to assist content managers, service designers, developers and others involved in service delivery advocate agile methods.
Brooks' law: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later” is at the heart of the attractiveness of agile approaches.
Computer scientist, John Naughton wrote a persuasive article in The Guardian in 2013 regarding big ICT projects and their high risk of failure. According to Naughton, Fred Brooks, computer scientist and author of The Mythical Man Month, came to the “realisation that man-months are a hopeless metric for assessing the size of a complex software project… because a big software project involves two kinds of work: the actual writing of computer code; and co-ordinating the work of the dozens – or maybe hundreds – of programmers working on different parts of the overall system. Co-ordination represents an essential but unproductive overhead – hence Brooks’ law.”
“Moving to agile has required higher touch with the end user which is always a good thing and it’s also enabled us to better appreciate what’s the minimal workable solution, how can we build from there, what’s really important,” Chris Robson, the Chief Information Officer at the NSW Police Force told Intermedium.
“In a traditional waterfall model, we send a business analyst off to one of their internal customers and all they could do was to translate an initial set of vague aspirations into a long list of unreasonable demands. The reality is even if we fulfil those demands, that’s challenging, and inevitably the finished product seems to be lacking other key functional needs,” Robson observed.
“We’ve started using agile methods with some of our application delivery and it seems to be able to contain delivery within time and budget. At a micro level it forces prioritisation of requirements.”
“We’ve been doing some work over the last years on improving data exchange between ourselves and another agency in our cluster, the Courts and Tribunal Services. This project started off waterfall and we realised that we weren’t going to hit all the points we needed to hit within time and budget if we continued with that approach.”
“We had to take the users through the transition to agile including persuading them that we were not trying to con them out of functionality by adopting an agile approach. It’s been quite successful, it’s led to more iterative release methods, rather than one main bale of adjourned applications,” said Robson.
Chris Dale, Assistant Secretary of the Government Network Services Branch in the Department of Finance, argued for more agile development models during his CeBIT 2014 opening speech.
“Agencies should be adopting agile rather than waterfall approaches…[leveraging] shared infrastructure such as MyGov for citizen authentication…[and looking] at how they can collaborate across government to achieve better outcomes”.
Finance’s Sharyn Clarkson wrote in a recent blog post that the Online Services Branch uses agile methodology to work on Australia.gov.au, data.gov.au, the Australian Government Directory (GOLD) and other products. “We had stovepipes of knowledge, we were at risk when people left for a new job, took leave or were sick and we often couldn’t muster the resources to make improvements to products unless we had a funded waterfall project.”
“With AGILE the team can now focus on a single product in a short development sprint (at the moment we use 3 week sprints)… We also have a faster release cycle with more work being included each release. Furthermore, the individuals in the team retain their existing expertise but now also broaden their skills and are experienced across a number of products.”
“Seeing that a good idea can go from being suggested, the idea tested with users, designed, implemented and released live on the site in only a matter of weeks is both satisfying and addictive,” according to Clarkson.
Also from within Finance, AGIMO’s Big Data Strategy advocates that agencies “start small and consider bridging approaches” with a focus on “a culture of experimentation, adopting lean and agile methodologies to explore and deliver solutions”.
“Because projects can be complex and lead to uncertain results their success can often hinge on discovery and the exploitation of opportunities that emerge, it is important that agencies…explore the use of methodologies such as ‘Lean Startup’ and ‘Agile’ that may be more suited to analytics projects over traditional ‘waterfall’ methodologies,” says the Strategy.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has looked to agile development to do its best with limited resources.
“A key focus has been on partnerships between TSD [Technology Services Division] and business areas and with the 2017 Program team to prioritise the ICT work program within tight fiscal constraints…Together with training in Agile methods, this will facilitate improvements in the design and delivery of enterprise technology solutions,” states the ABS’ 2012-13 Annual Report.
Emily Webber of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) writes about building up an agile portfolio management framework after her team ballooned from twelve people to 300 over the course of one and half years.
Perhaps the strongest signal for future government attitudes to agile methodologies is emerging from Victoria, the home of a series of major failed ICT projects.
While falling short of articulating a preference for agile development, the Victorian Government’s 2014-15 ICT Strategy’s fourth guiding principle is: Large ICT-enabled projects will be staged and focused on managing risks and delivering business benefits earlier. It states that ‘large projects will be broken into smaller, more manageable stages to improve delivery timelines and reduce the risk of project failure’.