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Universal Credit on-track - and thanks to agile, says discharged IT boss

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jobcentre-queue.jpgUniversal Credit is not turning into a car crash, the programme's discharged boss has told Computer Weekly.

Speaking out after he and other managers were moved off the unfinished project, Steve Dover said the programme was still on track.

And he said it would live up to its name as the most ambitious agile software project ever attempted.

But critics said Dover's removal from Universal Credit, the government's £2bn flagship IT project, is a sign that it is succumbing to the fate written in the ingredients with which it was begun in 2010: chiefly immense ambition and expenditure, trying to do too many ambitious things at once, to a political timetable, and large contracts with large IT suppliers - all risk factors the coalition government had vowed it would abolish to stop public IT projects keep going wrong.

Dover insisted he had not been shunted off. He was still employed as corporate director of major programmes by the Department for Work and Pensions, the government body responsible for the project. He had merely finished his part on it.

"I've got it to a point where we've designed and delivered what we need to deliver," he said.

"And now its got into an operational mode. We've been talking about how we should reform and reorganize the programme for about six months and so we've implemented that."

Developments

The department answered critics today by announcing it had awarded contracts for six companies to develop a crucial part of the system - a means of checking people's identities online. The £25m venture would be the first stab at an ambitious system that would become the identity assurance application for use across the entire government. Universal Credit is also waiting on HM Revenue & Customs completing its own ambitious real-time tax returns system by April.

Malcolm Whitehouse, Universal Credit programme director was also discharged with responsibilities for the project last week, a move that went against accepted wisdom about project management not being swapped out before they finished the job.

The pair had sought to beat improbable odds by adopting agile software development methods, an approach favoured by the Cabinet Office, which is overseeing Universal Credit, and the Institute for Government. But its methods were unproven and compromised.

Dover defended the project's agile credentials and insisted it would never have got as far as it has without them.

Agile

"It is as agile as it absolutely can be. In fact it's taken agile further than anything has ever taken it before. And its not just the IT. It's about the programme. It's about the business and the IT.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's more truly agile than many things are out there that are purporting to be so," he said.

There were however other indications that the DWP had been forced to take drastic steps to keep the programme on track.

A source close to the project said Dover and Whitehouse had been shunted off in a hurry. The department was replanning the whole thing. Press reports claimed it was going over-budget and over-schedule. If it was going awry, would it be because it wasn't agile enough or because agile wasn't enough?

Agile developers who had been working on the project proved hard to pin down. The source claimed Universal Credit had run foul of the former possibility: it wasn't agile enough.

"You are trying to put a whole system in, in one term of parliament, aren't you? It's impossible to do a big system like this in one term of parliament. And it's not an agile approach. If you go two and a half years without delivering anything, that is not agile.

"Agile is supposed to deliver things incrementally. That is the point. It doesn't matter what sort of magic you've got internally. If you don't deliver incrementally, it's not agile," said the source.

Worse, he said, Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, had been kept in the dark about how poorly the project was running.

He compared the secretary to an emperor and the DWP IT department as his tailor. The tailor tells the emperor his new suit was sharp, but as soon as he takes it out on parade it starts to unravel.

But the source was short on detail. He didn't know why the Universal Credit directors had been discharged. He didn't know why the project was being replanned. He didn't know what was being rethought. The project was nigh-on impossible, he insisted. Nobody had the guts to tell the minister that it was going to take two terms of parliament.

The DWP press office said it had made no decisions yet about Dover and Whitehouse's future roles. Whitehouse's phone has been off. The department insisted the project was still on track to meet its deadline for rollout beginning in October 2013.

Soldiers nail data for agile offensive on $6bn cock-up

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afghanistan-graveyard-of-empires.jpgThe US Army has started pinning wayward data down to prevent a new payroll system joining a gargantuan pile up of military IT disasters.

The effort is part of an emergency reform of IT projects using agile methods, on orders issued by the Department Defense last year after 11 major computer systems went $6bn over budget and 31 years behind schedule.

The US Army applied the DoD's 'agile' systems development methods to its Integrated Personnel and Pay System (IPPS), to prevent it becoming another failed military IT venture. Due to handle $68bn in pay to more than one million soldiers by 2017, the system has been put on a White House list of most risky IT systems and is being rolled out in cautious increments.

"For this approach to work, the first increment is focused on the creation of authoritative data," a US Army spokeswoman told Computer Weekly.

"Subsequent increments will field applications utilising the authoritative data," she said.

Auditors had blamed data problems for wrecking the US military's ambitious plan to rip out pay and logistics systems and replace them with all-encompassing Enterprise Resource Planning systems by vendors such as Oracle and SAP. But with hundreds of different systems being merged, nobody had ensured their data would be compatible.

The Army spokeswoman said it had adopted the agile approach spelled out in the DoD's Business Capability Lifecycle, an emergency measure it published last year to reform systems procurement and development. The BCL insisted software developers should work closely with users to define their requirements. These would be prioritised and reviewed, and developed in increments that were approved formally.

"No system within the Army better exemplifies this approach than the Integrated Pay and Personnel System," said the spokeswoman.

The IPPS system was started in 2010 as a clean slate on another spoiled clean slate. It replaced the DoD's previous attempt at an ERP pay system, the Defense Integrated Military Human Resource System, after 12 years work that had cost $1bn. HR system Contractor Northrup Grumman, the fifth largest US defence contractor, was kept on to develop IPPS.

The forces are anticipating more reforms this Autumn when Elizabeth McGrath, DoD's deputy chief management officer, is expected to issue a more refined set of agile orders. Other troublesome projects have already been disciplined.

Supplier Computer Sciences Corporation finished the US Army's 1999 Logistics Modernization Programme last year, six years behind schedule.

LMP went on the record as being done on budget after the Army accepted an offer on a $2bn compensation claim it had against the supplier. After seven years of contract arbitration in which CSC filed $861m of counter claims against the Army, CSC settled the matter with a $269m payment last year. The settlement also cleared another $1.2bn of outstanding contract complaints, said the Army spokeswoman.

McGrath defended the DoD's efforts to resolve its data problems at a US Senate committee hearing about the ERP failures in April.

"In terms of passing the data from the legacy environment into the ERP, we do not have standard data across the enterprise, and so it becomes evident in the implementations," she told the Armed Services Committee.

"It requires just to bring forward all of the legacy practices and change them so that when we are implementing these ERPs, we do have a holistic approach to the data and the systems," said McGrath.

Senator Claire McCaskill, committee chairman, said the common problem for all these problematic systems had been "data standardisation and interface".

Robert Work, chief management officer of the US Navy, told the committee it was developing data standards to allow it to aggregate information from all its information systems after being pulled up to explain its own IT disasters.

He said the Navy had finally deployed its troublesome Marine Corps Global Combat Support System after over-running by $808m and three years. It's ERP upgrades would all be complete by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, he said. They were already serving 66,000 of 71,000 target users, while the Navy had shut down 55 of 96 systems scheduled for scrap by 2016.

US military issues agile and open standards orders after ERP disasters

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US Marine Camel.pngThe world's most muscular military machine is still operating on creaky old computer systems after a decade of modernisation by systems integrators and ERP software suppliers whose problematic implementations have gone $7bn over-budget.

It is nearly 10 years since US military divisions followed the millennial trend in public computing by pooling their purchasing and embarking on the ambitious, clean-slate replacement of hundreds of business systems with all-encompassing Enterprise Resource planning software.

Then they followed the ERP trend of going years over-schedule and billions of dollars over-budget.

Now the Department of Defence claims it is going agile, adopting open standards and embracing the semantic web.

But the millennial ERP projects are still unfinished, racking up enterprise-scale costs, and leaving US military logistics short of the "global" potency imagined in polices and contracts draughted in the years it invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US Air Force responded to further questions about its software troubles last week by confessing it is cutting its losses on ERP project that by October 2010 was 4 years and £2.2bn over-budget.

"Agile...open"

In testimony before the Armed Services Committee of the US House of Representatives last Thursday, Elizabeth McGrath, deputy chief management officer at the Department of Defence, said the next phase of its efforts to modernize computer systems supporting military operations would be agile.

"Through the next release of the [Business Enterprise Architecture], we will apply open standards and protocols to architecture development, leveraging Semantic web technologies, common business process modelling approaches, and agile development methodologies," said McGrath's testimony.

"To implement these new approaches, I recently directed the Department to use these specified standards, and the end-to-end process framework, in the development of both the BEA and all subordinate Enterprise and solution architectures," she said.

With unfinished ERP projects having not delivered what they promised, the US Department of Defence is still voicing the same ambitions as when launching its IT modernisation programmes in 2002 and 2003, saying it wants to modernize its computer systems to be more flexible, cost effective and powerful instruments of organisation.

Budgetary pressures have now compounded the military's ERP problems. The armed forces have been ordered by statute to adopt private sector accounting practices by 2017 so they can get a tighter grip on spending.

But they are having to pay for the upkeep of old systems that must be kept to make up for the failures of their ERP replacements. The combined US military ERP effort is twelve years behind schedule and $6.9bn over-budget, according to the Government Accountability Office.

David Tillotson - US Air Force.pngAir Forced to rethink

David Tillotson, deputy chief management officer of the US Air Force told the Committee development and implementation its Expeditionary Combat Support System, envisaged in 2002, begun in 2004 and contracted in 2006, had "lagged."

"The Department is now engaged in strategic reassessment of the overall program," he said. This would focus on "audit readiness..and genuine return on investment".

"Alternatives under consideration include building on the current ERP software, leveraging other service/Defense Agency solutions, and/or modifying legacy capability," said Tillotson in written testimony.

Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) took the offending project on in 2004 for an agreed $378m. This was tacked on to an existing $250m contract it was given under the 2002 Enterprise Software Initiative (ESI), which instigated the DOD's ERP push.

Asif Khan, director of financial management at the GAO, told the Committee that 6 of 10 major military ERP projects had run into trouble.

"DOD's ERP implementation has been impaired by delays, cost increases, failures in delivering the necessary functionality, and a lack of compliance with required standards.

"Delays in implementation have extended the use of existing duplicative, stovepiped systems, and the need to fund them," said Khan.

Smoking gun

Problematic projects included the Army's $2.6bn Logistics Modernization Program, for which CSC was awarded a 10-year, $680m contract in 1999. Scheduled for delivery in 2005, it's final roll-out occurred six year's behind schedule this year. GAO said Army was experiencing problems with the software, having to produce work-arounds for missing functionality.

The US Marine Corps' Global Combat Support System, initiated in 2003 and initiatally designed by Accenture in 2005, was now three-years behind schedule and $808m over budget, said the GAO last year. Accenture was at pains to stress it has not worked on the project since 2006 

Accenture was also given a $79m contract in 2006 to produce the US Air Force Defense Enterprise Accounting and Management System. The project went nearly a billion dollars over budget and is not scheduled for delivery until 2017, three years late.

The Army had meanwhile agreed to pay Accenture $537m in 2005 to implement a General Fund Enterprise Business System. Rollout was ongoing and DOD expected it to be completed next year, only one year late. But GAO said it had not delivered Army accounting staff functionality they expected. It was creating a backlog of work and staff were having to input two-thirds of invoices manually because of interface problems.

The Navy was also two years behind schedule and $530m over-budget with a SAP ERP implementation. Personnel and Pay Systems were 12-years behind schedule across the military.

The projects were of immense proportions, seeking to replace at least 500 systems built up to 40 years ago, serving at least 450,000 users in more than 800 locations, and relying on around 400 systems interfaces. The problems were related to systems interfaces, data management and project management.

The limits of Agile: Emergn CEO on Universal Credit

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The Department of Work and Pensions set out in January to achieve the seemingly unachievable: develop a £2bn Universal Credit system in two years. An Agile software development methodology would make it possible, said the DWP. But its Agile credentials are questionable.

Computer Weekly was fortunate then to meet Alex Adamopoulos, CEO of Emergn, the firm of management consultants brought in to sprinkle Agile fairy dust over the DWP, and ask him about this miracle cure.

DWP is learning how to do Agile as it goes along, he tells Computer Weekly.

The learning process - the "transformation" in Agile-speak - will take as long as the project. Adamopoulos insists this is manageable.

"When you are doing transformation - when you are running a change programme at the same time as running a project - it's part of the process," he says.

Doing all this in time for Universal Credit's April and October 2013 deadlines is what Adamopoulos calls a "fair and aggressive time-line". He's confident the job can be done and Agile will do it.

Consider that in respect of the nitty-gritty job DWP is trying to do and it sounds like a high-stakes game of Scrapheap Challenge.

It has just 18 months left to integrate its vast estate of antique computer systems into a modern whole capable of handling £74bn budget and 6m people.

Scrapheap Challenge.pngNo Agile project has been as big, as ambitious and as public. But it's already looking hairy.

The department said in June the large systems integrators that dominate government IT were not up to the job, echoing the government's line on the causes of public computer bodges. It would rely on SMEs to do the Agile work on universal credit.

Empty promises

It then gave Universal Credit to the usual suspects. Accenture, BT, HP and IBM have been confirmed as lead suppliers to the programme.

DWP meanwhile refuses to say precisely which companies have been employed to do what work for what money under what contracts. It won't even confirm the names of those employed.

It will say only that it is using existing contracts to do the work. It has not updated public records with details of those contracts it has awarded.

A DWP spokeswoman said this week it would be improper to discuss those contracts it has signed because there are other contracts it is still negotiating. CW put it to her that this was nonsense. That was four days ago. It took seven days to get that far.

This is 18 months after the Prime Minister made a song and dance about transparency in contracting after the coalition was elected in 2010.

The Agile-in-government brigade also makes a fuss about contracts. Adamopolous makes a fuss about contracts too.

The government supply chain is "broken", he says. Suppliers became more interested in satisfying their contracts than their customers, he says.

Conventional IT contracts are said to stymie Agile projects. Emergn solved the problem by working with Gallen Alliance lawyer Susan Atkinson to design an Agile addendum the DWP tacked on the end of the contracts it has with Universal Credit suppliers. They remain unpublished, as do the old contracts we are told are rubbish. We will have to take them at their word that what has come is better than what went before.

Agile vs. Agile

Another problem with the government supply chain, says Adamopolous, is that these large integrators all have their own methodologies.

"They come to you prepared to sell their solution. When you come to another supplier, they have a different approach. There's no continuity," he says.

The idea is that suppliers use their different methodologies as a competitive instrument, much as software suppliers use proprietary standards to stake a market as their own.

Adamopolous accuses systems integrators of "bad behaviour". They use their time in a customer account as a "land-grab". They're too busy competing with one another when they are supposed to be serving their customer's interests.

This is not the case with Universal Credit, he says. Emergn solved the problem of competing methodologies by imposing its own trademarked methodology on Universal Credit suppliers instead. The Major Projects Authority, a Cabinet Office and Treasury auditing team, commended this, as though it was any better.

Universal Credit Starting Gate Review.pngBut the DWP didn't really know Agile. The MPA said it had been trained to do the "interpretation" of Agile favoured by Accenture, its lead developer.

This was a  "slightly less 'lean' version" of Agile than something or other it did not specify in the report (which we publish exclusively here).

Agile is a 10-year old systems development methodology. It's been combined with similarly adaptable business process disciplines to produce an amorphous methodology for tending an amorphous reality in the wider business world.

How could either the DWP or the MPA declare confidence in it or the Universal Credit project when they can't even pin a tail on it?

Agile-like

Emergn's own version of Agile, by Adamopolous's admission, isn't really Agile.

"It's a combination of lean, Agile, design thinking and systems thinking," he says. "We've taken products from each to develop our own way of working."

This is what Emergn has applied to DWP and its suppliers. And that's important because, he says: "Agile might not be the answer for the problem they are trying to solve."

The Institute for Government gave a similar view at the Agile Business 2011 Conference in London last week. It draughted its own Agile principles after extensive interviews with proponents of lean and systems thinking.

IfG researcher Jerrett Myers held a talk about progress made since the IfG published the influential System Error report he co-authored in March, and which advocated Agile.

The only progress of note came three weeks later when the Cabinet Office adopted the IfG's Agile recommendations in its ICT Strategy, telling all government departments they should get at least one Agile project on the go, and establishing DWP as Agile lead for government.

The biggest lesson had been the identification of a significant challenge: that two-thirds of all government IT is outsourced, under inadequate contracts (and to the same suppliers).

"The message from all of this is that Agile can be very difficult to run in a large organisation and it can take some time," Myers said last week.

The MPA had already concluded in reference to Universal Credit, Agile was "unproven at this scale and within government".

Computer Weekly reported these findings. Adamopolous is very unhappy about it.

"I don't think its unproven," he says. "I think it is proven. It depends how you define scale."

Unproven

But he can't cite any examples of Agile projects as large or as complex as Universal Credit, especially in UK government. He resists citing his own large customers, which include the BA project used repeatedly as the example for Universal Credit.

The Agile community has a lot to prove. It seems sensitive, perhaps nervous about its ability to wrest control of large, complex projects from the hands of ignorant bureaucrats and placing it in the hands of engineers and users in the real world. It must be the way we build 21st Century infrastructure projects: complex, adaptable, devolved, modular. We're almost there. Don't spoil it now.

A lot's riding on Universal Credit. Adamopolous insists the £2bn project is Agile.

"Its very Agile, from the vision statement, to the stakeholder buy-in, from the acceptance from the managers and the teams, and from the suppliers' perspective.

"It is an Agile transformation programme. Universal Credit is as Agile as they come," he says.

That appears to mean it will by its Agile nature adapt to its antagile parameters, which are many: the need, as Adamopolous puts it, to spread the Agile way "downstream" from those core managers and teams who have been "transformed" thus far; its reliance on HMRC's conventionally-run Real-Time Information project; the need to squeeze mammoth requirements into a mouse-run time-scale; to accommodate contracts the DWP already has with those oligopolistic suppliers who were supposed to have become disfavoured in UK.gov.

Collusion

It means these large suppliers, who have been accused casually of anti-competitive collusion, are now being officially encouraged to collaborate.

Adamopolous emphasises the importance of collaboration for this and all Agile projects. He is proud of the extent to which suppliers are collaborating together over Universal Credit. The Agile way involves teamwork.

"We have a collaborative supply base on the ground," he says. "That's a unique selling point. Because you usually have a competitive environment. When you're in an account and you have suppliers on the ground, they compete for more business.

"But what's nice about this particular arrangement is the collaboration of the suppliers to do what's right for the customer. That's a huge point because it's not what you would traditionally expect."

Adamopolous is uncomfortable being asked about the line between collaboration and collusion. He doesn't believe allowing Universal Credit's large suppliers to be matey might cause any problems. The interview becomes tetchy.

We meet the day Steve Jobs dies. Fortune magazine columnist Philip Elmer-DeWitt had told the Radio 4 Today programme how Jobs had stopped living in a hippy commune when one night he slept under the kitchen table and "watched everybody sneak in and steal food from the refrigerator".

Collaboration

Adamopolous says its right to be cynical but customers are demanding their suppliers collaborate more.

"The collaboration isn't cosy," he says. "It's not like we are all hanging out together and acting like one big company.

"There is a spirit of doing what's right for the customer. That is an Agile principle. It's people over process...

Alex Adamopolous - CEO - Emergn.png"...And transparency," he says genuinely, though after a prompt from his public relations assistant.

"The main goal now is to work for the common good," he adds.

But there appears to be no more transparency in Universal Credit than there was under any public or private sector IT project that went before.

Adamopolous refuses to say how much Emergn is getting paid for its work on Universal Credit or to discuss his contract. Emergn's a private company, he says. Private companies don't have to discuss what they do, he says. He won't even say what Emergn's turnover is or how many employees it has.

The common good is as amorphous a concept as Agile. Thus transparency in Universal Credit appears to extend only as far as it is convenient for those handling its £2bn budget. It lacks even as much transparency as would be necessary to encourage competition. It falls well short of the ideal punted by the coalition government and the proponents of Agile with all their matey thumbs-up talk of collaboration.

It is indeed unclear how, without transparency, collaboration over £2bn of public money could become anything other than collusion.

The Agile way is commendable on the face of it. Its emphasis on devolved decision-making and team work are intuitively better than disempowered working methods designed for manufacturing production lines of an earlier age.

Industry is learning that complex tools like software can solve complex problems in more intimate harmony with the outside world only if they are operated by workers empowered to think for themselves.

Unemployed.pngBut as ever with systems built to support high-stakes political gambits like the coalition government's benefits reform programme, the fear of reputational failure is greater than the risk of project failure.

Politics too has yet to get Agile. Power is not as adaptable as it would have its tools be. The concomitant lack of transparency has been characteristic of past IT bodges. There are yet only vague reasons why it won't happen again.

Agile in the NHS: 10 years, £5bn and still not finished

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Dick Dastardly.png
When the Department for Health signed £5bn of contracts for care records systems in 2003, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Mental Health Trust (OBMH) already had one.

But OBMH was forced to swallow the system under the extortionate National Programme for IT (NHSIT) anyway, even though it would cost way in excess of twelve times what OBMH already paid for a perfectly functional patient system, and even though, seven years since NHSIT was conceived, the software still wasn't up to the job.

This must be what passes for agile development in the NHS: £5bn, 10 years and still not finished.

If you want to know why the Public Accounts Committee thinks NHSIT is an expensive failure, this is a prime example. OBMH bought the NHSIT software because that was the only way to avoid a £9m fine being levied on Trusts that didn't get with the programme.

The numbers are unbelievable, even without the extortion. OBMH had been paying an IT SME called Maracis £60,000 for ongoing support and development of its "enviable" PCIS care records system, which OBMH already owned under a perpetual licence that only cost £250,000. In comparison, NHSIT had arranged to pay BT £9m for each Trust it supplied under the programme.

The Trust expects the RiO system to cost in excess of £350,000-a-year when the NHSIT contract runs out in 2010 - and that's just for starters. Development costs will go on top. Then there's the cost OBMH expects to incur from buying in other systems to fill in the gaps left by RiO's poor functionality.

It sounds like too much for any cash-strapped NHS trust to swallow, and it's a wonder BT managed to persuade anyone to use its care records system. But lets not forget the extortion. OBMH's Business Case for using BT RiO said the chief reason was indeed the £8.8m fine it would be forced to pay if it tried to use an alternative - even if that alternative was the Maracis system it was already using when BT RiO and NHSIT were but a twinkle in some bozo's eye.

Farce

In the 12 years OBMH used PCIS, the system "served the Trust well", said the report. It put OBMH in the "enviable position" of already having a comprehensive records system. The Trust was nevertheless forced to conclude (after using it for 12 years) that PCIS wouldn't meet its strategic objectives in the long term because there was no longer a market for non-NHSIT records systems in the NHS.

No matter that Maracis had already "significantly" developed the system over the years since it first installed it at OBMH in 1998, four years before NHSIT even got started.

And what a farce it turned out to be. After NHSIT got started in 2002, OBMH was told to ditch a regional care records system it had already been working on with other Trusts. Just as well the Trust had carried on with PCIS because it had meanwhile supported new implementations of implemented document management, an integrated electronic health record and clinical management information - all while NHSIT was still trying to get started.

NHSIT originally planned to force Trusts in the Southern Cluster to accept the IDX CareCast records system on subcontract from Fujitsu, which then held the calamitous Local Service Provider Contract for the South. But IDX was shown the door in 2004, leaving NHSIT up the creek without a paddle. OBMH was meanwhile getting on just dandy with PCIS on mobile devices - being possibly the first trust to have electronic care records available to its community workers.

NHSIT meanwhile tried to clear up the mess it had created with IDX. It tried replacing it with Cerner Millennium, a system so so poorly suited for Mental Health Trusts that OBMH had to muck in on a programme to get it fit for purpose. But it was so rubbish they had to ditch that too. PCIS was meanwhile still going strong.

OBMH's ongoing use of PCIS was making a mockery of NHSIT. It not only had a working care records system, but it was being continuously developed as well - and for mere tens of thousands of pounds. It implemented support for the Care Programme Approach to mental health, an outpatient project, a patient transfer project, an outreach data project, and a Child and Adolescent Mental Health data project.

In the wake of Fujitsu resigning from the programme, Some Mental Health Trusts had meanwhile taken a look at the iSoft Lorenzo application. But Lorenzo's delays and financial problems scared them off. Then in 2009 BT bought up the remnants of Fujitsu's contract and trusts were lumped with RiO.

OBMH was still making great strides with PCIS. It automated document loading, implemented another child and maternity records system, a notes system and an archive project.

And then came crunch time. The Trust was told that if didn't ditch its trusty PCIS and install RiO the South Cental Strategic Health Authority would extract an £8.8m fine. Suddenly, the £90,000 a year it was paying for ongoing development of a system that was already and ever being made fit for purpose was nearly a £1m a year over 10 years. Who clocked the bonus for that one?

Thought experiment

To appreciate how absurd this situation is, contemplate spending £5bn on a patient administration system.

Remember that industry analysts used to justify the high cost of these systems by saying BT ought to be paid a decent rate for a decent job. Now try this thought experiment. Imagine installing Maracis everywhere (disregarding for now that this would be as absurd as installing RiO everywhere). The first time costs of Maracis are, according to the firm, £250,000 for a single Trust and £60,000-a-year for ongoing support and development. (£70,000-a-year if you throw in bespoke development).

Lets say for the sake of argument the 392 Acute, Mental, Community and Ambulance Trusts originally set to be supplied under NHSIT all bought Maracis and were all charged the same rate. Lets also assume (for the sake of argument because Maracis doesn't do a GP version) the 5,643 GP practices originally set to be supplied under the £5bn NHSIT programme all bought Maracis as well, and they paid an average (across practices from 1 to 10s of GPs in size) £40,000 for install and then £8,000-a-year. The total cost of the Maracis NHSIT contract would be £1bn. That's one-fifth of the cost. Even if you add £100m for large-scale extras and throw in another £100m for fat cat salaries and wide boy pensions, that's still only £1.2bn.

A more realistic comparison can be made if we were to imagine either BT or Maracis getting a contract to supply all 80 UK Mental Health Trusts. At the rate each of them established at OBMH, it would cost £720m under BT and £76m under Maracis.

This is clearly absurd. Just where has all the money been going?

UK shakes dust off open source policy

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Liam Maxwell jazz hands.pngIf it looked like UK open source policy, just recently exhumed, had already been swept back under the same carpet it has been kept under since it was first launched two and a half years ago, the announcement yesterday that Liam Maxwell had acquired responsibility for it with a Cabinet Office portfolio did surprisingly little to improve its mien.

It is then just as well Cabinet Office is about to announce long-overdue progress in its cause of creating a level-playing field for open source software. Because the new appointment will need all the help he can get.

No matter that Maxwell is head of IT and has taught at Eton, the toff school that groomed Prime Minister David Cameron for power. Whoopee-do that he wrote Tory Tech Policy and the open source strategy now being executed by the Cabinet Office. Yawn, 'scuse me, but it is of little significance that he did all this simultaneously and even as he held the ICT portfolio at Windsor & Maidenhead Borough Council, where he waved a shitty stick at Microsoft and championed open standards. He might appear like superman. But you'd have to think twice about it since he agreed to take this Cabinet Office job.

Because Maxwell's only going to be Cabinet Office Director of ICT Futures for 11 months. It was a full time job. Yet he's taken it on secondment with no explanation. As one interested observer put it, that gives him about a 0.00001 per cent chance of getting anything done.

Think about it, said this observer. He turns up at his allotted desk on 1 September. He learns where the toilets are and that sort of thing. That will take him till December. He'll then produce a report and call some meetings. But what will Sir Humphrey and all the other old goats in the civil service make of him?

"These are hardened civil servants who wait for ministers to go by, and for governments to change," said said observer. If they know he's only going to be there for 11 months, will they deign to jump when he says so?

Then Maxwell is said to be in possession of intelligence that the same attitude has been adopted by the Boo Hissstems Integrators who control the public sector ICT oligopoly.

Maxwell's assigned team have already been asking nicely would the integrators please do more open source software, on which they could less likely fleece government with oligopoly rents. Maxwell is said to be in possession of a report in which a Boo Hissstems integrator says, don't worry about all this open source lark, it'll blow over: just hang tight till this lot get voted out of government.

Some fringe elements in the civil service may have acquired outlandish ideas about getting things done since they started entertaining members of the Agile systems development cult, but they've got to be wearing some pretty loud disco trousers if they think Maxwell will get their agenda pushed through in just 11 months.

On top of open source he's been charged with making government the sort of place that gets things done. He might do that first. Then he's been asked to implement open standards policy, which was recently cut back, reform procurement for the sake of SMEs, and advise on using new technology.

A catty observer might ask why a man of Maxwell's talents wasn't given a permanent job. But the clue might be in the title. A "director of ICT futures", is like any futurologist, the sort of chap you put in a dicky bow and roll out to do slots on the radio about kerrazy ideas like floating cars and open source software. Mickey Mouse likes to wear a dicky bow. Maxwell, who's been seconded by Eton, might want to get back to some proper work when he's finished doing jazz hands for open source.

Non-job

The appointment took a vaudeville turn when Cabinet Office announced it yesterday. It had been talking to Maxwell about taking the "director of ICT futures" post since January. Ian Watmore was said to be keen on him. Tory Tech command was practically his brain child anyway. But there was some debate about whether he "could or should take the job", said someone close to the negotiations. It was a matter of some "delicacy" which remains unexplained.

Cabinet Office initially announced he had been appointed "Director of ICT Futures". Then said he wasn't actually going in at director level after all. He was going to be a non-permanent advisor though the job description was precisely the same as the one it had advertised for "Director of ICT Futures".

Whatever his title, many of those SMEs now in his care will be wondering if the Eton boy wonder's temp contract will be handled by Boo-Hissstems integrator Capita like all the other temp contracts it recently took from SMEs with Cabinet Office permission.

Chin job

The Cabinet Office has meanwhile managed after six months of work behind the scenes to establish another talking shop for its ICT policy. The long-promised open source advisory panel will have its articles of incorporation signed off Wednesday.

Computer Weekly was told the wet-ink proposal involves the production of a web site in which government departments can seek advice from "the community" on the acquisition of open source software.

The arrangements were made by the Public Sector Group of industry lobby Open Forum Europe, which in December (some two years after it formed) scored its first significant success by recruiting Cabinet Office operator Qamar Yunus as joint chair. It's membership is notable for its absence of big hitters from the heffing departments of state DWP, HMRC and MOD.

There are also unconfirmed reports Cabinet Office is about to produce the final open source reference stack (a list of approved open source software) on which it first sought advice from "the community" back in February. Verily, at this pace of change old Liam Maxwell could be in and out the Cabinet Office with such agility no one even notices he was there.

Computacenter row threatens blockhead end for open source in Bristol

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IT giant Computacenter has raised the prospect of legal action against a small open source supplier for complaining to Parliament about its "Microsoft bias".

The veiled threat followed a letter sent to MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), in which Mark Taylor, chief executive officer of Sirius, described a project involving Computacenter he said exemplified the the government's declamation of large IT suppliers: that they dominated the market and crowded out competiton.

Computacenter stated on learning of the letter it was seeking "advice" because it was "potentially libellous". It now says making such a statement did not in itself constitute a threat.

That depends on your perspective. Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius, which with a £2.3m turnover is about one-thousandth Computacenter's size, was scared stiff when he heard about this. Yet if Computacenter did sue him for being a whistle-blower, it may prove his point.

The Parliamentary committee to which Taylor sent his letter is exploring allegations that companies like Computacenter abuse their market power by punishing small suppliers when they don't keep in line.

The big IT suppliers are so powerful, it is said, they control the vast majority of public sector IT, which is done in their commercial interest. That may count as quid pro quo from supplier's perspective. But when that supplier is part of an oligopoly servicing a monopoly, it is a little unfortunate for anything trying to breathe outside that comfortable little world that has become known as government IT.

This must be most upsetting from Computacenter's point of view too. It has a certain Blue-chip reputation it must present to its customers. Anyone trying to daub the façade with graffiti must be firmly stamped on.

Computacenter has declined to say what offence it has taken with Taylor's letter. It is seriously perturbed, however, at being identified as one of the boo-hissstems integrators that are said to treat SMEs so poorly.

The multitude of winds that have whipped up the current bout of government IT reviews and inquiries (in the name of SMEs, agile, procurement reform, open software, open standards and open markets) threaten an existential crisis for the large suppliers.

Microsoft bias?

Wintel laptop.jpegTake for example the question of whether Computacenter has a Microsoft bias. It's like asking if the Pope is a Catholic.

Computacenter built its business selling "Wintel" computers and infrastructure. When it made 30 employees millionaires overnight on the occasion of its 1998 flotation (link: sic), it was thanks to the Wintel computing boom. It has branched out a little over the years: it now does services too: though mostly on farms of Wintel computers for big corporations. And while it has its customers' interests at heart, it is essentially like a great, huffing bull with Microsoft branded on its balls.

Computacenter's boom years were the late 90s when the corporate mantra was economies of scale. Customers got the economies of its scale by buying thousands of Microsoft computers. Now the market has gone sour and the typical contract has become so large that only Microsoft suppliers can satisfy them because only they are large enough.

Sirius discovered this after writing Bristol City Council's ICT strategy this time last year. Bristol was down with its open source angle and adopted its recommendations. Sirius then couldn't pitch for the work because it wasn't on the official procurement lists. It went in with Computacenter but was shown the door, said Taylor's letter to MPs, when he protested over the Microsoft bias CC had put in Bristol's proof-of-concept open source pilot.

It would be a terrible irony if the project failed because Bristol had no choice but to ask a Microsoft reseller to demonstrate how an alternative to a proprietary infrastructure might be feasible. It would also be shameful for Bristol, a City that that has made the Zeitgeist its identity: multicultural, ecological, collaborative, egalitarian, open. That's what people from Bristol say about their own City. So if not Bristol then where?

If Computacenter's pilot finds against open source, more than seven years of work at Bristol would have been for nothing. Bristol's entire infrastructure would be based on infantilising proprietary technology and its vision of being a Digital City regenerated by a small army of creatives up to their arms in collaborative computer code would be somewhat obscured.

To understand how awful that would be, imagine Bristol's vision being one of municipal authority as bountiful Big Society fount, its computer systems built open and spread like nourishing tributaries throughout the City. Or imagine, conversely, great multinational corporations sat atop the globe like gluttonous octopuses, their proprietary software systems sucking the life and inspiration from the computing generation.

You might detect a little bias there. It's merely one point of view, though one Computacenter is unlikely to plaster over mail outs funded by its next injection of Microsoft marketing development money.

Corporate image

That doesn't mean Computacenter can't get with the programme. But Microsoft and its reseller Computacenter, the model of the noughties corporation, represent the antithesis of the Bristol zeitgeist: monocultural, rapacious, tight-lipped, dog-eat-dog, proprietary.

Granted, Computacenter looks fairly enlightened when viewed from within the retarded world of the City of London. In its last financial results, Computacenter chairman Greg Lock proudly declaimed how the corporation had achieved enlightenment: it had adopted the UK Corpote Governance Code, "not simply because we must do so, but rather because it is the right thing to do."

And bravo. Don't worry that the Code's key principles read like the listing for the soundtrack of Thatcher's Britain: "Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability, Remuneration, Relations with Shareholders".

If a corporation is an organism and the board of directors its brains, the Code is comparable to one of the first great periods of human enlightenment, when prehistoric man first started organising into paternalistic clans governed by power tempered with honour.

It is progress a little in advance of that earlier enlightenment when pre-prehistoric man learned to adulate the heavens. Ug. Heavens: glorious. Me: glorious. You: cower, worm, before my competitive mastery. Though its morality is essentially tribal.

This may explain why Taylor this week accepted a post on an SME board being established by the Cabinet Office to help them tackle the problems they are too scared to air in public. There might be safety under the shadow of reforming minister Francis Maude.

Since Taylor was one of the key players behind both the coalition government's and Bristol's ICT strategies, you would imagine him wily enough to deal with a lumbering corporation like Computacenter on his own. That is assuming Computacenter's Microsoft bias has indeed scuppered Bristol's open source pilot. Both Bristol and Computacenter say the game's not over. Taylor says Computacenter elbowed him out and submitted assessments that had been fixed to favour Microsoft.

After slogging away for 30 years by the rule of Mammon, Computacenter may have just lumbered innocently into the midst of a political thorn bush. It might now look up and see how much is riding on Bristol's pilot. It's failure will mark the failure not just of Bristol's ICT strategy but of Maude's and Taylors.

Computacenter would do well to back up and consider while licking its wounds how the idea of software freedom has taken hold in mainstream politics. If it does anything else it will end up looking like the ignorant box shifter it has long tried so hard not to be. Why not give Bristol what it wants?

NHS IT system condemned

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NHS Surgery.pngIn a jaw-dropping condemnation of the NHS National Programme for IT, the National Audit Office has exposed a white elephant in the final stages of collapse.

In what read as a final pronouncement, the NAO reported that after nine years and £2.7bn, the NHS has failed to deliver its primary aim of an electronic care record for everyone in the country.

The situation looks so dire the system might continue leeching money from the NHS for another decade if the whole scheme and all its software is not seized by state liquidators.

The NAO was confident DoH had saved the day. But it had done so by turning the systems architecture on its head. The National Programme had been all but abandoned. The NAO all but called time on it once and for all.

"There is a compelling case for the recently announced Whitehall-wide review to re-evaluate the business case for the Programme to determine what should happen now to safeguard against further loss to public value," said the NAO's Update report on the NHS IT Programme's care records systems, published today.

Yet the NAO couldn't simply move on. It was being held back by its multi-billion pound contractual obligations to failed suppliers BT and CSC.

Suppliers

Ian Watmore, the Cabinet Office head of government IT, told the Public Accounts Committee Monday the oligopoly of suppliers was to blame for the mess in government ICT. But the government couldn't simply ditch their contracts when it was so hard to prove where the bucked stopped in a court of law.

So, the NAO reported, DoH had commitment to honour its existing contracts for the failed delivery with BT and CSC. The total, with implementation and delivery fees, would cost another £4.3bn to 2016.

Might suppliers do the honourable thing now and resign, apologize, and hand what software they had over to the public?

DoH had abandoned the original scheme's aim of storing all NHS information in a single system spanning thousands of separate NHS organisations. It had effectively scrapped the system. It had opted instead for one set of rules so that disparate systems could share what information they had. This proposal was on the drawing board when the DoH first embarked on the scheme in 2003.

Oh dear

NAO had a scrappy report card for BT and CSC, who had already been paid billions but failed to deliver systems across the country.

DoH had spent £6.4bn on the entire programme to date. But masses of hospitals, ambulance crews, mental health units, community care teams and doctors surgeries were still waiting for working computer systems.

The Department was trying to handle the system requirements in a more flexible manner, in keeping with the agile mode in systems development. But NAO was pressing it to stick to the original contracted specifications as a measure of success. The new mode was "overly positive" when the cogs of the system were stuck in the mire.

DoH had permitted suppliers to deliver fewer systems without getting a commensurate reduction in price. Costs appeared still to be going up. There was no end of it and matters were only becoming more complicated. The state of the core patient system was enough to induce a mortal gag.

"Although some care records systems are in place, progress against plans has fallen far below expectations and the Department has not delivered care records systems across the NHS, or with anywhere near the completeness of functionality that will enable it to achieve the original aspirations of the Programme," said the NAO report.

Suppliers

"The Department has also significantly reduced the scope of the Programme without a proportionate reduction in costs, and is in negotiations to reduce it further still. So we are seeing a steady reduction in value delivered not matched by a reduction in costs.

"On this basis we conclude that the £2.7 billion spent on care records systems so far does not represent value for money, and we do not find grounds for confidence that the remaining planned spend of £4.3 billion will be different," said the NAO.

Deadlines had been repeatedly missed. When systems had gone in take-up of care records was poor. DoH had compromised its original requirements.

The report painted a most unpleasant picture of CSC, which had delivered care records systems to just four out of 97 hospitals in the North, Midlands and East of England.

The NAO said CSC would likely fail to deliver the rest before its contract runs out in 2016. DoH had been in dispute over its contract with CSC for 18 months, trying to claw back some of the £5bn it had promised the supplier.

DoH had meanwhile been forced into technical modifications of the one-size-fits-all software systems being delivered by the suppliers because they did not fit the slots they were being put in. Costs of these modifications were uncertain, but were £220m to date.

Delivery costs were going up, funding was going down. Additional costs were being incurred by trying to make health systems from outside the Programme compatible with those inferior systems delivered by BT and CSC.

Little was certain. BT and CSC were in such a slough they could not even agree with the Department of Health in numbers submitted to government auditors. NAO had been unable to clarify the discrepancies.

And so on...

On top of that, the NHS was facing reorganisation under the coalition government. The NAO report gave no impression these lumbering suppliers would need anything less than another 15 years after they fulfilled their current obligations to redesign the system to work in the new NHS organisational structure.

"Of the 4,715 NHS organisations in England now expected to receive a new system under the Programme, 3,197 are still outstanding. The current CSC contract alone requires delivery of 3,023 GP systems and over 160 deliveries of Lorenzo by July 2016," it said.

The ongoing saga is an embarrassment for the UK, for tax payers, for the government. Any embarrassment suffered by the scheme's suppliers has been sated by the billions paid to their shareholders, the billions more they are contracted to receive, and the hundreds of millions more still to be allotted in contracts not yet let.

It is an insult to the Cabinet Office Open Source and Software Re-use Action Plan launched in 2009 by then minister Tom Watson and it is an insult to the coalition government's repetition of its aims, both before and after the 2010 general election that brought it to power.

Were Watson and now Maude's plans to get control of public computer software ever feasible when the commercial world has such a death grip on public ICT?

Watson's plans for software re-use dared to imagine a time when public software was public property. Any work suppliers were paid to do would contribute to the public good. And that good would be stored in the form of software on which any agency, or any one from the the wealth of local health systems providers who flourished before this débâcle, could contribute improvements.

The National Programme is in such a state, the government has nothing to lose if it is serious about its Open Source Software and Re-use policy: it could become the first great public open source system.

MPs pooh-pooh happy clappy ICT strategy

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Happy clappy.pngMPs had fun with the government's ICT strategy at yesterday's sitting of the Public Accounts Committee. What was it, a novelty act? Some sort of new-age frippery?

It was "motherhood and apple pie", said PAC chair Margaret Hodge MP. No-one could disagree with anything in it.

But she wasn't satisfied.

"Cabinet Office didn't deliver in the past," she said. "What on earth will be different this time?"

Austin Mitchell, MP for Grimsby, said the strategy exuded good intentions. But it didn't have any heft. There were no baseline numbers and no targets on which it could be measured.

PAC is used to dealing with more substantial fair, and has on occasion got high-gauge ammunition from the National Audit Office, on which it bases its inquiries.

But the NAO report from which this PAC inquiry took its lead - February's ICT Landscape Review - was even less substantial than the Cabinet Office ICT Strategy. It was like an ambiguous coalition statement on ICT transformation for the 21st Century, re-imagined as a Peter & Jane picture book. It wasn't substantially different from the ICT strategy.

Most entertaining of all was NAO's claim that "80 per cent of central government ICT work is undertaken by 18 suppliers."

This battle cry for the coalition ICT strategy was given credence by the NAO report. But the NAO told Computer Weekly it couldn't substantiate the number.

"This statistic was based on an interview with the government," said an NAO spokesman. "It was okayed by the Cabinet Office but we don't have any audited data to back it up. It was a senior level civil servant who has since left the government."

Post-new age age

The stat actually derives from references provided by numerous reports written on the matter in recent years by the likes of Eton's Liam Maxwell, Cambridge University's Mark Thompson, and other alumni of the Cameronian Network for a Post Bureaucratic Age (NPBA), on whose work the Conservative and then coalition ICT strategy was based.

It goes back to 2004 when academics estimated 80 per cent of UK government ICT was delivered by just 5 firms. It was updated in 2009 by estimates supplied by Kable, the research firm founded by William Heath, the NPBA compadre behind Mydex, the ID assurance system favoured by the coalition to fill the hole left by ID cards.

The point, as Cabinet Office chief operating officer Ian Watmore told the Committee yesterday, is that government information on precisely who is doing what with whom for how much is poor. The Cabinet Office major projects authority was getting a grip on it. But it had, since committing to the task in August 2010, still not defined precisely what a major ICT project was.

NAO said it was trying to design a mechanism to benchmark IT spend, and presumably power hierarchies. The Office of Government Commerce, recently subsumed into the Cabinet Office, vowed to address the issue when it was founded in 1999. Ten years later, it was still asking suppliers what government had bought from them.

Post-private outsourcing

There are anyway no detractors to the smash-the-ICT-oligopoly policy. Even the major ICT suppliers have refused to tell Computer Weekly what's wrong with it.

As well they might. Hodge said 65 per cent of government ICT was delivered by the private sector. And 100,000 of 135,000 government ICT professionals were employed by private companies.

"The private sector have been the problem," she said. "We've seen a small oligopoly of providers who have ripped the government off. They've been very expensive, have delivered late and not delivered to specification."

"Your point about the oligopoly is correct," said Watmore, though he was less certain about whether they could be proven liable contractually.

Margaret Hodge.pngInsubstantial as it was, the NAO report had at least catalogued promises government had made to fix the IT problem over the years. Hodge liked the 2001, 2003 and 2008 attempts to employ more SMEs.

Post-gate

Watmore, who was head of ICT strategy for the last Cabinet Office just as he is for this one, reckoned this time was different.

"We are finding a way for SMEs to come in, and not just underneath some of the prime contractors, where they get smothered and we pay double margin," he said. An SME tsar, Stephen Allott, had been appointed.

Something else he had changed were Gateway Reviews, introduced in 2004 as a means of preventing expensive IT failures. They had failed. So we've now got a... what was it called? First Gate? Starting Gate? Pouting Gate?

Whatever it's called, it's been rebranded and stuck in an earlier stage of the systems lifecycle where it is hoped it will prevent "very famous politicians making big commitments", as Watmore put it, or over-selling by ICT suppliers "who will say whatever it takes" to win a £2bn contract.

And so the government would be using Agile methods, training staff, consolidating data centres and so on. It was still ultimately sacking civil servants and relying more on the private sector. The NAO will really have its work cut out when New Labour's ICT oligopoly is disbanded and the collaborative age ushers in its apparently amorphous new clique of SMEs.

Universal Credit possible if politicians don't interfere, says IT chief

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Benefits sign.pngDWP can manage the massive reorganisation of computer systems demanded by Universal Credit as long as politicians don't move the goalposts and over-complicate matters for departmental techies, said a senior departmental techie.

The department has meanwhile concluded after an audit of the shanty town of benefits systems on which it has to build Universal Credit, some of which are genuine antiques, that it must scrap some of them because it would be impossible to adapt them in the time given.

The project, which involves merging six different benefits systems into one in five years, has also thrust DWP into a close partnership with HMRC that will involve building a unified system from components consolidated across their two computing infrastructures.

Steve Riley, IT director at Job Centre Plus, told Computer Weekly the two departments were already working to consolidate their systems into core components to be incorporated into a unified Universal Credit system, under the eye of programme director Terry Moran, former chief executive of pensions.

But an ongoing review of DWP systems was determining whether the strategy would indeed deliver UC and another two major policy reforms the coalition government had requested be implemented simultaneously: replacing disability living allowance with an independent living payment and introducing a single tier pension.

"Our part for the politicians is that if they keep the benefits simple, we can do this," said Riley.

"One of the projects I worked on was pension credit, which was supposed to have been a simplification of pensions. It ended up being more complicated than what we had. So there is a partnership with politicians that they keep it nice and simple as well," he said.

Scrapping VME

Riley described the systems strategy at a recent Inside Government conference, where he said the DWP had concluded that it must scrap some of its oldest computer systems to get the job done.

"What we are building with Universal Credit, we are hoping to re-use a lot of what we've already got. [But] Our big systems are really difficult to change. The testing of them is three or four months alone

Old VME system compressed.png"We've got a large number of outdated, inflexible IT systems - VME systems," he said. "Changes take about 18 months in the lifecycle of a VME application."

"We can't manage it with those VME systems. We will have to replace those with systems that are componentised."

DWP hoped it could extend the consolidation and reuse programme beyond UC, so that it could build its other major reform projects using the same systems components. The matter was being reviewed to see if reuse would allow the systems to be delivered simultaneously.

It was certain, however, that UC would reuse core components consolidated across numerous existing systems.


It was a vast project, but DWP hoped it would be made simpler by delivering it in smaller chunks, in the agile fashion promoted in the Cabinet Office ICT Strategy.

Reform

DWP had bought into a rules engine called OPA it hoped would cut months from the time it would take to systemize the rules for UC.

It had also identified the core activities that would be consolidated from all its existing benefits systems: things like collecting evidence, calculating payments, making payments, maintaining accounts.

Citizens were meanwhile expecting things to be done in an online. Job Centres were no longer like miserable betting shops. But the VME systems were holding back DWP's rejuvenation.

It took 26 weeks to train DWP staffers to use the systems. There were 11 different systems employers used to put information online. It aimed to handle 80 per cent of claims online.

It's new policy was self-service and digital by default as long as it didn't exclude people with accessibility issues. It had cut its use of paper 50 per cent and aimed to automate 75 per cent of its processes. But about 30 per cent of people who relied on the DWP were digitally excluded in one form or another.

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