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Facilitating an agile, iterative, user-centric approach to digital service creation


By Verity Greig, Public Sector Business Development, HP Software


The Government Digital Strategy sets out how government will redesign its digital services to make them so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them prefer to do so.


The strategy describes how delivering services digitally will result in savings of £1.7 to £1.8 billion each year, and commits government to 16 actions including “all new or redesigned transactional services meet the Digital by Default Service Standard from April 2014”.


The title for this article came from the Digital by Default Service Standard criteria (Number 6 of 26):

Build the service using agile, iterative, user-centred methods.


The National Audit Office definition of Agile is “a project that is developed in an iterative and incremental way. At the end of each iteration there is a working product of a quality that the business could deploy and that users can definitely try.”


Our latest survey looked at digital services and how government organisations are tackling the challenges of delivering high quality customer-focused services through digital channels. Of the 272 respondents:

64% have a digital strategy,

57% are embracing the move towards agile with 38% planning to do so

44% are on track or ahead of schedule with their plans to go digital


Of those behind schedule, the top 3 reasons are: the cost of designing or redesigning online services, lack of senior management buy-in and security concerns.


Dr. Peter Armstrong of CESG said that the “vision of industry and government to share services for citizens provides exciting new opportunities for industry, government, citizens and cybercriminals”. So it’s not surprising that security is one of the top 3 concerns.


The NAO definition of Agile focuses on the development side. But in order for us to capitalise on the advances we’ve made in agile development and better translate them into business value, we need to start extending Agile principles into the operations world.

Forrester quotes that “Increasing development team velocity ten-fold will not positively affect customers if all work bottlenecks at the system testing phase or in operations just prior to implementation.”


Gartner predicts that: “By 2016, 40% of application development organisations will have joint initiatives with operations in support of continuous delivery and simplified release management.”


Development and operations look at things from a different perspective:

  • Development’s focus is working directly with the front-line and doing everything they can to provide new features and functionality as quickly as they are able to.
  • By contrast, the traditional mindset of Operations is that change brings the risk of issues and outages. They look to avoid change, to keep things as stable as absolutely possible. They are typically measured on the availability and stability of their systems, so it’s perfectly natural for them to view change as evil.

These are two very contradictory perspectives. It ultimately creates friction, adds risk, and slows down IT in its goal of delivering value for the citizen.


How do you reconcile these views?


The answer is DevOps and Continuous Delivery.


DevOps is a set of principles and methods for better collaboration between Software Delivery and Operations essentially attempting to extend the Agile mindset to incorporate Operations.


Continuous Delivery, which is enabled by DevOps, focuses on shorter cycles for actually putting functionality in the hands of users. It relies not only on better collaboration, but on comprehensive automation of the build, test and deployment process so that every code change that passes automated functional, performance and security testing could be immediately deployed into production.


Continuous Delivery isn’t necessarily deploying, but rather providing the ability to release on demand. Meaning, it allows releases to be driven by business need as opposed to operational constraints.


The keys to DevOps and Continuous Delivery are Quality, Automation, and Collaboration

Focusing on these 3 things will help address the biggest hurdle, which is changing the traditional mindsets that these two groups have had:


The development view shifts to one of building applications that are easy to run and easy to support. This means they are easy to release, monitor, and troubleshoot in production.


On the Operations side, the perspective moves away from the view that change is evil and ops recognises that regular releases can actually reduce risk.  Whereas traditional deployment events for many organisations are these huge, high-stress, high-risk activities, over late nights and weekends, deployments within DevOps organisations are less stressful, lower risk events because releases occur more often. They become non-events because they happen regularly and the processes are proven as a result. With less functionality going in at one time, there is also less that can go wrong. And if something does go wrong, developers are in a better position to make fixes – having just worked on the functionality. A roll-back, if needed, is also much easier with a smaller implementation. All this translates into lower risk, steadier, more manageable pace, with fewer incidents in production.


So to tie it all together, this will be a journey for most organisations, and in many cases it starts with Continuous Testing. This is the use case that comes up most often in discussion with Apps teams - the ability to quickly and easily manage their own lab environments.


As organisations become comfortable with this, the next logical step is carrying the application models and deployment assets they are using with Continuous Testing one step further into the next environments by deploying into staging, and finally into production.


And this by no means should be a one-way street. The ops team must provide information and assets from production back to Dev so we are sharing both ways. It really is about collaboration.


The final piece is the end-to-end management of the process. This piece provides the elements that require end-to-end data sharing, data transfer, visibility and collaboration.


It is being able to manage all of this effectively together and having visibility into the whole landscape, not just once piece of the puzzle.


There are some excellent exemplars across government. Tim Knighton, Chief Digital Officer at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills said that agile delivery has been critical in Saving BIS and customers £220-350 million through becoming Digital by Default.


And the DVLA have “built an IT platform that can genuinely support the business at the same time as making over £150 million of savings with governance that supports an agile culture throughout the organisation” Oliver Morley, Chief Executive and Digital Leader, DVLA. Although Oliver did add that “we do agile, but with a big picture of a waterfall on the wall”!

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