Universal Credit: back to “agile” and closer to death?

English: 3 Iterations of Agile Development Fra...
English: 3 Iterations of Agile Development Framework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Various leaks and briefings have, in the last few days, added to the sense that “Universal Credit” – the UK government’s plan to consolidate all welfare entitlements into a single payment that would then respond, in “real time” to changing claimant circumstances and so do more to “make work pay” – is coming closer than ever to being one of the biggest IT project failures of all time.

This morning’s Guardian reports extensively on a meeting held recently in Whitehall where the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – the sponsoring department – were forced to admit that the project has “gone red” which means, assuming that this refers to the cross-government project assessment system:

Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues on project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed.

In other words, the whole sorry thing is on the verge of collapse. In parallel the Cabinet Office’s “government digital service” (GDS) are withdrawing support for the project – seemingly refusing to pour more taxpayers’ money down the Universal Credit drain.

But only a few days ago we got another angle on all this when Computer Weekly reported that the DWP were freezing out its existing contractors and seeking to bring all the work in-house (the Guardian reports that the GDS don’t think the DWP are up to this.)

What is more, it seems that the DWP are again proposing to build the UC system using “Agile Development” – at least the “second stage” (which is in fact what  was meant to have been done by now first time around using agile).

Back in 2010/11 the DWP told us agile was going to solve all their problems and UC was proudly promoted as the world’s biggest agile project (including by many who probably should have known better). Agile flopped, and badly, and the DWP have been forced to return to traditional “waterfall” development methods – which are nominally slower – often much slower – but which guarantee no later stage of a project is begun until the earlier bits are working (hence the analogy of water cascading downhill in a series of waterfalls).

Now agile’s boosters are keen to tell us that “agile and world’s biggest don’t mix” but it seems the DWP haven’t heard and are again telling us (or rather, themselves, all this is through leaks and off-the-record briefings) that agile is the secret sauce that will drive them on to victory over the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

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