The Civil Servants’ view
There is no lack of guidance for civil servants. For example there is the HM Treasury guidance on production and approval of business cases, the Magenta Book guidance on evaluation and the Cabinet Office spending controls on digital and IT. Recognising that the requirements of a digital project can change rapidly, as user needs are understood, HM Treasury and the Government Digital Service released supplementary guidance on Agile project approval processes.
But what happens in the real world when legacy government appraisal methods meet the reality of delivering digital projects with an agile mindset?
How confident are civil servants that they can define what success looks like?
In our Digital Trends Survey undertaken earlier this year, we set out to understand how civil servants view the progress of digital transformation within the civil service. Many responses highlighted the benefits associated with digital transformation, including efficiencies through channel shift and enhanced user satisfaction. But nearly half of the respondents had failed to gather the customer information that is so vital for monitoring and evaluation. Others pointed to deficiencies in the identification of Key Performance Indicators, as it was difficult to lock down system requirements at the start and manage delivery against a pre-determined timetable.
Many civil servants – including three at the very top of the service – reported that there was no measure of success for the progress of digital transformation
No measure of success… take a minute to let that sink in.
Can Agile and government project assurance work together?
Yes. Our experience is that good governance in agile can empower teams to follow programme management methodologies as they were intended to be used. Examples include regular project boards comprising client senior managers and stakeholders as well as project managers to review progress and provide solutions to any issues and ensure resources are available. This is recognised in the guidance on Agile highlighted above, which suggests that civil servants need to rely more on observation and engagement within the team and with stakeholders, rather than paper-based reporting and document review.
But in many cases even the best guidance and a strong central mandate will not be sufficient to catalyse the adoption of robust business cases and agile implementation methods. Digital leaders have a key role in promoting the advantages of a business case that contains empirical evidence and clear targets for improvement. They must emphasise that failure to consider monitoring and evaluation early enough can severely limit those options and the reliability of any evidence of impact. And incentives have to be put in place, with guidance on the level of detail required at each stage depending on the scale or complexity of the project. For example the HM Treasury ‘Five Case Model’ provides several excellent templates, but more training is need to understand the methods.
Moving from process improvement to measuring outcomes
Methods for gauging success in agile delivery in government are still rare. However better impact monitoring is critical. Large-scale implementation of digital solutions, and the business re-organisation that accompanies it, requires up-front investment. The benefits of digitization will take time and be felt outside the organisations that bear the costs of delivery (including in health and social care and across the criminal justice system).
Impact monitoring and business case methodologies will have to be developed that provide a comprehensive calculation of the various costs, benefits (including cashable savings) and beneficiaries. Or that illustrate more general benefits for society or individuals, even if these benefits cannot immediately be expressed in quantitative terms. Otherwise, implementation of projects will falter on the resistance of institutions to contribute to the costs of delivery or give up existing benefits (e.g. revenue streams from the provision of public sector information).
We’ll repeat the digital trends survey next year to understand if civil servants are coming to terms with the need to measure digital outcomes. And in future blogs I’ll be highlighting the type of cost savings, efficiency gains and quality improvements that can be achieved through digital and technology projects and how they can be measured.
In the meantime I’d be interested in your views on how to successfully define success and monitor the progress of digital projects, so why not leave a comment below or contact me by email.
More About the Digital Trends Survey
We commissioned Dods – a leading parliamentary communications organisation – to survey civil servants in Central Government and capture their views around the Digital Transformation agenda, the impact it’s had on them and the services provided to citizens. We had a fantastic response rate of 2,374 across all grades and Government departments. You can read more about the survey on our website. And you can read more about the digital skills gap that civil servants highlighted in our survey, and the implications for the civil service, in my last blog.