NAO report highlights the DWP’s issues with programme management and incorporating an agile approach
A report released today by the National Audit Office (NAO) casts doubt on the agile credentials of Universal Credit, a new single payment to replace a range of working-age benefits being developed by the Department for Work & Pensions’ (DWP).
The report says that, despite commissioning specialist advice on agile development methods, the department struggled to incorporate an agile approach into its existing contracts, governance and assurance structures and ‘repeatedly redefined its approach’.
In particular, the report says, ‘the Cabinet Office does not consider that the Department has at any point prior to the reset appropriately adopted an agile approach to managing the Universal Credit programme’.
The NAO explains that the government had never tried to use agile methods, whereby an iterative and collaborate approach is used for IT development, on a major programme before.
However, it adds, the DWP recognised the associated risks. For example, the department was managing a project which more than 1,000 people were working on, using an approach usually used in small collaborative teams, and had not defined how it would monitor progress or document decisions. The report adds that the DWP was confined by needing to integrate Universal Credit with existing systems, which use a more traditional ‘waterfall’ method to managing changes, and was working within existing contract, governance and approval structures.
By way of background, the NAO says the DWP decided to pursue an agile development path in December 2010, before moving to what it termed ‘Agile 2.0’ in January 2012, as a measure to try to integrate agile development with its legacy updates, which use a ‘waterfall’ method.
The programme was then ‘reset’ between February and May 2013, with the Government Digital Service (GDS) being brought in to try to redesign the system and processes. The report explains that, since the reset a cross-government ministerial oversight group, including ministers from the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, has taken greater control of major decisions.
Agile methods offer a fundamentally different approach to tackling business problems compared to traditional methods and tools, the report explains. Agile processes mean technical work can start on programmes before requirements have been finalised, and so can be suitable for projects with shorter timescales.
According to the 2001 ‘Agile Manifesto’, published by a group of software developers, the core philosophy behind agile development is: individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.
(Illustration courtesy of Standish Group Chaos University)