There are two things that often signal a major government IT project on the brink of disaster. First, streams of leaks appear suggesting little problems here and rather bigger problems there; and second, the relevant Whitehall press office tells journalists it is not going to provide a “running commentary” on progress. That’s been the story of Universal Credit (UC) for the past couple of weeks.
First, Computer Weekly revealed that several senior executives running the programme had departed. Officially, this is because the project has moved to a “different phase” and requires “different skills sets”.
Talk privately to almost anyone with knowledge of the project and it’s clear that was not the reason.
Since then, more stories have circulated about UC running late and being over budget. There seems little doubt it is a priority project to sort out, not least because the government’s flagship welfare reform hangs on its success.
The new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) CIO, Philip Langsdale, has a track record of turning round problem projects, having transformed the technology at Heathrow after the fiasco of Terminal 5’s opening. He was even appointed by BAA to put together the emergency plan to cope with extreme weather after the airport was shut for days due to snow two winters ago.
Langsdale is conducting a thorough overhaul of UC – both internally and with the major suppliers involved, whose relationship with the DWP had become far too cosy.
While critics will, justifiably, shake their heads and cite yet another looming government IT disaster, the situation with UC has wider ramifications for the future of Whitehall IT.
There is a huge amount of good things going on in central government IT. The digital strategy led by Government Digital Service director Mike Bracken is delivering impressive results using open-source technology and agile development to deliver high quality projects at low cost in short timescales. The new open standards policy should reduce costs and supplier lock-in. And the G-Cloud is opening up the market to small suppliers that would have previously been unable to compete against the big systems integrators (SIs) that have historically dominated in central government.
Those three initiatives alone have already slain a number of sacred cows belonging to the old school who said you couldn’t do things that way.
It would be a terrible shame if a disastrous UC project overshadowed those achievements and created the impression that nothing has changed.
However, it’s also important to point out that UC is perhaps the last of the mega-projects that was set up under the old rules. It contracted the usual SI suspects into huge, multimillion-pound, multi-year deals. It bypassed the spending controls put in place by the Cabinet Office – rumour has it that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith personally authorised the avoidance of those rules.
So a very public failure for UC might also be an opportunity for some “I told you so’s” behind closed doors in the corridors of Whitehall.
Universal Credit is not yet a failed IT project, and Langsdale has time to turn it round. But if it does fail, it could become the final failure of a failed IT regime that is being consigned to the past.