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Learn from failure: the key lesson that Universal Credit should take from agile

At its outset there was considerable hope that Universal Credit would signal a break with the large Government IT failures of the past. It was held up by DWP as an example of the department adopting new ‘agile’ ways of working. But as the new NAO report makes clear, serious improvements need to be made if Universal Credit is to fly.

Introducing Universal Credit was always going to be a “courageous” undertaking. There were the technical and managerial challenges of simplifying complex benefits, together with large scale change to IT and working processes. Furthermore the project aims were also set very high - to change culture among benefit recipients while making sure the most vulnerable people did not slip through the net. And all of this was to be implemented at a time when budgets, and staff resources, were being dramatically reduced. Some were sceptical from the start – not least the Treasury. But this was the project that Secretary of State Iain Duncan-Smith came into government to implement – and it was driven on a wave of political momentum. The government’s track record of IT disasters meant that there were warning lights flashing from the start as it was a project that depended on major IT change. There was a real push inside and outside government to change the way government ran IT projects, as we set out in our 2011 report, System Error. We, along with others, welcomed the news that Universal Credit would be run differently to past projects, using agile techniques to deliver iterative, modular functionality that was tightly focused on the needs of users. So should today’s NAO report force us to reconsider the potential for agile? And are their other wider lessons to be learned about policy implementation in government? After a brief blooming of openness about how Universal Credit would be run, things then went quiet. Despite intermittent rumblings of problems surfacing from time to time in the media, the department continued to inform Parliament that everything was proceeding as planned (Tony Collins provides a full account of this on his blog). Then, last year the Major Projects Authority (MPA) graded the programme Amber/Red. According to the MPA this rating meant: “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.” Yet the department’s responding narrative was entirely positive and made no reference to why it had received this rating. Nor did it refer to the reset that was immediately carried out to try and get the programme back on track. The NAO’s new report confirms difficulties and sheds further light on their causes. DWP has responded that they are “committed to delivering Universal Credit on time by 2017 and within budget, and under new leadership we have a plan in place that is achievable”. Time will tell whether the actions taken will be sufficient but it is important that we learn the right lessons from experiences to date. Why did no one see there was a problem earlier? One of the key failures that the NAO identify is a lack of transparency and information on key elements of the programme. It states: “The board did not have adequate performance information to challenge the programme’s progress” and also describes a ‘good news’ reporting culture. There was also a lack of information to support financial governance and the assessment of supplier performance. This is something that the programme’s latest chief has acknowledged and intends to reform. In the Institute’s Improving Decision Making report, we argue that demand for information is a key driver of quality information. So the board, the centre, Parliament and those holding government to account also have a role to play in demanding better information. So did agile fail in Universal Credit? The NAO suggests that DWP struggled to incorporate agile into its existing contract, governance and approval structures. DWP then decided instead to go for a hybrid ‘Agile 2.0’ before switching again to a ‘phased approach’. Given a core component of agile projects is regular results being presented and feedback openly feeding into the next iteration, the NAO’s remarks about lack of information and challenge suggest that agile practices were not really happening. The NAO concludes: “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.” So it seems more that Universal Credit failed to be agile, rather than agile failing Universal Credit. Does this mean agile can’t work in government? Quite simply, no. Agile is extensively and openly used by the Government Digital Services (GDS) to improve a range of government services. GDS are even now working with DWP to see if they can get help get things back on track in the department. Other problems But other problems have bedevilled Universal Credit’s development. Our report on the Olympics suggested lessons government should learn if it wanted to improve its track record on delivering big, complex projects: •Bring together the right people, with the right skills and experience in effective and stable teams. DWP have been unlucky, but they seem now to be nearer to creating the team they need. •Get the scope clear at the start – even if it appears to delay the project – and then be transparent about milestones, budget and performance against them. This was crucial to rebuilding public confidence in the Olympics – and this is what Universal Credit needs now. •Devote time, effort and money to good project management and assurance. The Olympics did this and Universal Credit needs to do so too. The Olympics showed it was possible to recover from a false start. Universal Credit needs to do that rapidly if it is not simply to become another exhibit in the policy failure hall of fame. Accountability Finally, the story of Universal Credit shows how difficult it is to disentangle accountability. Was the policy “feasible”? Should the Accounting Officer have demanded a direction from a determined and new secretary of state? Or was the failure all one of delivery for which the Civil Service should be castigated – as Iain Duncan-Smith has done today? These issues will be addressed in our forthcoming report on accountability.

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