Universal Credit - and another New Year Resolution broken!

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 7, 2014
A new year, a new start for Universal Credit? Well, maybe - but whether it's the sort of new start that should be in place is highly open to question as the DWP goes its own sweet way.

Yesterday I had a mild dig at ExactTarget for breaking the New Year’s Resolution I fruitlessly made for the industry of not citing the Gartner ‘CMO is more important than CIO etc’ mantra.

Can't hear you!

Now today I break my own - equally fruitless - resolution of not returning to the topic of Universal Credit before the end of January at the earliest! I should have known it was doomed to fail, but really, eight days in?!?!

But then Universal Credit (UC) is the bad gift that keeps on giving - or more appropriately taking from the UK taxpayer.

Those whose memories stretch back to the closing months of 2013 may recall the UC is the flagship IT programme of the UK government, a massively ambitious undertaking to consolidate a myriad of social security benefits down to a single payment with the political objectives of:

  • (a) saving money.
  • (b) bumping a lot of people off of a supposed benefits dependency culture.

It’s a project that is literally too important to be allowed to fail, both in terms of the number of people’s lives it impacts and the fact that there is a no higher profile initiative on the current UK government’s policy agenda.

In IT terms, it’s also a total debacle.

We know this because the government minister in charge Iain Duncan Smith has gone to great pains and toured a lot of TV and radio stations to emphasise that is is not a debacle.

This is not a view held by others, such as:

Digital directions

When last we touched on UC before Christmas, a new digital approach was to be taken to systems development to support the revised benefits structure after systems developed by Accenture, BT, Hewlett Packard and IBM using an AGILE development approach were found to be essentially unfit for purpose.

The suppliers themselves had been largely left to their own devices and provided self-assessment on how well things were going, while the DWP - which in common with most of UK central government has farmed out most of its internal skills to outsourcing firms for the past 20 years - failed dismally on its project management requirements.

The UK government has a robust Digital by Default policy in place and an award-winning team of digital experts within the Government Digital Service (GDS) so it might be assumed that the DWP would be turning to GDS for help.

But no, rumours of a turf war spread rapidly in the closing months of last year with the DWP seemingly hellbent on keeping its hands firmly on the tiller of the UC ship rather than letting GDS help lay in a new course.

These rumours were denied with some carefully chosen vague wording - again, pretty much a sure sign that they’re true in UK political circles.

But today The Guardian newspaper has lifted the lid once and for all and exposed the depth of in-fighting that’s been going on - and it’s frankly utterly shameful!

The newspaper says it has had sight of the minutes of a Whitehall board meeting between the DWP and the Cabinet Office, home to the GDS, which resulted in the latter accelerating the withdrawal of GDS staff from UC where they had been attempting to advise on a new direction.

The source of the tension between the two sides is attributed to Duncan Smiths’s insistence on persisting with the existing systems development while also working on digital alternatives - a so-called twin track approach.

The Cabinet Office on the other hand wanted to can the work done to date and go all out for a digital approach, but was overruled by the DWP.

So GDS is speeding up its exit faster than you can say ‘nothing to do with me, guv’ and the DWP now finds itself having to source its own digital experts in-house - and they’re not exactly thick on the ground.

The Guardian quotes from leaked board minutes which state:

GDS wished to accelerate their withdrawal from the design-and-build team to allow DWP to take ownership.

However, as GDS have supplied most of the expertise and resource to date, and a recruitment exercise needs to be undertaken to fill the technical vacancies, there is therefore the likelihood of some delay.

More IT spend to come

Both sides are now toeing the party line with the Cabinet Office declining to comment on leaked documents and DWP insisting that it has always intended to handle the digital development work itself, ignoring the actual story here which is the idea that GDS is pulling out quicker than anyone had expected.

There is no debacle!

Meanwhile yesterday Computer Weekly reported on its own UC scoop with the news that the current four main IT suppliers are set to see their roles reduced as a result of the DWP’s twin-track approach, but the department still plans to spend a further £90 million with them on systems that will ultimately be scrapped.

Quoting from a draft business case document, Computer Weekly reports that it states:

To extend the current IT solution we will be using a standard waterfall delivery approach largely using existing suppliers and commercial frameworks, in order to de-risk delivery and ensure UC continues to have a safe and secure introduction.

The end-state digital solution will be delivered using an agile, and therefore iterative, approach as advocated by the Cabinet Office with significantly less reliance on the large IT suppliers delivering the current UC IT service.


The Guardian quotes a civil servant who was present at the meeting between DWP and the Cabinet Office as stating that the friction between the two was making things “more difficult than necessary”.

Personally I suspect that the two things that are really making UC more difficult than necessary are:

  • DWP officials desire to cover their proverbial butts over the mess made to date.
  • Political pressure over deadlines coming down from the policy makers.

At the risk of repeating myself - OK, I know I’m repeating myself - but this is shaping up as a text book example of how not to do a major IT programme- again! 

But there is a better way and there is expert digital help on hand to assist.

Any bets on how long it is before someone in DWP has the guts to pick up the phone to GDS again?

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