Who really gives a toss if it's agile or not?

Just show me the money!

Jerry Maguire
Jerry Maguire/Tristar Pictures

Comment "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice," according to Chinese revolutionary Deng Xiaoping.

While Deng wasn't referring to anything nearly as banal as IT projects (he was of course talking about the fact it doesn't matter whether a person is a revolutionary or not, as long as he or she is efficient and capable), the same principle could apply.

A fixation on the suppliers, technology or processes ultimately doesn't matter. It's the outcomes, stupid. That might seem like a blindingly obvious point, but it's one worth repeating.

Or as someone else put it to me recently in reference to the huge overspend on a key UK programme behind courts digitisation which we recently revealed: "Who gives a toss if it's agile or not? It just needs to work."

If you're going to do it do it right

I'm not dismissing the benefits of this particular methodology, but in the case of the Common Platform Programme, it feels like the misapplication of agile was worse than not doing it at all.

Just to recap: the CPP was signed off around 2013, with the intention of creating a unified platform across the criminal justice system to allow the Crown Prosecution Service and courts to more effectively manage cases.

By cutting out duplication of systems, it was hoped to save buckets of cash and make the process of case management across the criminal justice system far more efficient.

Unlike the old projects of the past, this was a great example of the government taking control and doing it themselves. Everything was going to be delivered ahead of time and under budget. Trebles all round!

But as Lucy Liu's O-Ren Ishii told Uma Thurman's character in in Kill Bill: "You didn't think it was gonna be that easy, did you?... Silly rabbit."

According to sources, alarm bells were soon raised over the project's self-styled "innovative use of agile development principles". It emerged that the programme was spending an awful lot of money for very little return. Attempts to shut it down were themselves shut down.

The programme carried on at full steam and by 2014 it was ramping up at scale. According to sources, hundreds of developers were employed on the programme at huge day rates, with large groups of so-called agile experts overseeing the various aspects of the programme.

CPP cops a plea

Four years since it was first signed off and what are the things we can point to from the CPP? An online make-a-plea programme which allows people to plead guilty or not guilty to traffic offences; a digital markup tool for legal advisors to record case results in court, which is being tested by magistrates courts in Essex; and the Magistrates Rota.

Multiple insiders have said the rest that we have to show for hundreds of millions of taxpayers' cash is essentially vapourware. When programme director Loveday Ryder described the project as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to modernise the criminal justice system, it wasn't clear then that she meant the programme would itself take an actual lifetime.

Of course the definition of agile is that you are able to move quickly and easily. So some might point to the outcomes of this programme as proof that it was never really about that.

One source remarked that it really doesn't matter if you call something agile or not, "If you can replace agile with constantly talking and communicating then fine, call it agile." He also added: "This was one of the most waterfall programmes in government I've seen."

What is most worrying about this programme is it may not be an isolated example. Other organisations and departments may well be doing similar things under the guise of "agile". I'm no expert in project management, but I'm pretty sure it isn't supposed to be making it up as you go along, and constantly changing the specs and architecture.

Ultimately who cares if a programme is run via a system integrator, multiple SMEs, uses a DevOps methodology, is built in-house or deployed using off-the-shelf, as long as it delivers good value. No doubt there are good reasons for using any of those approaches in a number of different circumstances.

Government still spends an outrageous amount of money on IT, upwards of £16bn a year. So as taxpayers it's a simple case of wanting them to "show me the money". Or to misquote Deng, at least show us some more dead mice. ®

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