UC is the grand scheme to simplify multiple social security benefits into a single payment. Its success is entirely dependent on the delivery of a powerful underlying IT platform, something which has not been apparent to date and has been the subject of scathing criticism from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee in recent months.
The scene of the latest developments was a session of the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons where various UC-related individuals were called to account.
These included the responsible government minister Iain Duncan Smith and Howard Shiplee, the man who was Director for Construction at the London Olympics and is thus deemed to be the right person to be shipped in to salvage the chaos of the UC IT programme.
And as I said, it really is difficult to know which nugget to pick out first.
- Shall we start with the revised accounting practices that will now render developed systems obsolete a year after UC kicks in?
- Or the quibbling about exactly how many millions of pounds of taxpayers money have been wasted (so far) on IT that has been or will have to be scrapped?
- Or bizarre claims such as the notion that open source wasn’t a viable option two years ago?
- And that’s before we get into the harsh reality that the current systems can’t cope with any claimant other than a single person.
No, let’s start with the casual abandonment of Digital by Default, a central plank of the current UK government’s entire IT strategy.
That seems an appropriate place to start given that the junking of this key tenet of modern government took place literally on the eve of the first anniversary of the publication of the UK government’s formal digital strategy.
With rumours rife of a rift between the Cabinet Office - home to the Government Digital Service (GDS) charged with delivering a digital future for the UK’s political administration and service delivery - and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) - which ’owns’ UC - over the future direction of the IT strategy underpinning the new benefits structure, Shiplee told MPs:
Just to confuse matters further, Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, then proceeded to tell the Committee:
“In the early days there was a mantra of Digital by Default.
“From a security point of view, to have everything digital is not sensible or appropriate. It will take some time to get to a completely online system.
“There is nothing wrong in having aspirations. Perhaps that was an aspiration a little too far.”
“We are building a digital system where people inter-relate initially on computers.
“We are building a second-generation system for use on smartphones.
“When people say it’s not Digital by Default, it’s a minor thing because there are some things we can’t do because of security reasons.”
Actually M'Lord, casting doubts over Digital By Default is a pretty major thing to do in a public forum.
It’s also a point of view that’s unlikely to win much favour over at GDS, which last week confirmed that it was backing away from active involvement in systems delivery for UC after having initially been parachuted in to tidy up the existing mess.
For his part, Shiplee would not be draw on the state of the relationship between the DWP and the GDS, stating only:
“I can’t comment on tittle tattle.
“One has disagreements and one has to get on with things.
“I’m talking to the Cabinet Office about helping us to move things forward.”
Moving things forward will involve building in open source and web-enabled tech, stuff which Shiplee argued had not been an option two and a half years ago when UC development began. He even used the word digital - just not by default presumably:
“The current system for Universal Credit is a conventional system being developed on a waterfall approach.
When you look at digital, it’s very different – it relies not on large amounts of tin, black boxes, but uses open source and mechanisms on the web to store and access data.”
The existing IT strategy is being delivered by Accenture, BT, HP and IBM. There’s a £2.4 billion UC implementation budget up to April 2023. Some £425 million of that had been spent up to April 2013 with £303 million of it going on IT.
But a total of £40.1 million has so far been written off. That’s roughly a fifth more than the £34 million that the DWP previously admitted to back in September.
Mike Driver, finance director general at DWP, said that the National Audit Office (NAO) had signed off the DWP accounts to include an intangible asset of £152 million, made up of £125 million of software code and £27 million of licences, with £34 million of this to be used on the revised ‘digital’ version.
The remaining IT assets of £91 million will be written off over a five-year period, as opposed to the 15-year period that the department had originally planned.
That means that the software will have no asset value by 2018, a year after Universal Credit is currently scheduled to be fully live. Money well spent there.
Despite all this, Work and Pensions Minister Duncan Smith - whose legacy crusade UC is - insists:
“There is no debacle on Universal Credit.
“This was one of the most complex and detailed assessments that has taken place in the private or the public sector.
“The asset we now own to take Universal Credit forward is worth £152 million to government.
“It is not just about write-offs, the government owns assets that will deliver Universal Credit.”
But the fact remains that at present UC’s IT is essentially not fit for purpose. For example, it can only handle claims from single adults, not couples or parents with dependent minors. If you’re not single, then your claims currently have to be handled manually.
And if you’re single and decide to get married or have a kid, well, the DWP would really rather you didn’t for the moment as it will screw things up even further.
As Shiplee explained, there’s only so much you can expect £303 million worth of IT to be able to do:
“As the potential for claimants to change circumstances, for things to change … the more complicated it becomes.
“Therefore the next stage is to work on couples. That will be a complicated issue. Couples come together, they divide, they have children, things happen.
“This sort of software is not something you get on the back of a cigarette packet. It’s complicated.”
Really? Is this the best we can do?
It’s as if decades of public sector IT disasters never happened. It’s perfectly clear that precious few lessons have been learned from them at any rate.
Even the contract terms with the existing suppliers beggar belief with no penalty clauses attached to them. This because according to Shiplee:
“You would find it very hard to find vendors in the market place to do this work at full risk. So the department took up the risk.”
Actually sir, the department did not. The poor hard-pressed British taxpayer did - again!
When will Whitehall learn? Only now is the DWP thinking about the idea of a fixed price contract - which of course in turn will mean contract renegotiation with the existing providers.
Even Iain Duncan Smith, the man who politically cannot waver an inch from absolute faith in his project, has to admit to the prospect of further write offs:
“If anything goes wrong going further forward,that might be different.”
But of course he remains publicly on message that everything will come good in time and that the £38 billion the nation will save as a result of UC will make it all worthwhile in the end.
And herein lies the problem with UC: the good bits are theoretical and tomorrow because today the reality is just too awful to admit to.
Over at Campaign for Change, veteran scourge of public sector IT Tony Collins makes an interesting semantic point in which he alludes to the last great UK public sector IT nightmare, Tony Blair’s grand (doomed) vision for an IT-enabled National Health Service (NHS). Collins observes:
“[Duncan Smith] is doing what various sets of ministers and officials did during the distended failure of the NHS’s £11bn computer programme, the National Programme for IT [NPfIT]: in assuring Parliament all was well they always used the future tense. The programme 'will' give everyone in England an electronic patient record. But nothing was delivered that provided evidence the promises would be fulfilled. It took a new government to admit the NPfIT was a failure.”
As Shiplee himself noted:
“It is very difficult to talk about promises.”
The trouble is, as we’ve noted before, if the promise of UC is broken, then so too will millions of people’s lives