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:

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.