Why is the UK government prone to IT disasters?

Back in March, at the height of the nationally imposed lockdown, Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised a solution in the form of a coronavirus tracing app that would see us all out of lockdown safely. Although the much-touted NHSX app was said to be at the heart of the strategy to contain the spread of Covid-19, months later, it was ditched due to security concerns, forcing the Government to change tack to work with tech giants Apple and Google on a new app, shifting its strategy to work with human tracers instead.

With measures easing and life now the most 'normal' it has been for quite some time, the newest iteration of the app is still yet to be released. It is clear that even in the midst of an international health crisis, the public sector has defaulted to looking only to big vendors to provide technical solutions -- and to its own detriment.

This approach isn’t necessarily the most effective for time-sensitive projects like the NHSX app, or for other large-scale implementations of new technology. One needs only look to the National Program for IT (NPfIT) to see how stakeholder opposition and delays can mar the progress of government-led projects.

The initiative, announced in 2005, was set to bring the NHS into the digital age, revolutionizing healthcare informatics by offering centralized patient records and a faster, more reliable IT infrastructure. Yet after nine years’ work on the project, it was shelved, costing the tax payer a staggering £10 billion.

This begs the question: with such grand designs for digital innovation and the resource to instill real change, why is the Government so prone to IT disasters?

Accepting that risk is vital for growth 

One of the biggest problems preventing the Government from fostering digital innovation and pursuing a more efficient development process is its risk-averse culture; failure is simply not an option in the public sector.

Like any large organization, with so much at stake -- in this case, the taxpayer’s money -- red tape and a stifling bureaucracy complicates the pursuit of new and uncertain ideas, even if they might be the best ones.

Not only does this mindset hinder creativity, but it is also indicative of a larger problem. It is exactly this reluctance to embrace risk as an essential part of innovation that stunts progress in the long run.

Learning to fail better through iterative design

While the concepts 'risk' and 'failure' don’t exactly bring to mind the most positive connotations, they are incredibly necessary components in the process of iterative design.

While many large organizations favor longer-term, more sequential processes, as they give off the illusion that a project might be failsafe or less prone to inaccuracy, having a rigid development plan with strict schedules and unmovable lines of authority often holds the public sector back. While it is a good idea to have a clear set of deliverables in mind at the beginning of a project, having drawn-out, overly formal processes is not the most effective when developing novel software solutions.

Teams are forced to stay within the remit of plans drawn out at the beginning of the project, even when they aren’t quite working, and issues inevitably rear their head. Precious time and resource are then spent trying to overcome problems that could have been ironed out long ago, had the project been designed with more flexibility in mind.

That’s why the Government should look to a more agile development process. By revisiting progress regularly and working in shorter, more efficient 'bursts', teams can gauge more effectively whether or not a product is as it should be, while suggesting amendments and improvements that could add value to the end-result.

At each stage of development, a startup would have cautiously assessed the rollout based on progress made, allowing some margin for error and the flexibility to navigate any issues that might arise. Only when an idea has been proven, the designs tested, and technical feasibility demonstrated would the resource then be spent on a larger scale implementation.

Failure needn’t be so disastrous -- by utilizing rapid prototyping and quickly mocking up what the end-result might look like, mistakes don’t have to set public institutions back months in progress. Mistakes actually contribute valuable insight to the final product, taking into account the fast pace of change and evolution in technology, and providing well thought-out digital solutions. 

Injecting a startup mentality 

The Government is also prone to overlooking the importance of continuous user testing; something that small teams include as an integral part of the process. It is difficult to foresee whether the final product will effectively meet the users’ needs, unless feedback has been gathered throughout the journey, with the development team on hand to make adaptations based on the responses. Initial user research and rounds of user testing should result in a proof of concept, with further rounds of testing resulting in design iterations to enhance the user experience.

Rather than relying on grand designs and large vendors to deliver technical solutions, the public sector should leverage smaller organizations as an asset and a useful testbed for innovation. Various participants of all sizes, backgrounds, 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.

Smaller, more agile teams might not have the same level of funding and resource, but they do benefit from a culture where making mistakes is not just tolerated, but actively encouraged as part of the problem-solving process. It is by fostering a culture that shuns some of the red tape and embraces iterative design that the Government can learn from its missteps, and go on to deliver some truly pioneering tech.

Photo Credit: Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock

Ritam Gandhi, is the Founder and Director of Studio Graphene – a London-based company that specializes in the development of blank canvas tech products including apps, websites, AR, IoT and more. The company has completed over 100 projects since first being started in 2014, working with both new entrepreneurs and product development teams within larger companies.

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