Category Archives: Agile

A welcome boost for agile in government

By Tony Collins

David Wilks, Digital Performance Manager at Government Digital Service, which is part of the Cabinet Office, says there has been “incredible” interest in clarified guidance that makes it easier for departments to obtain funding for agile projects.

The guidance applies to major projects.

Wilks says on the GDS blog that the guidance will “cut bureaucracy and encourage innovation, making digital transformation easier across government”.

It means that, in most cases, government organisations can spend up to £750,000 on the first two phases of a government agile project, discovery and alpha, on the basis of Cabinet Office spending controls – without needing an HM Treasury business case.

The guidance means:

  • more use of “light-touch” Programme Business Cases
  • using agile discovery to replace the Strategic Outline Case in most cases
  • avoiding the need for a separate Full Business Case stage where procurement uses a pre-competed arrangement such as the Digital Services Framework

“For agile and finance teams in government departments, this guidance clarification has produced incredible interest,” says Wilks.


It seems fashionable to criticise the use of agile in government, perhaps because agile requires a mindset and culture that may be alien in parts of the civil service. But done well agile could help to modernise and reform central government administration.  It’s not a cure for all the problems of bloated government IT and it has risks, among them:

-  Zeno’s paradox where a project is perpetually on the point of delivering successfully but never actually does, as with the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative.

-  A so-called agile project that combines waterfall and agile approaches. It’s either waterfall or agile. It’s difficult to see how a project can be both. Those projects where there has been a hybrid agile-waterfall approach have not been successful: Universal Credit, the BBC’s DMI and an Oracle IT-related project disaster in Oregon.

That said, investigators of the “Cover Oregon” failure seem now to advocate a purer form of agile as one solution. A highly critical official report into the failure has some positive comments on agile:

“Since September 2013, CO [Cover Oregon] has been utilizing a home grown development process which is based upon agile methodologies. There are seven functional areas within the process, referred to as tables, with each table having a dedicated table lead (a mini project manager) and a dedicated business analyst. This process appears to be well orchestrated.

“Each morning there are daily “scrum” meetings for the different functional areas. While not rigidly adhering to the formal agile scrum format, these meetings serve a valuable purpose in providing a regular opportunity for various parties from a functional area to provide the latest updates on the progress across the outstanding major defects/issues …”


With some reservations the Cabinet Office’s initiative to cut bureaucracy and make it easier for departments to adopt agile is welcome.


Are Govt IT-based project disasters over? Ask the Army

By Tony Collins

When senior civil servants know an IT-based project is in trouble and they’re unsure how bad things are, they sometimes offer their minister an all-encompassing euphemism to publicly describe the status of the scheme – teething.

Which may be why the defence secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons in November 2013 that the IT project to support army recruiting was having “teething” problems.

Now Hammond knows more, he says the problems are “big”. He no longer uses the “t” word. Speaking about the £440m 10-year Recruitment Partnering Project in the House of Commons this week Hammond said:

“Yes, there are big problems with the IT and I have told the House on repeated occasions that we have IT challenges…”

Only a few days ago Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude suggested that Government IT was no longer a byword for disaster, though he accepted there were still challenges.

In a speech on how he expected the UK to become the G8′s most digital government by next year (whatever that means) Maude said: “… it’s great news that DVLA is about to launch online driving records which can be used by anyone with a driving licence as well as by the insurance industry.

“Back in 2010 our digital offering was limited at best and government IT was a by-word for disaster … There are still challenges but with the help of the Government Digital Service I am determined that the UK will be the G8′s most digital government by next year.”

A few days later The Times reported on a leaked Gartner report on the army Recruitment Partnering Project. The report expressed concerns about the entire plan, including a poor project management team and delays that were allowed to spiral out of control.

It claimed that the Army’s recruitment division had failed to challenge MoD policy in 2011 that had apparently favoured the less suitable of the two competing bidders chasing the contract.

Hammond is said to be mulling over a £50m payout for Capita to build a new infrastructure for the recruiting system instead of trying to integrate it with systems supplied by the “Atlas” consortium under the Defence Information Infrastructure project. Hammond told the House of Commons this week:

“… there have been initial difficulties with that recruiting process as we transition to the new recruiting arrangements with Capita.

“In particular, we have encountered difficulties with the IT systems supporting the application and enlistment process. The decision to use the legacy Atlas IT platform was deemed at the time to be the quickest and most cost-effective way of delivering the new recruitment programme.

“An option to revert to a Capita hosting solution was included in the contracts as a back-up solution.

“I was made aware in the summer of last year that the Army was encountering problems with the integration of the Capita system into the Atlas platform. Since then we have put in place a number of workarounds and mitigation measures for the old IT platform to simplify the application process, and we have reintroduced military personnel to provide manual intervention to support the process.

“Having visited the Army’s recruitment centre in Upavon [Wiltshire] on 30 October, it became clear to me that, despite the Army putting in place measures to mitigate those problems in the near term, further long-term action was needed to fix the situation.

“It was agreed in principle at that point that the Atlas system was not capable of timely delivery of the Capita-run programme and that we would need to take up the option of reverting to Capita building a new IT platform specifically to run its system, which will be ready early next year.

“… we have already taken action to bring in a range of new initiatives that will make it progressively easier and quicker for applicants … the introduction this month of a new front-end web application for Army recruitment; a simplified online application form; more streamlined medical clearance processes …

“With an improved Army recruitment website, streamlined medicals and an increase in the number of recruiting staff, recruits should see a much-improved experience by the end of this month.

“.. we are looking at further ways of improving the management of the recruiting process in the intervening period before the introduction of the advanced IT system now being developed in partnership with Capita, which is expected to be deployed in February 2015…”

Vernon Croaker, Labour’s defence spokesman, said the recruitment project was an IT fiasco. He wondered why Hammond had initially described the problems as teething.

vernon croaker “Today we have learned [from newspapers] that the problems are even worse than anyone thought and still have not been fixed.

“Will the Defence Secretary tell the House which Minister signed off the deal and who has been responsible for monitoring it?

“… Will the Secretary of State also confirm that £15.5m has been spent building the existing flawed computer system behind the project? Finally, is it correct that this continuing disaster is costing taxpayers £1 million every month?…”

Croaker quoted a minister Andrew Robathan as telling MPs on 10 April 2013 that the “Recruiting Partnering Project with Capita…will lead to a significant increase in recruiting performance”.

Croaker said: “Is there any Member of this House, any member of our armed forces or, indeed, any member of the British public who still believes that?”

In March 2012 Capita announced that the Recruitment Partnering Project was valued at about £44m a year for 10 years and was expected to deliver benefits in excess of £300m to the armed forces. It would “release military recruiters back to the front line” said Capita.

Comment. Francis Maude is probably right: there don’t seem to be as many big IT-based project failures as in previous decades. But then the truth isn’t known because progress reports on big IT-related schemes are not published.

Indeed little would be known about the Capita Recruitment Partnering Project is not for the leaked report to The Times. Without the leak, public information on the state of the project would be confined to Hammond’s “teething problems” comment to MPs last November.

Internal and external reports on the state of the Universal Credit IT project continue to be kept secret.  It’s not even clear whether ministers are properly briefed on their big IT projects. Hammond almost certainly wasn’t last year. IDS was left to commission his own “red team” review of Universal Credit IT.

Perhaps the “good news” reporting culture in Whitehall explains why the NHS IT scheme, the NPfIT, continued to die painfully slowly for 7 years before senior officials and ministers started to question whether all was well.

Hammond is still getting wrong information. He described “Atlas” systems in the House of Commons as the “legacy IT platform”.

The Atlas contract for the Defence Information Infrastructure was awarded in 2005 for 10 years. It doesn’t even expire until next year. It may be convenient for officials to suggest that the reason Capita has been unable to link new recruitment systems into the DII network is because DII is old – legacy IT.  But the multi-billion pound Atlas DII project cannot be accurately described as “legacy” yet.

If ministers don’t get the truth about their big IT projects until serous problems are so obvious they can no longer be denied, how can Parliament and taxpayers expect to get the truth?

Lessons from NASA?

NASA put in place processes, procedures and rules to ensure engineers were open and deliberately adversarial in challenging assumptions. Even so it has had difficulties getting engineers to express  their views freely.

Diane Vaughan in her excellent book “The Challenger Launch Decision” referred to large organisations that proceeded as if nothing was wrong “in the face of evidence that something was wrong”.  She said NASA made a series of seemingly harmless decisions that “incrementally moved the space agency towards a catastrophic outcome”.

After the loss of Challenger NASA made many changes. But an investigation into the subsequent tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle indicated that little had actually changed - even though few of the top people who had been exposed to the lessons of Challenger were still in position.

If NASA couldn’t change when lives depended on it, is it likely the UK civil service will ever change?  A political heavyweight,  Francis Maude has tried and failed to get departments to be more open about progress or otherwise on their big IT-based projects.  Permanent secretaries now allow the out-of-date “traffic light” status of some projects to be published in the annual report of the Major Projects Authority. That is not openness.

The failure so far of the Recruitment Partnering Project, the routine suppression of information on technology-based scheme such as this, and the circumscribed “good news” briefings to ministers, suggest that government IT-based project failures are here to stay, despite the best intentions of the Cabinet Office, GDS and the Major Projects Authority.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for his email on the recruitment project

Big 4 Universal Credit IT suppliers punished?

By Tony Collins

The  latest draft business case for Universal Credit suggests existing IT suppliers will have little to do with the “end-state digital solution” that is  due eventually to support the roll-out of UC.

The Department for Work and Pensions will use a mixture of its own and external people for the end-state digital solution.

Computer Weekly quotes part of the draft business case as saying:

“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.” picks up Computer Weekly’s report and says that Iain Duncan Smith “punishes Universal Credit IT suppliers“. 


Computer Weekly quotes the draft business case as putting the cost of the end-state solution at £106m – comprising external IT costs of £69m and in-house “Design and Build” team costs of £37m.

The total cost of UC IT is now put at £535m – down substantially on the £673m estimate in the DWP’s December 2012 UC business case.

UC project at “red” 

Yesterday the Guardian reported that Francis Maude and his team at the government digital service have objected to the twin-track approach to UC but were outflanked by “a majority” of other government ministers and project advisers, leaked minutes say.

The twin-track approach to UC IT means that the DWP and its main suppliers – HP, Accenture, IBM and BT – continue to develop existing systems (a blend of legacy and new technology) while a separate team develops a new “end-state” system for use by the end of 2017. It’s unclear how the two systems will differ. 

Computer Weekly quotes the latest draft business case as saying it is “unclear what the digital service will deliver and to what timescales”.

Due to the multitude of problems facing universal credit, the project has been coded “red” overall, according to the Guardian.


Computer Weekly has done well to gain sight of the latest draft business case for UC.

Whoever wrote the draft appears to accept the Cabinet Office’s case for departments to “move away from large ICT projects” and thus “reduce waste, provide a more flexible approach to complex business requirements that are likely to change over time and reduce the risk of project failures”. (National Audit Office, Universal Credit: early progress). 

But is the DWP simply telling the Cabinet Office what it wants to hear?  All the signs are that the big money at the DWP will continue to go to its main IT suppliers. 

The £106m agile “end-state digital solution” is a bonus system which may or may not materialise.  It is in essence a big, agile research project and the DWP is having trouble finding IT professionals to work on it.

If ever it’s a success it could start to replace existing UC IT in 2017 or beyond. But that may never happen. The DWP has already spent more than £300m on existing UC technology and is set to spend a lot more: around £90m. The DWP is unlikely to scrap it.

So HP, IBM, Accenture and BT are all but guaranteed a large income stream from the non end-state UC technology.

Even without the UC project the big 4 are guaranteed a large income from the DWP’s other work which includes:

- Personal Independence Implementation – 2.8bn 2011–2016
- Fraud and error programme – £770m  2012–2015
- Child maintenance group change 1.2bn 2009–2014
- Pensions reform Enabling Retirement Savings programme 1.04bn 2007–2018
- State Pension reform – single tier £114m 2012–2017
- Specialist Disability Employment programme – £203m 2012–2014

The big 4 will also continue to receive a large chunk of the DWP’s IT budget for maintaining and upgrading the existing software, hardware and networks.

Business cases are written by experts in the writing of Whitehall business cases.  Their main purpose is to provide a case for the Treasury to release funds for a project. They give current thinking on costs and benefits. The documents are revised when these change significantly.

So the statement in the UC draft business case that the new end-state digital solution will rely “significantly less” on existing UC IT suppliers means little: it is subject to change.

And the words “significantly less” are  unexplained. They may have no scientific basis. 


The big 4 suppliers continue to be all-important to the DWP – and are so enmeshed that they decide at times how much they should be paid, suggests the NAO.

From its latest report on the UC project, the NAO comments on the DWP’s lack of control of suppliers :

- “In February 2013, the Major Projects Authority reported there was no evidence of the Department actively managing its supplier contracts and recommended that the Department needed to urgently get a grip of its supplier management.”

- “[The DWP has] limited IT capability and ‘intelligent client’ function leading to a risk of supplier self-review.”

- “[The DWP has] inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.”

- “[The DWP has an] over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation.”

- ” … the Department did not enforce all the key terms and conditions of its standard contract management framework, inhibiting its ability to hold suppliers to account.”

So it would be naively optimistic to suppose that if the big 4 were to be frozen out of the end-state solution for UC that it would make much difference to their income from the DWP.      

UC in chaos or not?

A generous interpretation of all the available evidence on the UC project so far is that the DWP is working through, and understanding, the difficulties on an immensely complicated IT-enabled project.

And supporters of the twin-track approach could argue that two completely independent sets of teams are working in parallel and in discreet competition to produce the most successful system. One team comprises the big 4 using waterfall and the other a largely in-house team using agile.  Eventually one system will prevail, even if it’s 2020 or beyond that it handles securely online all types of claims. On completion the system will simplify benefit claims and cut the costs of administration.

A less generous interpretation of the available facts is that the UC IT project  is in chaos and that vast sums continue to be poured into a poorly formed strategy that nobody in government will concede is failing;  all parties are preoccupied with resolving problems as they arise and expecting irrationally that things will come good in the end.  Nobody should expect the full truth to emerge from those who have a deep interest in the project’s success including IDS and his permanent secretary Robert Devereux.

Howard Shiplee, head of the UC project, may still be getting his head around how chaotic things are. The highly capable David Pitchford, who headed UC  for a few months before he quit the civil service last year, came close to saying the project was in chaos. His Major Projects Authority said in February 2013 that the DWP needed to “rethink the delivery approach”, said the NAO.

Indeed the UC project shows many of the usual signs of a government IT-based project failure:

- major changes in the basic assumptions between the business case of December 2012 and the latest draft business case
- excessive secrecy (keeping secret a succession of internal and external reports on the project).
- defensiveness (continued DWP claims that problems are historic)
- a high turnover of leaders
- a culture of good news that “limited open discussion and stifled challenge”, said the NAO
- a lack of control of suppliers (NAO)
- repeated delays
- suppliers that get paid regardless of whether their systems are contributing to a  successful project.

To me things look chaotic but I hope I’m wrong. I’d like UC IT to work. IDS and Shiplee will probably know the whole truth – and they are still in post, to date.  If Shiplee leaves the project before the general election that could be an indication of how bad things really are.   

Top 5 posts on this site in last 12 months

Below are the top 5 most viewed posts of 2013.  Of other posts the most viewed includes “What exactly is HMRC paying Capgemini billions for?” and “Somerset County Council settles IBM dispute – who wins?“.

1) Big IT suppliers and their Whitehall “hostages

Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, ICT futures advisor to the Cabinet Office and strategy director at consultancy Methods.

Last month he said in a Guardian comment that central government departments are “increasingly being held hostage by a handful of huge, often overseas, suppliers of customised all-or-nothing IT systems”.

Some senior officials are happy to be held captive.

“Unfortunately, hostage and hostage taker have become closely aligned in Stockholm-syndrome fashion.

“Many people in the public sector now design, procure, manage and evaluate these IT systems and ignore the exploitative nature of the relationship,” said Thompson.

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages bond with their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.

This month the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued  a pre-tender notice for Oracle ERP systems. Worth between £250m and £750m, the framework will be open to all central government departments, arms length bodies and agencies and will replace the current “Prism” contract with Capgemini.

It’s an old-style centralised framework that, says Chris Chant, former Executive Director at the Cabinet Office who was its head of G-Cloud, will have Oracle popping champagne corks.

2) Natwest/RBS – what went wrong?

Outsourcing to India and losing IBM mainframe skills in the process? The failure of CA-7 batch scheduling software which had a knock-on effect on multiple feeder systems?

As RBS continues to try and clear the backlog from last week’s crash during a software upgrade, many in the IT industry are asking how it could have happened.

3) Another Universal Credit leader stands down

Universal Credit’s Programme Director, Hilary Reynolds, has stood down after only four months in post. The Department for Work and Pensions says she has been replaced by the interim head of Universal Credit David Pitchford.

Last month the DWP said Pitchford was temporarily leading Universal Credit following the death of Philip Langsdale at Christmas. In November 2012 the DWP confirmed that the then Programme Director for UC, Malcolm Whitehouse, was stepping down – to be replaced by Hilary Reynolds. Steve Dover,  the DWP’s Corporate Director, Universal Credit Programme Business, has also been replaced.

4) The “best implementation of Cerner Millennium yet”?

Edward Donald, the chief executive of Reading-based Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, is reported in the trust’s latest published board papers as saying that a Cerner go-live has been relatively successful.

“The Chief Executive emphasised that, despite these challenges, the ‘go-live’ at the Trust had been more successful than in other Cerner Millennium sites.”

A similar, stronger message appeared was in a separate board paper which was released under FOI.  Royal Berkshire’s EPR [electronic patient record] Executive Governance Committee minutes said:

“… the Committee noted that the Trust’s launch had been considered to be the best implementation of Cerner Millennium yet and that despite staff misgivings, the project was progressing well. This positive message should also be disseminated…”

Royal Berkshire went live in June 2012 with an implementation of Cerner outside the NPfIT.  In mid-2009, the trust signed with University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre to deliver Millennium.

Not everything has gone well – which raises questions, if this was the best Cerner implementation yet,  of what others were like.

5) Universal Credit – the ace up Duncan Smith’s sleeve?

Some people, including those in the know, suspect  Universal Credit will be a failed IT-based project, among them Francis Maude. As Cabinet Office minister Maude is ultimately responsible for the Major Projects Authority which has the job, among other things, of averting major project failures.

But Iain Duncan Smith, the DWP secretary of state, has an ace up his sleeve: the initial go-live of Universal Credit is so limited in scope that claims could be managed by hand, at least in part.

The DWP’s FAQs suggest that Universal Credit will handle, in its first phase due to start in October 2013, only new claims  - and only those from the unemployed.  Under such a light load the system is unlikely to fail, as any particularly complicated claims could managed clerically.


Is £40m write-off on a big software project normal?

By Tony Collins

On BBC R4′s “Week in Westminster” on Saturday morning (14/12/13)  guest presenter Isabel Hardman of The Spectator spoke to Conservative MP Richard Bacon and me about big government projects that go wrong.

Hardman mentioned that Bacon has co-written a book  on government failures Conundrum: Why every government gets things wrong and what we can do about it.

Referring to write-offs so far of about £40m on Universal Credit, Hardman asked me whether it was normal for such a write-off on a big project.

I said it wasn’t. The work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said it was. When questioned by MPs of the work and pensions committee on 9 December, IDS implied that it was not unusual to write-off a third on large software-based projects. He suggested that research by Forrester supported this view.

Software coding for Universal Credit has cost about £120m so far (excluding hardware, infrastructure, consultancy or other IT-related costs). So IDS suggested that a write off of £40m was only about a third of the software coding costs.

But I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests write-offs of a third of the software costs on a big project are typical.   

I replied to Hardman that although there has been much trial and error on Universal Credit IT, £40m is a lot to write off.

[Trial and error included an attempt, from 2011 onwards, to adopt an agile approach but the National Audit Office said the DWP "experienced problems incorporating the agile approach into existing contracts, governance and assurance structures". The NAO added that the Cabinet Office "did not consider that the Department (DWP) had at any point prior to the reset [Feb-May 2013]  appropriately adopted an agile approach to managing the Universal Credit programme”. The DWP has now introduced what it calls Agile 2.0, a hybrid approach incorporating elements of  agile with waterfall, though agile purists say it is impossible to combine the two.]

I told Hardman that the write-offs were largely because the DWP was unclear at the outset what the software was supposed to do.”With big IT projects it’s a bit like designing a bridge and you know where one side begins but you’re not sure where the other side ends. They have been learning as they go along and that’s probably why there have been large write-offs,” I said.

Hardman asked Richard Bacon whether it was normal to set out on these big projects without knowing where the bridge was going. Bacon agreed, citing the NPfIT which had led to large write-offs on failed work for England-wide electronic patient records. He said it was not at all abnormal for ministers to set off on big projects without knowing where they were going.  

The good news?

I told Hardman that IDS was at least well informed. He now has the NAO scrutinising the project as well as his own external consultants and the independently-minded Howard Shiplee as head of the project.

But I didn’t think UC would be complete until 2020 at the earliest given that the last big computerisation of benefit systems, Operational Strategy, took about 10 years to complete. Hardman said: “That would be a humiliation for IDS surely?”

I replied that IDS may not even be in politics in 2017. I also said that UC will probably not bring the financial benefits predicted, to judge from the last big computerisation of benefits.  But UC has wide support. Perhaps, I said, it has to work … eventually. 

BBC R4 Week in Westminster – 14/12/13

Universal Credit: more IT uncertainties

By Tony Collins

Shortly after IDS was in the House of Commons yesterday defending his handling of the Universal Credit project – taking an all is well approach – the National Audit Office issued a report that drew attention to the scheme’s uncertainties, write-offs on IT so far of £41.3m, and the five-year depreciation of a further £91m spend on IT that may not be used after the migration from legacy, or transitional, UC systems to in a new “digital” solution.

The legacy Universal Credit  IT infrastructure is a blend of existing DWP IT and technology adapted to UC.

The DWP had originally expected to depreciate the £91m over 15 years but, suggests the NAO, the legacy Universal Credit IT infrastructure may be of little use after 2017/2018.   

Says the NAO:

“…  the underlying issue [is] that the Department has spent £91.0 million on assets that will only support a limited service for 5 years, with clear consequences for public value.”

On what the NAO report calls the “longer-term programme uncertainties” it says that the “overall cost of developing assets to support Universal Credit is subject to considerable uncertainty”.

It adds:

“The Department acknowledges  … that there is uncertainty over the useful economic life of the existing Universal Credit software pending the development of the alternative digital solution and uncertainty over whether Universal Credit claimants will be able to migrate from the current IT infrastructure to the new digital solution by December 2017.”

The NAO’s report on the DWP’s 2012/2013 accounts also notes the uncertainties with the new digital solution. Says the NAO:

“At this early stage in its development, there are uncertainties over the exact nature of the digital solution, and in particular:

- How it will work;

- When it will be ready;

- How much it will cost; and

- Who will do the work to develop and build it.

A Ministerial Oversight Group has approved a spend of between £25m and £32m on the new digital UC solution up to November 2014. DWP officials and suppliers plan to build a core digital service that will deliver to 100 people by then, after which it will assess the results of that work and consider whether to extend the service to increasing numbers.

The NAO suggests that some of the money spent on the new digital solution may also end up being written off.  Says its report:

“As the Department develops the digital solution, so it will start to recognise some of the costs incurred as assets. Without clear and effective management, in the future the Department may also find it needs to impair some of these new digital assets.”

At a hearing of the Work and Pensions Committee on Monday Iain Duncan Smith depicted the write-off of £40m on UC software code so far as normal for any large organisation in the private or public sector that embarks on a major software-based programme.  IDS said that private sector organisations typically write off a third of the money spent on software on a large project. About £120m has been spent on writing UC software code so far.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO,refers in his report to the “considerable sums that the Department is proposing to invest in a programme where there are significant levels of technical, cost and timetable uncertainty”.

He adds:

“I reiterate both the conclusion and recommendations from my report in September. The Department has to date not achieved value for the money it has incurred in the development of Universal Credit, and to do so in future it will need to learn the lessons of past failures …”

In a short debate on UC in the House of Commons yesterday Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions secretary, suggested Iain Duncan Smith was in denial about being in denial.  She put points to him he did not answer directly.

She said that IDS had told the House of Commons on 5 September 2013 that UC will be delivered in time and on budget. On 14 October IDS made the same claim. Reeves said:

“How on earth can this be on time when in November 2011 he [IDS] said:  ‘All new applications for existing benefits and credits will be entirely phased out by April 2014.’

“We have now learned that this milestone will only be reached in 2016. Will the secretary of state confirm that this is a delay of 2 years? … How can the secretary of state say that Universal Credit will be on budget when even by his own admission £40.1m is being written off on IT [software code]? What budget heading was that under?”

Reeves said IDS also revealed on Monday that another £90m will be written off by 2018. She added:

“ …The underlying problem is surely that the secretary of state has not resolved key policy decisions before spending hundreds of millions of pounds on an IT system… the secretary of state is in denial. Doubtless he’ll deny he is in denial….

IDS replied:

“ I said all along and I repeat: this programme essentially [jeers] is going to be on time. By 2017 some 6.5m people will be on the programme receiving benefits.”

He added that UC will roll out without damaging a single person. “The waste we inherited was the waste of people who didn’t listen, rushed programmes and implementing them badly.”

Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said that IDS promised UC would be digital by default. “It isn’t,” she said.

“He promised that all new claims would be on UC by May 2014. They won’t…  So why should anyone believe him when he says that delivery of UC is now on track?”

IDS replied: “The proof of this will be as we roll it out…”


IDS is doing what he has to do: defend the UC project at all costs; and the NAO is doing what it needs to do: highlight the uncertainties and wasted spending.  If IDS admits to his doubts and concerns the opposition will jump on him. At least he is not being kept in the dark any longer by his senior civil servants.  He has his own reliable information – via Howard Shiplee – and from the NAO.  In 2011 he commissioned his own independent “red team” review which led to the pilot Pathfinder projects.

But the uncertainties highlighted by the NAO’s report today could be said to tacitly confirm that the transfer of all relevant claimants to UC project is unlikely to be complete before 2019/2020 at the earliest.  That’s probably not something anyone in government could own up to before the 2015 general election.

And even his advisers may not tell IDS that big government IT projects can be defined by the exceptions. IDS told MPs yesterday that Pathfinder projects indicated that 90% of people are claiming universal credit online and 78% are confident about their ability to budget with monthly payments. That’s 10% who don’t claim online and 22% who may not be able to manage with monthly payments. Will the high number of exceptions prove a show-stopper?

There’s a long way to go before officials and ministers can have confidence in UC IT. But, unlike the NPfIT which had little support in the NHS, most of those involved in the UC project want it work. That could make all the difference. 

Will Universal Credit be complete by 2020?

By Tony Collins


Much of what Iain Duncan Smith said at the Work and Pensions Committee yesterday made sense. In essence the DWP’s plan is to delay putting most of the  claimants onto the Universal Credit system until the technology is proven to work.

But there is little evidence it will work at scale, handling reliably and accurately millions of claimants and complex cases. It emerged yesterday that the DWP has still not yet agreed with suppliers a specification for the UC systems, and the latest business case has yet to be approved. How can anyone say on the basis of the limited work so far that the technology will work?

And Howard Shiplee,  Director General of Universal Credit, made the point yesterday that the technology is only part of the story. For UC to work there have to be changes in culture, operational procedures within the DWP and the retraining of tens of thousands of staff.

IDS 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.

UC differs from the NPfIT in a crucial way. The NPfIT did not need to work. It was conceived at the top without support from the NHS. Many hospitals didn’t want centrally-bought IT foisted on them. The NPfIT was wanted, in the main, by a small number of politicians, officials and big suppliers. UC is needed and wanted. Simplifying the horrifying complex benefit systems has all-party support. Shiplee is right when he says UC has to work. But he didn’t yesterday commit himself to a timeframe.

The last major benefits computerisation project – called “Operational Strategy” – took about 10 years to finish. It did not achieve the promised financial benefits and benefit systems were not combined as originally intended but, in the end, the technology worked well for its time.

If UC does work there’s every reason to believe it will be in a similar timeframe to Operational Strategy: about 10 years. But could IDS keep his job while saying UC will be fully delivered in 2020 or beyond? I doubt it.

Did DWP mislead MPs and media over Universal Credit?

By T0ny Collins

Today’s report of the all-party Public Accounts Committee “Universal Credit: early progress” goes beyond criticisms of the scheme in a National Audit Office report of the same name on 5 September 2013.

Public Accounts MPs say the Department for Work and Pensions gave “misleading interviews to the press regarding progress after it became aware of difficulties with the programme”.

And as recently as July 2013 the “Department denied that there were problems with the programme’s IT when it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee”.

These criticisms are against a background of the DWP’s refusal to publish any of the many internal and external reports the department has commissioned on the project’s progress, problems and challenges since 2011.

The Times today says that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and members of his parliamentary team are “understood to have approached at least three Tory MPs on the cross-party [Public Accounts] committee to ask them to ensure that Robert Devereux, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, was singled out for censure”.  In the end there was only limited criticism in the PAC report of Devereux – under his formal title of “Accounting Officer”.


If the DWP has been misleading the press, giving incorrect evidence to Parliament, and keeping secret its reports on the problems and challenges facing one of the government’s most important IT-based programmes – all of which seem to be the case – is it an institution that regards itself as uniquely outside the democratic process?

On big IT projects, officials are not motivated by money and concern for their jobs as are private sector boards of directors. When a private company gets it wrong and loses tens of millions on a project, the share price may fall, individual bonuses may be hit, and jobs, including the CEO’s, may be at risk.

In the public sector getting it wrong rarely has any implications for officials. They have only the threat of departmental embarrassment as a deterrent to getting it wrong. But they need not fear even embarrassment if they can mislead the press and Parliament and keep secret all their internal and external reports.

If a lack of transparency, culture of denial, and the misleading of Parliament continue to characterize big risky IT-based ventures in central government, one has to ask whether Whitehall is congenitally ill-suited to running such programmes.

The Public Accounts Committee warned in a report in 1984 about the risks of large public sector computer programmes. That report came after a series of project disasters.

So what has been learned in the last 30 years – other than that central departments are poorly equipped managerially – or democratically – to handle big IT-based programmes and projects?

These are some of the Public Accounts Committee’s findings:

MPs try to be positive

“We believe that meeting any specific timetable is less important than delivering the programme successfully. There is still the potential for Universal Credit to deliver significant benefits, but there is no clarity yet on the amount of savings it will achieve.”

Culture of denial

“The programme had also developed a flawed culture of reporting good news and denying that problems had emerged. This culture resulted from the desire of senior staff within the programme to show publically that they were able to push the programme forward, at the expense of ensuring that adequate controls were in place or listening to concerns raised about its delivery.

“Although the Department has tried to tackle this culture, it gave misleading interviews to the press regarding progress after it became aware of difficulties with the programme, and as recently as July 2013 the Department denied that there were problems with the programme’s IT when it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee.”

Shocking absence of control over suppliers

“There has been a shocking absence of control over suppliers with the Department neglecting to implement basic procedures for monitoring and authorising expenditure…

“The Department recognises its supplier management has been weak, risking value for money.  Four main suppliers – Accenture, IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom - have provided IT systems for Universal Credit, and by March 2013 the Department had paid them £265m out of the £303m spent with suppliers on IT systems.

“In February 2013 the Major Projects Authority found no evidence of the Department actively managing its supplier contracts, resulting in suppliers being out of control and financial controls not being in place.  The Department has yet to provide a comprehensive assessment of how much of this expenditure has proved nugatory, although the Major Projects Authority believes it will be a substantial figure running into hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Lack of oversight

The lack of oversight allowed the Department’s Universal Credit team to become isolated and defensive, undermining its ability to recognise the size of the problems the programme faced and to be candid when reporting progress…

“Oversight has been characterised by a failure to understand properly the nature and enormity of the task, a failure to monitor and challenge progress regularly, and a failure to intervene promptly when problems arose.

“Senior managers only became aware of problems through ad hoc reviews, mostly conducted by external reviewers, as inadequate management information and reporting arrangements had not alerted them that things were amiss.

“Given its huge importance to the Department, the Accounting Officer [Robert Devereux] and his team should have been more alert to identifying and acting on early warning signs that things were going wrong with the programme

Blinkered culture remains?

“Risk was not well managed and the divergence between planned and actual progress could and should have been spotted and acted upon earlier. The Department only reported good news and denied the problems that had emerged. The risk of a similarly blinkered culture remains as the Department will be working to tight timescales to get the programme back on track.”

Problems hidden

“It is extremely disappointing that the litany of problems in the Universal Credit Programme were often hidden by a culture prevalent in the Department which promoted only the telling of ‘good news’.

“For example, officials were aware that a critical report highlighting many of these issues had been discussed internally for months. Indeed, there are real doubts over when officials became aware of these problems and it is difficult to conceive, based on the evidence we were presented with, that officials within the Department did not know of them before July 2012.”

Shocking absence of financial and other controls

“There has been a shocking absence of financial and other internal controls and we are not yet convinced that the Department has robust plans to overcome the problems that have impeded progress.”

Did the DWP do anything well?

“The Department initially adopted a piecemeal approach to delivering the programme.

“In 2011 it identified over a hundred different types of users for Universal Credit, and initially sought to design IT solutions for each set of circumstances individually. It was only in early 2012 that the Department decided to stand back and try to establish a clearer picture of what the programme’s overall shape might look like.

“During the summer of 2012 the Department became aware of the problems that Universal Credit faced. It was first alerted by concerns raised in a supplier-led review, commissioned by the Secretary of State, which reported in July.

“The Department subsequently established that the programme’s progress was stalling because there were a number of unresolved issues which had become intractable, particularly relating to the level of security needed for identity assurance and protection against fraud and error and cyber-attack.

“The Department had been previously unaware of the programme’s difficulties because its internal lines of monitoring, intervention and defence, intended to identify and mitigate such problems, were not working properly. Governance arrangements were not remotely adequate, and the Accounting Officer [Robert Devereux] discussed progress with the head of the Universal Credit programme only every two or three weeks.

“The Department had inadequate performance information to scrutinise and challenge the programme’s reports of its progress, so internal reporting arrangements did not flag up that things were amiss. The Department’s corporate finance undertook insufficient work to ensure there was an appropriate control environment in place, and the Department’s process for ministers to sign-off higher-value contracts was weak.

“The Department’s senior management had relied on ad hoc reviews, mostly conducted by external reviewers, which only provided an occasional snapshot of the programme, instead of ensuring effective internal systems were in place to monitor and challenge progress. However, during 2012 the problems surfaced more clearly as the Universal Credit team became unable to respond to recommendations made by such reviews.”

Will Universal Credit ever work?

“The Department remains uncertain about key details of its final plans. It does not know how much can be delivered online, when this will be available, and what activities will continue to require face-to-face meetings.

“ The Department also does not know what the final cost of the IT will be, or the savings the programme is expected to deliver. Nor does it know when it will close down the other benefits that Universal Credit will replace.”

The Department has a target of enrolling 184,000 claimants on Universal Credit by April 2014 and has launched limited pilot schemes.”

Says the PAC report: “The current rate of progress is significantly below target, however. Only around 2,500 claimants were registered at the time of our hearing in September, and the Department was unwilling to speculate what number will be enrolled by next April.”

In a steady state Universal Credit is expected to deal with 10 million people in about 7.5 million households, making 1.6 million changes in circumstances each month.

Security versus usability

“The Department is aware that the system must include suitable security arrangements if Universal Credit is to operate effectively and deliver its intended benefits.  However, the Department has not yet finalised such a solution, and was unable to say when two key components – those countering fraud and error and confirming claimants’ identity- would be completed.

“The Department has found it particularly hard to establish the right balance between security and usability. The development of an effective security system has been hindered by security not being integral to the design of IT components from the outset, but instead being retro-fitted into systems, and suppliers working on different assumptions and to different standards. To address this, the Department told us it has now brought security issues together in one place, with one senior official responsible for overseeing this part of the programme.”

DWP response to PAC report

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson told the BBC

“This report doesn’t take into account our new leadership team, or our progress on delivery,” it said. “We have already taken comprehensive action including strengthening governance, supplier management and financial controls.”

The DWP said it did not accept “the write-off figure quoted by the committee” and expected it to be substantially less”.

A spokesman for Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that he had “every confidence” in the team now running the programme, including Mr Devereux – whose position  some newspapers have suggested is under threat.

“Both the National Audit Office and the public accounts committee acknowledged a fortress mentality within the Universal Credit programme,” he said.

“Iain was clear back in the summer about how he and the permanent secretary took action to fix those problems.”

PAC report: Universal Credit: early progress

National Audit Office report: Universal Credit: early progress

IT suppliers out of control of DWP on Universal Credit?

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions is investigating with consultants PwC whether poor financial controls on payments to IT suppliers have “materialised into cash that should not have been spent”.

If there is evidence the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux says the DWP will raise the matter with suppliers.

It’s rare for details of central government’s relationship with specific suppliers to come into the public domain but this has happened to some extent on the Universal Credit IT project, thanks mainly to the National Audit Office.

Last week the NAO published a summary of a PwC report into the financial management of UC’s IT suppliers. PwC’s report was circulated to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee who read out some of its contents at a hearing this week.

The Committee’s MPs questioned Devereux, his Finance Director Mike Driver, and Dr Norma Wood, Interim Director General at the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

Wood said the Major Projects Authority noticed that suppliers, in doing user acceptance testing, were increasing their average daily rates from £500 to about £800.

Said Wood:

“We came back down to about £500, in round figures. That could mean that you have much greater quality, so one has to be careful. We didn’t have an evidence base really to be able to probe this, which is why we recommended to the accounting officer that he undertake this [PwC] investigation.”

Wood agreed with Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, that financial control of the IT companies was a “shambles”.

Hodge said: “The PwC report reads more shockingly than the NAO report in terms of the lack of financial control.” She said that the DWP had sat on the PwC report for six months [before releasing it internally], a point the department has not denied.

Hodge said the PwC report referred to:
- incomplete contracts
- incomplete evidence to support contracts
- inappropriate authorisations
- insufficient information supporting contract management
- delegated authority given to a personal assistant to authorise purchase orders on the behalf of the chair of the strategic design authority

“This is a shambles,” said Hodge. “The fear that one has is that money was clearly paid out to the four big ones—Accenture, IBM, HP and BT—which they claimed on a time basis. It was not a tight contract; it was on a time-and-materials basis, which could well have paid out for no work being done.”

Wood: “I agree with you…it is quite clear that suppliers were out of control and that financial controls were not in place. As we did the reset, we ensured that everything was properly negotiated and contracted for, so that is very tight in terms of the reset going forward, but there are definitely questions about how it was handled… As with any payments you should have a proper audit trail and they should be properly governed. They should have been properly contracted for…”

Wood said that she would use the same suppliers again. “Under proper control why not?”

Hodge said the DWP appeared to have given suppliers a blank cheque. “Last night Mr Driver [DWP Finance Director] kindly sent me a copy of the PwC report, which is even more damning in my view [than the NAO report Universal Credit: early progress], particularly on the blank cheque that you appear to have given to suppliers and the failure to keep Ministers properly informed.”

Conservative MP Richard Bacon said the findings in the PwC report were “extraordinary”. Reading from the report he said there was:
- Limited cost control
- Ineffective end-to-end accounts payable processing
- Limited control over receipting against purchase orders
- Accenture and IBM accounted for almost 65% of total IT supplier spend, as at February 2013.
- Purchase orders for Accenture and IBM do not allow for granular verification of expenditure as they are raised and approved by value only. Thus, they cannot
be linked to individual delivery and grades of staff use. Receipting is completed by reference to time sheets. However, this confirmation is not complete and/or accurate as the majority of those individuals receipting do not have the capability and capacity to verify all time recording. This constraint has resulted in expenditure being approved with a nil return in many cases. As a result, payments may be made with no verification.

Bacon added:

“After all the history that we have had of IT projects going wrong, how can this
extraordinarily loose control—it is probably wrong to use the word “control”—how can this extraordinarily loose arrangement exist?”

Devereux, who was criticised by Hodge on several occasions for not answering questions directly, replied: “I will try at least to explain what was going on. Let me take you back to the process that we were operating. The process we were operating was seeking to work through, in the space of a four-week period -”

Hodge: “You are doing it again, Mr Devereux.”

Devereux: “I am afraid that I cannot answer the question without giving some facts.”

Hodge: “So is PwC wrong?”

Devereux: No, no. PwC is correct, but I am about to explain what else was going on. I have just had a long set of sessions with PwC, who as we speak, are doing further work for me to establish one particular, critical thing that you will want to know, which is that other things were being checked in the background here that enabled PwC to go back and do some ex post calculations about exactly how much was being paid for each of the outputs we had. It is absolutely right to say-”

Bacon “… Is it not utterly elementary that when you are paying a supplier for having given you something, you know what it is you are paying and what you are getting for it? This is basic!”

Devereux said his department had a resource plan agreed with Accenture (the main UC IT supplier) which was based on a computer model on what a piece of work would involve.

“The contract …in any one month was being based on that calculation of how much work we were likely to put into it in advance. Then the signing off of invoices was indeed based on looking at monthly time sheets. I agree with you that that is not a satisfactory position.”

Bacon: “What is amazing is that you said you did not know any of this until the supplier-led review brought it to you in the summer of 2012. This had been going on for quite a while. There was apparently nothing going on in the Department that was flagging this up. Internal assurance, internal audit—where was it?”

Devereux: “… I conclude this, and it is my responsibility—that more than one line of defence has gone wrong. We have talked so far about whether the programme was properly managing itself.”

Bacon: “This is extraordinary, and it is horribly familiar…it is absolutely central to your job as accounting officer to be sure that you have got lines of defence that are operating effectively. That is part of your job, isn’t it?”

Devereux: “It is part of my job.”

Bacon: “So to be surprised by this is an extraordinary admission, is it not?”

Devereux: “I can only be surprised by this if I am not getting signals from my second line of defence—my financial controllers—that they are worried about what is going on.”

Bacon: “You do sound as though you are blaming everybody underneath you, I am afraid.”

Devereux: “I do not intend to do that, but you are asking me what I knew and what I didn’t know. I am trying to take you through the process by which I am aware of things, and the action I have taken on them.”

Bacon: “But my point is that it was your job to know. It is your job to manage this. You are effectively the chief executive of the DWP.”

Devereux: “I am the chief executive of the DWP, I am the accounting officer, and I am accountable for it. Correct.”

Bacon: “But you didn’t know, did you?

Devereux: “I didn’t know on this, no.”

Hodge revealed that one of the conclusions of the PwC report was that there was a lack of evidence of ministerial sign-off of some contracts. PwC tested 25 contracts over £25,000, and only 11 could be traced with approval; and evidence of value for money provided to the Minister was limited in some cases.

Hodge said: “Basically it [PwC] found that you failed to consult properly with Ministers in signing off the IT contracts.”

Driver: “I think we had a weakness in the process that was operating…It has not always been possible to find all of the paper evidence to confirm a decision. We hold our hands up; we need to improve that. We have now significantly improved the control arrangements that operate within the Department ahead of ministerial sign-off.

“We have also significantly improved the arrangements that apply to any sign-off with the Cabinet Office. I personally chair what is called a star chamber group, which looks at all contracts before we seek authority from the Cabinet Office to go forward…”

Devereux: The work that I was trying to describe to the Chair earlier, which PwC is doing now, is to establish whether the risks we have been running, given this lack of control, have actually materialised into cash that should not have been spent…

“In the event that there is evidence of that, we will go back to the suppliers, obviously. I do not want to run this argument too hard, but there is a set of control weaknesses here which gives rise to a risk of loss of value for money. I accept that.”

MPs dig hard for truth on Universal Credit IT

MPs dig hard for truth on Universal Credit IT

By Tony Collins

“Just answer the question … please!”

Rarely has any chair of the Public Accounts Committee pleaded so frequently with a permanent secretary not go round the houses when answering questions.

Margaret Hodge’s irritation was obvious on Tuesday [9 September] at a hearing of the Committee into a National Audit Office report on the Universal Credit IT-based programme: Universal Credit: early progress.

Before the Committee was Robert Devereux, the top civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions. Beside him was UC’s latest project director Howard Shiplee who successfully led and managed construction contracts, budgets and timelines for all permanent and temporary venues for the Olympics. He has a CBE for services to construction.

It’s unclear how much experience Shiplee has had with IT-based projects and dealing with IT suppliers, though given his success as a big projects leader and construction expert,  IT leadership experience may be unnecessary.

There were signs from the hearing that Universal Credit project is following the events that have typically preceded IT-related disasters in government, especially in the way facts were interpreted in opposing and irreconcilable ways by the project’s defenders on one side and the “independents” on the other.

The “independents”, whose criticisms of the project have been withering, include a director at the National Audit Office Max Tse who led the NAO’s inquiry into the UC programme, and Dr Norma Wood, who has held several relevant positions in recent months, first as review team leader for a UC review in February, then as Transformation Director for the UC programme “re-set” in May 2013 and then as Interim Director General for the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. She is a consultant, not a civil servant. She appeared before the PAC on Wednesday.

Another “independent” is the auditor and consultancy PWC which reported to the government on financial mismanagement on the UC project. The NAO revealed the existence of the PWC report, which Hodge said was even more damming the NAO’s. [see separate blog post.]

A possible outcome of deeply conflicting views on the success or otherwise of a big and controversial project is that truth remains beyond anyone’s grasp within the life of the project and emerges only within the scheme’s post mortem audit report.

At Tuesday’s PAC hearing, the evidence given by Devereux and Shiplee on one hand, and Wood on the other was at times conflicting.

Wood’s evidence

Wood said that one of the lessons from the Universal Credit programme so far was that it was not conceived as a business transformation but was “very IT driven”. Of the £303m that has been spent on IT so far a sizeable part will need to be written off, beyond the £34m write-off so far.

Conservative MP Richard Bacon asked her how much could eventually be written off on the IT spend. “I think it will be substantial. I could not give you a figure,” she said.

When Bacon asked if it could be more than £140m she replied: “It will be at least that I would think.”

Her answer implied that the DWP will need to write off a large part of the £162m it currently estimates its IT assets are worth, after the £303m IT spend. Hodge said the write-off could be in excess of £200m – but this was later denied by Devereux, who also denied the write-off would be at least £140m.

Wood revealed that the figure for the write-off so far was derived from information given by suppliers, after the DWP asked them to judge how much of their equipment and software would be of use.

Conservative MP Stephen Barclay asked Wood whether suppliers were assessing the usability of their own work.

“Yes they were,” replied Wood.

Barclay: “So they were marking their own homework?”

“Yes they were.”

“Does that not carry a conflict of interest?”

“Yes it does.”

“Does it concern you?”

“It did,” replied Wood. “Therefore in the review we recommended an independent investigation.”

Barclay: “Building on Mr Bacon’s point, it is highly likely that with the initial write-off, if they have been marking their homework, comes a risk that the eventual figure is going to be bigger?”

“That’s true.”

Barclay’s questioning will indicate to some that the DWP and its IT suppliers were so close it could have been difficult for the department’s officials to be objective about what they were being told.

Steady-state solution

Wood spoke of how DWP and the Major Projects Authority had designed a “steady-state solution” which was a simplified version of UC , from which a more comprehensive system could be developed.

Said Wood: “There is a steady-state solution … with business requirements, that was handed over to the SRO [senior responsible owner] on 17 May, so there is a complete design and there is a multidisciplinary team working that design through to the next level.”

She said the steady-state solution is twin-tracked. “There is a piece that designs the interactive activity with the user and with the agents, and there is a part that uses existing systems, such as the payment system and the customer information system, but there are some 32 legacy systems in between, the utility of which we did not know at the time we completed the reset on 17 May.”

The interactive part is managed by a multi-disciplinary team that involves the GDS [Government Digital Service] and used agile, with waterfall for legacy systems.

“So yes, there is a design, and it is a very good design.”

On the use of agile she said the important thing is to apply rigour and discipline as you go through those methodologies. “It is not an issue of methodology; it is an issue of the rigour and discipline that is applied to those approaches.”


Instead of a national roll-out starting in October, which was the original plan, the DWP is running “pathfinder” projects which accept only simplified claims and use limited IT without full anti-fraud measures.

Wood said: “It [the pathfinder scheme] is not hopeless. As it was currently configured there was a limit to the volume of payments it could handle because of the manual interfaces required – the manual support it required. So there is a very limited number of cases it could handle …”

Bacon asked if she would describe the pathfinder as so substantially de-scoped it was not fit for purpose.

“At the time we did the review [earlier this year] that was our conclusion.”

“ Is it correct that the pathfinder technology platform will not support UC in the future – that it is not scalable?” asked Bacon

“Unless it can handle all the functionality we have just described I fail to see how it can be scalable,” replied Wood.


Liberal Democrat MP Ian Swales said: “We have exactly the same names of suppliers failing to deliver on government contracts time after time. Poor specifications, very vague penalties involved, and a sense that they have a vested interest, almost, in failure and we are again sat around this table discussing the same sort of thing. What can be learned?

Wood replied that there are some important lessons. “One is that this is not just a procurement exercise; this is actually a contract management exercise. It is really important that one understands what the business needs to deliver. That is why I stress that this was constituted not as a business transformation programme, but as an IT programme. It is important that the business drives the IT requirements and manages the contracts accordingly.”

Is 2017 feasible?

Wood: “It is feasible to deliver the whole thing by 2017.”

Bacon pointed out that there is no approval for further spending on UC until November 2013 and only then if criteria is met. He asked Wood on what basis approval for more spending would be given. Wood said it will be based on whether the project is affordable, value for money, deliverable within timescales, and has the appropriate management place.

DWP’s evidence

Hodge complained repeatedly that the civil servants before her were not answering questions directly – perhaps a sign of how hard it can be to establish the truth when an IT-based project goes awry.

“I would be really grateful if you would answer the question,” asked Hodge when questioning Devereux about whether Universal Credit had a proper business plan, a strategy.

At another point Devereux said: “Let me try and answer these questions which have been bandied around.”

Hodge: “You do go round the houses. Just answer them directly.”

Later in the hearing:

Hodge: “What you are so good at is giving us a whole load of stuff that is completely irrelevant to what we are trying to get at. Just answer the question.”

And another occasion…

Hodge: “No just answer the question … please.”

And again …

Hodge: “What would be utterly delightful is if you simply answered the questions. Just answer the questions.”

Again …

Hodge: “I just don’t get where this is going. I am honestly trying to be fair to you today. Ask the question again Meg [Meg Hillier MP] and then see if we can get an answer.” [Hillier’s question was about why the DWP has treated Universal Credit as an IT project instead of what it actually is, a business transformation programme which changes the way people work and act rather than introduces new technology. Devereux gave no clear answer.]

An exchange about the UC’s pathfinder projects characterised the relationship between Hodge and Devereux. Critics of the pathfinders say they are pointless because the claimants are atypical, much of the claims process relies on manual work, the technology is largely without any agreed anti-fraud measures, and it cannot yet handle everyday circumstances.

Supporters of the pathfinders, particularly Devereux, say they are a useful step in assessing the behaviour of people when making claims and testing the interfaces between new technology and the DWP’s legacy systems.

Hodge: “You are not answering any of the questions Mr Devereux. I don’t mind a little bit of history and a little bit of what you want to say but answer the questions. Do you think the pilot was fit for purpose – yes or no?”

Devereux: “The pathfinder is testing useful things that we have fixed.”

Hodge: “Was it fit for purpose?”

Devereux: “It has been useful.”

“Was it fit for purpose?”

“What purpose did you have in mind?”

“No – you.”

“Ok well, for my purpose it has worked fine thank you. “

“To do what?”

“To make sure I can construct some brand new software to connect it to a –“

“On which you spent £300m …”

“To connect it to a very complicated legacy estate and then demonstrate all of those things – let me give you one example; we will not get anywhere otherwise. I have sat in front of this Committee and we have talked about the Work Programme. You have grilled me on the—

“Please don’t talk about the Work programme.”

“In that conversation—

“Please talk about the pathfinder…”

And subsequently …

“Can I really plead with you, if you can answer questions without going off on a sideline it would be really really helpful – really really helpful.”

MPs kept uninformed

Stephen Barclay put it to Devereux and Shiplee that the DWP was aware of serious UC problems in July 2013 but the public, media and Parliament were being given the impression all was well. Said Barclay: “In July you realised there were problems. In September [2013] your Department’s press office was telling Computer Weekly:

‘The IT is mostly built. It is on time and within budget.’

Barclay said in July 2013 Shiplee was asked by the chair of work and pensions select committee[Dame Anne Begg]: “So rumours that there is a large chunk of the IT that simply do not work and has been dumped are not true?”

“No,” replied Shiplee.

Barclay told Devereux and Shiplee: “Parliament seems to be getting told two different things.” He referred to the DWP’s “culture of denial”.

IT supplier reassurances

Shiplee said he has spent 12 of the 16 weeks since he started reviewing the UC project in great detail with IT suppliers.

“That is something that hasn’t been done to this level before. I have spent with experts from within DWP and with external experts and we have reviewed in detail what has been produced, what works, where it has got to. There are a number of points to make –

Barclay: “Could you clarify you wrote to the chair of the DWP committee to clarify that answer if you have done further work …”

Shiplee: “I have not concluded the work. I believe that from that work already, it is my view, supported by reports, that there is substantial utility in what has been produced… The use of agile is by itself very iterative and therefore to a certain extent it is potentially high risk.

“I wanted to look at how we could de-risk this, this utilisation of agile, and one of the ways to do that is to look at what we have already spent a great deal of money on, and whether it was usable and would actually serve to de-risk the programme…

“What I have discovered is that the Pathfinder does not represent the amount of development work that has been undertaken by suppliers. It [Pathfinder] has been heavily de-tuned from where they have actually got to.”


“Mainly around security, said Shiplee. “This is a unique piece of work. It [the DWP] is the only bank anywhere – effectively a bank – in which customers do not put money it. They simply take money out. It is therefore attractive from all sort of fraud point of view and therefore security is very important. The key element of security is personal identification. Nobody has yet found a way to do that effectively and totally online.”

Hodge: “Are you telling us that the technology developed so far is capable of being scaled up for a national roll-out?”

Shiplee: “On the basis of what I have been told and what I have seen so far, I believe it has been demonstrated that the suppliers have got the capability to scale this up. They have, for example, dealt with couples [Pathfinder system deals now only with single people.]

“The suppliers have explained where they have got to. It is very interesting. Some of the challenges we are facing now the suppliers have already faced in the past and have resolved those issues. I am trying to make sure that we use all of this to the best good and we don’t have to relearn every lesson again.”

Replaced project leaders

Devereux told of how he had replaced project leaders who , he suggested, were not solving problems but pushing ahead regardless, and were not good listeners.

“People I put in place here had experience and confidence. The challenge they had was very large and there came a point in my judgment they were no longer on top of it. There were cumulative issues to be resolved.

“When the cumulative bow wave of things that had not been resolved was being called out as not resolvable by just pushing on through, that is the point at which we decided to change, because it was also then that the point the Chair made about a good news culture within the programme was crystallising. Those two things cannot work.

“I need people who will drive things through. Howard is very good at driving things through, but the person that drives things through and does not listen to anyone at all is not going to help me at all.”


Last week James Naughtie on BBC’s R4 Today programme, R2’s Jeremy Vine, journalists at the BBC World Service and at other news services asked me whether Universal Credit was another government IT disaster. I said in essence that it was a good idea badly executed. The IT project has been dogged by an over-ambitious timetable, poor control and validation of supplier payments and a good news culture that to some extent still exists.

In past government IT disasters such as the NPfIT, C-NOMIS and the Rural Payments Agency’s Single Payment Scheme, ministers were not given bad news until it could be hidden no longer. Senior officials gave ministers only good news because that’s what they wanted to hear.


Civil servants, perhaps, wanted to give ministers credible “deniability”. The less ministers knew of serious problems the more credibly they could deny in public the existence of them.

Thank goodness, then, for the scrutiny of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee on Universal Credit. Some important truths have now come to the surface. With the NAO and the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority rightly breathing down its neck, the DWP is doing all it can to put the project back on track. But the DWP is still marred by a good news culture. Even after the NAO and PWC reports the DWP’s press office is still talking of the Universal Credit project as a success.

A DWP spokesperson told the Guardian this week:

“The IT for universal credit is up and running well in the early rollout of the new benefit.”

And Iain Duncan Smith and his senior officials appear to be dismissing the NAO’s report as historic – which it is to some extent – but much of it is also forward-looking.

Duncan Smith, Devereux and Shiplee are all very positive about the future of the project. But would it be better if they were genuinely sceptical, as would be a private sector board that was confronting a big and challenging IT-enabled change project?

Politics and IT don’t go well together and never have. There is every chance Universal Credit will follow what has happened with the last huge benefit computerisation project, Operational Strategy in the 1980s. It eventually worked but in a much more fragmented way than expected. It was several years late, cost several times the original estimate, and did not make the savings predicted. The likely fate of Universal Credit IT?

Learn from failure: the key lesson that Universal Credit should take from agile [Institute for Government]