Software Craftsmanship for public good

22 May 2023 · Last updated: 17 May 2023

What comes to your mind when you think of the Civil Service? 

Software Craftsmanship is unlikely to be the first thought... However, please humour me here, because I believe there are important overlaps. 

Overlaps which could be valuable for the public sector digital data and technology (DDaT) ambitions.

Software Craftsmanship and the Nolan Principles share several similarities. I'll explore how and why each professionalism has been codified in unique domains. Ultimately both professional communities have something to learn from one another:

Nolan Principles

The Nolan principles, officially known as the Seven Standards in Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership, were developed as the foundational ethics for public servants. What many forget is that these also apply to the private partners who deliver public services. 

They were created by the chair of the Committee of Standards in Public Life, Lord Nolan, in the wake of a number of high-profile scandals involving public officials in the 1990s. The launch of these principles was groundbreaking, shifting the focus from process to a culture and mindset. 

Software Craftsmanship

The 1990s was also a foundational decade for software engineering with the emergence of Agile, Lean, and Extreme Programming (XP). The software development community questioned the inherent flaws of the linear Waterfall approach to software development, putting forward an Agile manifesto.

These groundbreaking shifts in development processes signalled the inception of the Software craftsmanship movement, which sought to rebalance the conversation towards engineering to technical excellence. Its formative manifesto would be published in 2009. One year later, the 'London Software Craftsmanship Community' (LSCC) was founded. Set up by Sandro Mancuso and Mashooq Badar, the LSCC is still the largest and most active Software Craftsmanship community globally.

As an evolving mindset, there are many principles of software craftsmanship. We will focus on some of the values discussed at Codurance for this article. Namely, commitments of adding value, excellence and quality, pragmatism, and the pledge towards building productive partnerships with users.

Overlaps and parallels

Both sets of principles are driven by a desire to constantly improve their respective professions. The focus on excellence and craft impels software craftspeople to constantly seek personal and professional development. The commitment to adding value is also a community imperative, whereby it's encouraged and expected that knowledge is shared.

For civil servants, personal and peer development is held in equally high regard. Take the principle of leadership as an example. This is defined not just by continuously improving individual practice but as a duty to help colleagues as well.

Another clear overlap is the direction from which project value is ultimately derived. In software craftsmanship we have user-centred design. And in government we have public-services-driven outcomes. Both focus on delivering products or services that meet the needs of those using them, not building them.

Finally, both principles seek to remove a single-minded interpretation of 'done well'. Software craftsmanship advocates a pragmatic approach, balancing a mix of user needs, complex costs, changing timelines, resources, and capabilities. Public servants are on the other hand driven by objectivity. Whereby they are expected to make judgement using the best evidence, on merit, and without discrimination.

Of course, there are limitations to the comparison between the two sets of principles. The Nolan principles are focused specifically on conduct, for example, and are static. Software Craftsmanship on the other hand, as a movement, has a broader, evolving area of focus.

The starkest difference is that the Nolan principles apply to all roles, including developers, within the public space. While opportunities for the application of software craftsmanship exist outside of its domain, it evolved from and for software developers.

Cross-pollination and national ambitions

Although the Nolan principles and Software Craftsmanship were conceived for distinct purposes and within distinct contexts,they share fundamental values, such as the emphasis on integrity, accountability, and serving others.

Despite some limitations to the comparison, I think there is a strong case for cross-pollination between the two traditions. By embedding craftsmanship within the frame of the Nolan principles, we can ensure that well-crafted software serves the public good.

The UK has a proud heritage of digital mastery in government. As a founding member of the Digital Nations, London hosted the inaugural D5 Summit 2014. In 2016 the UK was ranked first in the UN E-Government ranking. However in recent years we have slipped to 11th as other nations improve.

The 2022-2025 government strategy ‘Transforming for a Digital Future’ seeks to catch up with other countries and importantly, with the private sector. I believe that Software Craftsmanship has the potential to be rocket fuel for government ambitions. Embracing it will help to modernise its software, secure its cloud architecture and future-proof its internal capabilities.

Codurance has worked with many organisations that have adopted these software craftsmanship principles and looks forward to openly sharing our ethos across the public sector.

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