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Channel 4 tonight 8pm explores DWP’s Universal Credit ‘Lobster Pot’…

October 27, 2014

“Jay Montrose had previously been living on his own and claiming UC as a single person. In June he moved in with his partner, Nikki Colton, who is pregnant, and their four-year-old son, Ethan. Montrose and Colton told Dispatches their claim took so long to process, they were unable to pay for food, rent and other bills, built up debts of £2,500 and eventually received an eviction notice from their landlord. Now their claim is being processed manually.” Sources: Guardian & Channel 4

DWP said the couple’s claim had been delayed because the pair had failed to complete the correct forms.

So, what went wrong at DWP? Lobster pots…

The intended ‘big bang’ implementation of Universal Credit was based on the ‘lobster pot’ principle. The idea was that once a claimant is on the Universal Credit IT system, he/she remains on it – no matter how complex their life becomes.

lobster

Water warmer in the Universal Credit Lobster Pot 
for a young, single man?

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For this simplifying assumption to work, the staff (using the cobbled together IT that DWP has agreed to write off by 2016) have to calculate up to six existing benefits simultaneously as soon as a claimant’s life gets more complex. The IT simply can’t deal with that complexity, so it is up to staff at Job Centres to do so.

When the coalition government came into power, it introduced a new IT Strategy to ensure that incremental ‘Agile’ development would be the norm, and thus new IT projects would be less risky.  There has been one exception to the rule: the Universal Credit programme.

Despite DWP’s insistence that an Agile and incremental approach was taken on Universal Credit, the NAO and the Cabinet Office “do not consider that DWP has … appropriately adopted an Agile approach.”  The approach was, in fact, the opposite of Agile: it was predicated on a ‘big bang’ implementation of all the Universal Credit functions simultaneously from October 2013.  A target that has now been abandoned.

Can the Universal Credit Programme be put back on track?

Perhaps, but two major problems need to be overcome.

Keep calm on track

Firstly: the ‘lobster-pot’ principle will have to be reviewed to allow a more incremental approach to roll-out. The idea of a ‘big-bang’ replacement of six major benefits by Universal Credit all at once will have to be revisited. The roll-out will be long, expensive and painful.  If the business case does not stack up, then the Treasury may veto further work until a plausible plan is figured out…

Secondly, and whether Universal Credit continues or not, DWP will need to adopt good Agile Project Management principles.  The NAO specify five conditions for this:

1. A realistic plan based on minimum functionality not a complicated wish list

2. A collaborative approach of policy experts and programmers working together

3. Effective programme governance

4. Prudent financial management

5. Improved Agile Project Management capacity throughout DWP

If DWP can govern the use of Agile Project Management effectively, and if the politicians (on both sides of the house) work with them on a realistic plan, Universal Credit may yet recover…

© Brian Wernham 2014 CC BY-NC-ND

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From → Agile Governance

8 Comments
  1. The immediate problem there would be the NAO’s demand for realism. That’ll never happen with the increasingly obviously mad fantasist Duncan-Smith anywhere involved.

  2. Reblogged this on sdbast.

  3. Reblogged this on nearlydead.

  4. Jonathan Wilson permalink

    You can’t use agile for such a system.

    By its very nature it must be implemented as either a “big bang” or multiple “mini bangs,” NOT agile. Even then the initial data requirements for _every possible eventuality_ must be done at the first mini bang stage.

    The initial data requirements must be known before hand, its like building a stock system that must have, in simplistic terms, a code, a description, and a price and deciding that just the description will do and at some point in the future a code and price can be tacked on “if needed.”

    Agile works only for embedded (as in already implemented) systems where instead of re-writing a new all singing and dancing system its incrementally “improved” and bits no longer relevant are not only stripped out but the data/programs are removed so that they don’t become dead wood.

    Over time a brand new system is developed, but it is done in stages (hence agile) as requirements come to the fore… to try and use agile for UC was either going to end badly, or be unworkable. Imagine setting up UC, rolling it out to a million people only to find that you needed to get a single item of information from every person already on the system manually as you forgot something.

    Also agile is just a term (think snake oil salesmen “consultants”) for iterative development, do a bit, change a bit, fudge a bit… it can work in small departments with direct feed back from the company requirements… say a book company decides to sell CD’s it no longer can use “bindings” (Hardbakc/paperback) but requires a new class. If you are lucky the “bindings” is actually in a file, just add more descriptions there… if you are unlucky its hard coded and 100’s of programs need changing… in this case agile works really well, small (even if multiple) changes to replace hard coded tests into file based ones, or slap a few more descriptions into an existing file… test it, implement it, roll it out, see if it worked… next task… all done. The level of connect is 1-2-3, Programmer, designer, user…. and besides which, the programmers are so close to the business that they know what the user wants as they know what the business wants.

    But in a system like UC if something doesn’t work or works incorrectly its to late to get the feedback from “users” to “programmers” (way to many levels of management and procedures and “users”… who is the user? The poor sod on UC? the DWP? the minster? the treasuary? you start to see where this is going?) or if a table(file) is badly designed its to late to redesign it, or (the probable reason for the write down) if the system needs to read a single file for a million records in another file and the back end data system is underpowered or just wrong (wrong hardware, wrong OS, wrong programming language, etc.) or can never handle it then you’re stuck without major re-writes which completely replace everything that went before it just because some ejet decided to use a file to store everything… or over designed the system or thought that Nth level normalisation was the way to go cos thats what they said at uni…. its big bang or no bang all the way baby!

    There are many other reasons why UC is wrong and is more dangerous than any other system implemented and if it ever gets fully running is one “accident/mishap” away from a total meltdown the likes this country has never seen… and when it does melt down, for it will, you will no longer have a local JCP to walk into. You and 7 million others will all have to ring up or some number, or worse still have to try and email/log on to the melted down system… and landlords (the few that have accepted UC tenants, or social landlords) will all be shouting “where’s my money?” and the poor UC sod will be saying “dunno… UC… huh!” When it fails, not only will it fail on one benefit in isolation, say HB in Derby goes tits up but the rest of the uk in unaffected, or just JSA but CB is still paid or CB is late, but other benefits are unaffected… instead it will be every single benefit for the whole country in one massive all encompassing “computer says no.”

  5. Bob permalink

    Agile is simply a method of software management and development, agile doesn’t make the creation of impossible software system possible when otherwise they might not be. The whole concept of Universal Credit is flawed and permanently unworkable. It is the concept of Universal Credit itself that represents an impossible obstacle which neither agile, waterfall or any other developmental methodology will ever be able to overcome: from the intrusive invigilation of claimants to the astoundingly unenlightened, cruel and unjust sanctions regime; to paying all claims made by different people in each household to only one single representative per household; to paying Housing Benefit/Rent Allowance direct to the claimant(s) rather than direct to landlords; to the ever present and insuperable scope in the system for across the board fraud… and so on and so forth.

    From a system analytical point of view UC is impossible.

    Universal Credit was supposed to take into account changes in personal circumstances of claimants flexibly, recalculating their entitlements on a monthly basis based on them haven proven to the DWP that they had been “actively seeking” enough work and similar by submitting supportive data over the public internet. Currently, after over four years, only some thousands of claimants receive UC and they represent the simplest cases possible, namely wholly unemployed single people and some small number of childless couples. No other categories of claimant, e.g., part-time or self-employed workers, have ever yet received UC.

    Agile won’t save Universal Credit any more than superstring theory will create perpetual motion.

    Universal Credit is doomed.

  6. Jonathan/Bob,

    Thanks for your detailed observations. I think I would draw a distinction between an ‘agile method’ such as ‘Scrum’ which addresses how a small team of people can develop new technology, and an ‘agile approach’ to project management to implement that technology.

    My recent article in ‘The Times’ addresses how top management can adopt such an ‘agile approach’:
    https://brianwernham.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/the-times-october-14th-agile-governance-by-brian-wernham/

    I am leading the development of some practical guidance on this to be published by the APM:
    http://www.apm.org.uk/news/development-apm-agile-governance-guide

    Brian
    London

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  1. Channel 4, 8pm: DWP’s Universal Credit ‘Lobster Pot’ – Brian Wernham | Vox Political

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