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New National Audit Office Report on Agile in the UK Government – Blog Part I

September 30, 2012

New National Audit Office Report on Agile in the UK Government – Blog Part I

The old headquarters of Imperial Airways in Buckingham Palace Road used to be the hub for air travel for the London elite.  In its early days, one was whisked away on a sea plane from the river Thames, and flew to Southampton to board a luxury P&O steamer to travel to other major cities such as New York, and to exotic destinations in the Orient.  Of course, the butler would have gone ahead on a train from nearby Victoria station with the heavy baggage and would have all one’s clothes ironed, and hanging in the port side cabin ready for departure.

Glamorous tea dances used to be held in the basement of the Imperial Airways building. Refreshments were consumed mainly in the form of bracing ‘salty-dog’ and martini cocktails whilst passengers waited for their flights.

How things have changed. The National Audit Office (NAO) has moved in from its old, grimy ‘good enough for public servants’ accommodation into the building, now refurbished with a no-nonsense ‘fit for purpose’ office environment, complete with bright lighting, hot desks for flexible working, modern IT, and video conferencing facilities. That basement ballroom is now a modern staff gymnasium and exercise studio.

The NAO have ‘refurbished’ their ICT skills as well as their offices. Internal expertise has been strengthened recently, and now there is now a reduced reliance on external skills for audits of information systems projects.[i]

Part of this capacity building has been in developing an approach to auditing government technology projects that are claiming to be ‘agile’ in approach.

Earlier this year we saw the NAO ICT and Systems Analysis Team publish a report describing how the private sector is using ‘agile project management’ to deliver projects in a more incremental manner, and at lower cost and risk. The report was entitled “Governance for Agile delivery”, and was intended to:

provide practical support to organizations to meet government policy objectives to use Agile delivery to improve public services, including making more of them digital.” [ii]

And now the same team has issued a second report, focused this time on providing a ‘snapshot’ of the use of Agile Project Management in the 17 central UK Government departments.[iii]  The report is expressly NOT intended to analyze the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of these efforts – such ‘Value for Money’ (VFM) reports from the NAO are larger, usually focusing on one department or project. The new report aims to identify elements of agile practices that are being used in central government departments, rather than analyze VFM.  This is just a warm-up for analytical VFM reports on Government technology projects which will, undoubtedly, follow in due course.  Some of these projects will be using (or at least claiming to be using) agile project management.  There will still be many major government projects which continue to use non-agile, traditional project management approaches with varying degrees of success.

The new NAO report lays out five “characteristics for agile delivery” which Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) on government projects will be increasingly expected to consider when setting -up projects.  The report breaks down these five characteristics into lists of typical agile “behaviors and actions”.[iv] These are based on what the NAO team observed in some existing agile projects in government that they inspected. These checklists will be an important input into the NAO’s future consideration in evaluating successes and failures in government technology projects.

In upcoming blogs this week I will be reviewing this NAO report in more detail.  I will show why the criteria identified in this NAO report are relevant to you, and your projects whether you plan to use an ‘agile’ or a ‘traditional’ approach to project management.  I will place the report into the wider context of the UK Government’s IT strategy. I will explain why looking just at these central ‘Whitehall’ departments is not enough, and why the NAO now needs to look at other delivery agencies that play a major role in critical public services.

Is your project ready for assessment against these NAO criteria for agile success? Read on here…

Comment below…


[i] UK NAO, “NAO Annual report 2012,” London, 2012, 18, http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/1213/annual_report_2012.aspx

[ii] UK NAO, “Governance for Agile delivery,” London, 2012, 5, http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/1213/governance_for_agile_delivery.aspx

[iii] “A snapshot of the Government’s ICT profession in 2011,” UK NAO, 2011, http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/1012/government_ict_profession.aspx

[iv] ibid., 49–50.

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