The vultures circle over Universal Credit IT

The vultures are circling over the IT behind the government’s Universal Credit (UC) programme.

Computer Weekly has catalogued the gradual drip-feed of concerns and rumours around the highest profile IT project in Whitehall at the moment.

Staff have been removed from the project at the highest level; costs are running over; deliverables appear to be thin on the ground. And now the row is brewing inside the House of Commons as Labour and Coalition politicians make claim and counter claim – the latest being that the key IT contractors have been told to stop work.

We hear lots of other speculation that, if true, would show a programme in chaos – suppliers that have simply not delivered; ultimatums and threats of legal action; despair from those in Whitehall IT who said all along that the approach taken was doomed.

Much of that speculation may be simple gossip – but the fact that people are engaged in such negative whispers shows the dark cloud under which UC is being developed.

You can understand why the government is reticent to admit problems. Universal Credit is a flagship Tory policy that could make or break their General Election hopes in 2015, by which time it is due to be live. Don’t be surprised if political expediency sees those deadlines put back to 2016 as polling day gets closer.

But the IT politics is even more interesting. UC is the project that, so we hear, minister Iain Duncan Smith personally insisted should remain outside the IT reforms being introduced from the Cabinet Office.

While nobody in Whitehall wants another IT disaster, you can bet the IT reformers would not be too disheartened if UC followed that all too familiar route.

And then there is the supplier relations – some of the biggest names, from the “oligopoly” of system integrators who have dominated government IT, are involved. These are the companies the reformers want to see booted out; the ones who still believe Whitehall can’t do IT without them.

If those suppliers, individually or collectively, fail on UC, it would be a crushing blow to their future sales in government. They will not go down without a fight. But there are powerful forces who would love to see them go down nonetheless.

Don’t underestimate just how much is at stake with Universal Credit – the outcome could shape the future of Whitehall IT.

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