By Tony Collins
There is much we know about Universal Credit.
Ian Watmore, the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, has told MPs that the project is built on agile methods: it is split into two-to-three-week drops of code. The coding is divided into customer types – and there are several thousand different types of customer. The simplest cases are those who have lost their job and the complicated ones are people who are in and out of work.
For each customer type the whole IT solution is being developed and is then tested with benefits claimants. Following agile principles, the problems encountered during testing are understood and the software re-coded.
The plan is to go live with selected customer types by October 2013 – and it’s probably right that nobody in government will guarantee the deadline will be met.
This all sounds impressive but there’s one big drawback: officials are refusing to release the “starting gate” review on the Universal Credit project.
Every major project now has to undergo a starting gate review to check it’s feasible before money is committed. It’s a good idea – and all credit to the team led by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude for enforcing it.
But officials are doing their best to stop starting gate reviews being published, even under the FOI Act. Officialdom has even ignored an MP’s request for the starting gate report on Universal Credit. That MP, Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee, will pursue the matter.
Why the secrecy?
It is likely that the civil service doesn’t want to publish starting gate reports for the reasons they don’t want to publish Gateway reviews: they’d rather not be accountable for what they say. If the advice is wrong it can be known years later when those involved have moved on. But the civil service would prefer that assessments of projects are not published while the advice is contemporaneous.
Hence the Department of Health has published Gateway review reports that are several years old. More recent reviews are published in a form that’s so heavily redacted – edited – that they contain no useful information.
Without the publication Gateway reviews, the media, MPs and the public have no independent information on the progress or otherwise of large IT-based projects and programmes, unless they are scrutinised by the National Audit Office which has only limited resources. Without the publication of starting gates there’s no independent information in the public domain on the feasibility of big public sector projects and programmes.
So much for open government.