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Introduction of Universal Credit
Universal Credit is a new welfare system providing financial subsidies for the jobseekers and the low-income families in the United Kingdom. It regards TheDepartment for Work and Pensions(DWP) as a single government department being responsible for the operation of Universal Credit (Royston, 2012). In addition, it combines a variety of original relief payments and benefits, such as jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) and income support, to a single system (National Audit Office, 2013). Due to integrate the original completed welfare systems into a single system, it provides a more effective and convenient approach to the masses and the government branches which allows them to simplify any application such as job searching and data collection. The Universal Credit system aims users to track the cash flow and transition under the well-defined regulations as well.
In order to operate the system more automatically, the department of Universal Credit invested more than half capitals on establishing and developing IT online system. According to National Audit Office (2013) states, the functions of the IT system include claimants’ application system, claims administration and identification systems, financial information systems and information security systems. It also points out that the project of Universal Credit links the information from many government authorities, for example: DWP, HM Revenue and Customs (HMPC) and local governments. Because it is a complicated project, the IT system of Universal Credit needs to be supported by safety, quality-guaranteed and real-time software and systems to prevent error happened. The plan, which the department adopted, is to employ Accenture, IBM, HP and BT to be the system suppliers to build a multi-functional IT system for the department and the users.
The advantages of Universal Credit are that it allows claimants, people who apply the financial assistance, to understand their welfare entitlements in an easy way. It also offers a simple channel with integrating numerous application accesses to the applicants which allows them to apply various allowances they should have. Moreover, Universal Credit promotes motivation of the unemployed to work that it ensures the out-of-work people can obtain more income compared to the period when they receive benefits while they start working (National Audit Office, 2013). In the British government’s point of view, the benefits of Universal Credit are less expenditure and high efficiency. The report (2013) states that the operation of Universal Credit can reduce personnel costs and simplify the workflow about the claims. More importantly, this project can decrease the errors and the mistakes caused by man as well as detects the fraud created by the ill-intentioned individuals. With numerous advantages, the DWP decides to attempt to launch the Universal Credit program in Tameside, Wigan, Warrington and Oldham in April 2013, then plans to implement this program throughout the UK in October.
The current state of Universal Credit program
Although Universal Credit program seems to be a well-designed system, National Audit Office (2013) believes that the timetable of establishing Universal Credit online system is overly optimistic. It sternly points out the defects of its IT system which may lead to more spending on developing IT construction, it also questions about the capability of IT technique which may not achieve the purpose of simplifying the current welfare system. Without considering these issues, it will generate the loopholes in information security that may harm people’s interests and cause reputational damage to the UK governments. After assessment, the Major Projects Authority decided to suspend the national implementation of the program, set up a reset team to resolve the security risk of the IT system running in Tameside.
The current IT system of Universal Credit
In the early stage, the IT system of Universal Credit adopted traditional plan-driven approach, or called waterfall model, to build the system. According to Winch (2013), the traditional PM triangle is a process-oriented model which keeps quality as the priority. This model defines the steps that every project cycle should include the processes of selection, define, execute, test and operate (Szalvay, 2004). It regards every step as a complete cycle, which means the department has to ensure one step is completed, or it cannot move to the next step. Because the waterfall model is a sequential process, every procedure should be well-defined with clear targets. This model also regards quality as the priority that it needs to manage and control each step with fully-planned documents to ensure high quality of the system (Boehm, 1988). Hence the waterfall model is suitable for the complex software systems.
At the beginning of the Universal Credit program, the department understood its purpose that it had to integrate most IT functions related to online transaction to its system. As a result, it implemented plan-driven approach to design the IT system and began to propose the white paper with the purposes, functions, schedule, scope and budget of the program at the end of 2012. However, the department overestimated its capability of planning as well as overlooked the demand of the market, therefore it faced many challenges of modifying the schedule of building IT system in 2013.
The Problems of implementing waterfall model in the IT system
Although waterfall or called plan-driven model is an appropriate approach to design a complicated system, the department failed to implement this approach to develop the system.
As the report (2013) indicates, the department made an error evaluation about the percentage of online claims. It designed the IT system which can accept 50% online claims, but actually the demand is approaching to 90%. The wrong decision with waterfall model’s approach made the department to experience dilemma. Under this model, the department cannot flexibly change the blueprint and schedule when errors occurred, which is the situation the department faced (Szalvay, 2004; Winch, 2013; National Audit Office, 2013). If the plan has to revise in one step, it has to return to upstage to amend relative strategies (Boehm, 1988). To the last, it might change the content in the first stage, then progressively modify the IT system in each process. Additionally, this flow modification needs time to negotiate with different suppliers and departments involving in the Universal Credit program which has strong possibility to add more spend on resetting the IT system. However, the department does not have sufficient budget to afford the additional cost of the project of Universal Credit. Consequently, without accurately evaluate about the market demand, waterfall model with a document-driven strategy brings difficulty to the department to reset the IT system.
Reset the IT system by moving waterfall to agile approach
The IT system of Universal Credit is a highly complex project that it is impossible for the department to consider the full range of required functions before design and coding. With high uncertainty of users’ demand, the system developers would be stressed by unknown development direction in order to design a system to meet demand. This uncertainty brings high risk while changing. As Szalvay (2004) indicates that waterfall model’s approach is more suitable for use in low-risk, low-variance and well-defined project. The department identified the problem regarding to the inflexibility of adopting the waterfall model. Considering the timescale and budget, the National Audit office decided to introduce a more efficient approach to improve and complete the project. According to the report (2013), the department applied agile method to replace the waterfall model in order to reset the IT system.
Because of uncertain demand forecast, agile development enables to solve the problem by responding to the rapid changes in demand, which means that agile approach is a highly feedback-oriented development model (Sy, 2006). As he indicates, the agile divides a large, complex project to many small phases, each phase has a specific target and can be executed at the same time. Every development cycle uses iterative information processing to build partial system. In other words, the development of Universal Credit can categorize the system’s functions to several aspects, then simultaneously resets the system based on demands and suggestions. This processing model only requires a short development lifecycle to complete the system (Winch, 2013).
However, in the Universal Credit system, there is no indication to show the department appropriately implementing the agile model. Firstly, as Sureshchandra and Shrinivasavadhani (2008) state, the agile practice only has to check improved relevant documents and update them. But, the approach which National Audit Office choice is to review and alter all documents about the Universal Credit program. As previous explanation, waterfall approach is to correct all documents before modifying the system; agile is to quick response the demand without spending long time on document processes (Szalvay, 2004). The situation, which the department faced, is it cannot meet users’ demand. There are more than 90% of new online claimants, but the system cannot afford so many applications. Now the appropriate approach for the department is not to review and alter all documents. Instead, it has to update the documents associated with specific improved functions, then to modify the insufficient part of the system straightaway. Thus, the strategy which the department adopted does not implement agile, but waterfall model’s approach.
Secondly, unclear target causes more uncertain design direction of the IT system. National Audit Office (2013) points out that the department did not have any clear plan about the functions which need to improve, although it had received feedback from users. This condition would obstruct the department to simplify and classify the complex IT system to small projects. Then the department cannot focus on improving on specific functions as well as recording them at the same time, which may lead to no agile. In addition, unclear plan has a strong probability to impact the department to adopt agile from waterfall model.
In the Universal Credit case, due to the urgent requirement, the department has limited time and budget to reform the IT system. Thus, the efficient approach is to utilize existing infrastructure, move waterfall to agile to redesign the system. Under this condition, the department proposed the points that it would like to enhance the system functions, which means it finally set up the target for improvement. Unfortunately, the Cabinet Office did not accept this strategy because it believed the department had insufficient technique and a unclear proposal to improve the IT system. The department not only does not consider the point to reform in detail, also the plan about the IT infrastructures do not implement the existing system. This situation seems the department abandons the original system and stop continuing to improve, which is not the concept of agile.
Hence, from above analyses, it can be concluded that the department misunderstood the meaning of agile, kept obeying waterfall model. It also neglects the importance of defining uncertain factors.
Design with the test is also important
In the early stage, it seems that the department did not consider testing as a crucial part while planning the Universal Credit project. Because it adopted waterfall model’s approach to design the project, system testing is implemented after execute. The current state of Universal Credit system used this method that it puts tests in the final stage, which belongs to waterfall model’s approach. In the execute phase, the system programmers have to ensure they fully complete all the system according to the blueprint and schedule, then they can proceed to the next stage (Sy, 2007; Sureshchandra & Shrinivasavadhani, 2008).
However, this approach raises several risks to the system. Firstly, the programmers cannot ensure whether the IT system will run. In this phase, the department outsourced partial functions to certain system providers and requested them to support setting. For example, HP is responsible for hardware and work service platform; BT contract telephony service (National Audit Office, 2013). Every IT supplier developed specific system functions without testing compatibility or not. When they completed and integrated the entire system without system error, it may produce the compatibility issues that allow hikers attack the system or cause data loss when users implement the system which is related to information security issue. Another hazard is about time, budget and the users’ demand. If the system designers found that the developed system is not suitable for the requirements or it occurred error when integrating, the designers had to go back to design stage, changed the plan and rearrange the project to suppliers. This situation causes time waste, capital loss and users’ confidence fell to the Universal Credit program.
In the reset period, the Major Project Review Group understood this situation, thus it suggested the department to stop the plan. In order to avoid such risks and loss happed, it puts test and design in the same IT development stage. Although the department had considered test, it regards test as a subproject while coding. It also ran the system before fully completing to test whether the system had any error (National Audit Office, 2013). Therefore, the risk problem still did not be solved, although the department put test with designing the system.
Poor planning and design in the early stage
National Audit Office (2013) points out that the department not only had limited technique to code the system, it also had no ability to plan the whole project. In the reset state, the department rethought its original plan and proposed a new one. However, National Audit Office believed that the new plan is unclear. First of all, the department did not concern about scalability. Comparing to the previous plan, the system improvement is limited, which means that there were no significant change in the IT system. Secondly, the department did not consider thoroughly regarding to the system design. As the National Audit Office (2013) state, the department lost several information security functions, such as Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) which can aim to protect online transaction as well as to avoid data stolen by system intruders. This can show that the department does not have the capability to hold the plan, it also loses accurate determination of deciding an improvement plan. This disadvantage would impact the department to develop a strategic plan and implement agile approach to the IT system, it also raises information security issue the department, which may affect users’ confidence in the system.
Conclusion and recommendations
Currently, the IT system of Universal Credit has faced many challenges, and most of them come from moving waterfall model to agile approach. The department did not understand the essence of agile, it confused between waterfall and agile approach in the reset stage. Hence, the better solution to reform the system is that the department analyses feedback given by the system users, then it develops specific improvement goals based on the users’ demand, and alter improvement relevant documents at the same time. It processes only needs few days to complete. Later the department assigns the projects which are required to reform to the responsible suppliers. In the design stage, the department has to ensure that the suppliers have a test system while coding and return progresses to the department. Simultaneously, the department has to confirm that there are no compatibility problems between different IT functions to avoid security issue happened. If there is no necessary, the department tries to retain the original IT infrastructure, using existing hardware and software to enhance the IT system. This approach enables the department to save recoding time, reduce additional reconstruction funds as well as simplify the processes of rebuilding the system.
In the system, redesigning period, the department should focus more on scalability. Because the target customers of Universal Credit are national people in the UK. There would be a large amount of user accesses to this IT system accompanied with storing large data. To consider the system’s flexibility in the future, the system must be allowed to easily extend the components of hardware and software when it is necessary, which has to define well in the design phase. The scalability also includes fast processing online data and maintains the system’s performance. For example, the department has to adopt multi-servers’ approach, each host has to backup data simultaneously. This approach not only can share the load of each host, also can prevent abrupt termination of one server, so when an accident happened, the IT system still can operate. In order to prevent risks and maintain the system, the department has to consider future scalability and proposes a good system design scheme in the design stage.
In summary, adopting the agile approach enables the department to efficiently change and recode the IT system. It also implements system testing to help the programmers to find errors and incompatibilities. Prior to this, well-defined plans and clear objectives are crucial. In the reforming phase. The department has to consider the long-term plan which will allow it to easily add more functions in the future. Besides, a good strategic plan can aim to avoid certain expected risks. If the department follows these suggestions, the IT system of Universal Credit program will not be a headache problem. References
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Royston, S. (2012). Understanding Universal Credit. Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 20(1), pp. 69-86.
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