Tag Archives: universal credit

Agile approach ‘reduces risk’ but offers no delivery guarantee for FBI as Sentinel project slips again

By David Bicknell

A recent story by the US magazine InformationWeek Government has cast some doubt over whether a move to Agile development will necessarily bring IT projects in on time and to budget, despite the best intentions. Sometimes other technology factors, such as legacy hardware, come into play.

The report says an FBI project to develop a digital case-management system to replace outdated, paper-based processes has been further delayed, despite a move to use Agile development to hasten the project’s completion.

The system, dubbed Sentinel, is now due to go live in May, eight months later than the FBI planned when it embarked on the Agile development plan.

It follows a number of delays going back to 2006 in the plans to build a replacement for the FBI’s 17-year-old Automated Case Support system, which is used by agents and analysts to manage their cases.

 In 2006, Information Week Government reports, the FBI awarded Lockheed Martin a $305 million contract to lead development of Sentinel, but took back control of the project in September 2010 amid delays and cost overruns.

Then, the FBI said it planned to finish Sentinel within 12 months using Agile development. But that worked has slipped (the FBI had earlier pushed Sentinel’s deployment from September 2011 to January 2012), and a four-hour test of the system in October resulted in two outages, according to a report by  the Inspector General released in December which contains details of the Agile development’s sprints’ progress.

The FBI said the glitches  were down to overburdened legacy computer hardware and said the hardware will need to be upgraded to support Sentinel’s use across the agency, according to the Inspector General.

The report’s conclusion says:

The FBI’s transition to an Agile development approach has reduced the risk that Sentinel will either exceed its budget or fail to deliver the expected functionality by reducing the rate at which the FBI is spending money on Sentinel and by instituting a more direct approach to the FBI’s monitoring of the development of Sentinel.

!When we provided our initial draft of this report to the FBI in October 2011, we expressed concern that the rate at which the FBI was developing Sentinel’s functionality indicated the project was at risk of falling behind the FBI’s then planned January 2012 deployment date.

“In December 2011, after we completed our fieldwork for this report and after we provided the FBI with a revised draft report, FBI officials told us that the FBI extended the Sentinel deployment date to May 2012. While we have not had the opportunity to fully review the FBI’s plan to meet these revised completion dates, we continue to believe it will be challenging for the FBI to meet this latest goal for deploying Sentinel to all FBI users in this timeframe.

“It is too early to judge whether the FBI’s Agile development of Sentinel will meet its newly revised budget and completion goals and the needs of FBI agents and analysts. While the Sentinel Advisory Group responded positively to the version of Sentinel it tested, results from wider testing were not as positive. Also, none of the Agile-developed Sentinel has been deployed to all users to give them the ability to enter actual case data and assist FBI agents and analysts in more efficiently performing their jobs.

“Despite the FBI’s self-reported progress in developing Sentinel, we are concerned that the FBI is not documenting that the functionality developed during each sprint has met the FBI’s acceptance criteria.

“Our concerns about the lack of transparency of Sentinel’s progress are magnified by the apparent lack of comprehensive and timely system testing. Our concerns about the lack of transparency also extend to Sentinel’s cooperation with internal and external oversight entities, to which Sentinel did not provide the necessary system documentation for them to perform their critical oversight and reporting functions. We believe that this issue could be resolved, at least in part, with a revision to the FBI’s Life Cycle Management Directive to include standards for Agile development methodologies.”

Responding to the report the FBI said:

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appreciates the opportunity to review and respond to your draft report entitled, “Status of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Implementation of the Sentinel Project.”

“We are pleased with your conclusion that, by adopting an Agile development approach, the FBI bas “reduced its rate of spending on Sentinel” and instituted a more “direct approach to monitoring the development of the system’s functionality.”

“Indeed, as the FBI’s figures included in this Report demonstrate, while we have expended only 52% oftbe Agile development budget of$32.6 million. as of December 6 we had completed 88% of the required system functionality. The percentage of functionality completed has further increased during the time that has passed since your report was last updated.

“This accomplishment is significant. In mid-2010, the FBI charted a new course for completing the remaining two phases oftbe Sentinel program using an Agile development approach, which represented a substantial departure from its prior development activities. As a result, you concluded in this Report that the FBI is “expending significantly fewer dollars per month than it had in Phases 1 and 2 for the project.”

“In sum, we agree with your conclusion that the FBI’s transition to an Agile development approach has “reduced the risk that Sentinel will either exceed its budget or fail to deliver the expected functionality.” As you note, “at this point in time, the FBI does not foresee exceeding the $451 million budget to complete the Sentinel project.”

“With that in mind, we are mindful of the short delay we have recently encountered under our new” Agile” approach. The Sentinel development schedule has recently been extended by two months (from December 2011 to February 2012), and the FBI-wide deployment is now scheduled for May 2012, as described in this Report.

“This modest extension is due primarily to the need to implement a standard five-year “refresh” of computer hardware, so the Sentinel software will provide the required functionality as intended. Indeed, you have determined that, given the pace at which the program has proceeded under the Agile approach over the time period you reviewed, your estimate for completion is essentially the same – June 2012.”

Inspectorate General report

Agile for Universal Credit a good choice

SMEs and Agile to play key role as Government launches ICT plan to deliver £1.4bn of savings

By David Bicknell

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has launched a plan to implement the Government’s ICT strategy which it says will deliver around £1.4bn of savings within the next 4 years and help deliver better public services digitally. 

In its foreword to the Strategic Implementation Plan, the Government says it is committed to reducing waste and delivering modern public services at lower cost:

We have already saved hundreds of millions of pounds in 2010/11 by stopping or reducing spend on ‘low value’ ICT projects. These quick wins demonstrate what can be achieved by taking a whole of government approach and challenging the way we operate and provide services.

The Government ICT Strategy, published in March 2011, described our longer term programmes of reform to improve Government ICT and deliver greater savings. This Strategic Implementation Plan provides a reference for central government and is designed to be read alongside the Government ICT Strategy.

“Our plans are focused on standardising government ICT. In the past, government departments worked to their own requirements and often procured expensive bespoke ICT systems and solutions to meet them. As a result, departments have been tied in to inflexible and costly ICT solutions which together have created a fragmented ICT estate that impedes the efficiencies created by sharing and re-use. It also prevents government from offering joined-up, modern, digitally-based public services that are suited to local requirements.

“Affordability in the current ‘age of austerity’ requires a different approach. The approach set out in this plan ensures that departments will now work in a collegiate way, underpinned by rigorous controls and mandates.

“This is not just a plan to reduce the cost and inefficiency of departmental ICT.  Effective implementation of the Strategy has already begun in programmes that will radically reform front line public services. For example, the Universal Credit programme is one of the first ‘Digital by Default’ services, using an Agile approach to reduce delivery risk and improve business outcomes. 

“Success or failure of government ICT depends on greater business preparedness, competency in change management and effective process re-engineering. That is why, although we focus on the common infrastructure as a way of significantly reducing costs, the ICT Strategy (and this plan) recognises the need for a change in our approach to ICT implementation. In particular, implementation will be driven through the centre, as a series of smaller, local ICT elements, rather than ‘big bang’ programmes that often fail to deliver the value required.”

Significantly, the government says it will continue to reduce waste by engaging SMEs:

“Building on the £300 million already saved (from May 2010 – March 2011) by applying greater scrutiny to ICT expenditure, government will continue to reduce waste by making it easier for departments to share and re-use solutions through the creation of an ICT Asset and Services Knowledgebase, applications store, using more open source, and improving the ICT capability of the workforce. At the same time, it will reduce the risk of project failure and stimulate economic growth by adopting agile programme and project management methods and reforming procurement approaches to make it easier for SMEs to bid for contracts. 

“For all relevant software procurements across government, open source solutions will be considered fairly against proprietary solutions based on value for money (VFM) and total cost of ownership. Success will be measured initially by a survey of each department’s compliance with the existing open source policy. Longer term, open source usage will be measured annually by the use of a departmental maturity model. The ICT Asset and Services Knowledgebase will be used to record the reuse of existing open source solutions, and the deployment of new open source solutions.”

Specfically on procurement, the Government says it has the potential to leverage its huge buying power in the ICT marketplace. But it admits that government procurement of ICT “has in some cases failed to deliver economies of scale and failed to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.”

The government says its objective is to “reform government procurement through the centralisation of common goods and services spend by funding improvements in technology, processes and government wide procurement resources to better manage total procurement spend and government wide standards, such as those for green ICT.”

“Government is therefore committed to become a single and effective ICT customer, leveraging buying power whilst remaining flexible on how it procures. As part of this process government will create a more open, transparent and competitive ICT marketplace embracing open standards and open source that will remove barriers to SME participation in public sector procurement to create a fairer and more competitive marketplace.

Government Procurement has a number of strategic goals, including to:

  • create an integrated Government Procurement (GP) to deliver and manage the Operating Model for Centralised Procurement for all common goods and services including ICT, delivering cost reductions in excess of 25% from the 2009/10 baseline of £13bn;
  • transform Government Procurement Service (GPS) to be leaner, more efficient and to become the engine room of government procurement, delivering savings through sourcing, category, data and customer management across all categories of common spend including ICT;
  • formalise agreements between GPS and all departments to deliver centralised procurement and to improve capability, including within the ICT spend category;
  • deliver policy and capability improvements covering EU procurement regulations; transparency in procurement and contracting; removing barriers to SMEs; and
  • mandate open standards and a level playing field for open source; streamline the procurement process using ‘lean’ plus supporting programme to develop the capability of civil servants who lead government procurements.

The government says its key procurement metrics will be

  • Total spend under management on ICT common goods and services
  • Savings on ICT common goods and services
  • Number of ICT contracts with a lifetime value greater than £100m
  • Time to deliver ICT procurements
  • Number of active ICT procurements

On Agile, the government says many large government ICT projects have been slow to implement and technology requirements have not always been considered early on in the policy making process, resulting in an increased risk of project failure. Agile project methods, it argues, can improve the capability to deliver successful projects, allowing projects to respond to changing business requirements and releasing benefits earlier.

Its Agile objective is to improve the way in which the central government delivers business change by introducing Agile project management and delivery techniques.

By 2014, it says, Agile will reduce the average departmental ICT enabled change delivery timescales by 20%.

In delivering this, the government says it will be measured by:

  • Number of departments who have used the online Agile facility
  • Number of projects using “agile” techniques, by department
  • Total number of instances where the virtual centre of excellence has been utilised

ICT Strategy Strategic Implementation Plan

FOI team hides already released Universal Credit report

By Tony Collins

Universal Credit is one the government’s most important IT-enabled programmes, along with HMRC’s “Real-time Information” scheme, Whitehall Shared Services and the MoD Change Programme.

If the Universal Credit programme goes wrong benefits claimants could have payments held up or receive incorrect amounts.

For this reason it is important that the coalition doesn’t repeat Labour’s mistake of wrapping IT-related projects and programmes in so much secrecy that the public, MPs and the media only discover problems when it is too late to effect a rescue.

Early warning of faltering projects

There is an early-warning of projects and programmes that are likely to falter or are actually faltering: “Starting” gate reviews and “Gateway” reviews, which are independent assessments of big or risky schemes.

The coalition in opposition promised to publish Gateway reviews if they came to power but civil servants have persuaded ministers to drop the proposal: does the minister want opponents and the media picking up authoritative internal information on projects that may be going wrong?

Our FOI request

Because of the continued suppression of the reports Campaign4Change, on 20 May 2011, made a request under the Freedom of Information for the Department for Work and Pensions to release a copy of Gateway reviews on the Universal Credit project.

The reply was nearly helpful. “There have been no Gateway reviews on the Universal Credit programme.  There has been one Starting Gate review on the Universal Credit programme.” The reply, by Jack Goodwin of the DWP’s Universal Credit Briefing Team, did not include a copy of the Starting Gate review report, so we sent a follow-up email.

We pointed that that Public Administration Committee had already requested a copy of the Universal Credit Gateway Zero Review and, in response, the DWP had sent the Committee a copy of the Stating Gate review, though the Committee decided not to publish it.

On 13 July the DWP said it needed extra time to consider our request. Gina Talbot at the DWP’s “Freedom of Information Focal Point” said: “I need to extend the time limit because the information requested must be considered under one of the exemptions to which the public interest test applies. This extra time is needed in order to make a determination as to the public interest. Accordingly, I hope to let you have a response by 10 August 2011.”

DWP wasting public money

This extra time and consideration was unnecessary and a waste of public money because the DWP had already given the report to the Public Administration Select Committee. Indeed the Universal Credit Starting Gate report had also been lodged in the House of Commons library after an MP asked the Cabinet Office’s Ian Watmore for a copy in May 2011.

So the DWP was considering at length whether to release a report that the Department had already released twice – to two separate committees of the House of Commons.

Grounds for appeal

In August the DWP formally refused Campaign4Change’s request, so we appealed. These were some of the reasons we gave:

i) Universal Credit is one of the government’s “mission-critical” projects and its success will be potentially important to tens of millions of benefit claimants.

ii) In the public interest, MPs, the media and public should understand the project’s feasibility risks and chances of success – in short whether it has got off to a good start. The Starting Gate report could help provide such an insight.

iii) The Public Accounts Committee has recommended that Starting Gates be published. The refusal of our request would appear to be a denial of the wishes of the Committee.

iv) Sometimes statements in published Gateway reviews have turned out to be too weak, sometimes too strong. There is no reason to believe that if the reviewers know their reports are for public consumption they will weaken their comments; and if they do weaken them the published reports will allow the quality of advice to be questioned or challenged by what the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude calls armchair auditors.

v) The objection to publishing the reviews is that publication may inhibit candour. Starting Gate reviewers have a public duty to give the best advice they can (and indeed are paid for doing so). If they alter their advice to make it more acceptable to the public, media and Parliament they are failing in their public duty to give the best possible advice in all circumstances. Equally, if they give their advice in the expectation it will be kept confidential and therefore that they will not be held accountable for it, and alter their best advice on this basis, they could be failing in their public duty.

vi) There is no certain means for Parliament, the media or the public to know how large IT-based projects and programmes are progressing. Sometimes the National Audit Office reports on large IT-based projects, sometimes not.  The NAO cannot be relied on to produce the equivalent of a Starting Gate review on a large IT-based project or programme. Gateway reviews are not usually published contemporaneously.

vii) Coalition ministers have made it clear in numerous speeches that the public have a right to know how their money is being spent. Universal Credit is costing, as an IT-based  programme, several hundreds of millions of pounds. It is not in keeping with the spirit of ministerial statements on openness that the DWP keep confidential the Starting Gate review on Universal Credit. It is the only independent report on the feasibility of the project.

viii) Universal Credit is known to be a risky programme which senior civil servants have acknowledged. The Starting Gate review is likely to show whether or not those risks are understood.

ix) In refusing our request the DWP has not given any reasons for stating that it is satisfied that the “public interest in maintaining this exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure”.

DWP rejects our appeal

Our appeal came to nothing. It was refused by the DWP’s David Hodgson Stakeholder Manager, who said in a letter:

“The case has been examined afresh, and guidance has been sought from domain experts to ensure all factors were taken fully into account. I have reviewed the original decision carefully and have decided to uphold the original decision withholding information for the following reason.

“While we recognise that publication of this information would provide an independent assessment of the key issues and risks, we have to balance this against the fact that the review document includes operational details of a sensitive nature whose publication would prejudice effective conduct of public affairs.

“The Department is satisfied that the public interest in maintaining this exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

The report was  released months ago

The DWP lodged the report in the House of Commons library months ago so it is in the public domain anyway. The department’s effort and time twice refusing the release of the report wasted public money.

Campaign4Change has now obtained a copy of the report via the House of Commons’ library.  We  will, separately, publish an article on the contents of the Starting Gate review report on Universal Credit.


This episode suggests that officials at the DWP default to secrecy whatever the coalition says about openness and transparency. There are many superficially valid reasons officials can give to keep Gateway and Starting Gate reports secret. It is up to ministers to challenge that secrecy. If they don’t, the same mistakes and cycles will be repeated:

a) IT-related projects and programmes will continue to falter in secret, as they did under Labour

b) MPs and the media will try and find out the truth

c) Ministers will go on the defensive

d) The truth will eventually emerge and the coalition will be branded as inept when managing large IT-based projects and programmes – as inept as Labour.

If ministers publish Gateway progress reports now – as early warning reviews – we and others will applaud if early action is taken to stop or rescue a failing project. If ministers continue to pander to civil service secrecy the media and Parliamentarians will be right to criticise the coalition. Ministers have a chance to avoid the stigma of mismanagement of public funds. But will they take it?

Open Government? Up to a point Lord Copper

By Tony Collins

There is much we know about Universal Credit.

Ian Watmore, the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, has told MPs that the project is built on agile methods: it is split into two-to-three-week drops of code. The coding is divided into customer types  – and there are several thousand different types of customer. The simplest cases are those who have lost their job and the complicated ones are people who are in and out of work.

For each customer type the whole IT solution is being developed and is then tested with benefits claimants. Following agile principles, the problems encountered during testing are understood and the software re-coded.

The plan is to go live  with selected customer types by October 2013  – and it’s probably right that nobody in government will guarantee the deadline will be met.

This all sounds impressive but there’s one big drawback:  officials are refusing to release the “starting gate” review on the Universal Credit project.

Every major project now has to undergo a starting gate review to check it’s feasible before money is committed. It’s a good idea – and all credit to the team led by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude for enforcing it.

But officials are doing their best to stop starting gate reviews being published, even under the FOI Act. Officialdom  has even ignored an MP’s request for the starting gate report on Universal Credit. That MP, Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee, will pursue the matter.

Why the secrecy? 

It is likely that the civil service doesn’t want to publish starting gate reports for the reasons they don’t want to publish Gateway reviews: they’d rather not be accountable for what they say. If the advice is wrong it can be known years later when those involved have moved on. But the civil service would prefer that assessments of projects are not published while the advice is contemporaneous.

Hence the Department of Health has published Gateway review reports that are several years old. More recent reviews are published in a form that’s so heavily redacted – edited – that they contain no useful information.

Without the publication Gateway reviews,  the media, MPs and the public have no independent information on the progress or otherwise of large IT-based projects and programmes, unless they are scrutinised by the National Audit Office which has only limited resources. Without the publication of starting gates there’s no independent information in the public domain on the feasibility of big public sector projects and programmes.

So much for open government.


What is a starting gate?

The DH documents that mock open government