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

October 21, 2012

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

What is interesting in the recent NAO report on Agile in the UK government is not what is in it, but what is missing. [1]  A bit like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that didn’t bark in the night, the omissions are more interesting than the statements of fact.

These omissions are fourfold:

First: only two organizations (Ordnance Survey and Government Digital Service) have experience to share in all five of the key ‘Areas of Agile’ that the NAO identify:

  1. Citizens and business at the heart of delivery
  2. Service or business change is delivered quickly and continuously improved
  3. Full service is built from small, independently usable releases
  4. Team is responsible for making decisions rapidly
  5. Team continually redirects resources to maximize the value it delivers

Second: only 10 central government organizations are identified that have any significant experience to share. What about the other 400+ bodies listed in the Whole of Government accounts, (the only definitive list of UK government bodies)?

Third: of these ten organizations, only four are central government departments:

  1. Department for Transport and its Agencies
  2. Department of Energy and Climate Change
  3. Department of Health
  4. Government Digital Service (as part of the Cabinet Office)

What about the other 13 departments?

Finally, fourth: the NAO found no specific targets for Agile adoption across central government, and no mechanisms for measuring or evaluating success.

The report, interestingly, but some might say inconclusively, gathers together the ideas of Agile into a post-modern ‘word-cloud’ (see below):

It then categorizes the comments received into 10 key aspects that interviewees noted as significant. These are presented as a stream of unrelated points, but, to me anyway, they divide into three main types:

First: the catalysts for Agile. For example, the need to make significant savings, or the encouragement by the Government ICT Strategy to run pilot Agile projects. The NAO note that the impetus to use Agile was often ‘bottom-up’, from programmers, rather than from senior management, and that Agile coaches and developers were crucial, as was the involvement of SMEs rather than large suppliers.

Second: the barriers encountered, which were mainly cultural. Large projects were seen as too difficult for Agile methods, but the use of Agile in 50% of all large, mission-critical programs is a target for April next year (2013). The difficulty of incremental release (say weekly, or even monthly) into operational use was also perceived as a barrier. This is especially relevant at DWP (pensions and benefits) and HMRC (personal and corporate taxes) where large mainframe system changes are typically on a half-yearly basis, or, at best, quarterly. Inter-departmental working was also considered a barrier to Agile – although many might argue that this is exactly where multi-disciplinary teams could have a real impact in knocking down silos between services…

Third: the outcome. Once people had used an Agile method, they rarely wanted to go back to old ways of working. There was no particular consensus as to which Agile method was best – indeed, was there a general feeling that any attemp to identify one as ‘better’ than another would not be productive.

So, what is the conclusion of the report, and what does the future hold for Agile in government? Read on here…

Comment below…

[1] “A snapshot of the Government’s ICT profession in 2011,” UK NAO, 2011,


From → Agile Governance

  1. Brian,

    You asked that I leave a comment re Agile in Government.

    As I see it and experience it, there is an inherent clash of culture between what Agile hopes to achieve and the civil service. As a collective of organisations, the Civil Service does procedure. It does not do initiative (though it claims it does). Nor does it do responsibility for failure (try checking hansard for answers to parliamentary questions regarding the number of civil servants sacked – without pension for incompetence. The result is a statistical anomaly that would not stand up to to much scrutiny).

    It seems to me that if and when Government adopts agile, it will tend towards “robotisation”, following procedure for procedures sake, eventually….

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