Unhappy Universal Credit staff point to continuing IT problems

So, what’s really going on with the Universal Credit IT programme?

If you trust journalistic warning bells – and believe the saying that there’s no smoke without fire – then there has to be something seriously wrong.

Let’s look at what we have recently learned.

There is a significant amount of internal strife at the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) over Universal Credit in general – all the more worrying given this is the government’s flagship welfare reform programme.

Last weekend, The Guardian reported on a leaked staff survey that showed civil servants working on the scheme were scathing about its flaws.

Computer Weekly has also seen a copy of that leaked survey and, while it doesn’t mention IT specifically, there are several comments that could be taken to imply serious concerns.

“After 29 years of service this has been the most soul destroying work I have done. I have worked long hours to deliver quality products that now appear to be in the bin,” said one person in the Universal Credit staff survey feedback.

“Why have I worked hard, under huge pressure putting personal life on the back burner so that our work can be now be ignored and totally under-valued?” said another.

A further comment said: “This is the third review in 16 months, no roll-out plans, no confidence in going forward and stakeholders loosing [sic] confidence in our ability to deliver.”

We know that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been called in to help with the project, but according to one employee in the survey, this has not been well received either: “The involvement of GDS and the apparent secrecy around what they’re doing is bad for morale”.

Recently a blogger who regularly writes on Twitter about welfare and benefits issues, made a series of claims – unverified, admittedly – that £300m of IT work on Universal Credit is not fit for purpose and has been scrapped. You can see the series of tweets here.

The DWP remains absolutely tight-lipped on the subject – the secrecy surrounding the project is unprecedented. But the amount of rumour and speculation is almost equally unprecedented, and every journalistic warning bell, from years of experience reporting on government IT disasters, points to problems behind the scenes.

It’s easy to put two and two together and say that it may have been IT staff in the survey expressing their grievance at the fact their work had been scrapped. But in such a secretive atmosphere, there’s no way of knowing for sure if that two and two is making four or five.

Nobody wants to say anything because the implications of failure are enormous. Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has consistently said the IT is on track. The new director general of the Universal Credit programme, Howard Shiplee, told MPs on the work and pensions select committee only last month that categorically there was no substance behind reports of IT problems, but did admit: “We are currently reviewing all that has been built.”

This was despite shadow employment minister Stephen Timms telling Computer Weekly earlier this year that IT contractors working on the project had been told to down tools.

Put simply, if it turns out that £300m has been spent on IT that has been scrapped, or even that there are significant IT issues that are adversely affecting the roll-out, then Duncan Smith will face calls to resign.

When ministers’ jobs are on the line, official Whitehall sources go very quiet.

We know too that the IT project went through a major change in direction midway through. Duncan Smith publicly touted the fact that Universal Credit was using agile development, as the reason it would ensure the avoidance of the sort of major IT problems previously associated with “big bang” type projects.

But we have since learned that agile methods failed, the agile experts that had been approached to help were let go, and the project is back to old-fashioned “waterfall” methods of development.

Even those agile suppliers will not talk about what happened: “I’ve no time to speak. You might be better off speaking to the DWP directly,” said one. Presumably, fear of losing future business is maintaining their role in the pact of silence.

But how much work was completed using agile? And how much of that, if any, is still usable now the driving principles have changed? DWP will not say. In response to Computer Weekly’s questions about the staff survey comments, the department simply sent us this statement:

“Universal Credit is in a new phase following the successful early launch in Greater Manchester and the announcement of how the new benefit will roll out across the country from October. A new management team with clear strategic leadership is in place led by Howard Shiplee – one of the UK’s leading experts in delivering major projects including the Olympic Park. As a part of this, we are working with staff to understand the issues they were facing, just as any responsible employer would.”

There are plenty of words and phrases open to interpretation there:

The project “is in a new phase” – but what happened to all the work from previous phases?

The new management team (recruited after several senior managers left the project) has “clear strategic leadership” – so was there no clear strategic leadership before? The staff survey suggests that was the case: “I’m quite surprised by the near complete absence of anything that looks like strategic leadership in the programme,” said one respondent.

“I have never worked somewhere where decision making was so apparently poor at senior levels and communications from that level was totally non-existent,” said another.

And a third person said: “There is too much dishonesty and no one ever admits to making a mistake.”

There seems little doubt that Shiplee inherited a poorly led programme, with highly demotivated and frustrated staff working on it, and a culture of secrecy and covering up that affected every level of the project.

Staff in the survey were asked to respond to a series of questions, and mark them from one to 10, where 10 was the most satisfied, and one the least. Two of the questions that received the lowest scores were:

“The Universal Credit Programme is a great place to work” – rated at just 4.82 on average; and “I understand the programme vision for Universal Credit and what success looks like (what I’m here to do and how we do it)”, which received an average score of 4.84.

The lowest average score for any question was 4.39, in response to being asked if: “Senior leaders listen to my concerns and act on them”.

Every snippet of information and every new rumour about Universal Credit IT help to paint a picture of a disillusioned team, in a dysfunctional project.

The only thing that is certain is that with a general election less than two years away, new leadership – and the minister ultimately responsible – are running out of time to get Universal Credit on track.

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