The Universal Credit disaster was not a simple IT screw-up

The whole thing emerges with very little credit.

Today's NAO report into Universal Credit reveals an overambitious timetable, a lack of a detailed blueprint, inadequate supplier management, and confusion over what constitutes an agile approach.

The title for today's hard-hitting National Audit Office (NAO) report into Universal Credit is "early progress". "Progress" might be stretching things a bit far. After months of the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) insisting that Universal Credit was still on track, the NAO report confirms that there really is no smoke without fire. The reports that were emerging about the state of the Universal Credit project really were true. And it really was that bad.

But unlike most "IT disaster" reports where vendors are routinely blamed for their failures, this report paints a different picture: one of weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales and a lack of openness about progress, not to mention some Whitehall friction between DWP and the Cabinet Office.

According to the NAO, DWP's programme for the national rollout of Universal Credit from October 2013, was "ambitious" given that the detailed policy would not be approved by Parliament until 2012. In fact, if it adopted its traditional "waterfall" approach to programme management - where systems are developed after policy is set - then rollout would be expected in 2015. But with October 2013 set in stone, that timetable itself created pressure on DWP to act quickly and meant that progress had to be managed tightly.

But instead of adopting its traditional waterfall approach, DWP chose to go with an "agile" plan, using the iterative and collaborative method of project management which has become popular and indeed has been recommended by the Cabinet Office for the development of public sector IT systems. But surely you wouldn't adopt such an approach for the first time on a critical project with an ambitious timescale? DWP did.

What was worse, in the NAO's view, throughout its development of Universal Credit, DWP has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work. The NAO suggests that the department was warned repeatedly about its lack of a detailed "blueprint", "architecture" , or "target operating model" for Universal Credit and although throughout 2011 and the first half of 2012 it made some progress, the concerns were not addressed as expected.

By mid-2012, that meant that DWP could not agree what security would be needed to protect claimant transactions and was unclear about how Universal Credit would integrate with other programmes. That culminated in the Cabinet Office rejecting the department's proposed IT hardware and networks.

It is easy to imagine from that development how the Universal Credit team acquired what the NAO describes as a "fortress" mentality within the programme, and a "good news" reporting culture that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge because DWP had ring-fenced the Universal Credit team and allowed it to work with a large degree of independence.

As well as a lack of transparency and challenge, the Universal Credit team also had inadequate financial control over supplier spending - there was limited understanding of how spending related to progress and insufficient review of contract performance - and ineffective departmental oversight, which meant that DWP has never been able to measure its progress effectively against what it is trying to achieve. That has led to continual problems with governance, changed governance structures and during the "resetting" of Universal Credit in early 2013, the complete suspension of the programme board.

What all this means for the Universal Credit programme, the NAO says, is that DWP will have to scale back its original delivery ambition and reassess what it must do to roll out Universal Credit to claimants. That means revising the programme's timing and scope, particularly around online transactions and automation. That in turn means that Universal Credit will be more expensive and complex to administer than originally intended, while delays to rollout are likely to reduce the expected benefits of reform.

Although according to the project's leader Howard Shiplee, the Universal Credit team will be working together with the Government Digital Service to "take the best of the existing system and make improvements", the NAO suggests that DWP does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national rollout. £34m worth of new IT assets - amounting to 17 per cent - have already been written off, and current pathfinder systems have limited function and do not allow claimants to change details of their circumstances online as originally intended.

The good news is that the problems of Universal Credit are belatedly beginning to come to light, which means they can start to be solved, even if that means the project's scope and timetable have to be changed, to project managers' and politicians' embarrassment.

They say the first part of getting help is to admit you have a problem, though I'm still not sure DWP has yet realised the extent of its Universal Credit addiction, and the treatment needed.

Its optimistic statement following the publication of the NAO report says, "We are committed to delivering it [Universal Credit] on time by 2017 and within budget.

"Under this new leadership we are making real progress and we have a plan in place that is achievable and safe. The NAO itself concludes that Universal Credit can go on to achieve considerable benefits for society."

This piece first appeared here

Ian Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images

David Bicknell is the editor of Government Computing: www.governmentcomputing.com

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder