Agile and Universal Credit – secret report

By Tony Collins

Below are excerpts  from the supposedly confidential “Starting Gate” report by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority on Universal Credit.

The main finding is that, despite inherent challenges, “the programme can deliver Universal Credit”.

Media reports on Universal Credit have depicted the scheme as an impending disaster that may blight the coalition in the run-up to the next general election, but the Authority’s report says the programme has got off to an impressively strong start.

This will encourage advocates of agile in government as Universal Credit is the Government’s biggest agile development.

We requested the Starting Gate report on Universal Credit under the Freedom of Information Act but the Department for Work and Pensions refused to release it; and turned down our appeal.

We obtained the report outside the FOI Act, via the House of Commons Library. It appears that one part of the DWP was trying to keep the report secret while another part had released it to two Parliamentary committees [the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Administration Select Committee].

It may be that the DWP, when it comes to FOI, doesn’t know clearly what it’s doing – or is all but indifferent to the FOI Act and chooses secrecy to keep things simple. The DWP’s FOI reply to us was, at best, in  perfunctory compliance with the FOI Act. It made no attempt to set out the arguments for its decision not to disclose the report, other than to say disclosure was not in the public interest.

The Starting Gate  report was dated March 2011 and was largely positive about the start of the Universal Credit . These were some of the findings.


“The review team finds that the Programme has got off to an impressively strong start given the demanding timetable and complexity of the design and interdependency with other departments.

“This involves liaison with HMRC in particular, but also with CLG and local government in respect of the replacement of Housing Benefit as part of the Universal Credit.

“We found that the foundations for a delivery Programme are in place – clear policy objectives, a coherent strategy, Ministerial and top management support, financial and human resources – with no obvious gaps.

“The strong working relationship with HMRC and the inclusive approach with other key stakeholders within and outside DWP have quickly established a high level of common understanding.  All this gives a high degree of confidence that, notwithstanding the inherent challenges, the programme can deliver Universal Credit.

“There is a greater degree of uncertainty around the achievability of the intended economic outcomes because of factors which are not within DWP’s control e.g. the general state of the economy and availability of jobs.

“There are other risks which derive from trying new approaches: the Agile methodology offers much promise but it is unproven on this scale and scope.  The actual response of different customer groups to UC may pose a risk to its transformational impact if, for example, factors other than net pay turned out to be a greater barrier to take up of work than expected.

“The development of a range of approaches to contingency planning (which could be beyond changes to UC) could cover off unintended customer behaviour, whether ‘no change’, or ‘change for the worse’.”

Campaign4Change will publish more excepts next week.


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DWP partners with IBM to help deliver Universal Credit

4 responses to “Agile and Universal Credit – secret report

  1. All good points. The big IT suppliers are now talking about agile or Agile as if they have been following its principles for years, which few have.
    The Starting Gate report on Universal Credit accepts that the success of the programme will owe much to HMRC’s Real Time Information project being delivered on time and my information is that HMRC is struggling to do what is normally does let alone help to bring in Universal Credit. More on UC next week.


  2. The concerns outlined are not the only ones. The key concern is the use of Agile as Panacea. Don’t get me wrong I think Agile as an approach is the way to go and we have, as a software supplier, been doing agile (small ‘a’ deliberate) development since the late 90’s. I recently attended an Agile Tea Party in London previously mentioned by Tony Collins in his blog and was very impressed with what Richard Pawson of Naked Objects had to say about his experiences with Agile government projects, specifically in Ireland, and in this same domain. What the meeting of minds agreed on at this gathering was that Agile per se guarantees nothing, in the same way that any development or project management guarantee nothing. The key in all such matters is the way in which the tool (Agile in this case) is used. Mr Pawson, without naming names cited a project which failed because of a zealous (my emphasis) adherence to Agile the method rather than being agile from a development perspective. It would be a great shame to encourage a new methodology which existing suppliers say they do without actually doing it. I have seen an increase in the use of the term Agile by large Si’s and Intellect in various publications. Had these groups been advocates why are we hearing this only now. It’s a bandwagon, its another way of milking the cow and a reality check is very much called for.


  3. Fascinating, and thank you, Tony, for publishing the extracts above.

    There are many angles.

    This is just one — RTI.

    RTI = real-time information. UC will require RTI. No RTI, no UC. The payroll world has doubts about the feasibility of providing real-time information on wages and salaries and pension payments to HMRC/DWP.

    In subsequent publications, will you provide extracts showing that the problems of RTI have been considered and showing the proposed solutions.


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