March 9, 2009

Strange Bedfellows


A recent headline in the London Times screamed "£18 billion scandal as Whitehall's IT plans spin out of control" in a story about some of the UK government's failed IT projects. The following day George Osborne, the opposition chancellor (the guy who shadows the incumbent head of the country's finances), responded to the story with his solution.

That solution? Government IT projects should use agile development methods and open source software. His reasoning? Free software and less ambitious functionality will reduce costs and timescales.

Mr. Osborne's views make good sense, broadly. He advocates moving away from bloated funcitonal requirements; breaking projects into smaller chunks that can be delivered by collaborating suppliers then bolted together at the end; and, levelling the playing field so that smaller players can enter the procurement process.

In fact, this sounds like the kind of arrangement that most private sector technology companies undertake all the time. And we've come across many examples of this at past Perforce User Conferences.

As a UK tax payer, I'd love for this to be a workable solution. And I'm sure Mr. Osborne would love it too.

Getting IT projects done with agile methods could result in delivery well within the 4- and 5-year terms that UK Members of Parliament serve between elections. Just imagine the political capital of being able to point to a string of successfully-delivered IT projects in time for a future election!

But, as I pointed out in a recent posting on the subject, agile development only succeeds where the right culture is in place. And that would require a wholesale dismantling of the risk-averse culture that pervades most of the civil service and drives all IT projects into the arms of the larger suppliers that can afford good lawyers that produce water-tight contracts.

And what of agility? Fuggedaboutit! Once the wrangling over the contract is agreed, agility will be a distant memory as flexibility could equate to open-ended contracts (and costs). Free software licenses, then? As a proportion of the total cost, the license costs won't make much difference once the supplier's costs of sale, development expenses and profits are paid out.

Mr. Osborne's arguments are all too familiar to those of us who are trying to make a real, practical difference to the businesses that we work with but have to contend with well-meaning, but ill-informed colleagues trying to promote their vision of the future to the IT decision makers.

Politicians are past masters at offering jam tomorrow. Done correctly, agile development offers both jam tomorrow and, crucially, jam today - or at least, soon!