Category Archives: GDS

Central buying of IT and other services is a bit of a shambles – just what Sir Humphrey wants?

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office entrance

Cabinet Office entrance

Like the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service was set up as a laudable attempt to cut the huge costs of running central government.

The Cabinet Office under Francis Maude set up the Crown Commercial Service [CCS] in 2014 to cut the costs of buying common products and services for Whitehall and the wider public sector including the NHS and police.

It has a mandate to buy commodity IT, other products and services and whatever can be bought in bulk. It has had some success – for example with negotiating lower prices for software licences needed across Whitehall. The skills and knowledge of its civil servants are well regarded.

But, like the Government Digital Service, CCS has had limited support from permanent secretaries and other senior officials who’d prefer to protect their autonomy.

It has also been hindered by unachievable promises of billions of pounds in savings. Even CCS’s own managers at the time regarded the Cabinet Office’s plans for huge savings as over-optimistic.

Yesterday [13 December 2016] the National Audit Office published a report that questioned whether CCS has paid its way, let alone cut public sector costs beyond what civil and public servants could have achieved without it.

CCS employed 790 full-time equivalent staff in 2015/16 and had operating costs in one year alone of £66.3m

This was the National Audit Office’s conclusion:

“CCS has not achieved value for money. The Cabinet Office underestimated the difficulty of implementing joint buying for government. With no business case or implementation plan CCS ran into difficulties. Net benefits have not been tracked so it cannot be shown that CCS has achieved more than the former Government Procurement Service would have.

“However, the strategic argument for joint buying remains strong and CCS is making significant changes to improve future services.”

Some of the NAO’s detailed findings:

  • The public sector spends £2.5bn directly with CCS – £8bn less than originally forecast.
  • Seven departments buy directly through CCS – 10 fewer than originally forecast
  • The forecast of £3.3bn net benefits from the creation of CCS over the four years to 2017-18 are  unlikely to materialise.
  • The National Audit Office says the actual net benefits of CCS to date are “unknown”.
  • The Cabinet Office did not track the overall benefits of creating CCS.
  • Most of the planned transfers of procurement staff from central departments and the wider public sector to CCS haven’t happened.
  • Where some of the workforce has transferred, some departments have rehired staff to replace those who transferred.
  • Departments continue to manage their own procurement teams, although they use CCS’s frameworks.
  • CCS was set up with the power to force central departments to use its bulk buying services. But that power wasn’t enforced.
  • The National Audit Office says it is “no longer clear whether CCS has a clear mandate that requires all departments to use it for direct buying… it no longer has a clear timetable or expectation that further departments will transfer staff or buying functions to CCS”.

It’s all a far cry from the expectations set by a Cabinet Office announcement in 2013 which said that CCS will “ensure maximum value for the taxpayer is extracted from every commercial relationship”.

The then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the time,

“The new Crown Commercial Service will ensure a step change in our commercial capability, giving government a much tighter grip on all aspects of its commercial performance, from market engagement through to contract management.”

Comment

Why CCS has failed so far to make much difference to Whitehall’s costs is not clear. It seems to have been hit by a combination of poor management at the outset, a high turnover of senior officials and ludicrously high expectations, combined with a civil service reluctance in central departments and the wider public sector to cede control over procurement to CCS –  even when it comes to common products and services.

The NAO report is a reminder of a fundamental flaw in the way government works: central departments can’t in practice be forced to do anything. They are a power unto themselves. The Cabinet Office has powers to mandate a change of practice and behaviour in central departments – to which Sir Humphrey can shrug his shoulders and change nothing

Even the Prime Minister is, in practice, powerless to force departments to do something they don’t want to do (except in the case of the miscarriage of justice that involved two Chinook pilots who were eventually cleared of gross negligence because the then defence secretary Liam Fox, through a series of manoeuvres, forced the MoD to set the finding aside).

The CCS may be doomed to failure unless the Cabinet Office rigorously enforces its mandate to make government departments use its buying services.

If the Cabinet Office does not enforce its power, Sir Humphrey will always protect his turf by arguing that the products and services his officials buy – including IT in general – are specific and are usually tailored to the department’s unique and complex needs.

Much to the relief of Sir Humphrey, Francis Maude, the battle-hardened enforcer at the Cabinet Office, has left the House of Commons. He has no comparable replacement.

Are all central initiatives aimed at making  a real dent in the costs of running Whitehall now doomed to failure?

Sir Humphrey knows the answer to that; and he’s wearing a knowing grin.

Crown Commercial Service – National Audit Office report

 

Long may Government Digital Service bring about “creative tension” in Whitehall

By Tony Collins

In a report published yesterday (25 October 2016) the National Audit Office said it will shortly be undertaking a review of the Government Digital Service.

It will study GDS’s “achievements and the  challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is  supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government”.

It mentioned its review of GDS in a report on Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. Among other things the report looked at the IT that is supposed to support payments of farmer subsidies.

With GDS’s help Defra’s Rural Payments Agency adopted an agile approach to paying subsidies but the two parties fell out and GDS stopped working on the programme.

The NAO’s report suggests that the Rural Payments Agency is glad to be rid of GDS.

“The GDS no longer has significant involvement in the Programme and the Rural Payments Agency told us it has not sought any further support.

“Its distance from the Programme has allowed the Department [DEFRA] to shift from a focus on agile and digital delivery to an approach that combines agile software development with programme management and governance arrangements with which the RPA is more familiar.”

Government Computing has a good analysis of the NAO report.

Mandarin power

Francis Maude, meanwhile, has warned that the work of GDS, which has helped to “stop the wrong things happening”, is being undermined, reports Public Finance.

Maude, who set up GDS in 2011, blamed mandarins who were trying to reassert their autonomy.

Maude said that developments such  as controls on spending and improvements in service standard assessment processes do not happen spontaneously.

“You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.

“Just at the moment when the UK has just recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well,” said Maude.

“This is, for me, a pity – there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”

He said there was a “continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening.”

Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said any dismantling of GDS illustrated “government’s extraordinary propensity to self harm”.

He said it was very odd that GDS was being “scaled back and unwound at just the moment that it appears to be successful”.

In August 2016 Maude warned that it would be a “black day” if GDS were dismantled.

That said, GDS has its critics.

Comment

A clash of cultures between GDS and the Rural Payments Agency made it almost inevitable that the two sides would fall out. This is also what happened between GDS and the DWP.

Agile-wedded idealists?

If some senior civil servants had their way, particularly at the DWP, GDS would slowly lose its identity and its staff gradually dispersed throughout the civil and public services.

Clearly civil servants at the Rural Payments Agency looked at GDS  as comprising mostly agile-wedded idealists obsessed with technological innovation rather than paying subsidies to farmers.

But long before the arrival of GDS, the RPA had a history of IT failure. Perhaps the RPA would rather be left on its own to fail without GDS’s help?

The latest NAO report is a little more positive about the RPA’s achievements than some past reports.

But this week’s Farmers Weekly, which has reported extensively on delays of correct subsidy payments to farmers, quoted the National Farmers Union as saying that problems from 2015 claims were still far from over.

The future of GDS?

How easy is it for senior officials in any large central department to work closely with the Government Digital Service?

Departments – particularly HMRC and the DWP – cherish their autonomy, so GDS is seen by some permanent secretaries as an unnecessary interference.

And when it comes to the IT of central departments, GDS has no clear role.

But GDS’s creation was a good idea. Without it, departments will be left alone to continue IT spending on a vast scale.

GDS’s admittedly brief challenge at the Rural Payments Agency and at the DWP on the Universal Credit IT programme has, arguably, slightly modernised IT approaches within those departments.

And even if the costs of big Whitehall IT contracts have not changed much, there’s no doubt that the public face of government IT has improved noticeably (eg using digital passport photos for online driving licence renewals),

The more its people are resented by high-ranking civil servants, the better job GDS is probably doing on behalf of the public.

Consensus can sometimes mean complacency. Long may GDS’s relationship with departments be characterised by a state of creative, noble tension.

National Audit Office report “Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme”.

GDS’s departure from CAP programme leads RPA to ditch agile approach – Government Computing

Is Sir Humphrey trying to kill off GDS and the innovations it stands for?

 

Excellent reports on lessons from Universal Credit IT project published today – but who’s listening?

By Tony Collins

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening.”

The Institute for Government has today published one of the most incisive – and revelatory – reports ever produced on a big government IT project.

It concludes that the Universal Credit IT programme may now be in recovery after a disastrous start, but recovery does not mean recovered. Much could yet floor the programme, which is due to be complete in 2022.

The Institute’s main report is written by Nick Timmins, a former Financial Times journalist, who has written many articles on failed publicly-funded IT-based projects.

His invaluable report, “Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?” – includes interviews with David Pitchford, a key figure in the Universal Credit programme, and Howard Shiplee who led the Universal Credit project.

Timmins also spoke to insiders, including DWP directors, who are not named, and the former secretary of state at the Department for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP’s welfare reform minster Lord Freud.

Separately the Institute has published a shorter report “Learning the lessons from Universal Credit which picks out from Timmins’ findings five “critical” lessons for future government projects. This report, too, is clear and jargon-free.

Much of the information on the Universal Credit IT programme in the Timmins report is new. It gives insights, for instance, into the positions of Universal Credit’s major suppliers HP, IBM, Accenture.

It also unearths what can be seen, in retrospect, to be a series of self-destructive decisions and manoeuvres by the Department for Work and Pensions.

But the main lessons in the report – such as an institutional and political inability to face up to or hear bad news – are not new, which raises the question of whether any of the lessons will be heeded by future government leaders – ministers and civil servants – given that Whitehall departments have been making the same mistakes, or similar ones, for decades?

DWP culture of suppressing any bad news continues

Indeed, even as the reports lament a lack of honesty over discussing or even mentioning problems – a “culture of denial” – Lord Freud, the minister in charge of welfare reform, is endorsing FOI refusals to publish the latest risk registers, project assessment reviews and other Universal Credit reports kept by the Department for Work and Pensions.

More than once Timmins expresses his surprise at the lack of information about the programme that is in the public domain. In the “acknowledgements” section at the back of his report Timmins says,

“Drafts of this study were read at various stages by many of the interviewees, and there remained disputes not just about interpretation but also, from some of them, about facts.

“Some of that might be resolvable by access to the huge welter of documents around Universal Credit that are not in the public domain. But that, by definition, is not possible at this stage.”

Churn of project leaders continues

Timmins and the Institute warn about the “churn” of project leaders, and the need for stable top jobs.

But even as the Institute’s reports were being finalised HMRC was losing its much respected chief digital officer Mark Dearnley, who has been in charge of what is arguably the department’s riskiest-ever IT-related programme, to transfer of legacy systems to multiple suppliers as part of the dismantling of the £8bn “Aspire” outourcing venture with Capgemini.

Single biggest cause of Universal Credit’s bad start?

Insiders told Timmins that the fraught start of Universal Credit might have been avoided if Terry Moran had been left as a “star” senior responsible owner of the programme. But Moran was given two jobs and ended up having a breakdown.

In January 2011, as the design and build on Universal Credit started, Terry Moran was given the job of senior responsible owner of the project but a few months later the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux took the “odd” decision to make Moran chief operating officer for the entire department as well. One director within the DWP told Timmins:

“Terry was a star. A real ‘can do’ civil servant. But he couldn’t say no to the twin posts. And the job was overwhelming.”

The director claimed that Iain Duncan Smith told Moran – a point denied by IDS – that if Universal Credit were to fail that would be a personal humiliation and one he was not prepared to contemplate. “That was very different from the usual ministerial joke that ‘failure is not an option’. The underlying message was that ‘I don’t want bad news’, almost in words of one syllable. And this was in a department whose default mode is not to bring bad news to the top. ‘We will handle ministers’ is the way the department operates…”

According to an insider, “Terry Moran being given the two jobs was against Iain’s instructions. Iain repeatedly asked Robert [Devereux] not to do this and Robert repeatedly gave him assurances that this would be okay” – an account IDS confirms. In September 2012, Moran was to have a breakdown that led to early retirement in March 2013. He recorded later for the mental health charity Time to Talk that “eventually, I took on more and more until the weight of my responsibilities and my ability to discharge them just grew too much for me”.

Timmins was told, “You cannot have someone running the biggest operational part of government [paying out £160bn of benefits a year] and devising Universal Credit. That was simply unsustainable,”

Timmins says in his report, “There remains a view among some former and current DWP civil servants that had that not happened (Moran being given two jobs), the programme would not have hit the trouble it did. ‘Had he been left solely with responsibility for UC [Universal Credit], I and others believe he could have delivered it, notwithstanding the huge challenges of the task,’ one says.”

Reviews of Universal IT “failed”

Timmins makes the point that reviews of Universal Credit by the Major Projects Authority failed to convey in clear enough language that the Universal Credit programme was in deep trouble.

“The [Major Projects Authority] report highlighted a lack of sufficient substantive action on the points raised in the March study. It raised ‘high’ levels of concern about much of the programme – ‘high’ being a lower level of concern than ‘critical’. But according to those who have seen the report, it did not yet say in words of one syllable that the programme was in deep trouble.”

Iain Duncan Smith told Timmins that the the Major Projects review process “failed me” by not warning early enough of fundamental problems. It was the ‘red team’ report that did that, he says, and its contents made grim reading when it landed at the end of July in 2012.

Train crash on the way

The MPA [Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority] reviewed the programme in March 2011. “MPA reports are not in the public domain. But it is clear that the first of these flagged up a string of issues that needed to be tackled …

” In June a member of the team developing the new government’s pan-government website – gov.uk – was invited up to Warrington [base for the Universal Credit IT team] to give a presentation on how it was using an agile approach to do that.

“At the end of the presentation, according to one insider, a small number from the audience stayed behind, eyeing each other warily, but all wanting to talk. Most of them were freelancers working for the suppliers. ‘Their message,’ the insider says, ‘was that this was a train crash on the way’ – a message that was duly reported back to the Cabinet Office, but not, apparently, to the DWP and IDS.”

Scared to tell the truth

On another occasion when the Major Projects Authority visited the IT team at Warrington for the purposes of its review, the review team members decided that “to get to the truth they had to make people not scared to tell the truth”. So the MPA “did a lot of one-on-one interviews, assuring people that what they said would not be attributable. And under nearly every stone was chaos.

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening.

” There was one young lad from one of the suppliers who said: ‘Just don’t put this thing [Universal Credit] online. I am a public servant at heart. It is a complete security disaster.’

IBM, Accenture and HP

“Among those starting to be worried were the major suppliers – Accenture, HP and IBM. They started writing formal letters to the department.

‘Our message,’ according to one supplier, ‘was: ‘Look, this isn’t working. We’ll go on taking your money. But it isn’t going to work’.’ Stephen Brien [then expert adviser to IDS] says of those letters: ‘I don’t think Iain saw them at that time, and I certainly didn’t see them at the time.”

At one point “serious consideration was given to suing the suppliers but they had written their warning letters and it rapidly became clear that that was not an option”.

Howard Shiplee, former head of the project, told Timmins that he had asked himself ‘how it could be that a very large group of clever people drawn from the DWP IT department with deep experience of the development and operation of their own massive IT systems and leading industry IT suppliers had combined to get the entire process so very wrong? Equally, ‘how could another group of clever people [the GDS team] pass such damning judgement on this earlier work and at the stroke of a pen seek to write off millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money?’

Shiplee commissioned a review from PwC on the work carried out to date and discovered that the major suppliers “were genuinely concerned to have their work done properly, support DWP and recover their reputations”.

In addition, when funding had been blocked at the end of 2012, the suppliers “had not simply downed tools but had carried on development work for almost three months” as they ran down the large teams that had been working on it.

“As a result, they had completed the development for single claimants that was being used in the pathfinder and made considerable progress on claims for couples and families. And their work, the PwC evaluation said, was of good quality.”

On time?

When alarm bells finally started ringing around Whitehall that Universal Credit was in trouble,  IDS found himself under siege. Stephen Brien says IDS was having to battle with the Treasury to keep the funding going for the project. He had to demonstrate that the programme was on time and on budget.

‘The department wanted to support him in that, and didn’t tell him all the things that were going wrong. I found out about some of them, but I didn’t push as hard as I should have. And looking back, the MPA [Major Projects Authority] meetings and the MPA reports were all handled with a siege mentality. We all felt we had to stand shoulder to shoulder defending where we were and not really using them to ask: ‘Are we where we should be?’

‘As a result we were not helping ourselves, and we certainly were not helping others, including the MPA. But we did get to the stage between the end of 2011 and the spring of 2012 where we said: ‘Okay, let’s get a red team in with the time and space to do our own challenge.’”

The DWP’s “caste” system

A new IT team was created in Victoria Street, London – away from Warrington but outside the DWP’s Caxton Street headquarters. It started to take a genuinely agile approach to the new system. One of those involved told Timmins:

“It had all been hampered by this caste system in the department where there is a policy elite, then the operational people, and then the technical people below that.

“And you would say to the operational people: ‘Why have you not been screaming that this will never work?’ And they’d say: ‘Well, we’re being handed this piece of sh** and we are just going to have to make it work with workarounds, to deal with the fact that we don’t want people to starve. So we will have to work out our own processes, which the policy people will never see, and we will find a way to make it work.’

Twin-track approach

IBM, HP and Accenture built what’s now known as the “live” system which enabled Universal Credit to get underway, and claims to be made in jobcentres.

It uses, in part, the traditional “waterfall” approach and has cost hundreds of millions of pounds. In contrast there’s a separate in-house “digital” system that has cost less than £10m and is an “agile” project.

A key issue, Shiplee told Timmins, was that the new digital team “would not even discuss the preceding work done by the DWP and its IT suppliers”. The digital team had, he says, “a messiah-like approach that they were going to rebuild everything from scratch”.

Rather than write everything off, Shiplee wanted ideally to marry the “front-end” apps that the GDS/DWP team in Victoria Street was developing with the work already done. But “entrenched attitudes” made that impossible. The only sensible solution, he decided, was a “twin-track” approach.

“The Cabinet Office remained adamant that the DWP should simply switch to the new digital version – which it had now become clear, by late summer, would take far longer to build than they anticipated – telling the DWP that the problem was that using the original software would mean ‘creating a temporary service, and temporary will become permanent’.

“All of which led to the next big decision, which, to date, has been one of the defining ones. In November 2013, a mighty and fraught meeting of ministers and officials was convened. Pretty much everyone was there. The DWP ministers, Francis Maude (Cabinet Office minister), Oliver Letwin who was Cameron’s policy overlord, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the home civil service, plus a clutch of DWP officials including Robert Devereux and Howard Shiplee as the senior responsible owner along with Danny Alexander and Treasury representatives.

“The decision was whether to give up on the original build, or run a twin-track approach: in other words, to extend the use of the original build that was by now being used in just over a dozen offices – what became dubbed the ‘live’ service – before the new, and hopefully much more effective, digital approach was finished and on stream.

“It was a tough and far from pleasant meeting that is etched in the memories of those who were there…

“One of those present who favoured the twin-track approach says: There were voices for writing the whole of the original off. But that would have been too much for Robert Devereux [the DWP’s Permanent Secretary] and IDS.

” So the twin-track approach was settled on – writing a lot of the original IT down rather than simply writing it off. That, in fact, has had some advantages even if technically it was probably the wrong decision…

“It has, however, seen parts of the culture change that Universal Credit involves being rolled out into DWP offices as more have adopted Universal Credit, even if the IT still requires big workarounds.

“More and more offices, for example, have been using the new claimant commitment, which is itself an important part of Universal Credit. So it has been possible to train thousands of staff in that, and get more and more claimants used to it, while also providing feedback for the new build.”

Francis Maude was among those who objected to the twin-track approach, according to leaked minutes of the project oversight board at around this time.

Lord Freud told Timmins,

‘Francis was adamant that we should not go with the live system [that is, the original build]. He wanted to kill it. But we, the DWP, did not believe that the digital system would be ready on anything like the timescales they were talking about then …But I knew that if you killed the live system, you killed Universal Credit…”

In the end the twin-track approach was agreed by a majority. But the development of the ‘agile’ digital service was immediately hampered by a spat over how quickly staff from the GDS were to be withdrawn from the project.

Fury over National Audit Office report

In 2013 the National Audit Office published a report Universal Credit – early progress –  that, for the first time, brought details of the problems on the Universal Credit programme into the public domain. Timmins’ report says that IDS and Lord Freud were furious.

“IDS and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Lord Freud were furious about the NAO report; and thus highly defensive.”

IDS tried to present the findings of the National Audit Office as purely historical.

In November 2014, the NAO reported again on Universal Credit. It once more disclosed something that ministers had not announced – that the timetable had again been put back two years (which raises further questions about why Lord Freud continues to refuse FOI requests that would put into the public domain – and inform MPs – about project problems, risks and delays without waiting for an NAO report to be published)..

Danny Alexander “cut through” bureaucracy

During one period, the Treasury approval of cash became particularly acute. Lord Freud told Timmins:

“We faced double approvals. We had approval about any contract variation from the Cabinet Office and then approvals for the money separately from the Treasury.

“The Government Digital Service got impatient because they wanted to make sure that the department had the ability to build internally rather than going out to Accenture and IBM, who (sic) they hate.

“The approvals were ricocheting between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury and when we were trying to do rapid iteration. That was producing huge delays, which were undermining everything. So in the end Danny Alexander [Lib-dem MP who was chief secretary to the Treasury] said: ‘I will clear this on my own authority.’ And that was crucial. Danny cut through all of that.”

Optimism bias

So-called optimism bias – over-optimism – is “such a common cause of failure in both public and private projects that it seems quite remarkable that it needs restating. But it does – endlessly”.

Timmins says the original Universal Credit white paper – written long before the start of the programme – stated that it would involve “an IT development of moderate scale, which the Department for Work and Pensions and its suppliers are confident of handling within budget and timescale”.

David Pitchford told Timmins,

“One of the greatest adages I have been taught and have learnt over the years in terms of major projects is that hope is not a management tool. Hoping it is all going to come out all right doesn’t cut it with something of this magnitude.

“The importance of having a genuine diagnostic machine that creates recommendations that are mandatory just can’t be overstated. It just changes the whole outcome completely. As opposed to obfuscation and optimism bias being the basis of the reporting framework. It goes to a genuine understanding and knowledge of what is going on and what is going wrong.”

Sir Bob Kerslake, who also identified the ‘good news culture’ of the DWP as being a problem, told Timmins,

“All organisations should have that ability to be very tough about what is and isn’t working. The people at the top have rose-tinted specs. They always do. It goes with the territory.

And unless you are prepared to embrace people saying that ‘really, this is in a bad place’… I can think of points where I have done big projects where it was incredibly important that we delivered the unwelcome news of where we were on that project. But it saved me, and saved my career.”

Recovery?

Timmins makes good arguments for his claim that the Universal Credit programme may be in recovery – but not recovered – and that improvements have been made in governance to allow for decisions to be properly questioned.

But there is no evidence the DWP’s “good news” culture has changed. For instance the DWP says that more than 300,000 people are claiming Universal Credit but the figure has not been audited and it’s unclear whether claimants who have come off the benefit and returned to it – perhaps several times – are being double counted.

Timmins points out the many uncertainties that cloud the future of the Universal Credit programme  – how well the IT will work, whether policy changes will hit the programme, whether enough staff will remain in jobcentres, and whether the DWP will have good relations with local authorities that are key to the delivery of Universal Credit but are under their own stresses and strains with resourcing.

There are also concerns about what changes the Scots and Northern Irish may want under their devolved powers, and the risk that any ‘economic shock’ post the referendum pushes up the volume of claimants with which the DWP has to deal.

 Could Universal Credit fail for non-IT reasons?

Timmins says,

“In seeking to drive people to higher earnings and more independence from the benefits system, there will be more intrusion into and control over the lives of people who are in work than under the current benefits system. And there are those who believe that such an approach – sanctioning people who are already working – will prove to be political dynamite.”

The dire consequences of IT-related failure

It is also worth noting that Universal Credit raises the stakes for the DWP in terms of its payment performance, says Timmins.

“If a tax credit or a Jobseeker’s Allowance payment or any of the others in the group of six go awry, claimants are rarely left penniless in the sense that other payments – for example, Housing Benefit in the case of Jobseeker’s Allowance or tax credits, – continue.

“If a Universal Credit payment fails, then all the support from the state, other than Child Benefit or disability benefits not included within Universal Credit, disappears.”

This happened recently in Scotland when an IT failure left hundreds of families penniless. The DWP’s public response was to describe the failure in Scotland as “small-scale”.

Comment

What a report.

It is easy to see how much work has gone into it. Timmins has coupled his own knowledge of IT-related failure with a thorough investigation into what has gone wrong and what lessons can be learned.

That said it may make no difference. The Institute in its “lessons” report uses phrases such as “government needs to make sure…”. But governments change and new administrations have an abundance – usually a superfluity – of confidence and ambition. They regard learning lessons from the past as putting on brakes or “nay saying”. You have to get with the programme, or quit.

Lessons are always the same

There will always be top-level changes within the DWP. Austerity will always be a factor.  The culture of denial of bad news, over-optimism about what can be achieved by when and how easily it can be achieved, over-expectations of internal capability, over-expectation of what suppliers can deliver, embarking on a huge project without clearly or fully understanding what it will involve, not listening diligently to potential users and ridiculously short timescales are all well-known lessons.

So why do new governments keep repeating them?

When Universal Credit’s successor is started in say 2032, the same mistakes will probably be repeated and the Institute for Government, or its successor, will write another similar report on the lessons to be learned.

When Campaign4Change commented in 2013 that Universal Credit would probably not be delivered before 2020 at the earliest, it was an isolated voice. At the time, the DWP press office – and its ministers – were saying the project was on budget and “on time”.

NPfIT

The National Audit Office has highlighted similar lessons to those in the Timmins report, for example in NAO reports on the NPfIT – the NHS IT programme that was the world’s largest non-military IT scheme until it was dismantled in 2011. It was one of the world’s biggest IT disasters – and none of its lessons was learned on the Universal Credit programme.

The NPfIT had an anti-bad news culture. It did not talk enough to end users. It had ludicrous deadlines and ambitions. The politicians in charge kept changing, as did some of programme leaders. There was little if any effective internal or external challenge. By the time it was dismantled the NPfIT had lost billions.

What the Institute for Government could ask now is, with the emasculation of the Government Digital Service and the absence of a powerful Francis Maude figure, what will stop government departments including the DWP making exactly the mistakes the IfG identifies on big future IT-enabled programmes?

In future somebody needs the power to say that unless there is adequate internal and external challenge this programme must STOP – even if this means contradicting a secretary of state or a permanent secretary who have too much personal and emotional equity in the project to allow it to stop. That “somebody” used to be Francis Maude. Now he has no effective replacement.

Victims

It’s also worth noting in the Timmins report that everyone seems to be a victim, including the ministers. But who are perpetrators? Timmins tries to identify them. IDS does not come out the report smelling of roses. His passion for success proved a good and bad thing.

Whether the direction was forwards or backwards IDS  was the fuel that kept Universal Credit going.  On the other hand his passion made it impossible for civil servants to give him bad news – though Timmins raises questions about whether officials would have imparted bad news to any secretary of state, given the DWP’s culture.

Neither does the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux emerge particularly well from the report.

How it is possible for things to go so badly wrong with there being nobody to blame? The irony is that the only people to have suffered are the genuine innocents – the middle and senior managers who have most contributed to Universal Credit apparent recovery – people like Terry Moran.

Perhaps the Timmins report should be required reading among all involved in future major projects. Competence cannot be made mandatory. An understanding of the common mistakes can.

Thank you to FOI campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to the Institute’s Universal Credit reports.

Thanks also to IT projects professional John Slater – @AmateurFOI – who has kept me informed of his FOI requests for Universal Credit IT reports that the DWP habitually refuse. 

Update 18.00 6 September 2016

In a tweet today John Slater ( @AmateurFOI ) makes the important point that he asked the DWP and MPA whether either had held a “lessons learned” exercise in the light of the “reset” of the Universal Credit IT programme. The answer was no.

This perhaps reinforces the impression that the DWP is irredeemably complacent, which is not a good position from which to lead major IT projects in future.

Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?

Learning the lessons from Universal Credit

 

Universal Credit: some highlights of today’s NAO report

By Tony Collins

Excerpts from today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update”

Not complete by 2020 

“Not all legacy benefit claimants will have moved to Universal Credit by the end of 2019.”

 Assumptions are changing massively

“Universal Credit impacts depend on policy assumptions. For example, there was a £30 billion movement between 2011 and 2012 in the Department’s estimate of benefit spending, which went from a £19.7 billion cost to a £10.8 billion saving. The Department changed its methodology over this time but the size of this movement was largely due to changes in benefit entitlement and conditionality.”

Spending on existing UC systems questionable?

“HM Treasury has expressed concerns about the value for money of further investment in live service systems.”

What if the digital system fails?

“ Following the Major Projects Authority’s review, HM Treasury requested, in April 2014, the Department provide it with contingency plans should the digital service be delayed or fail. The Department is due to update HM Treasury at the end of November 2014 on its progress in developing such plans.”

The small print

You can claim Universal Credit if you:

– fall into one of the accepted groups

– do not own or part own your home;

– have a bank or building society account;

– do not live in temporary accommodation;

– are not pregnant or given birth within the last 15 weeks;

– are not a carer;

– are not self-employed;

– are unemployed or have household earnings of less than £330 per month if over 25 or £270 if under 25;

– are not challenging or awaiting a decision on Jobseekers Allowance, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support or tax credits;

– are not staying away from your main home;

– are not responsible for a child or young person who is: adopted, fostered, being looked after, registered blind or have a disability benefit.

UC security

“In June 2012, CESG [the IT security arm of GCHQ) found that security had not been properly considered from the start. The [UC] systems were developed by multiple suppliers without an overarching plan for how it would work as a whole.

“A Red Team review concluded that the programme lacked appropriate detail around the security measures it needed because of: ineffective links between design and security teams; invalid assumptions being made by technical teams about what was acceptable to the business; a lack of balance between usability and security; poor understanding of dependencies between components; and little consideration of the technical implications of business design activities. The Department was unable to address these concerns prior to the reset in February 2013.”

A good approach to agile

“Since the reset (in 2013), the Department has concentrated its use of agile on developing digital service using a co-located, mixed-skill team. In June 2014, consultants commissioned by the programme board reported that a good agile approach is in place, and that a strong agile culture and organisation has been found inside the digital service.

“The consultants also found that a focus on long-term planning and effective communication of progress is required to drive scale and delivery, and that adjustments to the team structure will be required to ensure scalability…

“To remain on track, the Department will have 18 months to increase functionality to create a fully integrated service eventually capable of handling up to 10 million claimants. It will use an agile approach to do this. The Department plans to trial new systems in spring 2015, when it intends to start testing efficiencies and delivery against policy intent. It then plans to test increased capacity from November 2015.”

Not so agile

“…The Department will continue to use traditional approaches for buying and maintaining systems supplied commercially, such as existing Department‑wide systems and cloud hosting…”

Inaccurate payments

In April 2014, a software update [from a major supplier] created new problems for [UC] calculations and inaccuracy increased again. Between April and June 2014, over 10% of payments made to claimants were incorrect. This damaged staff and stakeholder confidence in the system and the Department had to reintroduce 100% manual checking of payments in June 2014 …

“… At present the Department is undertaking 100% checking of all payments before they go out.”

Better leadership

Confidence in the leadership team has improved despite continuing difficulties and the heavy demands on the programme director through 2014 caused by the limited availability of the senior responsible owner. A follow-up survey found a large increase in the number of staff expressing confidence in the actions of senior leadership (from 30% in 2013 to 75% in 2014) and an increase in the number of staff who feel that senior management encourages challenge and welcomes their suggestions (from 30% in 2013 to 70% in 2014).

Do major suppliers have too much control of DWP IT?

“The Department’s management of suppliers has been tested by the problems that emerged following an IT update in April 2014 designed to enhance live service. A supplier made significant changes in addition to the work that had been commissioned by the Department. It did not fully inform the Department of this, therefore the update was not adequately tested before it went live.

“The release caused an increase in payment errors described in Part Three. The supplier agreed to rectify the coding at its own expense. This delayed the next release by 2 weeks because of constraints on departmental and supplier resources, and the need to implement further controls recommended in a review commissioned by the Department after the April release.

“In November 2014, the Department’s internal audit reported that the programme has built technical capability to challenge, monitor and review supplier performance, including challenge of the management information provided.”

Manual interventions

“As planned, many processes in live service and digital service areas currently remain dependent on manual interventions.”

Universal Credit: progress update

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

Are Govt IT-based project disasters over? Ask the Army

By Tony Collins

When senior civil servants know an IT-based project is in trouble and they’re unsure how bad things are, they sometimes offer their minister an all-encompassing euphemism to publicly describe the status of the scheme – teething.

Which may be why the defence secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons in November 2013 that the IT project to support army recruiting was having “teething” problems.

Now Hammond knows more, he says the problems are “big”. He no longer uses the “t” word. Speaking about the £440m 10-year Recruitment Partnering Project in the House of Commons this week Hammond said:

“Yes, there are big problems with the IT and I have told the House on repeated occasions that we have IT challenges…”

Only a few days ago Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude suggested that Government IT was no longer a byword for disaster, though he accepted there were still challenges.

In a speech on how he expected the UK to become the G8’s most digital government by next year (whatever that means) Maude said: “… it’s great news that DVLA is about to launch online driving records which can be used by anyone with a driving licence as well as by the insurance industry.

“Back in 2010 our digital offering was limited at best and government IT was a by-word for disaster … There are still challenges but with the help of the Government Digital Service I am determined that the UK will be the G8’s most digital government by next year.”

A few days later The Times reported on a leaked Gartner report on the army Recruitment Partnering Project. The report expressed concerns about the entire plan, including a poor project management team and delays that were allowed to spiral out of control.

It claimed that the Army’s recruitment division had failed to challenge MoD policy in 2011 that had apparently favoured the less suitable of the two competing bidders chasing the contract.

Hammond is said to be mulling over a £50m payout for Capita to build a new infrastructure for the recruiting system instead of trying to integrate it with systems supplied by the “Atlas” consortium under the Defence Information Infrastructure project. Hammond told the House of Commons this week:

“… there have been initial difficulties with that recruiting process as we transition to the new recruiting arrangements with Capita.

“In particular, we have encountered difficulties with the IT systems supporting the application and enlistment process. The decision to use the legacy Atlas IT platform was deemed at the time to be the quickest and most cost-effective way of delivering the new recruitment programme.

“An option to revert to a Capita hosting solution was included in the contracts as a back-up solution.

“I was made aware in the summer of last year that the Army was encountering problems with the integration of the Capita system into the Atlas platform. Since then we have put in place a number of workarounds and mitigation measures for the old IT platform to simplify the application process, and we have reintroduced military personnel to provide manual intervention to support the process.

“Having visited the Army’s recruitment centre in Upavon [Wiltshire] on 30 October, it became clear to me that, despite the Army putting in place measures to mitigate those problems in the near term, further long-term action was needed to fix the situation.

“It was agreed in principle at that point that the Atlas system was not capable of timely delivery of the Capita-run programme and that we would need to take up the option of reverting to Capita building a new IT platform specifically to run its system, which will be ready early next year.

“… we have already taken action to bring in a range of new initiatives that will make it progressively easier and quicker for applicants … the introduction this month of a new front-end web application for Army recruitment; a simplified online application form; more streamlined medical clearance processes …

“With an improved Army recruitment website, streamlined medicals and an increase in the number of recruiting staff, recruits should see a much-improved experience by the end of this month.

“.. we are looking at further ways of improving the management of the recruiting process in the intervening period before the introduction of the advanced IT system now being developed in partnership with Capita, which is expected to be deployed in February 2015…”

Vernon Croaker, Labour’s defence spokesman, said the recruitment project was an IT fiasco. He wondered why Hammond had initially described the problems as teething.

“Today we have learned [from newspapers] that the problems are even worse than anyone thought and still have not been fixed.

“Will the Defence Secretary tell the House which Minister signed off the deal and who has been responsible for monitoring it?

“… Will the Secretary of State also confirm that £15.5m has been spent building the existing flawed computer system behind the project? Finally, is it correct that this continuing disaster is costing taxpayers £1 million every month?…”

Croaker quoted a minister Andrew Robathan as telling MPs on 10 April 2013 that the “Recruiting Partnering Project with Capita…will lead to a significant increase in recruiting performance”.

Croaker said: “Is there any Member of this House, any member of our armed forces or, indeed, any member of the British public who still believes that?”

In March 2012 Capita announced that the Recruitment Partnering Project was valued at about £44m a year for 10 years and was expected to deliver benefits in excess of £300m to the armed forces. It would “release military recruiters back to the front line” said Capita.

Comment. Francis Maude is probably right: there don’t seem to be as many big IT-based project failures as in previous decades. But then the truth isn’t known because progress reports on big IT-related schemes are not published.

Indeed little would be known about the Capita Recruitment Partnering Project is not for the leaked report to The Times. Without the leak, public information on the state of the project would be confined to Hammond’s “teething problems” comment to MPs last November.

Internal and external reports on the state of the Universal Credit IT project continue to be kept secret.  It’s not even clear whether ministers are properly briefed on their big IT projects. Hammond almost certainly wasn’t last year. IDS was left to commission his own “red team” review of Universal Credit IT.

Perhaps the “good news” reporting culture in Whitehall explains why the NHS IT scheme, the NPfIT, continued to die painfully slowly for 7 years before senior officials and ministers started to question whether all was well.

Hammond is still getting wrong information. He described “Atlas” systems in the House of Commons as the “legacy IT platform”.

The Atlas contract for the Defence Information Infrastructure was awarded in 2005 for 10 years. It doesn’t even expire until next year. It may be convenient for officials to suggest that the reason Capita has been unable to link new recruitment systems into the DII network is because DII is old – legacy IT.  But the multi-billion pound Atlas DII project cannot be accurately described as “legacy” yet.

If ministers don’t get the truth about their big IT projects until serous problems are so obvious they can no longer be denied, how can Parliament and taxpayers expect to get the truth?

Lessons from NASA?

NASA put in place processes, procedures and rules to ensure engineers were open and deliberately adversarial in challenging assumptions. Even so it has had difficulties getting engineers to express  their views freely.

Diane Vaughan in her excellent book “The Challenger Launch Decision” referred to large organisations that proceeded as if nothing was wrong “in the face of evidence that something was wrong”.  She said NASA made a series of seemingly harmless decisions that “incrementally moved the space agency towards a catastrophic outcome”.

After the loss of Challenger NASA made many changes. But an investigation into the subsequent tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle indicated that little had actually changed – even though few of the top people who had been exposed to the lessons of Challenger were still in position.

If NASA couldn’t change when lives depended on it, is it likely the UK civil service will ever change?  A political heavyweight,  Francis Maude has tried and failed to get departments to be more open about progress or otherwise on their big IT-based projects.  Permanent secretaries now allow the out-of-date “traffic light” status of some projects to be published in the annual report of the Major Projects Authority. That is not openness.

The failure so far of the Recruitment Partnering Project, the routine suppression of information on technology-based scheme such as this, and the circumscribed “good news” briefings to ministers, suggest that government IT-based project failures are here to stay, despite the best intentions of the Cabinet Office, GDS and the Major Projects Authority.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for his email on the recruitment project

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.”

Pathfinder

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.

Lessons

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.”

Why?

“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.”

Comment

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.

Deniability

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]

 

Defra’s agile plan with multiple suppliers risky says NAO

By Tony Collins

The National Audit Office says in a report published today that Defra’s agile plan which involves outsourcing to multiple IT suppliers has “significant” risks.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to implement a single integrated £80m Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system built on agile methodologies.

Defra has been working with the Government Digital Service (GDS) to plan an agile implementation and learn from the lessons of the past, the department’s chief operating officer Ian Trenholm told Computer Weekly in January 2013.

Today’s NAO report on Defra’s 2012/13 accounts says that the department is planning the procurement, development and implementation of new systems in line with changes to the way the common agricultural policy operates.

“Development and implementation of these [new systems] will present a number of challenges, including the requirement that data cleansing is completed on time, in order to ensure that accurate and complete data is transferred to the new systems,” says the NAO.

It adds that the IT element of the change programme “will be delivered through an agile approach which involves outsourcing to multiple IT providers”. The NAO says that Defra has recognised a number of significant risks relating to the Programme. “It will need a strong relationship between the Programme team and other important stakeholders, and appropriate governance arrangements, to ensure that these risks are adequately managed and that the Department learns the lessons from the implementation of CAP 2005.”

NAO report on Defra’s 2012/13 accounts.

Comment

Defra and its Rural Payments Agency had a disaster with the Single Payment Scheme which was built on conventional lines through one main supplier. If there are risks with the new agile approach involving multiple suppliers they cannot be as great as spending hundreds of millions of pounds with one company; and working through those new agile-related risks may help other departments find a different and much cheaper way of buying IT, and implementing important policy-related business change.