Universal Credit – the amalgamation of various welfare payments into one unified entitlement which will vary in “real time” as claimants’ circumstances change – is at the very heart of the British government‘s plans to reform the welfare state. The idea is that the welfare system will “make work pay”. Once that meant it would have a shallow taper – in other words, the loss of benefit as claimants got work would be reduced: today that aim seems less clearly expressed, but that is another issue I won’t go into here.
Universal Credit is also the world’s biggest ever “agile development” software project and a massive financial and social (and hence political) risk for the government. Unless delivered on time and on budget then the consequences are grave – some of the most vulnerable people in society could be left literally destitute, with all that entails for their personal welfare and social order.
Yesterday the government – at least part of it – finally admitted in public what the rest of us have known for a long time: that the project is in deep trouble. As I have said before I have no political sympathies with the government but I do recognise that they have made a lot of progress in their handling of computing. They have opened up projects to free software – while Labour merely talked the talk but really did very little. And they have also instituted a more open review of big projects’ progress: which yesterday saw them admit UC was tottering on the brink.
Now they tried to hide yesterday’s report from the Major Projects Authority – releasing it on a Friday afternoon before a Bank Holiday and don’t even seem to have put it on their website - (NB: I am not accusing them of using terrorism as a cover because I do not think that’s true or fair) but even so it was another small step to transparency, though the failure to place it on the website is particularly manipulative.
The report placed UC in the “red-amber” category – not yet failing but very close it. The government department responsible for UC – Work and Pensions – issued rebuttals in their usual histrionic style – claiming this time that the assessment was eight months out of date – though back in September they were telling us everything was great then too: so either they were lying then or they are lying now or they have been lying all along. Other departments – especially the Treasury – are reportedly increasingly anxious about how big the pile up could be.
UC is being driven by politics, not a realistic assessment of how such a major project could be implemented. Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State at the DWP, has reportedly threatened to resign more than once if his blessed baby was cancelled and the Prime Minister, who is increasingly politically weak, has not dared to call his bluff. “Agile” has been treated as a silver bullet – not as what it really is – just another design methodology – while much of what is supposed to happen with an agile software development project – especially regular and repeated testing of prototypes - has been conspicuously absent.
Some steps have been taken to try to rescue the project. The back end – the benefits calculation – has reportedly been shifted to a “waterfall” development process – which offers some assurances that the government at least takes its fiduciary duties seriously as it should mean no code will be deployed that has not been finished. The front end – the bit used by humans – is still meant to be “agile” – which makes some sense, but where is the testing? Agile is supposed to be about openness between developer and client and we – the taxpayers – are the clients: why can’t we see what our money is paying for?
To me this looks like a game of political chicken now: whose nerve will crack first – the Prime Minister’s or the Secretary of State’s? Either way millions of people could face misery.
Update: The MPA’s report is on the web – here – though they neglected to publish it on the MPA’s own webpage, making it that much more difficult to find. The report defines red/amber status awarded to UC as:
Successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.