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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.