How can the Government avoid yet more tech disasters?

After spending several months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work, the UK Government was forced to abandon its centralised Covid-19 contact tracing app.

A stream of IT failures in recent years has earned the Government a chequered reputation when it comes overpromising and underdelivering where digital transformation is concerned.

The story of the tracing app follows a familiar narrative: an ambitious project marked with delays, overspending, and ultimately, a lack of flexibility. After four long months of lockdown and £12 million spent developing a pilot, the plug was finally pulled on the first iteration of the app. The Government is now working with tech giants Apple and Google to develop a solution, leaving the public questioning – what went wrong this time?

Although the NHSX app fiasco might seem particularly catastrophic given the current international health crisis, the fact that the Government has admitted its failure so early on in the implementation process is unusual. In fact, it is a small victory; if only more costly projects were nipped in the bud this early.

The 2002 National Health Service National Programme for IT (NPfIT) serves as a cautionary tale. The aim of the programme was to introduce a more centralised national electronic database. At the time, the NPfIT was meant to constitute the single largest IT investment in the UK and the most extensive IT healthcare development of its kind in the world. “The possibilities are enormous if we can get this right,” Tony Blair promised at the project’s inception.

Millions of pounds were paid out in fees during the various contract negotiations, with the taxpayer reportedly footing a bill of an astonishing £10 billion. After years of stakeholder opposition, delays, and technical difficulties, and a failure to communicate with end-users, the Government was finally forced to admit defeat that this one size fits all solution was nothing of the sort. In 2011, the scheme was dismantled altogether.

With the demand for pioneering technology greater than ever – especially where digital health is concerned – it is clear that the Government needs to change its ways. It is important, then, that lessons are learned so that it can implement tech more efficiently.

Failing little and often is the recipe for success

The mantra ‘fail fast’ should be of utmost importance to the Government in its efforts towards innovation. As it stands, the path to digital transformation is one paved with red tape – it is a stifling bureaucratic culture that hinders CIOs and officials from taking risks in their projects. Such a rigid mindset results in a failure to recognise the crucial nature that re-iteration has to offer throughout the implementation process.

Instead of diving straight in at the deep end and hoping that things all run to plan, the Government would do well to allow some breathing space that supports both for failure and risk-taking. It is incredibly rare that the first iteration of a project is the best one. The more teams can learn from mistakes and identify potential pressure points in a project, the better the final product.

Indeed, iterative design, rapid prototyping and user testing are all key elements of an effective design process. And yet, they are often overlooked when pursuing a rigid development strategy.

The importance of agility

To address the IT gaffes of the past, a cultural change is in order – one that helps public institutions to shift away from extreme bureaucracy towards leaner, more efficient ways of working.

This necessarily starts with putting in place a new framework for product development. While the practice is by no means limited to the public sector, many large organisations tend to favour long-term, sequential processes when it comes to development. Product requirements, lines of authority and development schedules are typically laid out far in advance – with little room for flexibility if unexpected obstacles arise.

An overly formal process is not ideal when developing novel software solutions. The process needs to be agile to take into account the fast pace of changes and evolution in technology. For instance, developers might find that the information they had gathered at the start of the process is no longer relevant months down the line because new developments have rendered the envisioned product largely obsolete.

The public sector should be encouraged to embrace agile development, whereby the testing process runs constantly throughout the product cycle. By working in ‘sprints’ and revisiting the work regularly, many of the most common project pitfalls such as cost and schedule predictability can be dealt with in a more controlled manner.

With testing integrated into the cycle, teams are also empowered to suggest features or change that they think could add value. The client is also heavily involved in the process, ensuring that the final product is delivered as envisioned. Most importantly, agile product development prevents the risk of absolute project failure: features are delivered gradually, leaving room for developers to fix any issues as and when they arise.

Fostering new partnerships with SMEs

Looking to smaller organisations to lead the charge for digital innovation could also drastically improve national IT efforts. Worlds away from the more inhibitive infrastructures that govern larger conglomerates, SMEs and start-ups are well-situated to take risks and implement technology with more agility – all the while, minimising potential losses.

Rather than relying on grand designs and large vendors to deliver technical solutions, the public sector should leverage smaller organisations as an asset and a useful testbed for innovation. Various participants of all sizes, background, and experience should be encouraged to work on a given project to foster enhanced problem-solving.

Especially for the discovery phase, having as many outside opinions as possible will help to effectively unpack ideas and create a plan of execution. Broadening the pool of expertise and collectively brainstorming a number of possible solutions to a problem, rather than focusing on just one, will no doubt pay dividends in the long-run.

Ultimately, it is down to the Government to recognise that the current state of affairs does not serve the national interest. By working with smaller organisations and adopting a ‘fail more’ mentality, the public sector would reap the benefits, developing more creative solutions in their IT projects – and perhaps more importantly, resulting in fewer costly mistakes.

Contributed by Ritam Gandhi, Founder and Director, Studio Graphene 

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