The Universal Credit project – which plans to merge six current benefits into one single payment – was heavily criticised late last year in a Public Accounts Committee report for being delayed, inflexible and underdeveloped. The report found the government was still “unwilling to put sufficient information on Universal Credit in the public domain”.
It was, therefore, encouraging to hear from David Parry, technical and team leader at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the government department responsible for Universal Credit, who talked about some of the details associated to national roll-out at the recent MongoDB Europe 2017 event in London.
Parry explained about how he and his colleagues at DWP are building Universal Credit Full Service (UCFS), the digital platform for welfare reform, using agile delivery processes. Given earlier concerns from the Committee about flexibility, diginomica pressed Parry about his confidence that the 2021 deadline for national roll-out will be hit:
It’s very difficult to say. The backlog is obviously changing all the time. It’s looking promising at the moment but things change, so it depends on what gets put into the backlog and what needs to come out.
Universal Credit was announced back in 2013 and it is anticipated the single payment approach will also result in close to £7 billion worth of savings a year. The promise of these savings has allowed the government to persist with the project, despite the government having to write off over £100 million of IT assets built by the original suppliers.
Microservices > Outsourcing
UCFS, which is the new version of the platform, is being developed in-house by DWP. During his presentation, Parry explained how the technical team behind the initiative is building the digital service using a microservice architecture, with Java and MongoDB in the cloud. Parry said the approach allows DWP to rapidly iterate services:
Over the past few years, we’ve gone from a handful of microservices in a proof of concept study to today, where we’re now in national roll-out phase of our programme. It’s obvious that what we’re doing in terms of Java, Mongo, cloud services and agile is not particularly revolutionary. These are well-tested and well-understood technologies. What is revolutionary is how a large, government organisation has embraced agile as way of delivering something, especially on its flagship programme.
Parry said this agile way of working provides a clean break from earlier, waterfall-based methodologies, which he described as a classic example of government outsourcing. Parry said outsourcing long-lived IT projects brings several challenges, including lack of continuity, six-monthly release cycles and a lack of iteration. Building UCFS in-house helps remove these concerns. Yet Parry also referred to the challenge of building an alternative system:
It’s complex. Handling a government programme to consolidate six benefits into one is never going to be a simple process. It needs organisational change to run this kind of process – there will be over 20,000 people whose job it will be to support this system. They have to be trained and brought up to speed. You also have to think carefully about how to migrate claimants from existing benefits onto the new Universal Credit system, so they’re not disadvantaged. We’re dealing with a lot of people who need this money to be paid on time, so we can’t screw it up.
Parry mentioned the challenge of managing 20 potential points of integration, including legacy government platforms and new systems used to support Universal Credit. He also referred to the requirement to work closely with other government departments, including HMRC. Further complexity comes in the form of what Parry refers to as “unknowns”:
It’s a moving target, basically. Policy changes over time and assumptions that were made at the start of the programme need to be challenged. We need to be able to move quickly and respond to change.
The development team at DWP is embracing agile development and takes a minimum-viable product approach, where new services are developed, tested and iterated. The team started working in two-week Scrum sprints but is now using the Kanban continuous delivery method, pulling work into the team as new demands are identified. The team also uses continuous integration and runs tens of thousands of automated tests.
Parry explained how UCFS consists of several applications that share the same data. These applications include the claimant application, which is a public-facing web service. This application currently serves 270,000 claimants and will grow to seven million users when full-scale. DWP, explained Parry, is using a microservices architecture to help build UCFS. He said the organisation currently manages about 80 microservices and these are deployed on a cloud infrastructure:
The key benefit for us of this approach is being able to break down very complex logic into much smaller chunks. Those smaller pieces are much more manageable when it comes to building and deploying services. It’s much easier to work in parallel when you’ve get lots of smaller pieces because you can have separate teams working on various components. It’s also easier to switch out those components if you need to make changes as you’re moving forwards.
Parry said the organisation currently runs five cluster database servers, which he recognised was probably “pretty small fry” in comparison to other event attendees. However, the pace of development continues to quicken and the amount of data will increase in line with national roll-out. Parry expects there will be about eight and half million claimants at full-scale, which is more than twenty times the current caseload being put through UCFS. Projected database sizes will grow significantly through 2018 and will be “absolutely enormous” by the time of national roll-out in 2021, said Parry:
By picking technologies that reduce the cost of change, the UCFS team has shown that – with agile delivery – it’s possible to drive organisational change, still be iterative, even while scaling, and to handle a national roll out. More importantly, by doing this work in house, DWP can respond much more quickly to operational need and it’s possible for us, with weekly releases, to make changes that help people much more quickly. Before, DWP was using outsourcing partners and the delivery model was very slow to respond to change. Now, DWP can release quickly and iterate rapidly. As a result, DWP Digital is now using this approach as a template for its future delivery model going forwards.
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