All Governance Is Good Governance

We’ve made progress. We have an appalling team, terribly organised. We are engaged in a project without worth or purpose, rhyme or reason. It’s aims and schedule are as sensible as Crossing the Andes by Giant Frog. Now to erect truly wretched control structures around it. Scores of people must be involved in even the tiniest decision. Processes and procedures will be longwinded, complicated and onerous. There shall be far too many of them. And yet at the same time, they will get in the way of people doing what they should be, and fail to stop them doing what they shouldn’t.

 “Whenever I Hear the word Governance I reach for my Revolver”

It’s wrong to paraphrase Nazis(1), especially when dealing with something as mundane and workaday as software development. But sometimes even a psychopath hits on a snappy soundbite which can be borrowed and adapted. There are many lumps of jargonese gibberish flung around software development which could legitimately cause one to reach for a weapon, or alternatively a bucket to be sick in. Me, I find “resource” heads straight for my gag reflex. I have sat in too many meetings where with a completely straight face some fool utters such tripe as “the resource process was unable to resource an appropriate resource to fill the resource gap”. You mean you couldn’t find anyone to do the bloody job, you steaming nitwit. Or almost as rage-inducingly “concerns”, as in “we have some concerns about this approach.” In context this means “we will moan and complain at length without offering any specific criticism or useful alternatives, as we are spineless Teflon-coated whingers who do not wish to be held accountable for anything.”

But of all the many hated Business Buzzword Bullshit Bingo terms, the most despised has to be “Governance”. It is a word not fit to be anywhere near coding. We are writing computer programmes for God’s sake, not creating a devolved regional assembly with tax-varying powers. I reckon that even among the cabinet ministers and Sir Humphreys who could have reasonable cause to talk about Governance, it has the same aura as it does in our humbler environs. That is: killing autonomy and stifling progress by referring all decisions to executive boards of lofty, detached, disinterested, uninterested, uninformed and untouchable senior personages.

Governance in Practice

In a non-shambolic organisation, control is basic. You have one boss, and you do what she tells you. That’s it. If you have an idea, you put it to her. If it’s daft she’ll tell you to get lost, but if it’s not, she’ll say OK. Occasionally, you might have to chat one or two other people up too, but by and large things will be simple, basic and quick. As we are aiming for ruin and stagnation, this is of course anathema. Happily, Governance does not sit comfortably with the virtues of simplicity, clarity and speed. It has contrasting characteristics.

Complexity. Under full-scale, industrial-strength Governance, control is handled through a mindnumbing hierarchy of committees connected by a bewildering and tangled web of documents. Each committee demands a specific set of documents and no document can be used with more than one. The Business Project Board (BPB) expects to see the Business Focussed Business Case (BFBC) but this is not the same as the Technically Directed Business Case (TDBC) which must be reviewed by the Technical Architecture Project Board (TAPB). Separate again is the Overarching Combined Business Case (OCBC) which the Overarching Executive Project Board (OEPB) requires, and though this contains elements of the BFBC and the TDBC it is not just the sum of the two. And so on and on, ad nauseam, into acronymic Hades.

Policing. Your Chinese puzzle of interlocking, overlapping steering groups will require a small army of officious and unctuous little men to ensure that their detailed requirements are fulfilled to the letter. Documents must be scrutinised for correct formatting. Submissions must be made according to the appropriate schedule. Requests for further information must be responded to in a timely manner. Minutes must be written and circulated. Actions must be chased up. Reports must be filed in the right location, at the right time, with content correct down to the last semi-colon.

This monstrous regiment of clerks normally goes by the name of the Project Office. When hiring for these roles, pick applicants with no sense of proportion, a mania for trivial detail and an inflated sense of self-worth. You should look for the hair-splitting berk who would read a suicide note and, in red biro, correct the use of apostrophe’s (2).

Obscurity. It should never be clear exactly what a particular committee is responsible for, which committees need to approve which actions, or what documents should be provided in any given case. For a work package of less than 10 days do I raise a Budget Request as well as a Development Request ? Can that be approved by the TAPB on its own, or do I have to submit it to the OEPB for information ? Or the BPB ? BPM ? OECD ? CIA ? BBC ? BFG ? WTF ?.

To maximise obscurity, keep everything fluid. Committee membership. Documentation requirements. Areas of responsibility. Even existence. Create a new committee every so often and put it in charge of something, but don’t get rid of the old one that previously was  in charge of whatever it was. Now they both have to discuss the same issues, and they both have to agree. If your instinct at this point is to create yet another committee with an “assurance” role to oversee their combined operation, then you’re starting to get the hang of this game.

Pomposity. The apparatus of governance should operate with a po-faced sense of superiority and self-importance at all times. Governance is more important than everything else. Much more important than fixing problems, running the business, writing code, serving your customers or any of that malarkey.

And finally, Fear. It should be clear to all that work can only be done within Governance. To be out of Governance must be the cardinal sin within the workplace, carrying a real risk of serious disciplinary action. At least twice a year you should throw the book at a governance-dodging renegade. Best to pick a trivial infraction with good intent behind it, just to show that you mean business. That’ll encourage everyone else nicely.

Your Pantheon of Inspiring Role Models.

Your Heroes: a Pantheon of Inspiring Role Models.

What you are looking to create here is an all-encompassing totalitarian bureaucracy combining the greatest hits of Soviet Russia, the British Civil Service, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Franz Kafka and Dilbert. If you get your governance cranked up really high, you’ll have your staff spending around 83% of their time wrestling with it. With 15% of the average worker’s day spent web surfing, on the loo or drinking tea with their workmates, that leaves just three quarters of an hour per person per week to write any actual software. If you are able to create a combined internet-browsing, toilet-visit and tea-break requisition process, with one working party to adjudicate on applications and another to oversee the operation of the first, you should be able to squeeze that 45 minutes down to about 10, and you will have done very well indeed.

(1) The oft-modified phrase “Whenever I hear the word Culture, I reach for my revolver” was a favourite of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. But then, despite being both politically and physically disgusting, Goering did have a certain facility with language. For example, when discussing the de Havilland Mosquito in 1943:

“In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops. After the war is over I’m going to buy a British radio set – then at least I’ll own something that has always worked.”

Ah, for those long-lost days when Great Britain had both the moral high ground and the best engineers.

The de Havilland Mosquito. A successful British technology project.

The de Havilland Mosquito. A successful British technology project.

(2) I know. It should be apostrophes’

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One Response to All Governance Is Good Governance

  1. Pingback: In Praise of Stasis(II): Why a Change is Nowhere Near as Good as a Rest | IT Shambles

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