There’s been two interesting stories in the news in the last couple of days.
First the entrepreneur with school age kids who could’t stand the dysfunctional IT solution the city of Stockholm spent milions developing, so he put the shovel to the ground and built an open alternative. That didn’t go down so well, in fact city officials called the cops on him.
Then the next day a story about another rogue citizen. This guy was frustrated because of the long waiting lists to get a new passport. But more specifically he was pissed off because he couldn’t even book an appointment with the passport authorities, since their system wasn’t built to handle the amount of incoming requests.
So instead of spending hours trying to click at the exact right time when the interface was responsive, he built a simple script that automated the process for him. Then published it on GitHub, and before long it had received improvements from five other contributors.
These stories are telling. Sweden has become a unicorn factory and programming is turning into one of the most common occupations. Still outside of the private sector, successful IT-projects are exceptionally rare; in fact there’s a long list of endeavours that’ve gone belly up lately, after having racked up costs in the hundreds of millions.
What exactly went wrong here, and how can the system be fixed?
It’s easy to see that public sector IT projects generally suffer from a lack of agile development processes. Big bang implementation is the default mode instead of shipping incremental value in short sprints. And with big shipments come great risk of course, especially in projects where the end deliverable is unclear as you set out, which is pretty much always the case in software.
But prescribing “more agility” is bound to fail. It’s pretty much like telling a drowning person who never learned to swim to “try harder”.
Instead I think the one factor that could actually bring leverage, would be a mandate that forces all public sector players to adhere religiously to open source, open data and open API’s
Only then could knowledgable and committed citizens who want to contribute be seen as a resource and only then can the non private sector digital infrastructure stand a chance to start developing an anti-fragile resilience in the face of ever nastier cyber threats.
What would it take to execute on such a paradigm shift? Political leadership for one thing. Just as there’s a minister for infrastructure, there should be a national CTO (or whatever you’d call it). Because IT is fundamentally different from building roads, bridges and railways.
It would probably also make a lot of sense to create some kind of agile task force that could be deployed where needed, to deal with the problem that each public sector silo is currently held hostage to private sector IT consultants, which isn’t just a bad way of spending tax payers money, but also a cause of the constant brain drain that prevents institutional learning.