Universal credit's 2013 delivery could be derailed by complex IT system

Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit faces delay as government IT suppliers struggle with complexity of computer system, reveals leaked report

Iain Duncan Smith's aim to introduce universal credit by 2013 could be delayed.
Iain Duncan Smith's aim to introduce universal credit by 2013 could be delayed if an IT system is not found to implement it. Photograph: David Jones/PA

Ministers have been warned in a confidential report that welfare reforms designed to encourage people back to work risk being delayed because they depend on the successful launch of a complex government IT system.

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, plans to introduce the much-vaunted universal credit – designed to make work pay for those currently on benefits – by 2013. But the success of the reform depends entirely on building a computer program to establish how much each universal credit claimant is earning in work and how much they are due from the state.

A report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), details of which have been leaked to the Observer, reveals serious concerns among government IT suppliers over whether the deadlines for the new system can be met. It also says that Duncan Smith's claim that no one would be worse off working under the new system "may challenge plans to transition tens of millions of accounts in a four-year window. There may be thousands of exceptional cases that inhibit... the finish date of 2017."

The government has yet to announce the identity of its IT supplier for the universal credit project, which will have a tie-up with the PAYE systems run by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). However, in May, during a conference call organised to announce his company's quarterly results, the chief executive of Informatica, a Californian IT firm, said it would be involved.

Consultants at Intellect, the trade body for the IT industry, were commissioned by the government late last year to ask IT suppliers whether the DWP's timescales for the universal credit were realistic. In their report to Iain Duncan Smith, they wrote: "While many felt that from a technology perspective the timescales appeared achievable, this came with heavy caveats. Some felt the timescales were aggressive and cause for concern, particularly since the precise requirements are unlikely to be confirmed before the final bill is approved by parliament.

"Some suppliers felt the timescales were unrealistic, citing the following reasons: there are no alternatives being prototyped; eight months for the core development is possible if done properly, but unrealistic given the number of additional traditional interfaces, and in particular the one from HMRC."

When Joe Harley, chief information officer at the DWP, was asked last month by the Commons public accounts committee whether the new system would be the most complicated ever undertaken, he would not deny it.

Last night Labour MP Stephen Timms, the shadow employment minister, said: "Ministers' promise to put all new benefit applicants through the new universal credit IT system by October 2013 looks unrealistic. The new IT system will require every employer in the country to send PAYE data electronically every month to HMRC," Timms said. "That is a huge undertaking on its own. And key elements of universal credit policy are still not decided – for example, how self-employed people will be handled and how support for childcare will be assessed. From my experience of past government IT projects, there just isn't time now to sort it all out before the deadline."

Last night Intellect refused to comment on its report, citing confidentiality. A DWP spokesman said: "Universal credit is on track and on time to secure a welfare state fit for the 21st century."


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  • MikeRichards

    19 June 2011 12:49AM

    Oh no, not again. You don't have to be psychic to know this is going to follow any number of previous disasters - the NHS system, magistrates, Child Support Agency, the MoD... You name it - they've all promised to revolutionise our lives and each time they've had to be scaled back or just plain abandoned.

    There is something institutionally wrong about the British government of whatever colour and the way it specifies and purchases computer services; all made worse by the fact they keep going back to the same few vendors who have failed in the past.

    In a couple of years the taxpayer is going to write off another few billion.

  • davric

    19 June 2011 7:16AM

    I once heard a British civil servant describe the Blair government's performance on the implementation of IT projects as the "just-too-late" system.

    Times haven't changed, then.

  • ElmerPhudd

    19 June 2011 7:47AM

    As it takes so long to build a system from the ground up the contractors have a constant stream of ever-changing faces to deal with as one politician replaces another. Each politician wants to be noticed and makes changes - usually impractical or just bloody expensive. The delays are often coming from politicians who decide they want the moon and don't have a clue about that the are demanding.
    Eventually even some of the contractors get fed up with the constant changes and alterations to feed some minister's ego.
    How many NHS systems have been started and abandoned or strated and 'enhanced' beyond recognition and practical use?

  • eagle12

    19 June 2011 8:29AM

    It all seemed so acheivable changing the system - but nothing comes easy and getting it wrong will indeed cost the Tax-Payers dearly.

  • EdgarPoole

    19 June 2011 8:44AM

    Usual story..... Any company nimble enough and clever enough to do this work, doesn't do public sector work. In order to get on the list you need to focus on "being" a public sector supplier - a state that disqualifies you from innovation and/or flexibility during any IT dployment. The ones that do work in this area are fenced off from real competition by this and can fail with impunity time and time again.

    I'm not saying it's simple, just that someone needs to stop and come up with a better way. I would suggest a well run (small) group of IT experts and project managers that take responsibility for out-sourcing to numerous "best of breed" private sector suppliers by specialism. If we are going to allow our governments to take public sector money and give it to capitalists - at least give it to capitalists who can get things done.

  • Annonick

    19 June 2011 9:26AM

    If the coalition had approached this sensibly, and if they really wanted to save on programming costs, they should have opted for an Open Source project, not proprietary software.

    The open source code of Firefox proves that this method can work to regulate a complex software environment. Why not crowd-source finetuning the code to the software community at large? After all, we're the end-users, so we have a vested interest at making an NHS network operate efficiently and economically.

    But the coalition is just a blind for Tory idealogy and their compulsive fascination with the asset-stripping the state. So quite frankly, fuck 'em.

  • gherkingirl

    19 June 2011 9:46AM

    And how much money are they paying these IT firms? While there are merits to UC, such as standardising the taper rate so that people shouldn't be left penniless by trying to get back to work, is spending billions on an IT system that may or may not work sensible?

    Or would it be better to tweak the existing system and put the money into increasing re-training, educational opportunities, job creation, increased childcare and other practical things that make the long term unemployed a better prospect to employers and able to actually better themselves?

    At least please tell me there will be financial penalties if the Informatica and anyone else involves makes a mess of this and creates an even bigger mess than the HRMC Tax Credits nightmare of a few years ago. They are dealing with people's lives here, not just political footballs. If this goes wrong, people may lose their houses and be unable to feed their kids. Let's hope that's foremost in their minds, not getting IT firms rich.

  • clarebelz

    19 June 2011 10:09AM

    Good; delay it as long as it takes.

    It will give me a few more years of life and a home until I'm thrown into abject poverty and homelessness once it is implemented.

  • Knowles2

    19 June 2011 10:09AM

    This going to be fun to watch. Given how many times the Conservatives have criticize Labor handling of IT over the years.

    The Government probably be better of going out hiring a team of programmers to do the job internally rather than getting a big cooperation in to do it. Who takes months to fix even the smallest of problems let alone the big ones.

    Why the government is even talking to companies which have failed multiple IT contracts is beyond me anyway. They should be excluded because of past failures.Also it does not make sense for them to be talking anyone about anything until the bill is past through parliament and a government team have written the specifications for the system they want. They are making the same mistake as labor and rushing into IT projects.

  • yesfuture

    19 June 2011 10:13AM

    Well, there are several possibilities here:

    a. The software solution is complex because the problem it tries to solve is complex. In which case, the government's policy is complex. And there was me thinking it was supposed to simplify tax credits.

    b. The problem isn't complex, but for whatever reason the solution is. In which case, the solution's design is overcomplicated.

    c. The solution actually isn't that complex. In which case, the people delivering it are not up to the job.

  • WoodwardRobert

    19 June 2011 11:06AM

    MikeRichards

    19 June 2011 12:49AM

    Oh no, not again. You don't have to be psychic to know this is going to follow any number of previous disasters - the NHS system, magistrates, Child Support Agency, the MoD... You name it - they've all promised to revolutionise our lives and each time they've had to be scaled back or just plain abandoned.

    There is something institutionally wrong about the British government of whatever colour and the way it specifies and purchases computer services; all made worse by the fact they keep going back to the same few vendors who have failed in the past.

    In a couple of years the taxpayer is going to write off another few billion.

    It is not just a problem of procurement and design, it is also a problem of project management and ensuring contractors are made to adhere to their contractual obligations to deliver the contract at the price they quoted to do so.

    There is a long history of contractors underpricing the cost of delivery and then once the project is underway, coming back and saying for unforeseen reasons, it will now cost £X billion more to deliver. It happens regularly in defence and has affected NHS projects and the national ID card project. This is not happening by chance it is a strategy being used by IT companies to be awarded the constract in the first place and then to extract more money from the client once the gravy train is underway. The government of the day knows it is likely to happen and agrees to it the contractors demands. The two are in cahoots. This makes the practice a form of corruption.

    Contractors should be paid when they have delivered a product that functions as specified. Not until

  • EndSweatshops

    19 June 2011 11:16AM

    If this system is so important and it is needed by 2013 then the various departments involved need to agree NOW exactly what they want from it. But that won't happen. Ministers will meddle. Departments will fail to agree. They will finally (kind of) decide what they want a few months before it is due to go live, i.e. when it is too late to deliver a good quality solution on time. The suppliers are right to flag this up. The biggest risk to this project is not the IT supplier(s) or the technology but government itself.

  • parrotkeeper

    19 June 2011 11:20AM

    Is anyone really surprised?

    HMRC's tax credits and the Child Support Agency are just 2 that spring to mind - both heavily rely on IT that fails to accomodate changing claimant information yet we are led to believe that somehow the switch to UC will be on time & trouble-free - pah!

    PS - how refreshing to see moderation on a welfare related thread. Hopefully it will deter most of the usual anti-welfare type of comments.

  • WoodwardRobert

    19 June 2011 11:27AM

    It would be helpful to this discussion if someone with relevant expertise could explain what is so fundamentally difficult about producing national IT projects of this kind, that might go some way to explaining why they fail.

    In my work with geographic information, i use a geographic information system that is the front end to an enterprise class DBMS used to store and organise geographic information. The DBMS probably has several million records fof different kinds.

    I may be being naive, but to my mind this is no more than creating a very large secure enterprise database, that many people will need to have secure access to, either to view records or to update records. These people will be the general public and DHSS/Treasury/HMRC employees. Based on the content of each record basic arithmetic is then performed according to a set of algorithms to determine how much benefit an individual is due and/or how much tax they owe. This is not rocket science.

    The obstacles to my thinking may be having a sufficient large address space (with 64-bit computing this should not be a problem), sufficiently fast retrieval of information (with terabyte sized SSDs able to perform a hundreds of thousands of IOPs this should not be problem) and sufficiently fast information processing (with use of GPGPU technology from the likes of AMD and NVIDIA, this should not be a problem either).

    What appears to be the problem is finding a qualified contractor that understands how to write efficient code, knows how to write massively parallised code for GPGPUs to access DBMSs, can efficiently utilise Microsoft enterprise OSs, and knows how to design user interfaces that allow access to information over secure networks and/or the internet.

  • GeorgetteOrwell

    19 June 2011 11:33AM

    More radical scrap the DWP completely; it’s a useless costly parasitical empire of nasty incompetent jobsworths that only serve to make lives. Given the high level of long term unemployed, lack of caring welfare and pensions, lack of suitable vocational business skills – across consecutive governments DWP are USELESS, formed in 2001 and is a complete failure !

    Administer ‘universal contribution scheme’ via HMRC as basically Inland Revenue, administers it’s scheme via unique’ National Insurance Number’ - suppose to be competent to know if you are in work, not in work or self-employed, retired – starting and leaving dates, how much tax should be paid or unemployed (negative tax refund) etc


    Let the government education and industry take over regarding preparing and maintaining workforce skills, instead of these Mickey mouse training agencies A4e !

    For starters we’d save money on 5 useless MPs.Lording salaries and expenses !

  • EvilMcBad

    19 June 2011 11:42AM

    This calls to mind a little piece of dialogue from 'The Princess Bride':

    Vizzini: Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"! Ha ha ha ha ha

    I would suggest that THE classic blunder is "NEVER embark upon big government IT projects!"

  • Chronos

    19 June 2011 1:12PM

    There is something institutionally wrong about the British government of whatever colour and the way it specifies and purchases computer services; all made worse by the fact they keep going back to the same few vendors who have failed in the past.

    I think the problem comes down to endless meddling and disagreement over cost and specifications.

    I once talked to someone who worked on one of these failed IT projects and he was saying how every time they got close to producing a finished product, the government team running the show would convene yet another meeting to decide that it all needed to be changed again.

    The NHS, for example, badly needs a comprehensive IT system - it would save enormous amounts of time and effort, much of it duplicated, if staff had easy access to all the relevant information about patients. Problem is that it's going to be expensive and take a long time to implement which gives the government of the day plenty of opportunity to screw it up.

    Asking politicians not to meddle in a big projects is like giving an alcoholic a bottle of vodka and asking him not to get drunk.

  • PicRic

    19 June 2011 2:03PM

    The problem is often in the planning. Plan thoroughly and the implementation is relatively easy. Scrimping on the planning will have an exponential effect on the length of the implementation.

  • ColinTalbot

    19 June 2011 3:28PM

    Good report Daniel, confirms exactly what I predicted over on WhitehallWatch.org back in November 2010 when I said the implementation plans for Universal Credit were not feasible. How long before DWP and IDS admit it, I wonder?

    Prof. Colin Talbot

  • Frequent

    19 June 2011 9:18PM

    @Annonick

    Why not crowd-source finetuning the code to the software community at large?

    Erm, because i don't want the source code of an application that will hold, or will link to other applications that hold, some of my most sensitive data to effectively be out on the open internet for anyone to hack into... I mean look at and improve. That would be a goldmine for hackers. Would you ask your bank to use an open source bit of software, getting refinements to it 'crowdsourced'? I thought not. So why a government application?

    @WoodwardRobert

    You're not far off for the applicaiton itself, although it is made harder by the lack of a unique ID for each person (NI number is not guaranteed unique, believe it or not!).

    However, as the article states, any new system will need to interface with at least one HMRC system, bringing in issues of data transformation and EAI... on this scale, that is a BIG deal.

    Plus, as has been eloquently pointed out above, Government indecision and project management by committee will mean that suppliers will never get a clear view of what it is they are supposed to be delivering until too late. It's all very well claiming suppliers should be held to the terms of their contract (although Government is shockingly bad at this); Government also needs to agree a contract for a particular specification, and then stick to it. Otherwise the original contract is worthless.

  • WoodwardRobert

    19 June 2011 11:22PM

    Frequent

    19 June 2011 9:18PM

    @WoodwardRobert

    You're not far off for the applicaiton itself, although it is made harder by the lack of a unique ID for each person (NI number is not guaranteed unique, believe it or not!).

    However, as the article states, any new system will need to interface with at least one HMRC system, bringing in issues of data transformation and EAI... on this scale, that is a BIG deal.

    What does the abbreviation "EAI" refer to.

    Point taken about NI numbers not being guaranteed unique. But, this being so, the current benefits system works today, so may be it is less of a problem than supposed.

    Plus, as has been eloquently pointed out above, Government indecision and project management by committee will mean that suppliers will never get a clear view of what it is they are supposed to be delivering until too late. It's all very well claiming suppliers should be held to the terms of their contract (although Government is shockingly bad at this); Government also needs to agree a contract for a particular specification, and then stick to it. Otherwise the original contract is worthless.

    Agreed. What needs to happen with such IT projects is for the initial contract to provide most of what it is agreed is needed and for software to be written in such a way that it can be modified and extended at a later date.

    From someone on the outside, the problem appears to be that these IT corporation tender for these contracts, with little or no idea of how they will actually implement the project. They are relying on muddling through.

  • Frequent

    20 June 2011 8:35AM

    @WoodwardRobert

    EAI is Enterprise Application Integration... basically how you make different applications with different datasets, subsets of which are needed by other applications, talk to each other.

    Pretty complex to get right, if done properly.

  • grassman

    20 June 2011 8:40AM

    @Frequent ... open source does not mean less secure it does however mean less expensive.

    All our governmental IT should be open source.

    Surely though looking at this impending disaster the main thing to change is the way these contracts are tendered

  • WoodwardRobert

    20 June 2011 9:14AM

    grassman

    20 June 2011 8:40AM

    @Frequent ... open source does not mean less secure it does however mean less expensive.

    I disgree about the security.

    The more widely known it is how software is coded, the more widely known are its vulnerabilities. The more widely known the vulnerabilities the easier and greater the chance that the security of the software will be compromised, data corrupted or stolen.

    The fewer who know how the software has been coded, the better. This is the first and most important line of defense. This is why a lot of software especially sensitive software is modular, each module being coded by a different group that does not know what the others are doing, with each module non-functional without the others.

  • WoodwardRobert

    20 June 2011 9:21AM

    Frequent

    20 June 2011 8:35AM

    @WoodwardRobert

    EAI is Enterprise Application Integration... basically how you make different applications with different datasets, subsets of which are needed by other applications, talk to each other.

    Pretty complex to get right, if done properly.

    I would have thought this function is (or should be) performed/controlled by enterprise DBMS software, individual records are read or "signed out" if they are to be updated. Only one user can update a record at once. The DBMS should be indifferent towards the type of client application being used to query one or more DBMS. This is the way it is done with geospatial DBMSs.

  • Contributor
    englishhermit

    20 June 2011 9:23AM

    The golden rule of system design is that the user is the most important part of the system. That means involving the end users, that is the front line DWP staff in the design.

    Will they? No.

    Therefore the system is fucked before a line of code is written.

  • ahepworth

    20 June 2011 9:39AM

    The challenge here is not new - those words from the Intellect report back in December were mine having attended the briefing and been shocked about the approach. The approach being taken today however is even worse because back then it was a rip-and-replace strategy, whereas now it's a "build on top of 25+ year old legacy platforms", and however good EAI tools may be these days, there's no escaping the fact that the old systems are fundamentally broken in the way they manage the caseload of individuals claiming benefits.

    The supplier has been chosen, and pretty much the technology too (Oracle OPA), which is alarming because the level of complexity in the UK benefit statute is way beyond what these tools have been used for before (only web-based Q&A for businesslink, or a single HMRC tax questionnaire).

    See My blog for more detail.

    Small suppliers have demonstrated to DWP what can be achieved by using new technologies, and alternatives to the usual suspects who understand how to build systems that could achieve the laudable goals of Universal Credit.

    I watched Joe Harley, Malcolm Whitehouse and Ian Watmore at the recent Public Administration Select Committee meetings and whilst I respect them for their intellect and political ambitions, I couldn't help think they came across as risk-averse dinosaurs of a different age.

    As a tax-payer, I don't want another IT-enabled disaster - it's time for change.

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