DWP drops agile from flagship government software project

The Department for Work and Pensions has dropped a coalition government scheme to avert software disasters from its £2bn Universal Credit programme.

The DWP gave up using the “agile” method of software development for Universal Credit, the coalition government’s flaghsip reform programme, last month.

It had before now repeatedly claimed agile was the way it would keep Universal Credit on track. The coalition government had meanwhile singled agile out as a major part of its flagship strategy to stop IT projects going calamitously and expensively wrong.

The Major Projects Authority – part of the Cabinet Office – was going to press-gang government departments to use agile methods on big software builds. Universal Credit was the government’s first – and immensely ambitious – big stab at agile.

Now the DWP has ditched agile and put Universal Credit back under the direction of the old method of software project management – called the waterfall method – that is widely blamed for government IT’s track record being so atrocious.

News of the u-turn slipped out last month in a written parliamentary statement by Mark Hoban, minister of state for work and pensions.

“In its final stages from April 2013, the programme is using the waterfall approach – a standard DWP testing methodology,” said Hoban in answer to a written question from Steven Timms, the shadow employment minister.

“Initial development used agile,” said Hogan. But it was no longer needed. “In a programme as complex as Universal Credit, which includes new IT developments and changes to existing IT assets, both agile and waterfall methods may be appropriate at different times.”


The u-turn raises questions about whether the government was wrong to pin its hopes on agile as the way to crack the government IT problem: did DWP ditch agile because it didn’t work? Was agile not all it was cracked up to be?

Or did DWP make such a bodge of agile that Universal Credit is now likely to be a bodge as well. Did failure compel it to fall back quickly to the well-worn waterfall path in an attempt to get things back on track?

A DWP spokesman said neither case was true.

“Just because we are not using agile doesn’t mean agile is inherently flawed, or that Universal Credit is inherently flawed,” he said. “It probably means agile is at a point where agile is not appropriate.”

Yet DWP and the coalition government had always made much more of agile.

Iain Duncan Smith, secretary of state and mastermind of the Universal Credit reforms, insisted only in September last year that DWP would continue using agile on Universal Credit until its final delivery date in 2017.

Agile was not something he had grabbed from the tool box for only as long as he needed to tighten a nut. Agile was at the heart of government policy to stop big IT projects like Universal Credit going wrong. And it was at the heart of Iain Duncan Smith’s plan for Universal Credit too. Yet six months later, it was dropped offhand.

It is as though agile never really mattered at all.

Yet this is what the Cabinet Office said about agile in its ICT strategy in March 2011: “Lean and agile methodologies will reduce reduce the risk of project failure.

“The application of agile ICT delivery methods, combined with the newly established Major Projects Authority, will improve government’s capability to deliver projects successfully.”

DWP IT chief and government chief information officer Joe Harley said in May 2011 that agile would ensure his department delivered Universal Credit on time in October 2013.

Then last year it started to look like DWP was going to manage only a token roll-out of Universal Credit in October 2013. That’s when Duncan Smith came out with the most complete description of to agile software development, and the most clear commitment to it that, really, anyone in the software community could ever hope to imagine. Universal Credit wasn’t just agile. It really was agile. And it would remain so to the bitter end of the roll-out in 2017.

“There is a lot of ignorance at the moment in the media… saying, ‘You are not going to be ready on time’. The truth is the time that we deliver this is 2017. So that is over four years. We start that process in October,” Duncan Smith told the Work and Pensions Committee on 17 September 2012.

“The whole point about the agile process – which I find frustrating at times, because we cannot quite get it across to people – is to understand that agile is about change.

“It is about allowing you to get to a certain point in the process: one leap – check it out, make sure it works.

“And as you go into the next leap, you come up with something that says, ‘We can rectify some of the issues in this, and make that even more efficient’.

“You are constantly rolling forward, improving and making more efficient things. There is a constant retrospective change that goes on to complete that system, and that is what will happen all through those four years,” he pledged.

Now it’s not going to be agile after all. There was always a question over whether Universal Credit really was agile. Put your ear to the ground now and you will hear that Universal Credit may not have really been agile at all.

It looks like the secretary of state may have found it convenient to use the agile story as a political fireguard: an excuse for yet another project running late and over-budget.

If you set the deadline far enough away – 2017, say – and pick a pie-in-the-sky budget of a large enough amount – £2bn, say – then you create enough room for the same old mistakes and slippages to happen without causing political damage. Universal Credit was going to take two years. But the “agile” buffer has given the project a six to seven-year timescale and a good covering story. Even if it is not really agile at all.

But if DWP and Cabinet Office were as genuinely committed to agile as they said they were, then there must be another reason why it has been dropped from the programme now.

Attention must turn to Accenture and IBM, who are on track to earn £1bn between them as lead developers of the system. They may have played the most significant part in agile’s failure at DWP, or DWP’s failure at agile. Accenture and IBM may have found agile commercially inconvenient. Neither has yet been able to speak about it.

This puts the software community in a bit of a quandry. If Universal Credit was never really agile but is still on track, then what is the point of agile? But if government was committed to agile and has ditched it after all, then again, what is the point of agile?