Universal Credit: the agony continues

Universal Credit was once meant to be the way that our (then) new coalition government would show it’s approach to public services and public contracting was different from the New Labour years.

English: It shows that agile methods are focus...
English: It shows that agile methods are focused on different aspects of the software development life-cycle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We would get a benefit system that would assist people back into work as opposed to a system, it was claimed, that encouraged dependency and idleness.

We would see a new openness in contracting that would allow small and medium sized companies to get in on the act, as opposed to just the few favoured behemoths who won so much work from Labour.

And, above all, it would be a project built on Agile methods – so demonstrating that public sector software projects do not have to fail.

All of that has turned to dust now.

Yes, a UC pilot is being run – on a micro scale. And I have even been told – though I cannot verify this – that it is entirely paper based, with IT systems not being used at all.

Work – or certainly the vast bulk of it – has gone to the usual suspects.

And Agile has been abandoned. Good old fashioned Waterfall prevails.

How Agile it ever was is seriously open to doubt given the details of a staff attitudes survey recently published in the Guardian. For instance:

I have never worked somewhere where decision making was so apparently poor at senior levels … and communications from that level was totally nonexistent. This programme should be a case study for how not to engage with your people to get the most out of them.


There is a divisive culture of secrecy around current programme developments and very little in the way of meaningful messages for staff or stakeholders explaining what will happen and when.

Reading these comments you can see why so many defenders of Agile – and there are plenty of them – get so annoyed when UC is or was described as an Agile project. Plainly – if these comments are any guide – it never was Agile at all.

But the fact is that the Agile boosters were not unhappy about it being described that way at the start.

I was present when the announcement that UC would be delivered by Agile methods was made at the Institute of Government. No one there thought fit to say – as so many Agile defenders do now – that a project this big, this mission critical to government, should not be attempted via Agile.

The government have failed to be honest about the melt down of the UC project – repeatedly claiming that any piece of bad news is merely an historical datum and that Things Are Better Now. That level of dishonesty is scandalous: we deserve to be told about the reality, not fed rubbish.

But the software industry needs to show it is capable of honesty too. Too many people chased after the money and were not willing to be honest about how crazed this whole project was from the very start.

Hopefully UC, in some form or other, will still be delivered. Many of the poorest and must vulnerable in our society depend on it working. Thankfully the government has now also given itself a fair amount of time to clean up its mess. But it is already clear that – like most software projects in the public and private sector – this one has failed to deliver all its specified features on time and to budget.


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