The public sector has long been affected by projects that have cost the taxpayer millions, and in some cases, billions in failed delivery.

A project to digitise the NHS patient records system was eventually abandoned at a cost of over £10bn, with MPs on the public accounts committee citing systematic failure in the government’s ability to manage large IT projects. It went on to say, “this saga is one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector”.

A report by the National Audit Office estimated that in 2012 at least £480bn of the government’s operating revenues and at least £210bn of non-staff expenditure such as pensions and entitlements were reliant to some extent on older IT systems. Those systems would need to be replaced at some point but the high risk of failure and associated costs would likely encourage some to stretch out the capabilities of those older systems for as long as possible, probably longer than they should.

It’s little wonder that there was suspicion and mistrust in the abilities of the government and its suppliers to successfully deliver projects. Much needed to be done to right the wrongs of the past and implement changes that would improve project success rates and services in the future.

Digital Services Review

While these projects were failing, a review of the government’s digital services was underway. A review was published and submitted, recommending that the government switch to a service culture, putting the needs of its citizens first, empowering them and making their lives simpler.

Agile Revolution First Steps

In 2010, the wheels were set in motion for the government’s Agile revolution. The first steps were made towards setting up the initial Government Digital Service (GDS) team. This was a huge step forward for the government and us, the consumers of its services. This new digital delivery team would become responsible for transforming digital services across government, making information more accessible and creating a one-stop-shop for government digital services. No easy task!

During 2011 the GDS team was fully established and quickly started to share its approaches and experiences with Agile openly as it iterated through alpha and beta phases, trying out new techniques and approaches. In this same year, as confidence grew in the team’s ability to deliver, funding was announced for the project that would become Verify.

In sharing its experiences, GDS was demonstrating the benefits of communicating openly and sharing what it learned. Not everything was a success but lessons were learned and other organisations were able to benefit from those lessons, able to avoid the same pitfalls in their own projects.

Digital by Default

By 2012, the government had announced its plan to move to a “digital by default” approach to all of its transactional services by 2015. In October that year, following many iterations and implementing much user feedback, the first stage in the plan was achieved as the new Gov.UK website was launched.

2013 saw the announcement of the Transformation Programme, a 2-year project to update 25 of the largest transactional services in government, which it referred to as its exemplar projects. These transformations would include services relating to such things as benefits, crime, driving licences, road tax, passports and visas. As an example, we’d be able to apply for an updated driving licence, the system would speak to the DVLA to verify our details and the new licence would be issued. The new digitised process would take minutes to complete online rather than weeks through the old paper and post process.

Small Business Procurement

In 2014, the government’s digital supply chain, through procurement frameworks such as G-Cloud, had increased from just 12 large suppliers in 2010, primarily based in the south-east of England, to having full UK coverage and more than 50% of its services being procured from small businesses.

In order to encourage digital transformation and success, the government was demonstrating its commitment to support SMEs wanting to sell their products. At the same time, GDS was supporting public sector customers, making private sector skill available, subjecting the project delivery to assessments, ensuring GDS service delivery standards were being met.

By 2015, the Transformation Programme had gained real traction, deploying new technology services to over 2,200 users across the Cabinet Office, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Crown Commercial Service, with another 800 to follow.

Making It Up

The GDS team was now into its 5th year of agile deployment across government projects and services with significant results. The waterfall approaches of old were no longer being used, instead they had deployed and implemented proper agile, fully supported, continuously improved and it was paying dividends.

A quote from a GDS team member at the time: “Agile: make it up as you go along. Waterfall: make it up before you start, live with the consequences.

As light hearted as this might sound, it describes the significant difference between agile and waterfall for any other public sector organisation considering change or transformation. With agile, there needs to be a big mind-shift, understanding that we don’t define everything up front. Instead, we accept that we learn as we progress and we apply that understanding iteratively, taking advantage of the simplicity of change controls within agile frameworks.

Public sector organisations have started to wake up to the benefits of agile and the added support of GDS. By now, the total spend on the government’s Digital Marketplace had reached £836m. In addition to this, 100 digital service assessment had been completed by 2015 with a pass rate of 70%. However, not passing an assessment isn’t the end of the service. Instead, it’s a chance for the delivery team to take on board recommendations and use them to improve the service for users. It’s very much part of the agile continuous improvement mantra and good for delivery providers, public sector organisations and users alike.

Collaboration is Key to Success

In January 2016, the GDS Verify service passed 1 million authentications since the service began, demonstrating the effectiveness of good user driven services. In its vision for a collaborative future, GDS commented:

“…we learned that in order to make this big change – to transform the relationship between citizen and state - we need to collaborate. Everyone in government needs to work together. Government has been ruled by silos for too long. Not just organisational silos, not even just technical ones, but silos of knowledge and experience that make service delivery more difficult than it should be.

That’s an important comment from an organisation that’s undertaken a successful digital transformation of large scale digital public services. It shows that there are numerous moving parts that need to be aligned in order to make Agile work. It also demonstrates the importance of involving users in the delivery process, validating what we’re delivering, using their feedback to steer the development in the right direction and to remove assumptions about what we believe users want.

Service Integration

The Tory party’s 2017 manifesto set out its commitment to the Transformation Strategy to have 25 million Verify users by 2020. The Gov.UK Verify service is intended to authenticate users to enable them to access government transaction services such as applying for driving licences online and tracking the progress of those applications. The intention is to use the same service to enable people to use their own secure data that is not held by government. The eventual ambition is that Verify will spread to private sector services such as banking to further widen the opportunities of securely linking public and private sector services to enable service providers to better serve their users.

With the right approach to change, organisations in the public sector can begin to exploit new digital opportunities. Services and data are being opened up in a controlled way with organisations openly sharing what they collect via APIs. Data relating to weather, flooding, public transport, land access and ownership, are all available to extend the services of other organisations. Plugging into these services, exploiting Gov.UK Verify and Gov.UK Notify to identify people and keep them updated on the progress of applications, and Gov.UK Pay to take payments from users of government services are just some of the ways in which digital is opening up the possibilities to easily extend an organisation’s ability to make its services more relevant to its audience, to make those services more accessible and to widen the net to extend that audience.

Large Scale Agile Success

The GDS team, through comprehensive management support, a clear vision, the right team, skills, experience and support, has shown that an agile approach to project delivery is possible on a large scale, even within the public sector. Building new services, extending and iterating on existing services can be done on large and small scales, provided the necessary controls and measures are put in place to build incrementally, learning at each stage in the process.

The GDS service is a big step in the right direction but it’s far from perfect. Users are being consulted and feedback on the service is being considered and implemented. There are new targets set to digitise 17 more exemplar projects by 2020, including requirements to determine whether someone has the right to work on the UK. This is undoubtedly driven by Brexit and the concern that users and businesses will be burdened with bureaucratic delays and costs if we continued to be burdened with the current paper system.

Many central government services have been transformed and a number of other public sector organisations have also experienced success using this same approach. This growing list of successful projects, delivering with fully agile approaches is bucking the previous trend of failure and should offer much confidence and comfort to those public sector organisations considering change or transformation, no matter how large or small, in the near future. Choose a digital and agile partner carefully, benefit from the lessons shared by GDS and enjoy your own journey.