Universal Credit is in a very confused state at the moment. After months of speculation about the ongoing problems with the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) flagship welfare reform project, in July we were all given a glimmer of hope that it would be put on the right path. The Government Digital Service (GDS) was to be hauled in to put Universal Credit on the right track – the digital one. Hurrah!

However, this light at the end of the tunnel has very much gone out. Yesterday we were hit with the news that welfare and pensions minister Ian Duncan Smith believes that Universal Credit might not reach its 2017 deadline – which made most of the headlines (including ours). However, upon reflection, and with the news today that GDS is now pulling out of the project and handing over all digital responsibility for the project back to DWP, missing a deadline is not the most concerning story this week.

What we are being told by DWP is that it is going to press ahead with its existing IT system – the same system that was considered not fit for the task and unable to scale up to meet the challenge of a national rollout – and develop the digital proof of concept created by GDS at the same time.

A spokesperson for DWP told Computerworld UK that the best of the existing system will be married with the enhanced digital one. Two-lane IT.

My question for DWP is: WHY?!

Same politics, different project

My guess would be that the reason DWP is taking this approach is, once again, all down to saving political face. With reports circulating that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude was locking heads with IDS over the project and that there was a ‘turf war’ between GDS and DWP, is this really surprising?

My bet is that the GDS solution is more than ‘viable’ (as DWP so kindly put it) and that it is a far superior solution to that being developed by the likes of IBM, HP and Accenture. A better solution developed in less than six months.

So why not just admit defeat and start again with the support of GDS? Most probably because IDS doesn’t want egg on his face so close to a general election, as well as having to admit that he’s been saved by the Cabinet Office. DWP has already written off £34 million worth of IT assets (with over £100 million more expected to follow) so why not just scrap the lot if it’s not up to the job?

Apart from the politics and egos, it’s also probably because of the contracts in place. This all sounds very familiar to the NHS’ failed National Programme for IT (I’ve pointed out similarities before) where CSC is still being paid hundreds of millions of pounds for IT assets that aren’t being used. Are we going to do the same for the original IT assets being developed by the big suppliers mentioned above?

What DWP should do is pull out of the contracts with the big suppliers, or at least restructure them, to fully focus on and support the enhanced digital system being developed - scrap the unwanted IT assets. But with the reports of bad governance throughout the project on the government’s side, it is unlikely that DWP wants to start pointing fingers at some of the industry’s largest suppliers during a contract dispute.

This isn’t going to end well

So, what we have ended up with is a better, enhanced IT system being developed in-house by DWP, which will be the final product for Universal Credit, being married with an inferior system (albeit the best parts of it) which is being developed by suppliers. This all just screams political weakness and an inability to admit failure – something that government departments are increasingly being criticised for and encouraged to do (admit failure that is).

How is this even going to work? How is DWP going to ‘marry’ what we can only assume is an agile, digital system that is now being developed in-house with a traditional system that is being developed in a waterfall approach by external suppliers. If politics weren't involved and this was a private sector company that didn’t have to reveal what was happening, I would put money on them scrapping the inferior systems and pursuing the new ‘viable’ technology.

What is the point of ploughing money into a system that isn’t working? Why give the suppliers more money when they have shown that they aren’t capable of delivering IT that is suitable for a national rollout? What will happen to the system when the final digital one is complete? Will it just not be used? What are the best bits that are going to be married with the digital system?

You will notice that I have asked a stack of ‘rhetorical’ questions throughout this piece. This is purely because the DWP ‘announcement’ this week poses more questions than it answers. It has left most public sector IT journalists simply asking, HUH?! It’s a mess. A confusing mess.

Now, DWP may well have a clear and consistent plan for the rest of this project – which is going to impact thousands of vulnerable people in the UK let’s not forget – but thus far has been unwilling to share it. If there is a workable plan and there are answers to all of these questions, tell us!

All of the secrecy, side-stepping and lack of transparency suggest that there are deeper problems here and it isn’t going to end well. Remember earlier this year when DWP kept insisting that Universal Credit was on track, on time, and all was fine with the project? Yeah, so it turned out none of that was true either. Open up, explain your plan clearly, what the issues are, what is being done to work on them – do this and the media, as well as everyone else, will be far less likely to be frustrated when/if things go wrong in the future.