Searching for the signal of Open Standards amid the growing noise of Agile

I argue not that Agile is a ‘bad thing’; far from it.  Agile behaviours in general are an essential part of any software practice.  Rather, I contend that Agile is not the answer in itself: we absolutely need more focus on driving out Open standards.


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Revolutionising Digital Public Service Delivery: A UK Government Perspective

Here’s a working paper written by Alan Brown of Surrey Business School, Jerry Fishenden of Bath Spa University, and myself.  it tries to provide an ‘easy read’ perspective on the past, current, and future picture in ‘government Digital’:

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Government Digital is in danger of losing its way

I attended a really energised round table media debate this morning hosted by Policy Exchange and EMC, looking at how technology can reinvent government.  Some great speakers addressed some very important issues, some of the themes being that we’re not moving fast enough, citizens need to drive Digital as well, and – perhaps most importantly – that we must consider the broader implications of Digital for public service organisations, as a whole – including the way in which peoples’ jobs will be changed as a result.

Here was my own contribution:

Govt Digital is in danger of losing its way.

Digital is absolutely founded on the realisation 5 years ago that govt had spent 20 years indulging itself by building luxury bespoke IT in a sort of frenzied splurge, instead of consuming standard stuff like its citizens.

This was expensive and often didn’t work – but there were 2 bigger problems about all this bespoke stuff. The first was that it encouraged nest-making behaviour by departments and local authorities as each entrenched its own special way of doing things: not a reinvention, but an entrenchment of govt.

The second was that with each luxury, bespoke tech indulgence, the public sector decoupled itself further & further from the emerging global mainstream, resulting in technology that was out of date almost at delivery, and that required constant maintenance and upgrades. And of course, nothing talked to anything else.

To address this, the Tories’ policy was founded squarely on progressive adoption of open standards – i.e. the need for govt to exercise discipline, stop indulging itself and consume, rather than build its tech, unless absolutely necessary. This, not agile, was the foundational philosophy of the govt IT strategy. If govt was a group of companies owned by the same set of shareholders, those shareholders would rightly demand that these companies co-operated and shared capabilities, rather than pretending that each one had its own shareholders. In response, Digital grew out of a realisation that as shareholders, taxpayers needed to demand that the ‘govt group’ started behaving like a group & less like a set of fiefdoms: and that new, digitally-enabled business models could help with a general reinvention of the way government behaves.

The problem is that reinventing govt is fundamentally a political, not a tech, issue. Sure, the tech can help – but we must remember that all that redundancy and self-indulgence supports jobs. Digital threatens to disrupt hierarchies, merge departments, and change the way things have been done for over 150 years; it’s ‘real’ reinvention, rather than the pretend-‘transformation’ (i.e. Leaning & outsourcing) we’ve been hearing about for so long. Predictably enough therefore, the current emphasis within Digital has shifted to “agile” – because agile involves building your own stuff again, rather than consuming, and leaves all those underlying hierarchies fundamentally undisturbed. It’s funky, yet unthreatening: the perfect stall. 

Cabinet Office has undoubtedly achieved much with Digital – often, is must be remembered, in the face of a hostile reception by both industry and government.  However, there is a danger now that, rather than paying all those SIs to build stuff, Cabinet Office is simply growing its own SI to build stuff – and the fact it’s using open source makes little difference. The tech is still special, requires upgrades & maintenance, and the UK remains in its cul-de-sac, decoupled from the innovation of the global marketplace.

In response, I argue that Digital has a ying and a yang: for me, agile is nonsense without self-control, re-use, and architecture – and discussion of these foundations is almost entirely non-existent. As shareholders of govt, we need to wake up to the fact that our Board members don’t get it – probably aren’t even listening – and that our employees will resist digital reinvention at every turn. Digital is fundamentally not about exciting new interfaces with the citizen – but about fundamental business model change. Digital is therefore disingenuous without an open, honest debate about how reinventing govt will reshape the public sector and alter the nature of public sector jobs.

So my challenge is that the promise of ‘Digital’ is already starting to fade. There are some notable exceptions, but from a Digital point of view we are being badly governed by our political masters who have little interest in any of this. As citizens we need to demand better of our leaders: don’t just do the easy, shiny bits: tackle the hard bits as well.

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Don’t politicise Digital! An appeal before the manifesto season gets underway

Use of open standards and platforms is something that should be supported equally by both political parties

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The Future of Local Government Services

Local government business models will eventually look a lot more like Google, with councils at the hub of an ecosystem of different service providers assembling standard services around residents like building blocks. That’s what LB Hounslow’s Director of Transformation Anthony Kemp, Open standards visionary Mark Foden, and myself told a highly engaged audience at Royal Institute of British Architects last night. The evening opened with a premier of a short video explaining how Digital platforms will transform local services,, after which attendees from 14 local authorities, NAO, GDS, SOCITM, University of Surrey Business School, several government departments including DCLG, Computer Weekly, Local Digital, Box, Salesforce, and Methods discussed this enormous opportunity to bring about real, sustainable change across the local government marketplace.

The video’s designed to convey a difficult concept to an audience that’s not especially interested in technology. See if you think we succeed…

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Labour and Tories: Digital Manifesto thoughts from the Party Conferences

Great progress, much further to go: some observations about each party’s positions on Digital government from the recent party conferences

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Digital Government: Why Gartner is writing nonsense

I read something very worrying today: a post by Andrea DiMaio – a “Vice President and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research”, who argues that “digital government is little else than making e-government work”.

Andrea is so wrong, and apparently ill-informed, that it is difficult to know where to start.  The very DNA of digital government is different from e-government.  If I could perhaps summarise with a table, in which Jerry Fishenden and I encapsulated some of the key differences in our publication for the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Administration, Research and Theory entitled ‘Digital Government, Open Architecture, and Innovation: Why Public Sector IT will Never be the Same Again‘ (please read).  Here Jerry and I explain how e-government (here termed ‘NPM’, or ‘New Public Management’) differs radically from ‘Open Architecture’ – a way of thinking that has since become commonly termed ‘Digital’:

ImageE-government, delivered by a small handful of (largely proprietary) suppliers, involved a calving off of vertically integrated organisational silos, often to be run on an outsourced basis – often, it is true, with the aim of joining things up better.  The £14bn notorious health disaster National Programme for IT is a great example of e-government, and emblematic of the way in which a bankrupted set of technological and organisational ideals had failed to deliver joined-up services, or indeed ‘transformed’ anything very much at all.

In stark contrast, Open architectures, or ‘digital’ principles, explicitly seek to reconstruct tech-enabled public services around platform dynamics, in which open standards enable lots of aggregation of demand – which in turn stimulates investment and innovation by a diverse supplier community.  This requires disaggregation of vertically integrated business models into common components that may be re-used right across government: literally, and over time, a re-architecting of the public service business model itself.  See Mark Foden’s excellent quick video explaining these principles – well worth the look.  See also Jerry’s and my Computer Weekly series, ‘The Great Deverticalisation‘, over the summer.

In the light of this – and the wealth of activity on GDS’ website (how familiar is Mr DiMaio with its pages?), it is very worrying that a ‘distinguished analyst’ within a global benchmarking organisation for whom the UK government was until recently a major account, should be penning opinion that portrays Gartner as so woefully ill-informed.

I would consider myself one of the generation of “new kids on the blocks” to whom Mr DiMaio refers, but was not “still at College or high school during the eGov days”, as he dismissively implies.  We are grown-ups, not kids, and are able clearly to articulate how ‘digital’ is very much more than the cosy benchmarked world inhabited by Gartner – whom, it seems, is struggling to keep up.  Were I running Gartner, I would find Di’Maio’s closing remark – well, frankly embarrassing:

“If digital government is a just a rebranding of e-government and Chief Digital Officers just a front-office focused version of the CIO, I suspect we won’t get much more from digital government than we did from e-government”.

In response, allow me to make my own closing remark by reproducing below a quote from the recently-published Policy Exchange report Remaking Government for the Digital Age:


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