Tag Archives: agile

Universal Credit full business case “a long way from Treasury approval”

By Tony Collins

Yesterday in Parliament Iain Duncan Smith gave a statement on Universal Credit – then MPs asked him questions.  Conservative MP Nigel Mills asked IDS a straightforward question:

“Can the secretary of state confirm that the Treasury has now signed off the whole business case and laid to rest that fear that they were not going to do that?”

IDS gave a clear reply: “That is exactly what was being asked before the summer break and the answer is they have …”

But the UC programme has not received Treasury approval for the full business case, nor even the outline business case. Today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update” says that the UC programme received approval in September 2014 for the “strategic outline business case” only.

An NAO official says this is a “long way from Treasury approval” of the full business case.

Until the full business case is approved, UC has no formal funding beyond the current spending review. Meanwhile the Treasury has been funding UC in “small increments” according to the NAO.

The Department of Work and Pensions is due to produce the outline business case next summer, before the next government’s spending review.

The “outline” business case is supposed to set out how the programme is affordable and will be successfully delivered. It summarises the results so far and sets out the case for proceeding to a formal procurement phase.

The “full” business case documents the contractual arrangements,
confirms funding and affordability and sets out the detailed management
arrangements and plans for successful delivery and post evaluation.

The absence of approval for the outline or full business case underlines the uncertainties still in the UC programme. Indeed the latest NAO report says it’s too early to tell whether UC will prove value for money.

But the DWP has reduced risks by extending the roll-out. The programme is now not expected to be completed before 2020. The original completion date was 2017.

The DWP has a twin-track approach to the UC IT programme. It is paying its existing main IT suppliers to support the introduction of UC – the so-called “live” service – while an agile team develops a fully-automated “digital” service that is designed to do all that the “live” service cannot do without manual intervention.

The agile system has yet to be tested – but it has cost only about £8m compared with more than £90m spent on the “live service”.


Labour MP Glenda Jackson, who is a member of the Work and Pensions committee, suggested to IDS yesterday that his promises to MPs on Universal Credit’s roll-out have all been broken and that he has told the House of Commons “porky pies”.

IDS replied that his intention is to ensure that UC is rolled out in a safe and secure way.


You’d never know from IDS’s replies to MPs yesterday that the Universal Credit programme doesn’t yet have either outline business case approval or full business case approval.

In other words, the Treasury has yet to be convinced the UC programme is feasible or affordable. It is paying for the programme in increments.

IDS told MPs the programme has business case approval. He did not make it  clear that the programme has the early-stage strategic outline business case approval.

His comments reinforce the need for the National Audit Office to scrutinise the Universal Credit programme. Left to the Department for Work and Pensions, the facts about the programme’s progress, problems and challenges would probably not emerge, not in the House of Commons at least.

Some MPs have said for years that Parliament is the last place to look for the truth.

IDS also said yesterday that the original deadline for completion of UC by 2017 was “artificial” – though he has quoted the 2017 date to MPs on several occasions.

Will UC succeed?

UC as an IT-based programme is not doing too badly, to judge from today’s NAO report.

Indeed it seems that the Department for Work and Pensions, when under intense scrutiny, can start to get things right.

Though existing systems from major suppliers look increasingly unlikely to be able to handle the predicted volumes without a large and expensive amount of manual intervention, the agile digital system, though delayed by 6 months, looks promising, at a fraction of the cost of the conventional “live” system.


The NAO is scrutinising the programme. The DWP’s own auditors seem to be doing a good job. The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is making useful recommendations. And the programme has an independently-chaired board. [The NAO says the programme board has been hampered by limited information and suggests this is because the DWP gives the board “good news” statements rather than facts.]

All this scrutiny is powering the programme in the right direction, though the uncertainties remain massive. As Campaign4Change predicted, the programme will not be complete before 2020. But who cares, if it works well in the end and losses are minimised?

DWP officials are learning lessons – and UC could end up as a template for big government IT-enabled programmes  The twin-track approach of using existing suppliers to deliver support for major business changes that yield problems and lessons  that then feed into an entirely new agile-based system is not a cheap way to develop government IT –  but it may work.

What DWP officials have yet to learn is how to be open and truthful to Parliament, the media – and even its own programme board.

Universal Credit: progress update

Some highlights of today’s NAO report

NAO warns over costs of further Universal Credit digital delay

Universal Credit: watchdog warns of costs of further delays

Government may have to write off more than £200m invested in IT on Universal Credit

Universal Credit project costs reach £36,222 per claimant (excluding the claim)

By Tony Collins

Iain Duncan Smith has told MPs that the costs of the Universal Credit project are £652m to March 2014 – which is about £36,222 per successful claimant.

The figure includes the money paid to the DWP’s Universal Credit IT suppliers which was £303m by the end of 2012/13.  An updated figure will be published in a UC report by the National Audit Office due to be published near the end of this month.

The costs of Universal Credit per successful claimant are disproportionately high for an IT-enabled programme that has been running for more than three years because numbers on the system are small.

If the UC programme were complete, at a forecast cost of £1.8bn, and the predicted 7.7 million people were receiving the benefit, the scheme’s delivery costs per claimant would be only about £234.

As at October 2014 17,850 people were on the Universal Credit caseload.  IDS told the Work and Pensions Committee on 5 November, in a hearing that lasted more than 2 hours,  that the costs of UC were £652m by March 2014.

That works out at about £36, 222 per successful UC claimant.

Total delivery costs for the programme are expected to be £1.8bn, down from an original prediction of £2.4bn, IDS told the committee.

IDS and the DWP hope many more successful claimants will be added to the systems next year when Universal Credit is rolled out to all jobcentres and local authorities across the country. But the scheme is subject to growing uncertainties, as the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux and IDS made clear to the committee.

DWP drops firm end date for UC

When an MP put it to IDS that he no longer has a concrete end date for when  7.7 million people will be on UC, he paused. Then he said the plan was for UC to be complete “by the end of 2018″. He gave no commitment and did not deny that there is no concrete end date.

“Er yes, yeah,” replied IDS. “We do envisage UC being complete by the end of 2018. That’s our plan.”  He said that UC would handle singles, couples, then families. In the meantime the DWP is developing an “end-state digital process” that will deliver benefits for claimants and the departments.

“The roll-out gives us phenomenal understanding of what we need to do to make sure the digital service ultimately comes in and completes that process properly. There is a de-risking of the process.”

UC may never be fully automated

Another uncertainty for UC is its ability to handle an estimated 1.6 million changes per month to people’s claims.

Changes in circumstances are handled manually at present.

Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the DWP, told the committee that the UC systems are, for some claimants,  part manual, part automated. Devereux said:

“The peculiar nooks and crannies with individual circumstances  – we have deliberately not tried to code every permutation as we go along. We are trying to make sure it can be safely delivered within costs in a sensible fashion.

“It would not be sensible to code every possible permutation back at the start while you are still learning.  There are different elements of the system, some of which will be [digital] all the way through, some which are not.”

The committee chair Dame Anne Begg questioned whether UC will ever work effectively if manual processing is applied to some of the 7.7 million claimants. She received no clear answer.


It’s a good thing that the DWP is going slowly and cautiously but a spend of £652m to March 2014 per UC recipient does not seem cautious at all. If the project is being run on agile principles of fail early and fail cheaply, can this sum be justified?

On a more positive note IDS has stopped quoting a firm end date for UC. At first the DWP was saying UC would be completed by the end of 2017, then IDS said the programme would be “essentially complete” by the end of 2017.  Now he is saying it may be complete by the end of 2018 but is giving no commitment. His caution is probably because the NAO’s update on UC later this month will suggest that the programme is unlikely to be delivered in any certain time period. Nobody can say with authority or credibility when UC’s implementation will be complete.

It’s also a good thing that the DWP is conceding that UC can never be fully automated. It doesn’t make sense spending disproportionate sums on automating calculations that can be done more cheaply by hand.  But if the exceptions prove the rule UC could prove much more expensive to implement than planned.

UC is a good idea in theory but the next government needs to do a full review of its financial and practical feasibility, which the present government is unlikely to do.

Universal Credit could be complete by 2018 – Government Computing

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. 

IDS not quite as bullish on Universal Credit programme?

By Tony Collins

Iain Duncan Smith told the House of Commons in January 2013:

“Universal Credit is on track and on budget. The systems are not new or complex. After all, more than 60% of the total developed system is based on reusing existing IT. New developments will use tried and tested technology.

“The key difference between how this Government are doing things and how they were done before is that we have adopted commercial “agile” design principles to build the IT service for universal credit in four stages, each four months long.”

No longer does IDS say the Universal Credit programme is on time or on budget. Indeed in the House of Commons yesterday he was asked by Labour if the Treasury has approved the full business case for Universal Credit. His replies to MPs were not quite as bullish as they sometimes have been.

He spoke about the programme almost entirely in the future tense, and when he mentioned the present state of the programme he quoted someone else –  John Manzoni, the chief executive of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

Labour’s Nicholas Brown asked IDS when he expects the business case for Universal Credit to be fully signed off.

IDS: “I announced in December that Her Majesty’s Treasury has approved funding for the universal credit programme in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The final stage in Treasury approvals is sign-off of the full business case, which covers the full lifetime of the programme. We expect to agree that very shortly.”

Brown: The answer to a similar question two months ago was “very shortly”, but it is taking rather longer than the Secretary of State intended. What are the major outstanding issues between his Department and the Treasury, and where does universal credit now stand in the Cabinet Office’s traffic light system?

IDS: “… the reality is that we have agreed all the spending that is relevant to the plan that we set out at the end of last year. The final point relates to the full lifetime of that programme, which will take it all the way through, probably beyond all the years that anybody present will be in government. [MPs: ‘Certainly you!’] …  That is now being agreed and the reality is that it has to be done very carefully. I genuinely believe, from my discussions, that it will be signed off very shortly. The result will be that the programme will be seen for what it is: a programme that will deliver hugely to those who have the toughest lives and need the most support and help.”

Labour’s Andrew Gwynne asked when the government is going to get a grip on a “chaotic shambles”.

IDS: “It is always nice to live in the past, but the reality is that if the hon. Gentleman waits he will see that this programme is running well and will be delivering, that this programme of universal credit will benefit everybody who needs the support they most need, and all the nonsense he is talking about will all go away.

Chris Bryant, Labour, said that IDS keeps telling MPs that the UC business case will be approved very shortly.  “What has gone wrong?” he asked IDS.

IDS: “There are no sticking points, but these matters need to be agreed carefully. This test-first-and-then-implement process is the way all future programmes will be implemented.

“I just want to quote Mr Manzoni, the new chief executive of the Major Projects Authority, who made it clear to the Public Accounts Committee in June that universal credit is stable and on track with the reset plan.”


The National Audit Office is re-investigating the UC programme and is expected to publish its second “progress” report on the state of the programme by December.

If IDS says anything unjustifiably positive about the programme now, MPs and the media will compare his comments today with what the NAO says in its new report. Is that why he refers to the programme only in the future tense? And who can say with certainty what will or will not happen in the future?

It may be worth mentioning that ministers and officials, some years into the NPfIT, referred to the state of the programme almost entirely in the future tense.

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.


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.


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.


Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports should be published

By Tony Collins

A freedom of information tribunal has ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions should disclose four internal documents on the Universal Credit programme.

The documents give an insight into some of the risks, problems and challenges faced by DWP directors and teams working on UC.

They could also provide evidence on whether the DWP misled Parliament and the public in announcements and press releases issued between 2011 and late 2013.

The DWP and ministers, including the secretary of  state Iain Duncan Smith, declared repeatedly that the UC scheme was on time and on budget at a time when independent internal reports – which the DWP has refused to publish – were highly critical of elements of management of the programme.

Some detail from the internal reports was revealed by the National Audit Office in its Universal Credit: early progress in September 2013.

The FOI tribunal, under judge David Farrer QC, said in a ruling on Monday that in weighing the interest in disclosure of the reports “we attach great importance not only to the undisputed significance of the UC programme as a truly fundamental reform but to the criticism and controversy it was attracting by the time of FOI requests for the reports in March and April 2012″.

It added:

“We are struck by the sharp contrast [of independent criticisms of elements of the UC programme]  with the unfailing confidence and optimism of a series of press releases by the DWP or ministerial statements as to the progress of the Universal Credit programme during the relevant period.”

A measure of the importance of the tribunal hearing to the DWP was its choice of Sarah Cox to argue against disclosure.

Cox is now the DWP’s Director, Universal Credit, Programme Co-ordination.

She led business planning and programme management for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Despite Cox’s arguments Judge Farrer’s tribunal decided that the DWP should publish:

– A Project Assessment Review of Universal Credit by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. The Review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.

– A Risk Register of Universal Credit. It included a description of the risk, the possible impact should it occur, the probability of its occurring, a risk score, a traffic light [Red/Green Amber] status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialises, and a summary of the risk mitigation.

– An Issues Register for Universal Credit. It contained a short list of problems, the dates when they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.

– A High Level Milestone Schedule for Universal Credit. It is described in the tribunal’s ruling as a “graphic record of progress, measured in milestones, some completed, some missed and others targeted in the future”.

Campaign for openness

Campaigners have tried unsuccessfully for decades to persuade Whitehall officials to publish their independent reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled projects and programmes.

So long as the reports remain confidential, ministers and officials may say what they like in public about the success of the programme without fear of authoritative contradiction.

This may be the case with the Universal Credit. The tribunal pointed out that media coverage of the problems with the scheme was at odds with what the DWP and ministers were saying.

The ruling said:

 “Where, in the context of a major reform, government announcements are so markedly at odds with current opinion in the relatively informed and serious media, there is a particularly strong public interest in up-to-date information as to the details of what is happening within the [Universal Credit] programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well-founded.”

The tribunal quoted a DWP spokesperson in 2012 as refuting criticism from the shadow secretary of state. The spokesperson said:

Liam Byrne is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on            budget. To suggest anything else is wrong.”

 Sarah Cox implied that the DWP might have regarded a programme as on schedule, even if milestones were not achieved on time, provided that punctual fulfillment of the whole project was still contemplated. In reply to this, the Tribunal said:

 “If that was, or indeed is, the departmental stance, then the public should have been made aware of it, because prompt completion following missed interim targets is not a common experience.”

DWP abuse of the FOI Act?

Under the FOI Act ministers and officials are supposed to regard each request on its own merits, and not have a blanket ban on, say, disclosure of all internal reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes.

The tribunal in this case questioned whether the DWP had even read closely the Project Assessment Review in question. The tribunal had such doubts because the DWP, some time after the tribunal’s hearing, found that it had mistakenly given the tribunal a draft of the Project Assessment Review instead of the final report.

The tribunal said:

“…the DWP discovered that the version of the Project Assessment Review supplied to the Tribunal was not the final version which had been requested. It was evidently a draft. How the mistake occurred is not entirely clear to us.

“ Whilst the differences related almost entirely to the format, it did raise questions as to how far the DWP had scrutinised the particular Project Assessment Review requested, as distinct from forming a generic judgement as to whether PARs should be disclosed.”

DWP’s case for non-disclosure

The DWP argued that disclosure would discourage candour, imagination [which is sometimes called creative or imaginative pessimism] and innovation – known together as the “chilling effect”.

It also said that release of the documents in question could divert key staff from their normal tasks to answering media stories based on a misconception, willful or not. These distractions would seriously impede progress and threaten scheduled fulfillment of the UC programme.

Disclosure could embarrass suppliers that participated in the programme, damage the DWP’s relationship with them, and cause certain risks to come closer to being realised. The DWP gave the tribunal further unpublished – closed – evidence about why it did not want the Project Assessment Review released.

My case for disclosure

In support of my FOI request – in 2012 – for the UC Project Assessment Review, I wrote papers to the tribunal giving public interest reasons for disclosure. Some of the points I made:

– the DWP made no acknowledgement of the serious problems faced by the UC programme until the National Audit Office published its report in September 2013: Universal Credit: early progress.

– Large government IT-enabled projects have too often lacked timely, independent scrutiny and challenge to improve performance. Publication of the November 2011 Project Assessment Review would have been a valuable insight into what was happening.

– The NAO report referred to the DWP’s fortress mentality” and a “good news culture” which underlined the public interest in early publication of the Project Assessment Review.

Part of John Slater’s case for disclosure

At the same time as dealing with my FOI request for the PAR, the tribunal dealt with FOI requests made by John Slater who asked for the UC Issues Register, Risk Register and High Level Milestone Schedule.

In his submission to the tribunal Slater said that ministerial statements and DWP press releases, which continued from 2011 to late 2013, to the effect that the Universal Credit Programme was on course and on schedule, demanded publication of the documents in question as a check on what the public was being told.

Information Commissioner’s case for disclosure

The Information Commissioner’s legal representative Robin Hopkins made the point that publishing the Project Assessment Review would have helped the public assess the effectiveness of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority as a monitor of the UC programme.

A chilling effect?

The tribunal found that there is no evidence to support the “chilling effect” –  the claim that civil servants will not be candid or imaginatively pessimistic in identifying problems and risks if they know their comments will be published.

If a chilling effect exists, said the tribunal, “then government departments have been in the best position over the last ten years to note, record and present the evidence to prove it.

“Presumably, a simple comparison of documents before and after disclosure demonstrating the change, would be quite easy to assemble and exhibit,” said the tribunal’s ruling.

In her evidence to the tribunal Ms Cox did not suggest that the revelation by a third party of the “Starting Gate Review” [which was published in full on Campaign4Change’s website] had inhibited frank discussion within the UC programme, the tribunal said.

The tribunal also pointed out that the public is entitled to expect that senior officials will be, when helping with internal reports, courageous, frank and independent in their advice and assessments of risk.

“We are not persuaded that disclosure would have the chilling effect in relation to the documents before us,” said the tribunal. It also found that the DWP would not need to divert key people on UC to answering media queries arising from publication of the reports. The DWP needed only to brief PR people.

On whether the Issues Register should be published the tribunal said:

“The problems outlined in the Issues Register are of a predictable kind and “unlikely to provoke any public shock, let alone hostility, perhaps not even significant media attention. On the other hand, the public may legitimately ask whether other problems might be expected to appear in the register.”

On the chilling effect of publishing the Risk Register the tribunal said that any failure of a civil servant to speak plainly about a risk and hence to conceal it from the UC team would be more damaging to UC than any blunt declaration that a certain risk could threaten the programme.

“We acknowledge that disclosure of the requested information may not be a painless process for the DWP,” said the tribunal. ““There may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP, though not, we believe, of the order that it claims.

“We have no doubt, however, that the public interest requires disclosure, given the nature of UC programme, its history and the other factors that we have reviewed,” said the Tribunal.

The DWP may appeal the ruling which could delay a final outcome by a year or more.


The freedom of information tribunal’s ruling is, in effect, independent corroboration that Parliament can sometimes be given a PR line rather than the unvarnished truth when it comes to big IT-based programmes.

Indeed it’s understandable why ministers and officials don’t want the reports in question published.  The reports could provide concrete evidence of the misleading of Parliament. They could refer to serious problems, inadequacies in plans and failures to reach milestones, at a time when the DWP’s ministers were making public announcements that all was well.

Those in power don’t always mind media speculation and criticism. What they fear is authoritative contradiction of their public statements and announcements. Which is what the reports could provide. So it’s highly likely the DWP will continue to withhold them, even though taxpayers will have to meet the rising legal costs of yet another DWP appeal.

One irony is that the DWP’s ministers, officials, managers, technologists and staff probably have little or no idea what’s in the reports the department is so anxious to keep confidential.  On one of my FOI requests it took the DWP several weeks to find the report I was seeking – after officials initially denied any knowledge of the report’s existence.

This is a department that would have us believe it needs a safe space for the effective conduct of public affairs. Perhaps the opposite is the case, and it will continue to conduct some of its public affairs ineffectively until it benefits from far more Parliamentary scrutiny, fewer safe spaces and much more openness.

FOI Decision Notice Universal Credit March 2014

George Osborne gives mixed messages over UC deadline

Universal Credit now at 10 job centres – 730 to go. 

DWP finds UC reports after FOI request

UC – new claimant figures

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“. 


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.   

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. 

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]