Big 4 Universal Credit IT suppliers punished?

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

“To extend the current IT solution we will be using a standard waterfall delivery approach largely using existing suppliers and commercial frameworks, in order to de-risk delivery and ensure UC continues to have a safe and secure introduction.

“The end-state digital solution will be delivered using an agile, and therefore iterative, approach as advocated by the Cabinet Office with significantly less reliance on the large IT suppliers delivering the current UC IT service.” picks up Computer Weekly’s report and says that Iain Duncan Smith “punishes Universal Credit IT suppliers“. 


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

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

UC project at “red” 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UC in chaos or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 responses to “Big 4 Universal Credit IT suppliers punished?

  1. I have been reading Conundrum by Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope, a very funny and unbelievable read were its content not so appalling.

    I fear that UC will go the way of CSA. Having watched Shipley and Duncan Smith at the PAC I see nothing to indicate otherwise.

    I will keep on stating the obvious which is that methodologies, however sexy and new and backed by the Cabinet Office, do not lead to nor guarantee success. I also find it very disturbing that we are now effectively funding two solutions to do the same thing in completely different ways.

    £37M for an in-house design and build team? How many people? For how long? The mind boggles, lets do some maths 🙂

    Lets assume average salary of £50K, lets assume 2020 delivery for end-state digital solution (what the hell does that actually mean Tony?) so that’s 6 years and counting right. 37,000,000 / 6 (assuming a uniform annual spend) = £6,166,666.66 (the devil is in the detail) per year. £6,166,666.66 / £50,000 = 123ish. Are we to believe that DWP is setting up what amounts to a medium enterprise? If I had access to that level of resource, both human and financial I would not need the Big 4 at all and I would not need 123 staff allocated to it, this is just bonkers. Once again the Emperor is stark bollock naked and nobody, with any power, has the backbone to say so.


  2. I have just posted my “view” on latest developments on Computer Weekly
    This really does touch on negligence in failure to do real research on capabilities?

    I rather like this commentary on Government performance in IT “….amounts to misfeasance in public office. That is an offence and prosecuting one or two of these offences might have a salutary effect…..”!


  3. Pingback: Big 4 Universal Credit IT suppliers punished? | Campaign4Change | kickingthecat

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