Category Archives: Agile

Universal Credit and its IT – an inside track?

By Tony Collins

An excellent BBC Radio 4 “Inside Welfare Reform” Analysis broadcast yesterday evening gave an insider’s view of the IT-based Universal Credit programme from its beginnings to today.

It depicted Iain Duncan Smith as a courageous reformer who’s kept faith with important welfare changes that all parties support. If they work, the reforms will benefit taxpayers and claimants. The broadcast concludes with an apparent endorsement of IDS’s very slow introduction of UC.

“When real lives and real money are at stake, being cautious is not the worst mistake you can make.”

So says the BBC R4 “Analysis” guest presenter Jonathan Portes who worked on welfare spending at the Treasury in the 1980s and became Chief Economist at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002. He left the DWP in 2011 and is now director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The BBC broadcast left me with the impression that UC would today be perceived as meeting expectations if DWP officials and ministers had, in the early days:

- been open and honest about the complexities of IT-related and business change

- outlined the potential problems of implementing UC as set out in internal reports and the minutes of programme team meetings

- explained the likelihood of the UC programme taking more time and money than initially envisaged

- urged the need for extreme caution

- made a decision at the outset to protect – at all costs – those most in genuine need of disability benefits

- not sold UC to a sceptical Treasury on the basis it would save billions in disability claims  – for today thousands of disability claimants are in genuine need of state help, some of whom are desperately sick, and are not receiving money because of delays.

Instead UC is perceived as a disaster, as set out in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary last night.

A £500m write-off on IT?

Other noteworthy parts of the BBC R4 Analysis broadcast:

- The Department for Work and Pensions gave selective responses to the BBC’s questions. Portes: “We did ask the Department for Work and Pensions for an interview for this programme but neither Iain Duncan  Smith nor any minister was available. We sent a detailed list of questions and have had answers to some.”

- Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, gave her view that the next government will have to write off £500m on IT investment on Universal Credit – about £360m more than the Department for Work and Pensions has stated publicly.

Hodge told the BBC: “We are now on our fourth or official in charge of the project and the project has only been going four or five years. Anyone who knows about project management will tell you that consistency of leadership is vital. I don’t think there has been ownership of the project by a senior official within DWP.  I think they and ministers have only wanted to hear the good news. Management of the IT companies has been abysmal.

“I still believe, though I haven’t t got officials to admit to this, that after the general election we will probably be writing off in excess of half a billion  pounds on investment in IT that had failed to deliver… The investment in IT that they are presently saying they can re-use in other ways is not fit for purpose. The system simply cannot cope.”

The BBC asked the DWP for its comment on the scale of the write-offs. “No answer,” said Portes.

Parliament told the truth?

Stephen Brien, who has been dubbed the architect of Universal Credit, gave his first broadcast interview to Analysis. He worked with IDS at the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank set up by IDS in 2004. Brien saw IDS on a nearly daily basis.

Portes asked Brien when IDS first realised things were going off track. “The challenge became very stark in the summer of 2012,” said Brien.

Portes: What was your relationship with IDS?

“My office was across the corridor from his.  I would join him for all the senior meetings about the programme. I would keep him updated as a result of the other meetings I was addressing within the programme team. When it became materially obvious we had to change plans it was over that summer [2012].

Portes: But that was not the public line. In September 2012 this is what IDS said (in the House of Commons):

“We will deliver Universal Credit on time, as it is, on budget, right now.”

IDS appears to have given that assurance while being aware of the change to UC plans.

UC oversold to Treasury?

Portes: “The really big savings were supposed to come from disability benefit. And here trouble was brewing. The problem was the deal IDS had done with the Treasury. The Treasury never liked UC. It thought it was both risky and expensive. And the Treasury, faced with a huge budget deficit, wanted to save not spend.

“With pensions protected disability benefits were really the only place savings could be made.  The previous government had contracted ATOS to administer a new medical test – the Work Capability Assessment – to all 2.5 million people on Incapacity Benefit but only a few pilots had started.

“IDS and the Treasury agreed to press ahead.  Some claimants would be moved to new Employment and Support Allowance but the plan was that several hundred thousand would lose the benefit entirely – saving about £3bn a year.

“Disability living allowance which helps with the extra cost of disability would also be replaced with the new, saving another £2bn…

But …

“By now the new work capability assessment was supposed to have got more than 500,000 people off incapacity benefits. Instead they are stuck in limbo waiting for an assessment.

“By now the new Personal Independence Payment should have replaced disability living allowance saving billions of pounds more. Instead it too has been dogged by delay.

“Just a few days ago the Office for Budget Responsibility said delays in these benefits are costing taxpayers close to £5bn a year. This dwarfs any savings made elsewhere and leaves a potential black hole in the next government budget.”

How many people left stuck in the system?

The BBC asked the Department of Work and Pensions’ press office how many claimants, and for how long, they have been waiting for claims to be resolved. Portes: “They didn’t answer. But their own published statistics suggest it is at least half a million.

“One aim of the reforms was to cut incapacity benefit and the numbers had been on a long slow decline between 2003 and 2012 but now it is rising again. So much for the Treasury saving.”

Who is at fault?

Publicly IDS talks about a lack of professionalism among civil servants and that he has lost faith with their ability to manage the UC-related problems. Rumours in the corridors of Westminster are that behind the scenes IDS has attempted to blame his permanent secretary Robert Devereux.  On this point, again, the DWP refused the BBC’s request for a comment.

Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, who appointed Devereux, told the BBC that tensions between IDS and Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office did not help. “Robert [Devereux] was in a very difficult position. He was in a world where Francis Maude was trying to deliver, efficiently, programmes for government and on the other hand IDS was seeing the centre as interfering and criticising whereas he knew best: it was his project; he was living it every day. There was a lot of tension there. Really what we need to do is get everyone sitting round a table trying to work out how we can deliver outcomes that matter.”

Was Devereux set up to fail?

O’Donnell: “With hindsight one can say this is a project that could not be delivered to time and cost.”

Were DWP officials to blame?

Stephen Brien said: “There was a real desire from the very beginning to get this done. I think there was a desire within DWP to demonstrate that it could again do big programmes. The DWP had not been involved in very large transformation programmes over the previous decade. There was a great enthusiasm to get back in the saddle,  a sense that it [UC] had to get underway and it had to be well entrenched through Parliament.

“These forces – each of them – contributed to a sense of ‘we have got to get this done and therefore we will get this done.’”

Too ambitious?

Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, told the BBC: “If you know what it is you want to do and you understand what is required to get there, then what’s wrong with being ambitious?

“The trouble is that when you get into the detail you find you are bruising people, damaging people, people who genuinely will always need our help. Taxpayers, our constituents, expect us to implement things so that they work, rather than see project after project go wrong and money squandered.

“There may come a point where we say: ‘we have spent so much money on this and achieved so little, is the game worth the candle?’”

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Dispatches documentary. 

After two IT disasters, immigration officials launch £208m agile project

By Tony Collins

In 2001 immigration officials cancelled a £77m system with Siemens for a Casework Application system.

The objective had been to create a “paperless office”, help reduce a backlog of 66,000 asylum cases and provide a “single view” of individuals. But the scope was overambitious and the supplier underestimated the complexities. It proved difficult to automate paper-based processes.

In 2010 immigration officials came up with a similar scheme that also failed to meet expectations.  They developed a business case for a flagship IT programme called Immigration Case Work (ICW).

It was designed to draw together all casework interactions between the business and a person, enabling caseworkers to gain a single accurate view of the person applying. It was expected to replace both the legacy Casework Information Database (CID) and 20 different IT and some paper-based systems by March 2014.

A National Audit Office published today says the ICW programme was closed in
August 2013, having delivered “significantly less than planned for £347m.”

So in the end, while the taxpayer has paid hundreds of millions for caseworking systems for immigration staff, many of the workers are still, says the NAO, relying on paper.  Today’s NAO report says:

“Both directorates [UK Visas and Immigration and Immigration Enforcement, which were formerly the UK Border Agency] rely heavily on paper-based working.

“The Permanent Migration team is 100 per cent paper-based and acknowledge this as a barrier to efficiency.”

Immigration officials use some technology to record personal details of people who pass through the immigration system. But:

• A lack of controls mean staff can leave data fields blank or enter incorrect
information. The NAO found many errors in the database.
• There is a history of systems freezing and being unusable.
• A lack of interfaces with other systems results in manual data transfer or
cross‑referencing.

Agile success?

Now, says the NAO, the Home Office has begun a new agile-based programme, Immigration Platform Technologies  (IPT). It is due to cost £208.7 million by 2016-17.

A tool for online applications for some types of visa has already been rolled-out and is being updated using applicant feedback,” says the NAO.

But support contracts for the existing technology [the legacy Casework Information Database] expire in January 2016, before the scheduled completion of IPT in 2017.

The Home Office is “reviewing options for support contracts to cover this gap”.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, says of the agile project: “Given its poor track record, I have little confidence that the further £209 million it is spending on another IT system will be money well spent.”

Comment

Is it possible for a genuinely agile project to cost £208m? The point about agile is that it is supposed to be incremental, quick and cheap.  It looks as if the Home Office is running a hybrid conventional/agile programme, as the DWP did with Universal Credit. Either a project is agile or its not. Hybrids, it seems, are not usually successful.

There again is the Home Office congenitally capable of running an agile project?  The Agile Manifesto is based on twelve principles, most of which could be said to be alien to the Home Office’s culture:

1.Customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful software
2.Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
3.Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
4.Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
5.Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
6.Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
7.Working software is the principal measure of progress
8.Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
9.Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
10.Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
11.Self-organizing teams
12.Regular adaptation to changing circumstances

So what’s needed?

Big government IT-based change programmes tend to be introspective and secretive. Those working on them don’t always feel able to challenge, to criticise, to propose doing things differently.

What would be innovative would be openness and independent challenge, and tough and well-informed Parliamentary scrutiny. It rarely happens. Ask the Home Office for any of its progress reports on its IT-base change programmes and it’ll tell you exactly what the DWP says when asked a similar question: “That’s not something we generally release.”

The NAO report points to a culture problem. “… Having a transparent culture was rated as red on the UK Visas and Immigration risk trends in April 2014.”

Will the new agile project be any more successful than the other 2 major immigration IT projects? The Home Office will doubtless claim success as it usually does. Even when the patient dies it tells Parliament the operation was a success.  For you can say publicly whatever you like when you keep the facts confidential – as IDS at the DWP knows.

Reforming the UK border and immigration system - National Audit Office report

Treasury refusing to sign off Universal Credit business case?

By Tony Collins

Government Computing reports that the business case for the Universal Credit programme has yet to be signed off.

It appears that the Department for Work and Pensions receives money for the programme only when it needs it.

It is odd that the business case remains to be signed although the programme is more than three years old. The programme was “reset” last year.

At a hearing yesterday of the Public Accounts Committee the four top civil servants who appeared before MPs were reluctant to admit that the business case had not been signed off.

They four were:

- Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary, Cabinet Office;

- Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Home Civil Service and Permanent Secretary, Communities and Local Government;

- Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office and

- Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary, HM Treasury.

Government Computing reports that the four were “reduced to bluster” when the committee’s chair Margaret Hodge  questioned them repeatedly on whether the business case for Universal Credit had been signed off by the Treasury.

She said, “There is no argument about the policy. It is entirely an implementation issue. And I cannot understand a centre that fails to intervene when there is such a classic failure at the departmental level on something that the centre says it is interested in, which is IT.

“It’s supposed to be a digitisation exercise in the way we administer benefits so you can integrate the benefits. What we’ve got out there is not a digitisation – it’s an incredibly staff intensive, pathfinder thing. Why is the centre allowing that to happen? Have you signed off the business case yet?”

“Have you assigned off the business case?” she repeated to  MacPherson.

After some looks between the four permanent secretaries, Kerslake said, “I think we should stop beating about the bush. It hasn’t been signed off. What we’ve had is a set of conditional assurances about progress and the Treasury has released money accordingly. And that’s one of the key controls they have. “

Defending the role of the centre in the Universal Credit programme, Heywood said, “This is an example of where the centre did intervene very strongly, both the Treasury and the Major Projects Authority (MPA).

“The MPA with the support of the Treasury and with a lot of technical help from the Government Digital Service (GDS) has played a very clear role in bringing to the secretary of state’s attention that the project was way off track. And that was a very important intervention from the centre.

“It then followed up with the next technique that the centre has got, which is to provide support in seconding in the then head of the MPA, David Pitchford, to help re-programme the project, a lot of support from Mike Bracken and his team at GDS to help the digital underpinnings of it and also some help on the commercial renegotiation of some of the contracts from Bill Crothers and his team. So it’s a very good example of the assurance role was followed by a support role and that continues.”

Pressed by Margaret Hodge on whether Universal Credit was now on track, Heywood said, “In its current form, yes, I think it is.”

Comment

Among so-called enlightened democracies the UK, perhaps, stands alone. In what other country would the nation’s four most senior civil servants, when asked if the business case for a major project has been signed off, look like children in a playground who are being asked to reveal a secret?

What does it say about open government that the UK’s four most senior civil servants cannot immediately say yes or no to such a basic question?

[One thing it says, perhaps, is that they are all terrified of Iain Duncan Smith who doesn't like anything being said about Universal Credit that isn't entirely positive. Worse still, they probably all agree with him.]

Treasury still to fully sign off Universal Credit business case 

Has DWP suppressed a “red” rating on Universal Credit project?

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office’s Major Project Authority gave the Universal Credit programme a “red” rating which IDS and the Department for Work and Pensions campaigned successfully to turn into a neutral “reset” designation, says The Independent.

Universal Credit was “only given a reset rating after furious protests by Iain Duncan Smith and his department,” says the newspaper.

A “reset” rating is unprecedented. All major projects at red will need a reset. That is one of the reasons the Major Projects Authority gives a red rating: to signal to the senior responsible owner that the project needs resetting or cancelling. A “reset” designation is a non-assessment.

The MPA’s official definition of a red rating is:

“Red: Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues on project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed.”

The suppression of Universal Credit’s red rating may indicate that the project, at the top, is driven by politics – the public and Parliamentary perception of the project being all-important – rather than pragmatics.

It is a project management aphorism that serious problems cannot be tackled until their seriousness is admitted.

Normally the Major Projects Authority will give even newly reconfigured projects traffic light ratings, to indicate its view of the risks of the revised plans.

The Independent calls for the replacement of Iain Duncan Smith as political head of the project.

Comment

The National Audit Office warned last September of the DWP’s fortress mentality and “good news” culture.

The suppression of Universal Credit’s red rating on top of the DWP’s repeated refusals to publish the Universal Credit project assessment report, risk register, issues register and milestone schedule shows that the DWP still avoids telling it like it is. That will make successful delivery of Universal Credit’s complexities impossible.

Well-run IT projects are about problem-solving not problem-denying.

The Independent is right to say that IDS is not the person to be running Universal Credit. He has too much emotional equity to be an objective leader. He sees himself as having too much to lose. The programme needs to be run by an open-minded pragmatist.

In asking the Cabinet Office to agree with a “reset” rating for Universal Credit IDS is acting like a schoolboy who has done something wrong and asks the school not to tell his parents. That’s no way to run something as important as Universal Credit.

IDS and DWP accused of hiding bad news on Universal Credit - The Independent

 

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.

Comment

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.”

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

Costs

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.

Comment

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. 

Worrying

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…”

Comment

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.