Universal Credit not at odds with agile, says former chief

Former programme director of Universal Credit, Malcolm Whitehouse, has denied the mega-project is at odds with agile development

The former programme director of the Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit policy, Malcolm Whitehouse, has denied the mega-project is at odds with the principles of agile development.

The use of agile processes, where programs are built in iterative, incremental ways, were lauded by government as a key difference in developing Universal Credit compared with other failed large-scale IT projects.

However, there are mounting concerns that the £500m already spent on the IT behind the £2.2bn project could be going to waste.

Several sources have told Computer Weekly that the programme has hit serious problems, with reports of suppliers told to down tools, budget over-runs, and key parts of the system being stripped back.

Many experts have questioned whether it is feasible to use agile methods for a project as big as Universal Credit.

Whitehouse stepped down from the role of programme director last November, following an overhaul of the programme’s leadership. His replacement, Hilary Reynolds, also moved off the programme this month.

Speaking at the European CIO Event, Whitehouse admitted that developing programs in an agile, incremental way was often a hard sell in government, which demands that projects adhere to rigid timescales and requirement specifications.

However, he denied that the government’s project monitoring processes were impeding the delivery of Universal Credit.

“Gated processes make it more difficult, but you’ve got to make sure that the end-to-end [system] works in the same heartbeat with the programme developing,” he told delegates.

“Part of the challenge with agile is to focus on high-value capability and build in increments - that can be a hard sell in government, as it is spending taxpayers' money and wants to know when you will be done."

He said cultural change was one of the biggest challenges, with the department having sent everyone involved in the project on a training course: “We needed to make sure that everyone, from ministers to those on the front line understood what we are embarking on."

He said the programme was using traditional waterfall processes to deal with back-end payments capabilities and customer databases, in parallel with the use of agile for front-end systems.

“The most important thing was defining what [agile] would mean for our organisation,” he said.

But one agile developer who left the project over a year ago, and asked not to be named, told Computer Weekly the tight timescales and complex system interdependencies did not work with agile delivery.

There is very little agile capability in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) nor the suppliers tasked with delivering Universal Credit (UC), he said. By its nature the department was not an agile organisation and required a culture change beyond attending a few days’ training, he added.

“Even with an army of experienced agile practitioners you would struggle to deliver UC in an environment as constrained as DWP,” he said.

The DWP continues to insist that the project remains on time and in budget.

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