Fail fast, move on - making government digital

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The room was packed with civil servants, a couple of ministers and a clutch of Permanent Secretaries - not the kind of crowd which you would expect to start a revolution.

But I emerged from the Sprint Alpha conference thinking that perhaps I'd seen a glimpse of the future. Maybe a few years from now we will be able to interact with public services online without tearing our hair out - and maybe government IT will no longer be a watchword for budget-busting inefficiency.


The conference was organised by the Government Digital Service, a compact team charged with transforming the way services are delivered on the internet. They have already brought hundreds of government websites under one roof at, which recently won the Design of the Year award.

Now they're setting out to make 25 government transaction services - from claiming carer allowance to transferring ownership of a car - "digital by default" by 2015. The aim is that these services, which account for about 90% of all government transactions with the public, should move entirely online so that the old versions can be switched off.

The conference saw presentations on how far along the road these projects have come, and what the results might be in terms of savings for the government and a better experience for users. As an example of the potential for cost cutting, look at the scheme where farmers apply for Common Agricultural Policy payments. Right now they have to draw a detailed map on paper of their farms, with each transaction costing the government £727. Soon they'll be able to use an online mapping tool, saving them time and the taxpayer money.

One service - student loan applications - is already live, and that's meant a big cut in the costs of running a call centre. On average, a telephone transaction costs 20 times as much to administer as the online equivalent. What's more, many of the calls to the student loan service were from angry applicants trying to navigate a complex process - satisfaction levels have leaped since the service went online.

Start Quote

Do it quick, fail fast, learn your lessons and continue to change”

End Quote Mike Bracken, Government Digital Service

There's bound to be controversy as the minority who cannot or will not use digital services find they have no alternative. The promise is that a service called "assisted digital" will be available, with organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureaux on hand to help people who cannot adapt.

But if this project succeeds it could have a wider benefit than modernising government transactions - it could show the way forward for any kind of major public sector IT project.

Or at least that is what Mike Bracken thinks. The boss of the Government Digital Service was previously the digital director at the Guardian and has had a long career in the technology sector. He contrasts the approach his team is taking with the standard government IT procurement process, where a massive contract is handed to an outside supplier, inevitably a huge company.

"You then end up three years later with something that might be fit for what you were doing five years ago." Compare this with the GDS approach: "Do it quick, fail fast, learn your lessons and continue to change - that's why you need the skills inside the organisation." And with a philosophy of open standards, there is much more flexibility to work with other, smaller suppliers as the project moves on.

tractor motors down side of wheat field Farmers may soon be able to make CAP payments online

One example of how this approach works is that farm payments' service. "That was going to be a multimillion pound procurement, " Mike Bracken explains."It had all the hallmarks of a very expensive investment in IT with very uncertain outcomes." Instead they built a rough version of the new mapping system in eight weeks, and are due to put it through beta testing at the end of this year, and go live by January 2015."We're miles ahead of schedule and in comparison with a large IT project we've hardly spent any money."

Last week the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into government IT procurement. It has been described as an oligopoly, where the top 20 IT suppliers scoop up over £10bn in public sector contracts - so Mike Bracken's idea of a different approach which would allow in smaller firms is timely.

Mind you, there will be a sizeable lobby resisting change - from cautious civil servants who still think it is safer to rely on the devil you know, to the big companies who stand to lose out. They will be watching the progress of these new digital services for any sign of problems.

However much Mr Bracken may think it a good idea to fail fast and move on, others may prefer the old way - fail slowly and carry on - and politicians do not like failures of any kind.. So the GDS team will have to prove they can deliver some victories too. If they succeed, then that really could change the way government works.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Online transactions with the government - what happens when it falls over just as online banking does on a regular basis in the UK. (Some RBS customers locked out of their accounts for 6 weeks +.)
    If you want to create a national emergency in the future knock out UK digital. What will be the fall back system ? "Oh we over looked that happening, thought the risk was very low"

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Even when at a technical level a Govt. websites "work" they fail on a content level....

    ....take the jobs pages on DircetGov - at any one time at least 1/4 of all the "vacancies" listed have long since been filled & no one has bothered removing the adverts....

    ....another similar sized proportion are the same job advertised 2, sometimes even 3 or 4 times under different job titles....

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    As opposed to the BBC digital media project - fail slow (completely), chase your tails. If only this reporter had applied a comparable level of probity/scepticism around what was happening in his own organisation over the past 4 years, such submissions here may be a bit more credible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I salute these guys, the work they are doing is fantastic.

    I am writing nhs choose and book, its a joke, budgets of billions and everyone is taking a slice of it, sod the work just cash in the money

    This is a new fantastic way of thinking, if it don't work, stop, look, learn, drop it and move on, don't waste years trying to make it work by patching and billions of pounds more of our taxes !

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Finally, someone with a common sense approach. I wish the GDS team all the success and luck; they're going to need it, if we're ever going to move on from the colossal IT failures of the past.

    They should expect some dirty tricks from those who stand to lose out though...

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Perhaps the government's shiney new websites will be better appreciated when they deliver on 'promises' to provide nationwide highspeed broadband.

    Farmers will not be manipulating GIS data on dial-up connections... too slow, you'd milk the cows twice before you were done!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I worked for a small IT company who delivered a national system for a government body. The system was delivered on time and within budget. Our reward for this ? Phase 2 given to a big IT company because that new IT director was more comfortable with them (bigger brown envelopes I suspect) result 275% over budget, 2 years late. Who was held accountable NO ONE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Hi Rory. Understandable cynicism "Mind you, there will be a sizeable lobby resisting change..." however there is another important angle the significant number of projects and people that have been doing Agile successfully for years in the public sector are now free to say "I told you so" more at

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    The trouble with any farming out of work is the tendency for the people who use to do the job taking a back seat & letting the contractor/consultant get on with it on a false premise of they know what they are doing. It leads to a state where nobody internally knows what is going on & a total reliance on those handed the contract.
    The temptation to fiddle the job in order to make more then sets in

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    @44 secretsquirrel

    You wouldn't run trials on a system capable of editing stored data without a thorough backup first, so your point seems to be scaremongering.

    The trade-off is whether test and learn iteratively is a better approach for a specific project than specify to the nth degree then build. Both have their positives and flaws, and I've seen big and small companies use both effectively.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I'm not sure providing services online is the answer to be honest. It is open to possible abuse, theft and DNS attacks at the very minimum. It may be slightly more convenient to the user but any government online system will certainly be abused, misused and attacked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    I work for local government and we have found that we can do improvements in a fairly low tech cheap way, using small companies. While we don't end up with some all singing and dancing incredible system, it's miles ahead of what we had before, it's online and paperlite and we did it cheaply. I think this guy is great and doing absolutely the right thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Exactly, part of the benefits of privatization of our energy systems, many now belonging to foreign owners like the French and Germans, who happily milk us for their benefit with us effectively subsidizing their cheaper power. Same for water, rail, and just about everything baroness bonkers sold off . And now we are getting privatization of just about everything else. Will we ever learn?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    As a civil engineer working in the utility sector we've been sweating the assets for years.

    Without major investment in the power industry in 10 years time there will be power rota cuts especially on cold days or hot days like today when demand is high. Too many people plus lack of investment in the UK!

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    "Fail fast" is a great sound-bite, but it doesn't really capture the essence of Agile. Projects need a deep understanding of value, and a path that maximises value through the lifecycle, providing the opportunity to use learning and feedback. Good governance will be essential to achieving this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Part of this problem is the "crisis management" model of govt - deal with it when it becomes a problem and throw resources at it...and hope it goes away.
    Most govt work is actually about the continuous repetition of information.
    There are no definitive answers - just incremental steps.
    Many and inexpensive should trump expensive and infrequent.
    You can see why this isn't popular in Whitehall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    The likes of Crapita have given government IT a bad name... let's hope the user experience will improve & become more consistent - applying for JSA is very badly coded, paying car tax is good, NHS job applications system excellent apart from the passwords... just a mishmash at the moment...

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Luddite? Well we are facing blackouts in the future and a general powering down...what happens then to all these on line systems, including of course our dear old Auntie BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.


    Who is digital government for - digital citizens? We don't have digital citizens! Until digital access to at least the,, and domains are free and mandated on all UK telecom connections, e-government is no more than a club with an expensive membership fee.

    spoken with a joyful voice of luddite ignorance! Yawn.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    A government agency starts doing IT projects properly - that's quite a shocker.


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