Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Politics, IT and Strawmen

Shadow Minister Chinyelu Susan 'Chi' Onwurah describes how project management in Gov IT has been politicised. The article states a coalition portrayal of 'Waterfall as monolithic Labour' and 'Agile as dynamic, entrepreneurial Tory' and how to 'think that the solution to effective ICT deployment is to simply change your project management methodology is arrogant and naive'. It then goes on to describes how Labour will undertake this 'transformation with more humility' requiring 'diverse methodologies' and learning from 'the process itself'. 

This all sounds very reasonable but there is a problem with this portrayal. The UK GOV IT approach is already on the path to becoming more balanced. 

With any course correction, an over steer is a natural part of shifting an organisation away from one all encompassing method to a more balanced approach. I already see signs of the shift to a balanced approach happening which is remarkable in such a short period of time.  For example, whilst HS2 might be seen as controversial in some circles, it is showing signs of strategic understanding and IT leadership which I've rarely seen rivalled in the private sector. Rather than being 'one size fits all' shop with little of poor understanding of why action is taken, the CIO has been using a mapping technique to break down large scale projects and determine what methods are appropriate. Its future appears neither as an Agile / XP / Scrum Development nor a Six Sigma / Prince / Waterfall shop. Its future appears more balanced, more the use of the right methods where appropriate.

Unfortunately this doesn't help the argument that Labour will make a difference because it's difficult to claim a difference (a more balanced view) when this is already happening. The portrayal proposed in the article is unfortunately a necessary instrument of what we know as a strawman argument. If you were going to have two 'extremes' of past and present then in my opinion they would be :-

Under previous administrations, UK Gov IT could be characterised by an over reliance on large outsourcing arrangements, inefficiency in contracts, poor data and focus on user needs, poor development on internal engineering skill, extensive use of single and highly structured methods of project management, lots of discussion on open source / transparency / open standards but little execution.

Under the current administration, UK Gov IT can be characterised by a movement towards both insourcing where appropriate and use of SMEs, a greater challenge in contracts, a focus on user needs and collection of transaction data, co-operation with other governments, a focus on recruitment of engineering talent, use of more appropriate management methods from scheduling systems such as Kanban to a plurality of development techniques, a focus and action on open source, open data, transparency and open standards.

The change from these two states is not due to some political ideology but a desire of many people (both internal and external) to make things better and to reduce some of the excesses. Onwurah claims pointedly that Mark Thompson who responded to the Shadow Minister's speech also wrote the Conservative Technology Manifesto - something which I'm not aware of and a bit surprised about. I happened to work with Mark on a 'Better for Less' paper which had some input into the changes and that paper was driven solely by a focus on this principle of making things better.

For the record, until the worst excesses of spin of the Blair years, I had always voted Labour. Due to my disillusionment with Labour, I have subsequently voted Liberal Democrats. I have never once in my life voted Conservative. I don't personally agree with many of their policies. But then I wasn't asked to be involved in writing the paper because of my political beliefs but because the group felt I had something to contribute.  Politics never came into it.

But neither manifestos nor politics really made this change possible. As Mark pointed out 'the important point is that one would be hard pressed to find a single outcome in Labour’s Digital Britain to which those in the Government Digital Service (GDS), or their digital leaders network, are not already deeply committed'. The real change, something familiar to all of us that have worked in the open source world, was strong leadership and the UK GOV IT appears to have had this with Francis Maude.

I do fear that the worst excesses of sharp suited management consultants are itching to come back with the panacea of  “big IT” to achieve joined-up government. In my view, we would be wise to keep off that path and continue to create the more balanced future that seems to have already started. 

I have had concerns in the recent past that Labour has yet to show the example of strong IT leadership that will be needed going forward.  If it was up to me then I'd keep Francis Maude moving the changes forward regardless of political persuasion.  Maybe Shadow Minister Chi Onwurah can provide this future leadership - I simply do not know.  What I do know, from a competition viewpoint, is IT is more important to our future industry than petty debates and if this is what the future leadership might mean - politicising the debate and creating strawman arguments - then my concern grows. 

I hope I'm misunderstanding what is happening here but the politicisation of project management methods helps no-one.