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Causes of UK Agile Mega-Project Failure Examined

by Pollyanna Pixton & Shane Hastie on Oct 02, 2013 |

A UK National Audit Office (NAO) report and a leaked Universal Credit Programme (UC) internal survey blame the programme's failures on poor leadership and practices.

The Universal Credit Programme (UC) being developed under the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), integrates the benefit payments for millions of UK claimants. A National Audit Office (NAO) report and a leaked internal survey looked closely at the UC’s Agile adoption process but also put the management, culture, IT expertise and governance at question.

UC was deemed to be an Agile project expected to launch in 2017, is already behind schedule and over budget after two years. This flagship project will not hit its interim delivery of October 2013 and The Register reports £34m had already been written off in IT software and hardware that could not be used for the programme.

Agile 2.0
According to the NAO report, the DWP made too many pivots in the software development approach over the last two and a half years. In December 2010 DWP chose Agile as the delivery approach, but this met with difficulties in integrating with existing ‘waterfall’ methods for legacy updates and other contracts.
In January 2012 the approach was modified to ‘Agile 2.0’, “a hybrid approach which tried to combine elements of Agile and traditional approaches to IT programme management” and the DWP commenced on a pilot deliverable for October 2013. Parliament’s approval of the final regulations in December 2012 triggered another plan reset period from February 2013 to May 2013 followed by 100 days of planning.
The NAO report also states that after a review, the “Cabinet Office does not consider the DWP has at any point prior to the reset appropriately adopted an Agile approach to managing the Universal Credit programme.”

Weak Management and Lack of Detailed Vision
An internal UC survey leaked to The Guardian in August 2013, reports of

a near complete absence of anything that looks like strategic leadership in the programme
a divisive culture of secrecy around current programme developments and very little in the way of meaningful messages for staff or stakeholders explaining what will happen and when.
There is too much dishonesty and no one ever admits to making a mistake

Over the past year, the chief responsibility of the UC project changed hands five times. The NAO report summarized "the Department has particularly lacked IT expertise and senior leadership, with frequent changes in senior management". This lack of expertise included using Agile on a project of this scale.
The DWP was consistently noted by the auditors for a lack of a detailed “blueprint’, ‘architecture’ or ‘target operating model’ for this project. While efforts were made to correct deficiencies, it did not meet expectations and by mid-2012, the DWP could not demonstrate how to integrate with other systems.  

Under New Leadership
In May, 2013, Howard Shiplee who built the Olympic Park, took over the UC project. In an article in The Daily Telegraph Shiplee stated 

there were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn't and with suppliers not managed as they should have been. There is no doubt there have been missteps along the way. But we've put that right.

 

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