As Damian Green Idles his Time Away Flawed Thinking Behind Universal Credit IT System Comes Out.
John Slater has been responsible for a series of Freedom of Information requests about the Universal Credit fiasco. Yesterday he sent me a copy of the project management plan introduced by Howard Shiplee, who was responsible for the development of Universal Credit from May 2013 until his departure, following illness, in September 2014. Shiplee had previously been responsible for building construction for the 2012 Olympic Games.
I was puzzled by the plan, and wrote back to John:
I’m baffled – I can see no relationship between the steps to be taken and the design of a social security system. It looks more like a plan for building a McDonalds outlet, where all the groundwork’s laid and you know exactly what you want to do, so it’s all about delegating tasks. … I think you’re a project manager, John – – can you explain it to me?
I found John’s response so marvellously clear and helpful that I asked him if I could share it on the blog. Here it is.
You are right my background is programme and project management (my first degree was IT so I understand that aspect as well). You aren’t far off with your McDonalds analogy.
The plan is a classic case of an organisation focusing on the IT side of a major change programme. UC is one of the biggest change programme ever undertaken and nothing I’ve ever seen produced by the DWP reflects this.
The 100 day plan is a classic example of people that have been on a training course (e.g. Prince2 or Management Successful Programmes) but have never done the job for real. If you look down the left hand side of the ‘plan’ you’ll see the following headings:
- Key dates & decisions
- BT – Business (I suspect BT means business transformation)
- BT – Service Design & Build (I suspect BT means business transformation)
- BT Interfaces (I suspect BT means business transformation)
- Pathfinder Day 2
- Programme Approach
- Comms (Communications)
With the exception of point 1 these are typically referred to a work streams. The idea is that each of the workstreams goes along their merry way cooperating with each other to deliver the programme. The reality of this approach with any complex programme is that it always goes horribly wrong.
If you look at points 2 to 5 then it is utterly focused on the IT. The plan looks like something to produce a software product of some sort. There is no mention of culture change, process engineering (this should be done before any software is produced) and the biggest issue of all people! This covers the claimants, DWP employees, Council Employees, Welfare Advisors and so on. They are just expected to magically learn and make it work. The trouble is human beings don’t work that way.
Part of the issue is that the DWP employees working on UC at the time hadn’t ever done anything like this before so didn’t have a clue. The put people in roles (e.g. programme manager, programme office manager etc) but they hadn’t done it before and had just been sent on a training course.
I’ve been doing this stuff for 30 years and I would have struggled to get UC up and running (and I’m very good at this aspect of complex programmes). Bringing in someone like Howard Shiplee was always going to fail. I’ve run programmes involving a lot of construction and it’s a different world and a totally different mindset. I suspect if you looked at the approach used for construction during the London Olympic build it wouldn’t look dissimilar to this plan. With construction the focus is generally on design and then build (known as D&B). The key factor is the supply chain and can the main contractor get the materials and people on site on time and in the right order. If you look at the plan again I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see the left hand side of the dark vertical as ‘design’ and the right hand side as ‘build’. This is what Howard Shiplee understood and it was so deeply ingrained I doubt he could have done anything else.
In respect of the pathfinder system released at Wigan it was a cobbled together lobotomised version of the IT that would ultimately be required for the complete UC. At this stage of the programme IDS knew the IT was fundamentally flawed, hence the talk of large sums being written off at the time. He also knew that they had to start over again but couldn’t admit that as it would be politically disastrous. Therefore, they rolled out the lobotomised version that only covered a small subset of people claiming JSA and claimed success. While this version was being rolled out painfully slowly the DWP was working desperately to produce a brain new IT system that ultimately will be the UC IT System.
Personally I think the new IT system will also fail. The methodology (Agile) as it’s been used by the DWP means that too much has been done in isolation. The system is going to be extremely complex and as bugs appear I’m not convinced the DWP will be able to find out the cause and then develop a solution that doesn’t result and another problem.
Our old mucker Damian meanwhile remains on holiday in cloud cuckoo land:
Universal credit full service for all types of claimants continues to roll out to plan. It is now being delivered in 50 jobcentres and is the Department’s first fully digital service.
We have been exploring how this technology can, for the first time, offer a simple system of explicit consent (to protect the large amounts of claimant personal information held under universal credit) but which is easy to use and takes advantage of the opportunities a digital service can offer. Such a system can be used by third parties and stakeholders representing claimants’ interests, enhancing the service that they can provide for the most vulnerable.
However, it is clear MPs engaging on their constituents’ behalf need constant access to such a system through which they can help their constituents. Today, I have agreed that the implicit consent approach which operates well for all other DWP benefits can be extended to MPs representing the interests of their constituents who are engaging with or directly claiming universal credit. We can offer this because of our pre-existing relationships between MPs’ offices, district managers and their teams. This is something which cannot pertain for inquiries from other sources.
This means any correspondence—letter, email, or telephone inquiries—from MPs on behalf of a constituent relating to universal credit will be answered directly, without a requirement to seek explicit consent from their constituent. This will ensure consistency and clarity for MP offices, no matter what benefit the inquiry is about.
Extending this support for MPs and their constituents will continue to help enable the successful delivery of this key welfare reform programme.