Why does truth on Universal Credit emerge only now?

By Tony Collins

For nearly a year the Department for Work and Pensions, its ministers and senior officials, have told Parliament that Universal Credit IT is on track and on budget.

Together with DWP press officers, they have criticised parts of the media and some MPs for suggesting otherwise.

Now the truth can be held back no longer: the National Audit Office is expected tomorrow to report on UC’s problems. Ahead of that report’s publication, and perhaps to take the sting out of it, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has allowed Howard Shiplee, the latest DWP lead on delivery of UC, to own up to the project’s difficulties.

IDS has given permission for Shiplee to write an article for the Telegraph on the UC project. Every word is  likely to have been checked by senior DWP communications officers.

It’s the first time anyone on the UC project has publicly acknowledged the project’s difficulties though, as with nearly every government response to critical NAO reports, the administration depicts the problems as in the past. Shiplee’s article says

“… it’s also clear to me there were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn’t and with suppliers not managed as they should have been.

“There is no doubt there have been missteps along the way. But we’ve put that right…

“I’m not in the business of making excuses, and I think it’s always important to acknowledge in any project where things may have gone wrong in order to ensure we learn as we go forward.

“To that end, the key decision taken by the Secretary of State to reset the programme to ensure its delivery on time and within budget has been critical.

“When David Pitchford arrived from the Major Projects Authority earlier this year, at the Secretary of State’s request, he began this process in line with those twin objectives…

“I’ve also ensured that as a programme we have a tight grip on our spending, and I have put in place a post for a new Director who will be dedicated to ensuring that suppliers deliver value for money. I am confident we are now back on course and the challenges are being handled.”

Parliament has a right to ask why nearly every central government IT project that goes wrong – whatever the government in power – is preceded for months and sometimes years in the case of the NPfIT by public denials.

From the over-budget and fragmented Operational Strategy project for welfare benefits in the 1980s, to the repeatedly delayed and over budget air traffic control IT at the New En Route Centre at Swanwick, Hampshire, and the abandoned Post Office “Pathway” project in the 1990s, to the failed National Programme for IT – NPfIT –  in the NHS in the last decade, ministers and senior officials were telling Parliament that all was well and that the project’s critics were misinformed. Until the facts became only too obvious to be denied any longer.

These are some of the reassurances ministers and DWP officials have been giving Parliament and the media about the UC project. None of their statements has given a hint of the  “missteps along the way” that Shiplee’s article refers to now.

House of Commons, 20 May 2013

Universal Credit (IT System)

Clive Betts (Lab): What assessment he [the secretary of state for work and pensions] has made of the preparedness of the universal credit IT delivery system.

Iain Duncan Smith: The IT system to support the pathfinder roll-out from April 2013 is up and running…

Betts: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he confirm that three of the pathfinders are not going ahead precisely because the computer system is not ready? …

Duncan Smith: The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong. All the pathfinders are going ahead. The IT system is but a part of that, and goes ahead in one of the pathfinders. The other three are already testing all the other aspects of universal credit and in July will, essentially, themselves roll out the remainder of the pathfinder, and more than 7,000 people will be engaged in it. All that nonsense the hon. Gentleman has just said is completely untrue.”

**

BBC – 9 Sept 2012

 “A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “Liam Byrne [Labour] is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is incorrect.”

**

Iain Duncan Smith, House of Commons, 20 May 2013

“This [Universal Credit] system is a success. We have four years to roll it out, we are rolling it out now, we will continue the roll-out nationwide and we will have a system that works—and one that works because we have tested it properly.”

Howard Shiplee – FT July 2013

“… Howard Shiplee, who has led UC since May, denied claims from MPs that the original IT had been ‘dumped’ because it had not delivered. ‘The existing systems that we have are working, and working effectively,’ he said. He added, however, that he had set aside 100 days ‘not to stop the programme, but to reflect on where we’ve got to and start to look at the entire total plan’.”

**

DWP spokesperson 16 August 2013

“… a DWP spokesperson said: “The IT supporting Universal Credit is working well and the vast majority of people are claiming online.”

**

Howard Shiplee Work and Pensions Committee, House of Commons, 10 July 2013.

“…The pathfinder, first of all, has demonstrated that the IT systems work…”

Mark Hoban, DWP minister, House of Commons, 6 March 2013.

The shadow Secretary of State has been touting this story for months. No it has been longer than that. The last outing was in today’s Guardian. I want to make it clear that nobody has walked off the project; all the contractors are in place and the project is on schedule to be delivered at the end of April. Now, if he thinks the idea is good in theory, it is about time he supported it. It is working and the contractors are in place, doing the job and ensuring that the pilots will be up and running at the end of April.”

[Hoban’s response was to a question on whether personnel or contractors at Accenture, Atos Origin, Oracle, Red Hat, CACI or IBM UK had been stepped down, or in any way notified by the Department, that they were to suspend work on Universal Credit. The main IT contractors for UC are Accenture, Hewlett Packard and BT plus input from Agile specialists Emergn. The DWP awarded UC IT contracts without any specific open competitive tender.]

Comment

On this site various posts have questioned whether Iain Duncan Smith has been getting the whole truth on the state of the UC IT project. He repeatedly went before MPs of the Work and Pensions Committee and gave such confident reassurances on the state of the UC project that it was difficult to believe that he knew what was really going on.

What we now know about the UC project’s “missteps along the way” shows, if nothing else, how gullible ministers are in believing their officials.

It is hard or impossible to believe that officials would lie but it is probable they would tell their ministers what they want to hear – and IDS has been in no mood to hear about problems.

Every big IT-based project in government that is failing ends up in a pantomime. From the back of the auditorium the media and MPs shout out when they receive leaks about problems. “Look behind you – there’s chaos,” they call out to departmental ministers and officials who don’t look behind them and reply “Oh no there isn’t!”

One reason this pantomime is repeated over decades is that independent reports on the progress or otherwise on big IT-based projects and programmes in central government are kept under departmental lock and key.  Even FOI requests for the keys consistently fail

So it’s usual for ministers and officials to answer media and Parliamentary questions about departmental projects without fear of authoritative contradiction.

Until the NAO is in imminent danger of publishing  a revealing report.

Perhaps it’s a lack of openness and accountability that contributes to IT-enabled change projects in central government going seriously awry in the first place.

With openness would come early and public recognition of a scheme that’s too ambitious to be implementable. With secrecy and the gung-ho optimism that seems to pervade projects like Universal Credit many on the project pretend to each other and perhaps even themselves that it’s all doable, while money continues to be thrown away.

When will the pantomime of misinformation and long-delayed revelation stop? Perhaps when Whitehall becomes genuinely open and accountable on the progress or otherwise of its IT-enabled projects. In other words: never.

Thank you to David Moss for drawing my attention to Howard Shiplee’s article in the Telegraph.

Time for truth on Universal Credit

Millions of pounds worth of secret DWP reports

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