Pretty lame

Inside the world’s biggest agile software project disaster

Lucy Carey

With millions down the drain, is it really fair to blame the IT squad for the UK government’s recent agile misadventures?

theory, it was a good idea -
using a
smart new methodology to unravel a legacy of bureaucratic
In reality, execution of the world’s largest
agile software project has been less than impressive.

By developing its flagship Universal Credit (UC)
digital project – an initiative designed to merge six separate
benefits strand
s into one – using agile
principles, the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) hoped to
decisively lay the ghosts of past

DWP-backed digital projects to

Unfortunately, a report by the National Audit
Office (NAO) has demonstrated that the UK government’s IT gremlins
remain in rude health, with  £34 million of new IT assets to
date written off by the DWP on this project alone. Moreover, the
report states that the project has failed to deliver its rollout
targets, and that the DWP is now unsure how much of its current IT
will be viable for a national rollout – all pretty damning
indictments for an initiative that was supposed to be demonstrating
the merits of the Agile Framework for central UK government

Perhaps  one of the most biggest errors for
implementing an agile approach highlighted by the NAO is the
failure of the DWP to define how it would monitor progress or
document decisions and the need to integrate the new systems with
existing IT, procured and managed assuming the traditional
‘waterfall’ approach.

Agile,which relies on small teams working at
speed to develop software on an iterative basis, is ultimately
dependent on successful management to bring the honeycomb clusters
of projects to fruition in a timely way and make sure that things
are ticking over as they should in individual teams. Whilst in
theory the agile framework should allow for rapid response to
issues as they develop, without someone to oversee these changes or
provide effective direction, progress cannot be made. The DWP had a
large number of teams involved in the UC effort, each with
different priorities and  objectives. All it would take was
one problematic team for synchronisation of the whole project to be

On top of that, this was the first time that
agile had ever been applied to a mass immense infrastructure
project, one that was, from the outset, held by large contracts to
fixed terms with large suppliers – a contradiction to the entire
agile concept.

Ultimately, in spite of the bluster centering on
IT failings, the real thorn in the DWP’s UC digital
 initiative is  ”weak management, ineffective control and
poor governance”. The overseers of the project were never really
open to adopting the cognitive shift from the traditional waterfall
mentality that would have enabled the agile methodology to properly
take effect.

This morning Secretary for Work and Pensions
Duncan Smith
was doing his best to pin the blame
on the IT teams involved in the project, painting himself as the
one lumped with the job of cobbling the botched affair back into
something salvageable. However, there were warning flags appearing
way before any development had even taken place – even as the DWP
did their best to paint a positive spin on the

The DWP’s  ‘fortress’ mentality and ‘good
news reporting’ culture is also something that the NAO has heavily
criticised, and a quick glance at the UC digital implementation
strategy date provides plenty of examples. For instance; back in
September 2012, a spokesman  for the DWP told

Computer Weekly
that things were all on
track, saying that because the IT system was 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.” This
-laden missive was announced just
one month after the project was ‘re-set’, something that has only
come to light this week.

The UC programme is now being piloted in

Greater Manchester at a single job centre
where 1,000 claimants draw benefits. In theory, this should steer
the scheme closer to the agile principles, allowing developers to
work on a pared-down trial and error approach, and taking on the
challenge of creating lots of complex systems a step at a

Whilst UK government isn’t the first hierarchical entity
to underestimate how difficult a complete overhaul of developmental
systems can be to implement, it certainly will be interesting to
see if this very public chastening will give it the incentive it
needs to do everything it can to effect the sea change necessary
for a truly agile system to ever take hold.

Image by Guilhem Vellut

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