Category Archives: Real-Time Information

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

 

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Hidden for four years – a review of Universal Credit IT

By Tony Collins

Front page of a report the DWP kept hidden for four years. The DWP's lawyers went through numerous FOI appeals to try and stop the report being published.

Front page of a report the DWP kept hidden for four years. The DWP’s lawyers went through numerous FOI appeals to try and stop the report being published.

This is the independent Universal Credit Project Assessment Review  that lawyers for the Department for Work and Pensions went through numerous FOI tribunal appeals trying to keep hidden.

It  was written for the DWP by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. Interviewees included Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud who was – and is – a work and pensions minister.

In 2012 Lord Freud signed off the DWP’s recommendation that an FOI request for the report’s release be refused.

Remarkable

The now-released report is remarkable for its professionalism and neutrality. It’s also remarkably ordinary given the number of words that have been crafted by the DWP’s lawyers to FOI tribunals and appeals in an effort to keep the report from being published.

The DWP’s main reason for concealing the report – and others that IT projects professional John Slater had requested under FOI in 2012 – was that publication could discourage civil servants from speaking candidly about project problems and risks, fearing negative publicity for the programme.

In the end the DWP released the report 11 days ago. This was probably because the new work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb refused to agree the costs of a further appeal. Last month an FOI tribunal ordered that the project assessment review, risk register and issues register be published.

Had the reports been published at the time of the FOI request in 2012 it might have restricted what ministers and the DWP’s press office were able to say publicly about the success so far of the Universal Credit programme.

In the absence of their publication, the DWP issued repeated statements that dismissed criticisms of its programme management. Ministers and DWP officials were able to say to journalists and MPs that the Universal Credit programme was progressing to time and to budget.

In fact the project assessment review questioned a projected increase of £25m of IT spend in the budget.

MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group, part of the Cabinet Office. OBC is the Outline Business Case for Universal Credit. SOBC is the Strategic Outline Business Case.

MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group, part of the Cabinet Office. OBC is the Outline Business Case for Universal Credit. SOBC is the Strategic Outline Business Case.

 

 

 

 

The DWP claimed in the report that the projected of £25m in IT spend was a “profiling”rather than budgetary issue.

By this the DWP meant that it planned to boost significantly the projected savings in later years of the project. Those anticipated savings would have offset the extra IT spend in the early years. Hence the projected overspend was a “profiling” issue.

But the report questioned the credibility of the profiling exercise.

credibility extract

On the question  of whether the whole programme could be afforded the report had mixed views.

affordability extract

The report was largely positive about the DWP’s work on Universal Credit. It also revealed that in some ways not all was progressing as well as had been hoped (which was contrary to DWP statements at the time). The report said,

behind the curve extract

And a further mention of “behind the curve”…

behind the curve excerpt

None of these problems was even hinted at in official DWP statements in 2012. About six months after the project assessment review was conducted, this was a statement by a DWP minister (who uses words that were probably drafted by civil servants).

“The development of Universal Credit is progressing extremely well. By next April we will be ready to test the end to end service and use the feedback we get from claimants to make final improvements before the national launch.

“This will ensure that we have a robust and reliable new service for people to make a claim when Universal Credit goes live nationally in October 2013.”

And the following is a statement by the then DWP secretary  of state Iain Duncan Smith in November 2011, which was around the time the project assessment review was carried out. Doubtless his comments were based on briefings he received from officials.

“The [Universal Credit] programme is on track and on time for implementing from 2013.

“We are already testing out the process on single and couple claimants, with stage one and two now complete. Stage 3 is starting ahead of time – to see how it works for families.

“And today we have set out our migration plans which will see nearly twelve million working age benefit claimants migrate onto the new benefits system by 2017.”

Ironic

It’s ironic that the DWP spent four years concealing a report that could have drawn attention to the need for better communications.

communications extract

The report highlighted the need for three types of communication, internal, external and with stakeholders.

communications extract2

On communications with local authorities ..

communications extract3

Comment

The DWP has denigrated the released documents. A spokesperson described them as “nearly four years old and out of date”.

It’s true the reports are nearly four years old. They are not out of date.

They could hardly be more important if they highlight a fundamental democratic flaw, a flaw that allows Whitehall officials and ministers to make positive public statements about a huge government project while hiding reports that could contradict those statements or could put their comments into an enlightening context.

Stephen Crabb, IDS’s replacement at the DWP, is said by the Sunday Times to want officials to come clean to him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.

To do that his officials will have to set themselves against a culture of secrecy that dates back decades. Though not as far as the early 1940s.

Official proceedings of parliament show how remarkably open were statements made to the House during WW2. It’s odd that Churchill, when the country’s future was in doubt, was far more open with Parliament about problems with the war effort than the DWP has ever been with MPs over the problems on Universal Credit.

I have said it before but it’s time for Whitehall departments, particularly the DWP, to publish routinely and contemporaneously their project assessment reviews, issues registers and risk registers.

Perhaps then the public, media and MPs will be better able to trust official statements on the current state of multi-billion pound IT-based programmes; and a glaring democratic deficit would be eliminated.

Openness may even help to improve the government’s record on managing IT.

Universal Credit Project Assessment Review

Is DWP’s Universal Credit FOI case a scandalous waste of money?

FOI hearing today on DWP’s refusal to publish Universal Credit reports

By Tony Collins

External lawyers acting for the Department for Work and Pensions are due to appear before an FOI Upper Tribunal judge in London today to argue why four reports on Universal Credit should not be published.

It’s the latest step in a costly legal battle that has lasted two years so far.

A first-tier FOI tribunal judge in 2014 ordered the four reports to be published. The DWP asked for permission to appeal that decision and lost its case.  The DWP then asked an Upper Tribunal for permission to appeal and lost that case as well.

Then it asked a different Upper Tribunal judge for permission to appeal .  As a result, a 1 day hearing is taking place today.

The case takes in evidence from the DWP, the Information Commissioner, John Slater who requested 3 of the reports in question and me. Slater requested in 2012 a Universal Credit risks register, milestone schedule and issues register (which set out problems that had materialised with the Universal Credit programme).  I requested a project assessment review carried out in 2011 on the Universal Credit programme by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

The DWP has refused to publish the four reports – and millions of pounds worth of other similar reports.

Today the DWP will argue that the judge in an earlier Upper FOI Tribunal did not fully consider the “chilling effect” that disclosure of the reports would have on the behaviours of civil servants or consultants who helped to write the reports in question.

In essence the DWP’s lawyers are asking the judge to accept the arguments put forward against disclosure by Sarah Cox, the DWP’s main witness in the case. Cox is a former programme assurance director for Universal Credit.

Cox submitted 49 pages of evidence – plus secret evidence during a closed hearing – on why the UC reports should not be published.  She said that civil servants must be able to think the unthinkable and record the outcome of these thoughts without hesitation or fear of disclosure.

If contributors feared the reports would be routinely disclosed the documents could become “bland records” prepared with half an eye to how they would be received in the public domain.

She said the danger of damage to the public interest cannot be overstated.

Disclosure could adversely affect management of the Universal Credit programme – and “failure of proper programme management may be catastrophic”.

Emphasising the importance of effective management of risk, she referred to the banking system prior to the credit crunch and the stability of the Bank of England in that period.

“Inappropriate or premature disclosure of the information in the risk registers or the issues registers could lead to those failures occurring in government risk management with broader parallels for other project management tools.”

She then referred to “disaster myopia” – a phenomenon she said was well established in cognitive psychology.  It referred to “an underestimation of the likelihood of low frequency but high risk damage risks”.

She added: “This can result in a lack of appropriate mitigating actions, increasing the likelihood of the risk becoming an issue. In this case fear of disclosure and misinterpretation can exacerbate this myopia, leading to the toning down of the direct and forceful language used to describe risks, or worse, risks not being identified at all”.

If civil servants or consultants writing reports on projects were to downplay the risks because of a fear of disclosure, problems may be overlooked, solutions not found, or not found promptly. “Such an outcome would be seriously detrimental to the delivery of major projects.”

Cox’s evidence could appear to some to suggest the DWP was preoccupied with its image, and the image of the Universal Credit programme, in the media, and among MPs and the public. She said routine disclosure of such reports as those in question “will distract civil servants from their tasks at a crucial point in the process of programme management.

“Instead of concentrating on implementing the changes, they will be required to address stakeholder, press or wider public concerns which have been provoked by the premature disclosure of material.”

It would be unhelpful if “attention is focused on clarifying positions with stakeholders and addressing the concerns of media, opposition and interest groups in order to correct the often misleading impression created by premature disclosure”.

This issue is “magnified in a programme with as many delivery partners as Universal Credit, covering both central and local government, with implications for all territories in the UK”.

That is because of the “implications of issues for different partners are often slightly different, so that each partner may need to be given a slightly different, and tailored, response”.

This concern should not be understated, she said.

“From my experience of high profile matters which emerge with little warning, I can say that ministers and senior officials are likely to be forced to clear their diaries, cancelling planned meetings, events and other important engagements, to attend rapidly-convened meetings to discuss the handling of the premature disclosure.

“Officials in the relevant policy areas (and lawyers as appropriate) would need to set aside other essential and pressing work to prepare briefings on the likely impact of disclosure and options for next steps. ‘Lines to take’ and a stakeholder and media-handling strategy would need to be discussed, agreed and signed off by ministers.

“Ministers could also be called to respond to urgent questions tabled in Parliament, especially where the disclosure  is made in respect of a high-profile policy area. The media might press for interviews with ministers and/or senior officials, which require careful preparation…”

But, as the Information Commissioner has pointed out, disclosure of the documents under FOI is not the same as a leak to the media.

And the reports in question are now four years old and so massive media interest is unlikely. Any media interest could be managed by DWP press officers without distracting project managers.

Cox said disclosure could harm rather than assist public debate.

“Material that requires civil servants to think the unthinkable, or to consider unusual or highly unlikely events, using intentionally vivid and forceful language, at a single point in time, potentially pre-dating attempts to mitigate the position could easily distort the public perception of the real or likely situation and encourage sensationalist rather than responsible and balanced reporting.”

She said that officials may have to release further information to counteract any misunderstandings (from a misreading of the disclosed reports). But the “world of media” may ignore this further information.

Lawyers for the Information Commissioner, in their submission to today’s hearing, will argue that an earlier tribunal had not found any existence of a “chilling effect” in this case. The tribunal had not been persuaded by what the DWP had said.

The earlier tribunal had not dismissed all of the DWP’s concerns as entirely without merit. It accepted that disclosure of the documents in question “may not be a painless process for the DWP” and that there “may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP”. The tribunal was simply unpersuaded by the extent of those prejudices.

The Commissioner’s lawyers will say the earlier tribunal gave due weight to the evidence of Ms Cox but it was not obliged to agree with her.

There was no observable chilling effect from disclosures in the past where a chilling effect had been envisaged. The DWP had not provided any evidence that a chilling effect existed.

Indeed a Starting Gate Review on the Universal Credit project had been published (by Campaign4Change) after the DWP refused to release the document under FOI. The DWP had refused to publish the Starting Gate Review because of the chilling effect it would have on the contributors to such reports.

But there was no chilling effect in consequence of publication of the Starting Gate review, say the Information Commissioner’s lawyers.

The incident “illustrates that it is perfectly within the bounds of reason to be sceptical about the DWP’s assertions about the chilling effect and the like,” says the Information Commissioner’s submission to today’s hearing.

On Ms Cox’s point that disclosure of the reports in question would change behaviours of civil servants and consultants compiling the documents, the earlier tribunal had concluded that the public was entitled to expect from senior officials – and no doubt generally gets – a large measure of courage, frankness and independence in their assessments of risk and provision of advice.

The Information  Commissioner’s lawyers will today ask the judge to dismiss the DWP’s appeal.

Comment

The DWP’s evidence suggests that the reports in question today are critical to the effective delivery of Universal Credit. The reality is that excessive secrecy can make bureaucracies complacent and, in the the DWP’s case, somewhat chaotic.

When Campaign4Change asked the DWP under FOI for two Universal Credit reports – an end to end technical review carried out by IBM at a cost of £49,240 and a “delivery model assessment phases one and two” carried by McKinsey and Partners at a cost of £350,000 – the DWP mistakenly denied that the reports existed.

When we provided evidence the reports did exist the DWP said eventually that it had found them.  The DWP said in essence that the documents had been held so securely nobody knew until searching for them that they existed.

So much for the DWP’s argument that such reports are critical to the effective management of major projects.

And when Campaign4Change asked the DWP, under FOI, to supply a project assessment review report on the Universal Credit programme, officials mistakenly supplied an incorrect version of the report (a draft) to an FOI tribunal.  Officials later apologised for their mistake.

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit do little to portray the DWP as a professional, competent and well-managed organisation.

Which all suggests that excessive secrecy within the DWP has made officials complacent and disorganised.

Continued excessive secrecy within the department could reinforce a suspicion, justified or not, that the department may not be in a strong position to run a programme as large and complex as Universal Credit.

 

 

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

By Tony Collins

Yesterday in Parliament Iain Duncan Smith gave a statement on Universal Credit – then MPs asked him questions.  Conservative MP Nigel Mills asked IDS a straightforward question:

“Can the secretary of state confirm that the Treasury has now signed off the whole business case and laid to rest that fear that they were not going to do that?”

IDS gave a clear reply: “That is exactly what was being asked before the summer break and the answer is they have …”

But the UC programme has not received Treasury approval for the full business case, nor even the outline business case. Today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update” says that the UC programme received approval in September 2014 for the “strategic outline business case” only.

An NAO official says this is a “long way from Treasury approval” of the full business case.

Until the full business case is approved, UC has no formal funding beyond the current spending review. Meanwhile the Treasury has been funding UC in “small increments” according to the NAO.

The Department of Work and Pensions is due to produce the outline business case next summer, before the next government’s spending review.

The “outline” business case is supposed to set out how the programme is affordable and will be successfully delivered. It summarises the results so far and sets out the case for proceeding to a formal procurement phase.

The “full” business case documents the contractual arrangements,
confirms funding and affordability and sets out the detailed management
arrangements and plans for successful delivery and post evaluation.

The absence of approval for the outline or full business case underlines the uncertainties still in the UC programme. Indeed the latest NAO report says it’s too early to tell whether UC will prove value for money.

But the DWP has reduced risks by extending the roll-out. The programme is now not expected to be completed before 2020. The original completion date was 2017.

The DWP has a twin-track approach to the UC IT programme. It is paying its existing main IT suppliers to support the introduction of UC – the so-called “live” service – while an agile team develops a fully-automated “digital” service that is designed to do all that the “live” service cannot do without manual intervention.

The agile system has yet to be tested – but it has cost only about £8m compared with more than £90m spent on the “live service”.

Porkies?

Labour MP Glenda Jackson, who is a member of the Work and Pensions committee, suggested to IDS yesterday that his promises to MPs on Universal Credit’s roll-out have all been broken and that he has told the House of Commons “porky pies”.

IDS replied that his intention is to ensure that UC is rolled out in a safe and secure way.

Comment:

You’d never know from IDS’s replies to MPs yesterday that the Universal Credit programme doesn’t yet have either outline business case approval or full business case approval.

In other words, the Treasury has yet to be convinced the UC programme is feasible or affordable. It is paying for the programme in increments.

IDS told MPs the programme has business case approval. He did not make it  clear that the programme has the early-stage strategic outline business case approval.

His comments reinforce the need for the National Audit Office to scrutinise the Universal Credit programme. Left to the Department for Work and Pensions, the facts about the programme’s progress, problems and challenges would probably not emerge, not in the House of Commons at least.

Some MPs have said for years that Parliament is the last place to look for the truth.

IDS also said yesterday that the original deadline for completion of UC by 2017 was “artificial” – though he has quoted the 2017 date to MPs on several occasions.

Will UC succeed?

UC as an IT-based programme is not doing too badly, to judge from today’s NAO report.

Indeed it seems that the Department for Work and Pensions, when under intense scrutiny, can start to get things right.

Though existing systems from major suppliers look increasingly unlikely to be able to handle the predicted volumes without a large and expensive amount of manual intervention, the agile digital system, though delayed by 6 months, looks promising, at a fraction of the cost of the conventional “live” system.

Scrutiny

The NAO is scrutinising the programme. The DWP’s own auditors seem to be doing a good job. The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is making useful recommendations. And the programme has an independently-chaired board. [The NAO says the programme board has been hampered by limited information and suggests this is because the DWP gives the board “good news” statements rather than facts.]

All this scrutiny is powering the programme in the right direction, though the uncertainties remain massive. As Campaign4Change predicted, the programme will not be complete before 2020. But who cares, if it works well in the end and losses are minimised?

DWP officials are learning lessons – and UC could end up as a template for big government IT-enabled programmes  The twin-track approach of using existing suppliers to deliver support for major business changes that yield problems and lessons  that then feed into an entirely new agile-based system is not a cheap way to develop government IT –  but it may work.

What DWP officials have yet to learn is how to be open and truthful to Parliament, the media – and even its own programme board.

Universal Credit: progress update

Some highlights of today’s NAO report

NAO warns over costs of further Universal Credit digital delay

Universal Credit: watchdog warns of costs of further delays

Government may have to write off more than £200m invested in IT on Universal Credit

Universal Credit project costs reach £36,222 per claimant (excluding the claim)

By Tony Collins

Iain Duncan Smith has told MPs that the costs of the Universal Credit project are £652m to March 2014 – which is about £36,222 per successful claimant.

The figure includes the money paid to the DWP’s Universal Credit IT suppliers which was £303m by the end of 2012/13.  An updated figure will be published in a UC report by the National Audit Office due to be published near the end of this month.

The costs of Universal Credit per successful claimant are disproportionately high for an IT-enabled programme that has been running for more than three years because numbers on the system are small.

If the UC programme were complete, at a forecast cost of £1.8bn, and the predicted 7.7 million people were receiving the benefit, the scheme’s delivery costs per claimant would be only about £234.

As at October 2014 17,850 people were on the Universal Credit caseload.  IDS told the Work and Pensions Committee on 5 November, in a hearing that lasted more than 2 hours,  that the costs of UC were £652m by March 2014.

That works out at about £36, 222 per successful UC claimant.

Total delivery costs for the programme are expected to be £1.8bn, down from an original prediction of £2.4bn, IDS told the committee.

IDS and the DWP hope many more successful claimants will be added to the systems next year when Universal Credit is rolled out to all jobcentres and local authorities across the country. But the scheme is subject to growing uncertainties, as the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux and IDS made clear to the committee.

DWP drops firm end date for UC

When an MP put it to IDS that he no longer has a concrete end date for when  7.7 million people will be on UC, he paused. Then he said the plan was for UC to be complete “by the end of 2018”. He gave no commitment and did not deny that there is no concrete end date.

“Er yes, yeah,” replied IDS. “We do envisage UC being complete by the end of 2018. That’s our plan.”  He said that UC would handle singles, couples, then families. In the meantime the DWP is developing an “end-state digital process” that will deliver benefits for claimants and the departments.

“The roll-out gives us phenomenal understanding of what we need to do to make sure the digital service ultimately comes in and completes that process properly. There is a de-risking of the process.”

UC may never be fully automated

Another uncertainty for UC is its ability to handle an estimated 1.6 million changes per month to people’s claims.

Changes in circumstances are handled manually at present.

Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the DWP, told the committee that the UC systems are, for some claimants,  part manual, part automated. Devereux said:

“The peculiar nooks and crannies with individual circumstances  – we have deliberately not tried to code every permutation as we go along. We are trying to make sure it can be safely delivered within costs in a sensible fashion.

“It would not be sensible to code every possible permutation back at the start while you are still learning.  There are different elements of the system, some of which will be [digital] all the way through, some which are not.”

The committee chair Dame Anne Begg questioned whether UC will ever work effectively if manual processing is applied to some of the 7.7 million claimants. She received no clear answer.

Comment

It’s a good thing that the DWP is going slowly and cautiously but a spend of £652m to March 2014 per UC recipient does not seem cautious at all. If the project is being run on agile principles of fail early and fail cheaply, can this sum be justified?

On a more positive note IDS has stopped quoting a firm end date for UC. At first the DWP was saying UC would be completed by the end of 2017, then IDS said the programme would be “essentially complete” by the end of 2017.  Now he is saying it may be complete by the end of 2018 but is giving no commitment. His caution is probably because the NAO’s update on UC later this month will suggest that the programme is unlikely to be delivered in any certain time period. Nobody can say with authority or credibility when UC’s implementation will be complete.

It’s also a good thing that the DWP is conceding that UC can never be fully automated. It doesn’t make sense spending disproportionate sums on automating calculations that can be done more cheaply by hand.  But if the exceptions prove the rule UC could prove much more expensive to implement than planned.

UC is a good idea in theory but the next government needs to do a full review of its financial and practical feasibility, which the present government is unlikely to do.

Universal Credit could be complete by 2018 – Government Computing

Real time information – the good and bad

By Tony Collins

Widespread publicity over the past week has drawn attention to inaccuracies in Real Time Information, HMRC’s system for handling PAYE submissions from employers every time they pay an employee rather that at the year-end. The Daily Telegraph broke the story with the headline

“Five million UK workers face uncertainty after tax bills wrongly calculated twice in HMRC blunder”

The BBC said tax  statement errors affect thousands of people.  Accountancy Live reported that tax experts were urging HMRC to review RTI to see if it’s fit for purpose. The FT reported HMRC as admitting that an “unknown number of inaccurate P800 statements and payment orders for the 2013/14 tax year had been sent to taxpayers since September 15”.

But HMRC says that RTI is a success for more than 98% of those employers who have to use it.

Tens of millions of PAYE employees are now on RTI – and if the system were a disaster HMRC and MPs would be deluged with complaints. That hasn’t happened.

Indeed the National Audit Office was complimentary in its audit of HMRC’s 2013/14 accounts of the ability of RTI to give employees the correct tax code when their jobs change – thereby reducing the levels of under and overpayments.

“Data quality has improved and HMRC’s own evaluation suggests that RTI is helping to change employer behaviour by encouraging them to tell HMRC of changes in employee circumstances earlier,” said the NAO.

RTI – the good and bad

The good news for HMRC and the government’s welfare reformers is that Universal Credit, which relies on RTI to calculate benefits, is running well behind its original schedule.

UC is rolling out to a small number of people – fewer than 12,000 by 14 August 2014 –  rather than the expected 184,000 by April 2014, according to the DWP’s revised December 2012 business case.  This means that inaccuracies in RTI will have little effect on UC for the foreseeable future.

The bad

If RTI cannot be relied on to provide accurate information on whether Universal Credit claimants are paying the right amount of tax, UC cannot be relied on to provide correct payments to claimants – which would undermine the welfare reform programme.

Another problem is that tax experts are weary of HMRC’s repeated blaming of employers for RTI’s problems. One of the reasons RTI contains inaccuracies is that HMRC uses employers’ changing internal “works” numbers as individual identifiers, as well as the National Insurance Number.

Employers change their payroll works numbers for a variety of reasons, say when an employee is promoted to management, when the company wants to distinguish various groups for the employer’s own purpose, or when an employee moves location.

The works number is for the internal use of the employer but is included in information submitted to HMRC. The number is “owned” by employers and is for them to use and administer as they see fit. It should have no relevance to HMRC.  But when the works number changes, it can trigger a false assumption in HMRC’s systems that the employee has two employments, with the same employer.  This would generate an incorrect tax code – and would be HMRC’s fault, not the employer’s.

Steve Wade, tax director at KPMG, puts it well.  He says of the latest publicity about RTI errors:

“These systems issues are causing so called ‘employer errors’, which is where the data supplied by the employer is not processed by HMRC systems as expected.

“Sometimes this can be due to bad data being supplied but equally it can be due to errors in HMRC systems which were not designed to deal with all the complexities of PAYE.

“The upshot for employers and employees is that they find that the PAYE tax and National Insurance Contributions that have been paid do not match those calculated by HMRC, despite their providing the information as requested.  As a result, they now face uncertainty over whether they have paid the right amount of tax.

“There needs to be some significant and urgent investment in the processing and back end software systems at HMRC which collect and process this data to generate the operational efficiencies envisaged when the whole RTI initiative was conceived.”

Wade told Accountancy Live: “At the moment, RTI just does not seem to be delivering information that is real. What we need is a thorough investigation of what has happened by a team which includes not just HMRC personnel but external specialists. Only that will give the necessary degree of confidence in the system that is vital for everyone who depends upon it.”

Natalie Miller, President of the Association of Taxation Technicians, says of RTI’s inaccuracies:

“This is an alarming revelation and further underscores the need for collaboration with external stakeholders, all of whom have a vested interest in the success of RTI.

“We have been drawing HMRC’s attention to the quirks and complexities of RTI in meetings and correspondence from its inception. We have also highlighted the significant burdens it places on employers and agents. What we are seeing now are real and serious practical problems for possibly many thousands of employees at a time when building confidence in the system is crucial.

“Some of those difficulties might have been avoided if HMRC had heeded advice from ATT and similar bodies at an early stage.

“In light of this latest revelation, we are calling for an urgent review of the RTI system to ensure that it is fit for purpose. This is essential because every employer and employee is entitled to know that PAYE is being dealt with properly. It is doubly important because the RTI system underpins the Universal Credit system that is being rolled out by the Department for Work and Pensions to replace certain state benefits.

“If, as HMRC’s reported comments suggest, the particular problem arose because employers had failed to send in final payment statements for the full 2013/2014 tax year, that suggests two things.

“Firstly, that the process is simply too complex for employers to understand. Secondly, that either HMRC know the information to be incomplete and are failing to address this before placing reliance on the information, or HMRC do not know the information is incomplete, which raises the equally worrying prospect that the system cannot identify when important information is missing.

“It is in nobody’s interest that RTI stumbles from problem to problem; that threatens its credibility. We all need a system that does what it says on the tin. At the moment, Real Time Information just does not seem to be delivering information that is real. What we need is a thorough investigation of what has happened by a team which includes not just HMRC personnel but external specialists.

“Only that will give the necessary degree of confidence in the system that is vital for everyone who depends upon it (employees, pensioners, employers, payroll bureaux, tax advisers, other parts of government and HMRC itself). The review’s remit should extend to other areas of RTI where systemic problems have been identified. The ATT and many other professional bodies stand ready to assist HMRC in that review.”

George Bull, senior tax partner at Baker Tilly, said that the RTI system had so far failed to demonstrate that it can put an end to the annual problem of incorrect tax demands and refunds. “It seems to me that in 2014, this is a pretty sorry state to be in.”

HMRC note to employers, professional bodies and business groups in full (published by Accountingweb)

“We are today emailing our stakeholders to explain that we are aware that a number of employees recently received a form 2013-14 P800 which was issued during our bulk 2013-14 End of Year reconciliation exercise.

“The 2013-14 P800 shows an incorrect overpayment or underpayment where the pay and tax shown on the P800 is incorrect and does not match that shown on their 2013-14 P60.

“The most common scenarios are where:

  • An incorrect overpayment is created as the 2013-14 reconciliation is based upon the Full Payment Submission (FPS) up to month 11 although the employment continued all year.
  • Where the year to date figures supplied are incorrect, for example where an employer reference changed in-year and the previous pay and tax is incorrectly included in the “year to date” (YTD) totals.
  • We have received an “Earlier Year Update” (EYU) and this is yet to be processed to the account.
  • There is a duplicate employment (often caused by differences in works numbers and other changes throughout the year)

“We are urgently investigating these cases and will look to resolve the matter in the next 6-8 weeks.

“We currently do not know the scale of the issue, but some large employers are involved, so several thousands of employees may be affected.

“Next Steps

“We are very sorry that some customers will receive an incorrect 2013-14 P800 tax calculation.

“We are urgently investigating these cases and will look to resolve the matter and issue a revised P800 to the employee in the next 6-8 weeks.

“Employers and their agents should not send any 2013-14 EYUs unless requested by us. We are aware that there are still some 2013-14 EYUs which we have yet to process to the relevant account.

“If an employee asks about a 2013-14 P800 which they think is incorrect, they should advise them:

  • Not to repay any underpayment shown on the P800
  • Not to cash any payable order they may have received
  • Employees will not be affected by the incorrect tax code as we will issue a revised P800 before Annual Coding.”

Comment

RTI is not a disaster but it’s clearly not in a fit state to support Universal Credit – another uncertainty for UC. When the National Audit Office reports on UC, as it is due to do in the next few weeks, it would be useful if it also reports on the state of RTI.

If it does so report, the NAO should not take at face value HMRC’s claims that the fault with RTI lies mainly with employers.

[The NAO will find that, even after the modernisation of PAYE processes, the systems still incorporate COP/CODA/BROCS software that dates back more than 30 years.]

Universal Credit’s “multiple frustrations and complications”

By Tony Collins

universal creditJournalists who are trying to find out the current state of the Universal Credit programme will get little help from the Department for Work and Pensions unless its press officers sense that the eventual outcome will be positive.

Sometimes journalists call me as part of their research. They want to know whether UC will end up as another government IT disaster. I had such a call yesterday.

The conversation focused on IT. But it’s a maxim in the industry that major change programmes in the public sector usually fail or are delayed for managerial rather than technical reasons.

The introduction of a new passport system failed when a better, more secure system slowed down the issuing of new passport applications.

Instead of halting the roll-out to see how to speed up the issuing of passports – by changing procedures or spending more on staff and equipment – the Home Office continued the rollout and chaos ensured. That wasn’t the fault of the IT.

It may be a similar story with Universal Credit. Even if the IT as far as it goes works well, claims handling is a laborious process,  The main systems do not handle calculations of gross income, net income or back-office integration, all of which are managed manually.

Chaos is unlikely because the rollout is going so slowly.  But the amount of manual intervention required means the slow rollout is enforced rather than merely voluntary.

[This slow rollout is despite an IT budget for UC including migration costs from 2010 to 2014/15 of £812m as at December 2012. Within this budget, £303m had been spent to March 2013, mostly with the DWP’s main IT suppliers Accenture, IBM, HP and BT.]

The programme is also running into non-IT difficulties such as delays in issuing first-time payments to claimants because of a variety of reasons around the complexity of new procedures, and tenants unable to pay rent because the money hasn’t gone directly to landlords.

If UC goes nationwide, as Iain Duncan Smith says it will next year, it will still be able to handle only limited numbers of claimants, in the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands and certainly not millions.

This article is a reminder that Universal Credit faces problems that go beyond the IT. A North West housing association said a survey of its tenants had exposed flaws in the universal credit system, with some claimants turning to pay day lenders to get by.

After taking part in a pilot in 2013 of the roll out of UC, First Choice Homes Oldham found that their tenants had suffered “multiple frustrations and complications with the system”. Data collected this summer from 40% of the housing association’s tenants on UC found that:

• 55% found the period between making their UC claim and receiving their first payment very difficult. 44% managed financially by borrowing and 18% had taken out a pay day loan.

• 74% had not been offered personal budgeting support by the Department for Work and Pensions. However, 57% of the tenants that were offered this service took up the offer.

• 37% did not receive their payment on the same day each month, making budgeting even more difficult.

• 59% of tenants had not found work since claiming UC.

When asked by FCHO to name the first three bills that would be paid once they were in receipt of UC, 19% of tenants did not name rent as a priority bill.

So will UC succeed?

It’s laudable that the coalition is trying to simplify the benefits system. No pain no gain. But it’s not doing it openly. IDS pretends all is well when clearly it isn’t.

This means that UC becomes an impossible project to manage well. No programme leader can take big problems to IDS because big problems are not supposed to exist. UC desperately needs a new political leader who has no emotional equity in its success.

It’s right (and largely involuntary) that the DWP is going slowly in rolling out UC. This way chaos is avoided.

But to handle millions of claims, the processing of UC transactions and payments needs to be a fully automated process. The DWP is working on that – what Iain Duncan Smith calls an “enhanced digital service”.  Nobody seems to know much about it. IDS says it is going to be tested later this year.

Uncertainty

Now into its fourth year of implementation, UC is still mired in uncertainty, despite IDS’s self-confident remarks at the Tory conference.

The facts are likely to emerge when the National Audit Office publishes its updated report which is expected before the end of this year. The DWP may already have drafted its press release saying the NAO report is outdated, which is part of the problem with UC and other big government IT-based programmes: they are more governed by politics than pragmatism.

 

Labour asks good questions on Universal Credit programme

By Tony Collins

Labour has a “Universal Credit Rescue Committee” whose membership includes a former Rolls Royce CIO Jonathan Mitchell.

Mitchell is quoted in Government Computing as saying that it would be irresponsible for a Labour government to continue spending large amounts of money on Universal Credit without getting answers to important questions such as:

  • Is there a comprehensive business case – one that clearly outlines the expected benefits, demonstrating that the Universal Credit project is viable?
  • Is the business case agreed by all stakeholders?
  • Is there clarity about what needs to be achieved?
  • Is there a stable specification explaining exactly how the new processes will work and how they will be automated?
  • Is the project being managed and staffed by people and organisations with appropriate levels of experience, track-record and expertise, all of whom are capable of delivering the benefits of the project and ensuring safe roll-out in a timely manner?
  • Is the project fully under control?
  • Can it absorb the changes demanded by a new incoming Government? If not, can the project be brought under control at an acceptable cost with respect to the business case, through a re-planning exercise?
  • Once such a re-planning exercise is completed, are we convinced that it was successful and that the project will now proceed to a satisfactory completion in a controlled fashion?
  • Are there appropriate “control gates” in place to ensure that all aspects of each phase of the plan are fully completed (and that projected costs to completion preserve the business case) before allowing the project to move safely onto each next stage?

Mitchell said, “Universal Credit is one of those applications that might look straightforward when you first look at it, but this is most definitely not the case. I believe there are significant process and technical challenges to overcome.”

Comment

Good questions, most of which the Department for Work and Pensions is unlikely to be able to answer satisfactorily today.

The Treasury still hasn’t approved the full business case, which is odd for a project that started in earnest more than three years ago.

It’s hard to see, given the rate of progress, the amount of work being completed manually, the lack of integration with legacy systems, the complexity of changes of behaviour required, the reliance on other parties such as local authorities, the inflexibility of some supplier contracts, regularly changing project leadership, the variable performance of HMRC’s RTI systems, and the DWP’s poor history of success on big IT-related projects, how the UC programme will be completed before 2020 whoever wins the next election.

Labour committee outlines Universal Credit “rescue” strategy – Government Computing

Does RTI go-slow have implications for Universal Credit?

By Tony Collins

HM Revenue and Customs’ “Real Time Information” project appears to work fairly well much of the time but delays and problems over the last few days have created extra work and angered some payroll specialists.

One payroll specialist said the problems have been “a nightmare” and another said: “I could cry”.

Submissions under RTI are generating, on occasions, hundreds of unexpected emails, clogging corporate inboxes. Payroll specialists have been left unsure if PAYE submissions have been validated or not.

In February HMRC stood accused of acting on inaccurate information in harassing some employers, and issuing misleading guidance on RTI.

Employers and their payroll specialists have until the 22nd of each month to submit their end of month PAYE submissions and cleared electronic payments. This month’s submissions may put an extra burden on HMRC’s systems because they will usually include end-of-year declarations for the 2013/14 year.

One angry payroll specialist emailed Ruth Owen, Director General Personal Tax at HM Revenue and Customs. Owen replied:

“As you say, this is being worked on by the IT team. And let me apologise again for the frustration caused by our delays. We are trying to get it sorted as quickly as we can.

“In answer to your question about the deadline, we will obviously not be applying penalties if customers have missed the deadline due to technical problems in our systems but hopefully we can resolve the problems well in advance of the deadline.”

A separate HMRC statement to software developers said: “

“We are aware that some customers making submissions to the live Government Gateway are experiencing delays before receiving a validation response advising whether or not the submission passed full validation. This is currently being investigated by our IT partners and your customers should not attempt to re-submit their returns until the result of the original submission is known.”

Comment

RTI generally works well but the year-end is always a big test for HMRC’s systems. If RTI is already struggling to cope – while there is only a trickle of Universal Credit claims – will it cope when millions are claiming UC?

It’s yet another uncertainty for UC, and another good reason for the Department for Work and Pensions to publish its UC risk and progress reports. Some chance.

 

Another DWP leader quits – is Universal Credit IT really working?

By Tony Collins

As the head of the Universal Credit programme, Howard Shiplee, returns to work after being off sick with bronchitis, news emerges that the DWP is to lose its IT head Andy Nelson whose responsibilities include Universal Credit.

The highly regarded Nelson is to leave this summer after little more than a year as the DWP’s CIO.

The DWP’s press office – which for more than a year had a brief to tell journalists that Universal Credit was on time and to budget – is saying that Nelson’s brief was the whole of the DWP’s IT. The implication is that Nelson had little to do with Universal Credit.

But Nelson’s brief specifically included Universal Credit. At the weekend IDS told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that the IT for Universal Credit is working. If that were so, wouldn’t Nelson want to be associated with such a high-profile success?

The FT, in an article in February on Shiplee’s sick leave, pointed out that Terry Moran, the civil servant in charge of universal credit at its inception, retired from the department last year after an extended period of sick leave.

Hilary Reynolds, a department civil servant who was appointed programme director in November 2012, moved to another role four months later. She in turn had taken over from Malcolm Whitehouse, who had stepped down from the programme around the same time as Moran.

Departures of top DWP people may be one of the few outward signs of the true state of UC IT until the next government reviews the programme and perhaps announces the results.

Open?

On the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme on 9 March 2014 IDS suggested he is being entirely open about the Universal Credit programme – he invited the media and come and see where it is being rolled out. But the DWP keeps hidden its internal reports on the actual state of the programme.  The Information Tribunal is currently weighing up whether the DWP should be ordered to publish one of its internal reports on the Universal Credit project.

IDS on BBC’s Sunday Politics

Below is a partial transcript of IDS’s interview with presenter Andrew Neil on the Universal Credit project. IDS refers incorrectly to write-offs of £28bn on IT programmes by the last government,  and he gives some seemingly contradictory answers.  If the government needs a spokesman to argue that day is night and night is day, IDS is probably the man.

Andrew Neil (presenter) Why has so much been written off on UC although it has barely been introduced?

IDS: “It’s a £2bn project and in the private sector IT programmes write off 30%-40% regularly because that’s the nature. The point I want to make here is that UC is already rolling out. The IT is working. We are improving as we go along. You keep your eye on the bits that don’t work and you make sure they don’t create a problem for the programme.

“The £40m that was written off was to do with security IT. I took the decision over a year and half ago. That is the standard write down – the amortisation of costs over a period. The existing legacy systems were written down in cost terms years ago in the accounts but they continue to work right now.

“We are doing pathfinders and learning a lot about it but I am not going this again like the last government did which is big bang launches and then you have problems like they had with the health IT and it crashes. You do it phase by phase, you learn what you have to do and you make the changes, then you continue to get the rest of it out.

“The key point is that it is rolling out and I invite anybody from the media etc to come and look at where it is being rolled out …”

Neil: You say it [Universal Credit] is being rolled out but nobody notices. You were predicting that one million people would be on universal credit by April and now it’s March and there are only 3,200 are on it.

IDS: “I am not bandying figures around but it is 6,000 and rising. I changed the way we were rolling out over a year ago. Under the advice I brought in from outside – he said: you are better off Pathfinding this out, making sure you learn the lessons, roll it out slower and you gain momentum later on.

“On the timetables for the roll-out we are pretty clear. It is going to rollout in the timescales originally set [completion by October 2017] but the scale of that rollout … so what we are going to do is roll it out in the North West,  recognise how it works properly, and then you roll it out region by region.

“There are lot of variations and variables in this process but if you do it that way you won’t end up with the kind of debacle the last government had in the health service and many others where they wrote off something in the order of £28 billion pounds of IT programmes. We won’t be doing that. There is £38bn of net benefits so it is worth getting it right.”

Neil: When will UC be universal – when will it cover the whole country?

IDS: “By 2016 everybody who is claiming a benefit will be claiming universal credit.

Neil: But not everybody will be getting it by then.

IDS: “Because there are some who are on sickness benefits and they will take longer to bring on because it is a little more problematic, and a bit more difficult because many of them have no work expectations. For those who are on tax credits and job seekers allowance they will be making claims on universal credit and many are already doing that now. There are over already 200,000 people around the country who are on parts of universal credit now.”

Neil: When will everybody be on UC?

IDS: “We said they would be on UC by 2018.”

Are you on track for that?

“Yes we are. 2016 is when everybody claiming this benefit will be on. Then you have to bring on those who have been on a long time on other benefits. UC is a big and important reform. It is not an IT reform. IT is only the automation. The important point is that it will be a massive cultural change.   The change is dramatic. You can get a jobseeker to take a small part-time job immediately while they are looking for work. That improves their likelihood of getting longer work and it means flexibility for business.”

Comment

The DWP says it needs a “safe space” to discuss the progress of its projects without the glare of publicity. That’s one reason it refuses to publish any of the reviews it has commissioned on UC. But the hiding of these reports, which have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, means that IDS can go on TV and say almost whatever he likes about progress on the Universal Credit project, without fear of authoritative contradiction.

Why does the Cabinet Office allow the DWP and other departments to keep secret their internal reports on the progress or otherwise of their IT-based projects and programmes? Probably because the Cabinet Office’s minister Francis Maude doesn’t want to be too intrusive.

So we’ll be left guessing on the state of big IT-enabled programmes until the scheme’s defects are too great to be hidden or the NAO publishes a report. Will the former that be the fate of Universal Credit IT?

Andy Nelson quits as DWP CIO