IT was worse before - the Universal Credit defence?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan September 4, 2013
Summary:
It was going wrong, but I've put things right - UK government minister Iain Duncan Smith defends progress on Universal Credit, but still points a finger at IT failures, past and present.

Tom Watson, a Member of Parliament in the UK, summed today up rather neatly:

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Earlier we pored over a report from the UK's National Audit Office (NAO) government watchdog which raised alarm bells about the IT systems underpinning the British government's flagship Universal Credit scheme to consolidate social security benefits into one payment.

The NAO concluded that the government had not achieved value for money on its spending up to the end of April, some £303 million was spent on IT with £34 million of that already written off.

It's got the makings of the 'public sector IT program ends in costly disaster' meme that we're supposed to be pushing past in 2013.

Politically the report gave the opposition Labor Party a big stick with which to beat the government. Liam Byrne, the Labour Party shadow work and pension secretary, described the situation as a

"Titanic-sized IT disaster".

He called for cross-party discussions to ensure that a welfare programme is agreed:

"The Conservatives welfare revolution has now finally collapsed. It is now mission-critical that David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith swallow their pride and agree to the talks we proposed in the summer."

For its part, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) - the department responsible - released a statement saying the NAO report is out of date in its conclusions:

"The report does not cover the significant developments we’ve made since April including the “go live” in Greater Manchester, our progress on the IT challenge, the latest plans for expansion from October, or the fact that we brought in two of the country’s leading project management experts.

"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."

On his watch

The politician in charge of the reforms, Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative Work and Pensions Minister, did the rounds of the TV and radio studios this morning to pitch the government response to the NAO report, in each case picking out the IT delivery as the main problem.

Eventually he ended up in the House of Commons where he elaborated on his points to Members of Parliament (MPs) of all parties, reiterating the DWP stand that things had improved since the NAO completed its investigations in April. He declared:

"Every recommendation that the NAO has made in the report has already been made. The key lesson that I take is simply this. The previous Government crashed one IT programme after another, and no Minister ever intervened to change them early so that they delivered on time.

"We are not doing that. I have taken action on this particular programme. This programme will deliver on time and will deliver within budget."

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Ian Duncan Smith - hands up to problems?

He added that he had taken charge of ensuring that concerns were caught as early as possible and action taken to address them:

"I intervened when I discovered that and changed it, but I never expected to have to do that. When I arrived, I expected the professionalism to be able to do this properly. So my view is that I have intervened in the right way. All the other programmes of IT change are working and are well run—and they are well run by the Department. This one was not. We have made the changes necessary.

"I have made the changes that I have made in order to ensure that the system is delivered safely. I could have just let it run. I could have accepted the word of some people that it would be all right on the night. However, I did not. I took the job of making sure that we knew whether it was all right, and I have made the changes that are necessary for the delivery of the programme.

"The NAO is an historical report. It relates to the period during which I was making the changes. Those changes have now been made, and all the outside advisers and experts believe that Universal Credit is deliverable."

Not as bad as the other lot - apparently

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Criticised by Byrne in the House of Commons, Duncan Smith resorted to another tactic he'd used in his media appearances, that of listing all the expensive IT failures that had taken place under the Labour Party's three terms in office:

"I will not take lessons from the right hon. Gentleman and his party. Let me just remind them what happened when they were in office.

"The benefit processing replacement program was scrapped at a cost of £140 million, and no one apologised.

"The Child Support Agency wasted £500 million before the programme was scrapped—no Minister intervened; no Minister changed it.

"The Labour Government wasted £3 billion on benefit overpayments.

"The tax credit system was delivered at one go on one day and it collapsed, costing billions, with £30 billion lost in fraud.

"The program that delivered the health service IT changes cost £13 billion when it was cancelled with no apologies."

It's not the same with Universal Credit, he insisted:

"The lesson that I have learned and that we Government Members learn, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, is that we check these programs while they are progressing and if changes need to be made, we make them.

"In making those changes, I stand by the fact that the purpose is to deliver this programme—on time and on budget, which is something that the opposition never did in the whole of their time in government."

He added:

"Universal credit is not just about IT. It is massively about cultural change to get people back to work and to ensure that those who do go to work, particularly the poorest, benefit the most."

But it was Duncan Smith that chose to use the 'IT at fault' angle as his 'defence' when questioned in the media and later in Parliament.

Inevitably the only dogs who have not yet barked are the four suppliers - IBM, BT, Accenture, HP - chosen to deliver the IT systems.

None have commented and the rumour is that all under strict instructions not to do so. To which I can only add: I'll bet they are.

Verdict

As the responsible minister Ian Duncan Smith chose to point to IT shortcomings - as did the NAO. Clearly there have been failures here and issues that need to be addressed urgently.

But the NAO also pointed to massive - and far more significant - failures of governance and policy. The minister seemed less eager to point the finger at those.

Instead he got into a rather childish listing of how much money the opposition party had blown on its own IT cock-ups, ticking them all off one by one.

Now, he's undoubtedly got a point here. The opposition party's track record on IT programs is utterly lamentable. Some of the failures on their watch ended up pouring literally billions of pounds of taxpayer money away to little effect. The Universal Credit sums are small potatoes in comparison - so far...

But that's not the point. That was then, this is now - and Universal Credit is happening on Ian Duncan Smith's watch. Saying 'we're not as bad as you were' is the rhetoric of the playground.

Duncan Smith legitimately argues that the NAO report is several months out of date and that he has taken the necessary action to address the problems before they get out of hand.

Only time will tell on that one. We do know he has slammed on the brakes in areas and has implemented corrective changes. Will they work? Perhaps. We'll see .

But let's get the priorities right: appalling governance and terrible project management have gotten Universal Credit to the position it was in when this report was written. IT shortcomings played a crucial role no doubt, but for once they are in something of a supporting role in the blame game.

So fix the governance first. Get a grip. Then you can gripe about the tech - and the opposition's IT track record.