We’re getting exactly the government IT we asked for

If there’s one complaint that I hear consistently in my studies of IT in large organizations, it’s that government IT, as traditionally practiced, is fucked. Compared to the private sector, the amount of paperwork, the role of contractors, and the seeming separation between doing a good job and working software drives all sorts of angst and failure.

Mark Schwartz’s book on figuring out “business value” in IT is turning out to be pretty amazing and refreshing, especially on the topic of government IT. He’s put together one of the better “these aren’t the Droids you’re looking for” responses to ROI for IT.

You know that answer: you just want to figure out the business case, ROI, or whatever numbers driven thing, and all the DevOps-heads are like “doo, doo, doo-doo – driving through a tunnel, can’t hear you!” and then they pelt you with Goldratt and Deming books, blended in with some O’Reilly books and The Phoenix Project. “Also, you’re argument is invalid, because reasons.”

A Zen-like calm comes over them, they close their eyes and breath in, and then start repeating a mantra like some cowl-bedecked character in a Lovecraft story: “survival is not mandatory. Survival is not mandatory. Survival is not mandatory!”

Real helpful, that lot. I kid, I jest. The point of their maniacally confusing non-answers is, accurately, that your base assumptions about most everything are wrong, so before we can even approach something as precise as ROI, we need to really re-think what you’re doing. (And also, you do a lot of dumb shit, so let’s work on that.)

But you know, no one wants to hear they’re broken in the first therapy session. So you have to throw out some beguiling, mind-altering, Lemarchand’s boxes to change the state of things and make sure they come to the next appointment.

Works as Designed

Anyhow, back to Schwartz’s book. I’ll hopefully write a longer book review over at The New Stack when I’m done with it, but this one passage is an excellent representation of what motivates the book pelters and also a good unmasking of why things are the way we they are…because we asked for them to be so:

The US government is based on a system of “checks and balances”—in other words, a system of distrust. The great freedom enjoyed by the press, especially in reporting on the actions of the government, is another indication of the public’s lack of trust in the government. As a result, you find that the government places a high value on transparency. While companies can keep secrets, government is accountable to the public and must disclose its actions and decisions. There is a business need for continued demonstrations of trustworthiness, or we might as well say a business value assigned to demonstrating trustworthiness. You find that the government is always in the public eye—the press is always reporting on government actions, and the public is quick to outrage. Government agencies, therefore, place a business value on “optics”—how something appears to the observant public. In an oversight environment that is quick to assign blame, government is highly risk averse (i.e., it places high business value on things that mitigate risk).

And then summarized as:

…the compliance requirements are not an obstacle, but rather an expression of a deeper business need that the team must still address.

Which is to say: you wanted this, and so I am giving it to you.

The Agile Bureaucracy

The word “bureaucracy” is something like the word “legacy.” You only describe something as legacy software when you don’t like the software. Otherwise, you just call it your software. Similarly, as Schwartz outlines, agile (and all software processes) are insanely bureaucratic, full of rules, norms, and other “governance.” We just happen to like all those rules, so we don’t think of them as bureaucracy. As he writes:

While disavowing rules, the Agile community is actually full of them. This is understandable, because rules are a way of bringing what is considered best practices into everyday processes. What would happen if we made exceptions to our rules—for instance, if we entertained the request: “John wants to head out for a beer now, instead of fixing the problem that he just introduced into the build?” If we applied the rules capriciously or based on our feelings, they would lose some of their effectiveness, right? That is precisely what we mean by sine ira et studio in bureaucracy. Mike Cohn, for example, tells us that “improving technical practices is not optional.”15 The phrase not optional sounds like another way of saying that the rule is to be applied “without anger or bias.” Mary Poppendieck, coauthor of the canonical works on Lean software development, uses curiously similar language in her introduction to Greg Smith and Ahmed Sidky’s book on adopting Agile practices: “The technical practices that Agile brings to the table—short iterations, test-first development, continuous integration—are not optional.” I’ve already mentioned Schwaber and Sutherland’s dictum that “the Development Team isn’t allowed to act on what anyone else [other than the product owner] says.”17 Please don’t hate me for this, Mike, Mary, Ken, and Jeff, but that is the voice of the command-and-control bureaucrat. “Not optional,” “not allowed,” – I don’t know about you, but these phrases make me think of No Parking and Curb Your Dog signs.

These are the kind of thought-trains that only ever evoke “well, of course my intention wasn’t the awful!” from the other side. It’s like with the ITIL and the NRA, gun-nut people: their goal wasn’t to put in place a thought-technology that harmed people, far from it.

Gentled nestled in his wry tone and style (which you can image I love), you can feel some hidden hair pulling about the unintended consequences of Agile confidence and decrees. I mean, the dude is the CIO of a massive government agency, so he be throwing process optimism against brick walls daily and too late into the night.

Learning bureaucracies

The cure, as ever, is to not only to be smart and introspective, but to make evolution and change part of your bureaucracy:

Rules become set in stone and can’t change with circumstances. Rigidity discourages innovation. Rules themselves come to seem arbitrary and capricious. Their original purpose gets lost and the rules become goals rather than instruments. Bureaucracies can become demoralizing for their employees.

So, you know, make sure you allow for change. It’s probably good to have some rules and governance around that too.

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