The future of Britain’s coalition government depends on “agile” methods

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Iain Duncan Smith, British politician and form...

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I don’t write about politics here, much, but I am not going to shock anyone who knows me if I admit to not being a supporter of the current Conservative – Lib Dem coalition government.

But I will give them credit for some of the things they have said and done on software use and development in government – at least in their willingness to abandon the Labour administration’s over-reliance on proprietary software and vendor lock-in.

What has been less impressive has been their willingness to look for other forms of snake-oil as a replacement. Not so many years ago the Conservatives claimed that they could replace Labour’s plans for a patient record system in the NHS with an off-the-shelf alternative from Google. They don’t talk about that any more, as Google’s offer itself folded.

And there is certainly a whiff of snake oil about the idea that the “Universal Credit” proposed to replace Britain’s current plethora of benefits for workless and low income households – probably the biggest IT project Britain has ever seen – can be delivered without problem simply because government has moved from “waterfall” methods of development to “agile” methods.

(For anyone wondering, a “waterfall” method is essentially linear – one bit of the project is completed and you move on to the next: like water falling down a cliff. “Agile” methods are iterative – you keep going back to the client trying to improve the product. The idea is that agile methods deal better with the great bugbears of software development – changing specifications and user needs.)

I am no great expert on these matters, but I did read a few textbooks about them in the last year, and they were all are pretty clear that “agile” methods are great for small to medium sized projects, but no so great for big, mission-critical projects. And surely the income of the poorest families and the need to have a benefits system that gets them into work is just such a project?

But, of course, all this is bound up in politics. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary has already threatened to walk out of the government unless his project is allowed to proceed. Inside the DWP this seems to have become an Emperor’s-New-Clothes affair, and no one is allowed to say it will not work, at least not on a timetable that says it will happen by 2013.

(As an aside, it was good to see Sir Brian Urquhart quoted in the papers last week – he is the man who, as shown in A Bridge Too Far, warned that Operation Market-Garden was set to fail, but was told his views were not acceptable.)

The UK government has minimal experience of managing an agile software project, but has decided to bet everything on getting it right more or less the first time.

I hope they do – the alternative is too hideous. But the security of some of the least well off ought to come before the political career of Iain Duncan Smith.