Ritam Gandhi, Founder and Director, Studio Graphene, explains why the Government needs a startup mentality to avoid financing more tech disasters
In March 2020, when the UK was feeling the strain of the nationwide lockdown, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced plans to roll-out an NHSX contact tracing app that would see us all out of the eye of the storm. By mid-June, having spent £12 million on development alone, plans for the app were scrapped after it transpired that it didn’t work on Apple phones, sending the Government back to the drawing board to work with tech giants Apple and Google. In the middle of an international health crisis and when time and money was of the essence, the Government failed to deliver on a solution.
The NHSX track and trace debacle isn’t the first time the public sector has come under fire for its failure to deliver technological innovations. The truth is, the UK Government has a track record with IT failures, and recent issues within the NHS have only underscored further the costs and consequences of poorly implemented digital strategies.
In 2002, the National Program for IT (NPfIT) was hailed to be the largest public-sector IT program ever attempted in the UK. The project was set to revolutionise the use of healthcare informatics in the NHS, with integrated electronic patient records, an online ‘choose and book’ service, and digital referral and prescription systems. But after ten years’ work on the project which was punctuated by delays, stakeholder opposition, and issues with implementation, the program was finally shelved in 2011, costing the taxpayer over a staggering £10 billion.
As with the NHSX tracing app, the NHS had known exactly what it wanted to deliver with the NPfIT. Although it is no bad thing to have a clear set of deliverables in mind when implementing new tech, this meant that both programs didn’t have the flexibility required to deal with any obstacles encountered throughout the implementation phase.
It is plain to see that these rollouts could have been handled more effectively, and this largely boils down to the difficulties that are routinely faced by large organisations when developing new tech. With so much of the taxpayer’s money at risk, publicly funded bodies such as the NHS are understandably risk-averse, and projects are lengthy with very little margin for error. When it comes to digital transformation, it is clear that a failure to seek help from third-parties, as well as a stifling culture and an over-reliance on legacy systems, is holding the Government back.
So, what can be done to implement new technology more successfully in the future, and avoid making costly mistakes?
Working with SMEs: scaling up successful projects
Instead of working exclusively with big companies to implement projects on a large scale, the Government could learn a lot from SMEs in the initial stages of implementation. With fewer resources at their fingertips, startups in particular approach projects with a completely different acumen, and on a smaller scale.
At each stage of implementation, a startup would have carefully assessed the rollout based on progress made, and perhaps more importantly, with the flexibility to manoeuvre challenges encountered along the way – rather than relying on a rigid implementation strategy. Only when an idea has been proven, the designs tested, and technical feasibility demonstrated should the resource be spent on a larger scale deployment.
Smaller, faster teams also understand the value of rapid prototyping: the process of quickly mocking up what a system will look like and how it will function, before then validating the concept with a broader team of users, stakeholders, developers and designers.
Indeed, generating feedback in the initial stages of design is invaluable when so much is at stake; and yet this step is often overlooked. Rapid prototyping enables teams to experiment with different approaches and ideas, seek out user feedback, and ultimately improve the final product.
Given the high-speed of innovation today, public institutions simply cannot afford to lag behind. That’s why a cultural change is in order – one that helps public institutions to shift away from extreme bureaucracy towards leaner, more efficient ways of working.
Many large organisations – and this is true across both the public and private sectors – favour a long-term, sequential process when it comes to building a product, similar to how a car would be built on an assembly line. Product requirements are generally set in stone early on; there is a rigid set up in place with clear lines of authority; and development schedules are generally laid out far in advance.
While this might be effective in established manufacturing processes, an overly formal process is not ideal when developing novel software solutions. The product development process instead needs to be agile in order to take into account the fast pace of changes and evolution in technology. Developers might, for instance, find that the information they had gathered at the start of the process is no longer usable months down the line because new developments have rendered the envisioned product largely obsolete.
Instead, the Government must 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, iterative design empowers teams to suggest features or change that they think could add value. It also prevents the entire project from failing entirely; product features are delivered gradually, leaving room for developers to fix any issues as and when they arise.
A willing to embrace cultural change also extends to finding partners to work with that could both highlight operational problems and fill technical knowledge gaps. The failure of the NHSX contact tracing app can largely be put down to the fact that, rather than seeking out third-party insight to gauge the merits or drawbacks of technical aspects of the app, work was limited to existing suppliers. It is this reluctance to break the mould and break down rigid structures that ultimately hampered the ambition to develop what could have been a leading technology.
Design better and faster by embracing risk
The reality is that when working within large organisations, often the road to innovation is bogged down by bureaucracy and hierarchies. However, a degree of risk is both vital and inevitable in the process of innovation, where there are many rewards to be gained by taking a chance on new ideas.
By injecting a start-up mentality into its proceedings, the Government could foster more efficient ways of working and deliver its promises in a more time-effective manner. The strength of small companies is that they can make and implement decisions quickly and adapt to unforeseen circumstances, while minimising any potential losses. It is this attitude that enables risk-taking and ultimately leads to the creation of powerful digital solutions.
Similarly, the Government should be encouraged to fail little and often. After all, no one know exactly what the customer really needs and wants until they have experimented with potential approaches. It is important to test, learn what the customer wants and iterate on it, step by step.
Rather than delving straight into ambitious projects in the hopes that everything will go according to plan, allowing room for risk-taking will afford teams the breathing room they need to determine what works, what doesn’t, and what lessons they can take to the final product.
By taking smaller risks more regularly, faults can be pinpointed and ironed out before the technology is fully rolled out. After all, creating something new will, more often than not, result in failure – very rarely will teams land on the right solution the first time round.
Ultimately, there are clear benefits to be gained from taking inspiration from smaller, more agile organisations, so that the failure of ambitious large-scale IT projects can be avoided in the future. But it is now up to the public sector to adopt a startup mentality – it is by learning from and tapping into private sector innovation, that the Government can truly thrive.
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