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The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) IT engineering practices are “dysfunctional” and “lack ability to deliver”, according to a highly critical internal report.
The document, seen by Computer Weekly, described a “seeming paralysis in DWP’s evolution into an organisation with a strong engineering capability” and blamed management for giving insufficient support to the 500-strong engineering community in the department.
The report was produced for the attention of DWP Digital chief technology officer Juan Villamil. The document said its purpose was to “explore what is needed for the DWP to evolve an exemplary engineering culture” and “improve overall delivery and performance”.
Titled Engineering strategy – creating an exemplary engineering culture within DWP, the paper said it has been “validated with the [DWP] Engineering Practice community as representative of their experience”, adding that “the community has moreover contributed substantially” to the report.
A spokesperson for the department said the DWP does not recognise the document as being representative of the engineering community’s experience. Computer Weekly sources said it was published on an internal Slack community for feedback, and discussed in internal engineering meetings before publication.
The DWP spokesperson said: “We are proud of our award-winning team who are transforming services for 22 million people. The findings reflect the personal opinion of an ex-contractor and appear to be based on a flawed analysis of a fifth of our workforce.”
The study cited poor welfare for engineering staff as a major factor in the problems it describes. The report acknowledged there have been recent improvements, but added: “We have lots of disengaged and isolated people frustrated with the organisational dysfunction and lack of ability to deliver.”
The document highlighted difficulties in moving from a “waterfall”-style operation to a more agile delivery model – a move encouraged by the Government Digital Service (GDS) for all Whitehall IT teams.
“Governance is fundamentally broken for agile delivery. A lack of rapid, consistent and conclusive decision-making is evident in the delays starting and funding projects and in hiring,” said the report.
“There are numerous stories of governance delaying delivery by months for the sake of miniscule benefit, if any. There are equally other tales of governance over-optimising a solution for a future that failed to materialise.”
The report pointed to “a large amount of middle management roles” in DWP Digital, which lead to managers “with no clearly defined authority, that obfuscate decision-making, drive admin-heavy processes and disempower teams from making decisions”.
DWP said that in a recent staff survey of DWP Digital, 92% of respondents agreed that “I believe that leadership is something we should all do, no matter what grade”.
The internal report also said that “some of our operating costs are excessive”, adding that this is ignored because IT is such a small percentage of the huge amounts of benefits cash handled by the DWP.
“This is accepted in the business by a general perception that we are paying out billions of £££s [sic] in welfare payments per year with a comparatively small operating cost. Even if it costs just 1% of that budget to operate the welfare state, it is deemed as good value for money, but compared to what?” said the report.
The document suggested a new approach is needed to tackle the large number of ageing IT systems used by DWP, which it blames for “a legacy of expensive, difficult-to-change systems providing marginal benefits”.
“Our legacy estate is built on an unsustainable technology which comes at great cost – we need to… realise that the operating costs are wildly excessive despite the benefits,” it said.
The report highlighted DWP’s extensive use of the Cobol programming language as an example of the problems caused by this “technical debt”.
It said DWP has “no strategy” to move away from Cobol, and pointed to a reliance on diminishing Cobol skills by adding: “The average age of our Cobol developers is 62, with the oldest clocking in at 76.”
Newer systems built on modern technologies are being established on top of the Cobol base, building up problems for the future, the report claims.
“We have tried multiple times to get off Cobol, but our flavour and modification of the language and runtime environment is not only limited to the UK, but is explicitly to the DWP,” it said.
“Significant technical debt is still building due to the lock-in. Consider the architectural fragility and debt being incurred by implementing robotic process automation as a layer on top of the Cobol estate. The ‘dirty’ fix may be making transactional savings for now, but how much cost is added when change is needed in the future?”
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Despite introducing modern DevOps working practices, the report said there is a “glacial pace of delivery” in DWP Digital.
“The focus on annual planning and large upfront design is the cause of a large amount of delay in delivery and in administrative processes,” said the report.
“DWP embraced the DevOps revolution, but perhaps failed to appreciate the extent of the complexity and effort brought into engineering by doing so. A vast amount of upskilling and learning was needed to make this happen, resulting in a slow pace of delivery.”
The report went on to provide suggestions for how to create an “engineering-led culture” that uses agile and lean techniques to transform delivery and management practices, in the way that similar techniques are employed by digital firms such as Amazon and Spotify to create greater efficiencies.
It compared DWP Digital unfavourably with progress made by the Universal Credit project at DWP after IT problems that beset the welfare reform programme in its early days.
“The reset of Universal Credit to be more engineering focused has led to successful delivery of a complex and difficult policy; this success should be built upon and reach beyond its current scope,” said the document.
“We need a clear articulation of the values and principles that the engineering practice unites behind,” it added.