By Tony Collins
In March 2012 a contact who was close to the Universal Credit IT project called me about problems on the scheme – using a phone box because of concern that mobile phones were insecure.
The contact said a deadline in April (2012) to lock-down features in the Universal Credit IT project was not going to be met and that the failure would jeopardise the go-live date of October 2013 for the start of Universal Credit.
The contact also said the Government would make an announcement on the scheme in September which may refer to a write-off of at least £150m on the IT project. Officials were reluctant to impart the whole truth to ministers, suggested the contact. Oracle was said to be having trouble handling functionality.
It was a difficult conversation to write up at the time because the Department for Work and Pensions claimed without reservations that the IT project was on time and to budget, and the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was making similarly positive statements on the project’s progress.
Even so Campaign4Change published the contact’s claims, in April 2012, under the headline “Time for Truth on Universal Credit IT“.
Now The Guardian says it has 150 pages of leaked documents that show ministers have been presented with a radical plan to put the Universal Credit project back on track by restarting the scheme and writing off £119m of work over the past three years.
Says the Guardian:
“The proposals would create a much more web-based system, reducing the need for jobcentre staff, but putting the whole scheme back to ‘phase one’…”
An alternative plan would be to attempt to improve the existing system and build on the investment already made.
“Both plans were drawn up by civil servants at the direction of Department for Work and Pensions ministers. The documents include a risk assessment of each option, which criticises both plans and warns that a maximum of 25,000 people – just 0.2% of all benefit recipients – will be transferred on to the programme by the next general election, whichever route is taken.
“The risk assessment warns that the plan to start again, the ‘design and build’ web-based scheme, is ‘unproven … at this scale’. It says the plan to fix three years of work on universal credit is still ‘not achievable within the preferred timescales’, describing it as unrealistic.”
The Guardian suggests that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude favours the new web plan. Duncan Smith and his newly appointed project director, Harold Shiplee, are understood to back fixing what has been created over the past three years.
The risk document says that the option to fix the current system is “not endorsed” by the Cabinet Office, which could have “an adverse impact on delivery timescales” in getting government approvals.
Duncan Smith has said repeatedly that universal credit will be delivered on time and on budget but the 2017 deadline for completion has long been impossible.
The risk assessment, dated 11 October, says the plan for a faster, more web-based system would involve writing off £119m of previous work, and cost the DWP £96m to develop. However, it warns ministers that they will have no idea if the web-based system will work until the summer of 2014 “when it is live for 100 claimants”.
Fixing the existing system would cost £226m, the report says, and the completed design would still be vulnerable to security flaws. While this option offers a chance for reputational recovery, a smaller write-off cost of £21m and less disruption, the report warns it may ultimately not prove value for money.
Asked about the findings of the risk report, the DWP said its plans remained on track and would ultimately save the country £38bn.
The Guardian says that ministers may order both plans to be pursued at the same time and wait to see what happens after six months.
A DWP spokesman told The Guardian: “Our work on the development of universal credit is ongoing and, as we said back in July, we will be announcing the next stage of rollout later this year. Our plans for delivery, which will ultimately bring a £38bn benefit to society, remain on track.”
The contact’s call from a phone box in March 2012 indicates that the Department for Work and Pensions knew of the chaotic state of the Universal Credit IT project more than a year before there was any public admission of any problems.
The contact was right about plans for a possible large write-off, and that the scheme would not start in October 2013 as planned. The contact was wrong about the government making an announcement about the write-off. That didn’t happen. It still isn’t happening. It looks like IDS wants to try and repair the project, which is likely to throw good money after bad, though it is likely to delay the large write-offs until after the next general election.
Meanwhile the DWP is continuing to refuse to publish any of its reports and assessments on the IT for Universal Credit. The secret reports include:
– A Project Assessment Review in November 2011
– Universal Credit Delivery Model Assessment Two (McKinsey and Partners)
– Universal Credit end-to-end Technical Review (IBM).
The DWP’s cover-up on Universal Credit IT may be more instinctive than systematic or conspiratorial. But it’s a cover-up nonetheless. Isn’t it time Parliament was told the truth when government IT projects go wrong, and not a year or more later?
Is Parliament still not being told the truth about the inevitability of huge write-offs?