Universal Credit: government closer to recognising failure?

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician...
English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician and former leader of the Conservative Party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Universal Credit – the amalgamation of various welfare payments into one unified entitlement which will vary in “real time” as claimants’ circumstances change – is at the very heart of the British government‘s plans to reform the welfare state. The idea is that the welfare system will “make work pay”. Once that meant it would have a shallow taper – in other words, the loss of benefit as claimants got work would be reduced: today that aim seems less clearly expressed, but that is another issue I won’t go into here.

Universal Credit is also the world’s biggest ever “agile development” software project and a massive financial and social (and hence political) risk for the government. Unless delivered on time and on budget then the consequences are grave – some of the most vulnerable people in society could be left literally destitute, with all that entails for their personal welfare and social order.

Yesterday the government – at least part of it – finally admitted in public what the rest of us have known for a long time: that the project is in deep trouble. As I have said before I have no political sympathies with the government but I do recognise that they have made a lot of progress in their handling of computing. They have opened up projects to free software – while Labour merely talked the talk but really did very little. And they have also instituted a more open review of big projects’ progress: which yesterday saw them admit UC was tottering on the brink.

Now they tried to hide yesterday’s report from the Major Projects Authority – releasing it on a Friday afternoon before a Bank Holiday and don’t even seem to have put it on their website –  (NB: I am not accusing them of using terrorism as a cover because I do not think that’s true or fair) but even so it was another small step to transparency, though the failure to place it on the website is particularly manipulative.

The report placed UC in the “red-amber” category – not yet failing but very close it. The government department responsible for UC – Work and Pensions – issued rebuttals in their usual histrionic style – claiming this time that the assessment was eight months out of date – though back in September they were telling us everything was great then too: so either they were lying then or they are lying now or they have been lying all along. Other departments – especially the Treasury – are reportedly increasingly anxious about how big the pile up could be.

UC is being driven by politics, not a realistic assessment of how such a major project could be implemented. Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State at the DWP, has reportedly threatened to resign more than once if his blessed baby was cancelled and the Prime Minister, who is increasingly politically weak, has not dared to call his bluff. “Agile” has been treated as a silver bullet – not as what it really is – just another design methodology – while much of what is supposed to happen with an agile software development project – especially regular and repeated testing of prototypes – has been conspicuously absent.

Some steps have been taken to try to rescue the project. The back end – the benefits calculation – has reportedly been shifted to a “waterfall” development process – which offers some assurances that the government at least takes its fiduciary duties seriously as it should mean no code will be deployed that has not been finished. The front end – the bit used by humans – is still meant to be “agile” – which makes some sense, but where is the testing? Agile is supposed to be about openness between developer and client and we – the taxpayers – are the clients: why can’t we see what our money is paying for?

To me this looks like a game of political chicken now: whose nerve will crack first – the Prime Minister’s or the Secretary of State’s? Either way millions of people could face misery.

Update: The MPA’s report is on the web – here – though they neglected to publish it on the MPA’s own webpage, making it that much more difficult to find. The report defines red/amber status awarded to UC as:

Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.

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24 thoughts on “Universal Credit: government closer to recognising failure?”

  1. Sort of reminds me of the United States Internal Revenue Services quest to update their I.T. systems and applications. That failed miserably too.

    1. @Garrett

      One of the things you should think twice about is whether what’s reported is even close to the truth. Not least whether what’s described as Agile is even close to what most people would recognise as such, and that’s even entirely accepting that Agility is not a binary state but a continuum.

  2. Agile is not a single methodology, but rather a family of methodologies, all of which share a goal of increasing the efficiency of the development process. Before we say this is a failure of the Agile methodology, we must determine which parts of Agile were utilized, and whether they were properly utilized.

    I am just beginning my study of Agile, and evaluating whether I need to learn it, or use other time tested methods to produce efficient and reliable software.

  3. Reblogged this on The SKWAWKBOX Blog and commented:
    An almost apolitical assessment of the DWP’s universal credit programme still concludes it’s pretty much a busted flush. If only Smith WOULD do millions of us a favour and resign!

  4. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    “In September they [our old friends the DWP] were telling us everything was great then too: so either they were lying then or they are lying now or they have been lying all along… millions of people could face misery.”
    An even-handed appraisal of the precarious project we know as Universal Credit – and of the position of its architect, Iain Duncan Smith. It’s a quick read and I recommend it. Thanks to the Skwawkbox blog for finding it.

  5. Ian Duncan Smith threatened to resign and the Prime Minister still didn’t cancel the project? Cameron is even more lacking in sense and judgement than I thought

  6. Also worth considering: a train wreck is gonna be a train wreck either way. Fail on the basics and the project’s going down regardless of methodology.

  7. Talking about Agile as thought it is a process rather than a set of ideals just proves this was not an Agile project, so does “especially regular and repeated testing of prototypes – has been conspicuously absent”.

  8. Agile’s iterative methodology is good for smallish projects which need frequent small changes to make the application or system fit for purpose. I’ve seen it used very successfully in website development. However it isn’t very good for large complex distributed projects like Universal Credit, which I considered was a dead duck as soon as I heard of it. I mean really. As if Tax Credits weren’t bad enough. UC involved claimants and employers making monthly updates of their status in order to recalculate entitlements via the real-time system; local authorities had to be rolled into the system and all of their diverse systems made to communicate securely and seamlessly with HRMC and the DWP via the ATLAS system; conditionality to look for more work or better paid work in order to retain benefits was supposed to be extended to every claimant, unemployed or part-time employed, with an income less than 35 hours at the minimum wage, with Universal Credit paired with Universal Jobmatch to make sure conditionality was observed at all times… and so on… and so forth.

    Well, it was always going to end in tears wasn’t it?

    As soon it will.

    1. Yes, it certainly seems it will. The bizarre aspect of this is the way IDS has behaved as though “Agile” was the Philosopher’s Stone of software development. My gripe is not with Agile per se – I think it must make sense to do a lot of the things Agile demands – but with the way it has been used as a political tool to beat those who said “hold on a minute” around the head.

    2. It is good (and easy) for smallish colocated work. But it’s also successfully used for complex, distributed ones. Like CICS and DB2.

      But to be successful it requires significantly collaborative behaviour from all parties. And when the IT outsourcing industry has collectively screwed government agencies for decades, it trains civil servants to be entirely defensive and to tie everything up in contractual knots to make damned sure that the industry can’t get away with a single thing. I’ll bet you could work out the all the dodges just by reading the contract and seeing what is explicitly blocked.

  9. What if destitution and death are deserved and desirable outcomes for the poor and the disabled?

    There are people in cabinet who think that way; and many, many more who are utterly indifferent to suffering among those that they regard as ‘other’, or lesser, or the ‘lower orders’ – and the media have degenerated to a point that millions who might have some concern are never called upon to think about these things and these people.

    Worse, there are those who see a profit in the monetisation of human misfortune and misery. Does anybody really think that Serco and G4’s involvement in residential care for teenagers has resulted in better care, better ‘outcomes’, for vulnerable young adults? Wait until for-profit residential workfare for disabled people is a major industry – and a major source of lucrative non-executive directorships for labour and conservative front-benchers – and feel free to tell me that we ought to use a euphemism when it is described as ‘cripple farming’.

    This is our future. And in the meantime, destitution, malnutrition, preventable disease and death are a profitable opportunity and a desirable outcome in 21st-century welfare policy.

  10. Please nite that taxes for revenue are obsolete in a fiat currency modern monetary sovereign political economy, Beardsley Rink January 1946. MMT

    The economic problem is a wider than usual net private savings, output, employment gap. The best solution is to have a universal living job education training income guarantee of full employment

  11. All IT was outsourced to Accenture and from I’ve been told by insiders none of the actual development was done in an “Agile” way as Accenture flatly refused to work in this manner. Only the project management followed Scrum practices to some degree. This project was bound to fail from the start and it had less to do with the methodology taken and much more to do with I.T being outsourced to Accenture at the usual exorbitant costs

    The who “agile only works on small projects” argument is being proved patently wrong every day by Google, Facebook, Twitter etc

  12. This is a real shame for three reasons.

    1) A waste of public money.
    2) A wasted opportunity to show how Agile can benefit these types of project.
    3) Given Agile a bad name, although it appears that it wasn’t used at all.

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