The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims the IT behind its flagship Universal Credit (UC) project is being developed using agile principles. But just how agile is the £2.2bn seven-year project?
Universal Credit is a complex IT project that involves switching off multiple benefits and reworking them into a new tax credit system.
Government insiders are concerned that this involves "too many moving parts in too many places" as HMRC’s real-time information system connects with local authorities, housing associations and millions of claimants; and too many risks in the IT, business process, help desk capacity, and online service design.
However, the department has insisted its commitment to agile methodologies sets this mega-project apart from previous large IT programmes that have failed.
A DWP spokesman recently told Computer Weekly that the IT is already mostly built. He said: “It is not a single IT system, but is being built part-by-part on an agile basis, as well as bringing in existing systems. It is being built and tested on time and on budget.”
Agile is a key commitment in the government’s IT strategy. Its principles include small teams working at a fast pace to develop software on an iterative basis. According to a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, A Snapshot of the Use of Agile Delivery in Central Government, the average number of people to a team working across 30 agile IT projects in government is less than 12. In comparison, UC has a team of 1,523.
But Bola Rotibi, freelance research director and expert on agile methodologies, says the large size of the project's team is not necessarily a sign that it is not using agile principles.
She said many large companies successfully use agile principles with thousands of developers, splitting them into smaller teams.
“The issue is over how those teams have been sectioned off and the governance in place,” she said.
“What I’d be looking for in UC is the plan and structure in place, the milestones, rate of delivery, and measurements for how well teams are doing. That will tell me how well they are managing that agile process,” she said.
Gus Power, CTO at agile software development company Energized Work, agrees that the size in itself is not an issue. But Power is sceptical about UC, believing the multiplicity of overlapping organisations involved in the project could pose serious problems to its agile delivery.
“The primary issue is that the department has to deal with lots of other systems and a number have not yet gone live. Being tied down in such a way is a problem for agile.”
The layers of organisations make it more complex as different opinions and politicking come into play, he said. “It’s hard to achieve a synchronous process when that is happening.
“Also we are not just talking about 1,500 people in the same organisation, but massive numbers of suppliers too – and it’s often not in the interest of large suppliers to be agile,” he said.
“I have heard they have done some good work on some small pieces – where they are executing end-user scenarios – but I don’t know how far that has gone.”
The problem is the end is only going to be as good as the weakest link
Gus Power, CTO, Energized Work
“The problem is the end is only going to be as good as the weakest link,” he said.
The DWP appears circumspect about its work on agile for UC in the NAO report. The department’s delivery team said it was crucial that staff working on the project shared the same premises and did not underestimate the key importance of communication, said the report.
“The Universal Credit delivery team believes, with hindsight, that it put too many technical, organisational and commercial constraints at the beginning of the programme, which has affected its ability to deliver,” it added.
But one of the big issues in reviewing the progress of UC is that so much of its development is happening behind closed doors, making it hard to assess whether appropriate management and governance is in place.
However, according to a confidential report from the Major Projects Authority obtained by Computer Weekly last year, the body has cast doubt on its agile foundations.
The MPA's Starting Gate Review of Universal Credit report was broadly positive about the project but said: "The use of an agile methodology remains unproven at this scale and within UK government, however, the challenging timescale does present DWP with few choices for delivery of such a radical programme,"
The report said the programme is using conventional, multi-million pound contracts with large suppliers to deliver the system, with RTI being developed simultaneously using a conventional "waterfall" methodology.
In summary, the UC project is agile, but not as we know it.
Given the serious political consequences of this programme going wrong, the government must also be banking on it being ‘agile enough’ to differ from comparably-sized IT disasters of the past.