By Tony Collins
Lord Freud, former Conservative minister at the Department for Work and Pensions – who is described as the “architect” of Universal Credit – said yesterday that outsourcing IT across government had been a “bad mistake”.
He announced in December 2016 that was retiring from government. Having been the minister for welfare reform who oversaw the Universal Credit programme, Lord Freud yesterday went before the Work and Pensions Committee to answer questions on the troubled scheme.
“The implementation was harder than I had expected. Maybe that was my own naivety. What I didn’t know, and I don’t think anyone knew, was how bad a mistake it had been for all of government to have sent out their IT.
“It happened in the 1990s and early 2000s. You went to these big firms to build your IT. I think that was a most fundamental mistake, right across government and probably across government in the western world…
We talk about IT as something separate but it isn’t. It is part of your operating system. It’s a tool within a much better system. If you get rid of it, and lose control of it, you don’t know how to build these systems.
“So we had an IT department but it was actually an IT commissioning department. It didn’t know how to do the IT.
“What we actually discovered through the (UC) process was that you had to bring the IT back on board. The department has been rebuilding itself in order to do that. That is a massive job.”
But didn’t DWP civil servants make it clear at the outset that there wasn’t the in-house capability to build Universal Credit?
“The civil service thought it had the capacity because it could commission the big firms – the HPs and the IBMs – to do it. They did not see the problem, and government as a whole did not see the problem of doing it.
“It’s only when you get into building something big you discover what a problem that was…”
But it was known at the launch of Universal Credit that government IT projects had a history of going wrong. Why hadn’t people [the DWP] learnt those lessons?
“I agree with you. People have found it very hard to work out what was the problem… you need someone doing it who is accountable. But when you commission out, you don’t have that process.
“You need a lot of continuity and that’s not something in our governance process. Ministers turn over very regularly and more importantly civil servants tend to turn over rather regularly because of the pay restrictions – they only get more pay when they are promoted – so there is a two-year promotion round for good people.
“Effectively we had a programme that had been built outside, or with a lot of companies helping us build it.”
Lord Freud explained differences between the two Universal Credit systems being rolled out.
First there is the “live” system [built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds that interfaces with legacy benefit systems but is not interactive beyond the initial application form].
The DWP is also rolling out in some pilot areas such as Croydon a “full system” [built at a cost of less than £10m, run on agile principles and is interactive beyond the initial application form].
Lord Freud said,
“The difference between the two is that the live system has all of the essential features of Universal Credit – you get paid an amount at a certain time – but interaction with the system after the initial application is through the telephone or through the post.
“The interactive [“full”] system has the features of Universal Credit but interaction with it is much faster because it’s on the internet. That’s the difference…
“How would I have done it in retrospect?
“The other thing I have discovered about big organisations that I hadn’t understood was it’s very difficult for them to deal with something that’s purely conceptual.
“You need something on the ground. What you should do is get something on the ground quickly – small, maybe imperfect – but the organisation can start coalescing around it, understand it, and start working it.
“Oddly, not having an all-singing, all-dancing system that is now going out, was essential for the organisation to understand what it had and how to adapt it. The IT is only a very small element. Most of the work is around your operations and organisation and how you apply it.
“The second thing we introduced in the 2013 reset was “test and learn”. It’s a phrase but what it means is that you have a system you understand and then test and test, instead of going out with a big system at once. You test all the elements because it’s impossible to envisage how something as big (as Universal Credit) unless you do it like that.
Lessons for government as a whole?
“It was a mistake putting IT out. You have to bring it back in. It’s quite hard to bring it back in because the image of government with the IT industry is not great so you have to set up an atmosphere of getting really good people in, so it’s an attractive place to work; you have to pay them appropriately.
“Our pay scales are not representative of what happens in some of these industries.
“There are three areas of specialisation that government finds it very hard to buy: various bits of IT, running contracts and project management. Those are three really scarce skills in our economy. We need in government to pay for those specialisms if we are to do big projects.”
“There’s an odd structure which I don’t quite believe in any more, which is the relationship between the politician – the minister – and the civil service.
“The concept is that the politicians decide what their objectives are and the civil service delivers it. I don’t believe that you can divide policy and implementation in that way. That’s a very big issue because our whole government is built up with that concept and has been for more than 100 years.”
Where does project management fit?
“In theory the civil service produces the project management but it’s an odd circumstance. It didn’t quite happen with Universal Credit. In my first five years I had no fewer than six senior responsible owners and six project managers.
“You can imagine what that was like with something as complicated as Universal Credit when the senior people hadn’t had the time to understand what it was they were dealing with; and what that implied for the minister – me – in terms of holding that together.”
Lord Freud suggested that he was acting as the permanent project manager although he had his normal ministerial duties as well – including being the government’s spokesman in the House of Lords on welfare reform matters.
“As a minister you don’t have time to do project manage a big project. I was sending teams out to make sure we were on top of particular things, which were then reincorporated into the whole process. But it was a very difficult time as we built the department into a capability to do this. There is now a very capable team doing it.”
Two of the questions raised by Lord Freud’s comments are: If outsourcing IT is now considered such a bad idea for central government, why is it councils continue to outsource IT?
Would it be better for taxpayers in the long run if the Department for Communities and Local Government intervened to stop such deals going ahead?