By Tony Collins
A normally-reliable contact says that the IT project for Universal Credit is in trouble.
A deadline this month to lock-down features in the scheme will not be met, says the contact. This failure will jeopardise the go-live date of October next year for the start of Universal Credit.
The contact also says that the Government will make an announcement on the scheme in September which may refer to a write-off of at least £150m on the IT project. The suggestion is that although the scheme is in trouble officials may be reluctant to impart the whole truth to ministers.
We wonder about the difficulties of agreeing system features when there are so many parties involved in the IT project: HMRC, DWP, local authorities, banks and private sector employers. The contact also says Oracle is having trouble handling functionality.
Officially all is well. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith, spoke with confidence about the future of the scheme in the House of Commons last week.
That said, he told Parliament on 5 March about the “issues and problems” related to HMRC’s Real-Time Information project which is an essential part of the Universal Credit IT project. He said:
“HMRC, which is now responsible for this measure, meets me and others in the Department regularly. We have embedded some DWP employees in the HMRC programme; they are locked together. They are, as I understand it, on time, and they are having constant discussions with large and small employers about the issues and the problems, and assessing what needs to be done to make this happen and to make all the changes.
“We must remember that all those firms collect those data anyway; the only question is how they report it back within the monthly cycle. We are on top of that but, obviously, we want to keep our eye on the matter.”
Problems with the IT for Universal Credit – the Government’s leading “agile” software project – may bring a smirk to the faces of those who believe that departments cannot manage agile-based schemes. But agile proponents have long said that Universal Credit is only partially agile – and they have argued that agile should not be mixed with traditional software-writing approaches.
Suppliers on Universal Credit, which include HP, Accenture, IBM,Capgemini and Oracle, are not particularly well known for their love of agile on Government IT projects.
Time for the truth
The Department for Work and Pensions is refusing to publish any of its reports and assessments on the IT for Universal Credit. The secret reports include:
– A Project Assessment Review in November 2011
– Universal Credit Delivery Model Assessment Two (McKinsey and Partners)
– Universal Credit end-to-end Technical Review (IBM).
Officials and ministers speak publicly about the solid progress on Universal Credit IT while refusing to publish their internal reports on progress or otherwise of the scheme.
Past NAO reports have shown that ministers and sometimes senior officials are sometimes kept in the dark when major IT-related projects go wrong. Project steering groups are told what they want to hear. The Programme Board on the NPfIT discussed successes with enthusiasm and hardly mentioned serious problems, judging by minutes of its meetings.
We hope that all is well with Universal Credit IT. The project is, after all, an advert for innovation in the public sector. If it’s in trouble the truth should come out. Keeping it quiet until September means that suppliers will continue to be paid for several months unnecessarily – perhaps to keep them supportive?
Labour was overly defensive and secretive about its many IT-related failures whereas “openness” is the coalition’s much-favoured word. It’s a pity it has yet to be applied to the Universal Credit IT project.