Is DWP looking for yet another new chief for Universal Credit?

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Is the troubled Universal Credit programme looking for yet another new leader for the project?

A good contact of mine has told me that he was approached by two separate headhunters recently, asking if he might be interested in becoming director general of Universal Credit.

The incumbent, Howard Shiplee, was off sick for several weeks earlier this year, and another source has told me that he is still not back working full-time - it was suggested that he is only fully working for one day a week. This source suggested that Shiplee was still very ill - he has apparently had a form of bronchitis that turned into something more serious.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) press office insists there are no plans for Shiplee to step down, and said the focus of the welfare reform programme is on plans for further expansion in the summer.

But you have to bear in mind that the same department consistently denied there were any problems with the Universal Credit IT project, right up to the point last year that the National Audit Office revealed just how deep and costly those problems were.

Certainly my contacts seemed confident that DWP is looking around for a possible replacement for Shiplee. Maybe it is just a contingency plan in the event his health does not improve, and everyone would of course wish him a rapid improvement and to continue in such a vital job.

But were Shiplee forced to step down, it would be seen as yet another huge blow for Universal Credit.

He is already the sixth leader of the project in barely two years. Malcolm Whitehouse and Steve Dover, the early managers, left DWP once it became apparent the IT was in trouble. DWP CIO Philip Langsdale took charge in August 2012 before his untimely death in December that year. Hilary Reynolds moved on in early 2013 after just four months as programme director, while David Pitchford took over as interim chief before Shiplee's appointment in May 2013.

The current DWP CIO, Andy Nelson, while not the project leader, is also leaving the civil service in the next few months. (The DWP suggested that perhaps some wires had been crossed and my contact was approached by headhunters about replacing Nelson, but the contact maintains that was not the case).

Shiplee, previously construction director for the London 2012 Olympics, was lauded by secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith as something of a saviour.

"The main point I would make about Howard is that, before he came to us, he was the person who delivered the Olympic Park," Duncan Smith told MPs on the Work and Pensions select committee in July last year.

"It was his responsibility, and he has been a project director, manager, etc, and you will see from his CV that he has a phenomenal background in delivering projects on time and within budget."

It would be a personal blow to the minister, let alone to the wider project, were Shiplee unable to continue. Any replacement would be picking up something of a poisoned chalice, especially given the timing in the run up to next year's General Election.

One of my contacts described Universal Credit as "broken". Whoever wins the May 2015 election, it is highly likely that the whole structure and approach to Universal Credit will be subject to review in the early days of a new administration. That's not a particularly stable job environment in which to recruit the sort of strong, experienced leader that might have to take over.

Shiplee is widely acknowledged to have steadied the ship since his appointment. The IT project continues using its controversial "twin-track" approach, with DWP digital chief Kevin Cunnington becoming increasingly the key figure in the development of the IT systems that will ultimately be used when Universal Credit goes fully live in 2017.

After a slow start, there are now 50 IT staff working on the "enhanced" Universal Credit system under Cunnington, although 15 of those are contractors rather than full-time staff.

Computer Weekly has asked DWP to confirm Shiplee's current status and whether there are any plans in place, even tentatively, to look for a replacement should his health problems continue. At the time of writing, we have yet to receive a reply.

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