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Universal Credit a Classic Turnaround Project Failure?

Recently the head of the government’s flagship welfare reform project known as Universal Credit has stated that it has been suffering from poor project management. The aim of  Universal Credit will merge a number benefits including income support, housing benefit, jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credits and also the working credit to provide one combined benefit. One step change was the ability for the Universal Credit system to work in real time in coordination with HM Revenue and Customs PAYE system. However as with many Government IT projects this one has run into trouble.

While this change has been implemented, there has been a number of problems with the delivery of the data. During this time, the leadership has changed numerous times along with timetable changes and also lack of efficiency as job centers need to use spreadsheets. Due to all of these changes, the DWP states that 34 million pounds of IT costs have caused a major problem as many expenditures have been used to support inefficient technology functions. In its report on the project so far the National audit office said

“The Department’s plans for Universal Credit were driven by an ambitious timescale, and this led to the adoption of a systems development approach new to the Department. The relatively high risk trajectory was not, however, matched by an appropriate management approach. Instead, the programme suffered from weak management, ineffective control and poor governance. Universal Credit could well go on to achieve considerable benefits if the Department learns from these early setbacks and puts realistic plans and strong discipline in place for its future roll-out.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 5 September 2013

This has exposed the poor project management of Universal Credit despite the input from well respected suppliers such as   HP, IBM and Accenture. To get the programme back on track the government has appointed Howard Shipley as Director General for Universal Credit. Mr Shipley was formerly the Director of Construction at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Mr Shipley has recently stated that the team that is working on the tasks administered by Universal Credit have been impressive but there are still a considerable challenges facing the project.  These include

  1. The absence of a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work.
  2. Poor control and decision-making undermined confidence in the programme and contributed to a lack of progress, for example the officials were unable to explain the programme and timescales.
  3. The programme lacked adequate measures of progress and reporting.
  4. Key areas of functionality were missing from the specification including the ability to identify fraudulent claims.
  5. The Department Senior Team lacked expertise in IT project management, and suffered from a frequent change in leadership.

All of this points towards a culture of secrecy and failure to report open and honest progress. Interviewed on the Today Programme the Minister said that the programme now had new leadership and the project would be delivered to the original budget with savings being delivered in the latter phases to make up for the overspend and that the culture of burying bad news was over. However the project would not be delivered to time and cost.

To any project manager this does not sound realistic, what project has these problems being turned around to deliver on time to cost and to the budget. What we learned from the Olympics is that the first step to success is a realistic budget, the second is a robust scope and the third is an honest and open approach to project reporting. None of these seem to be in place for this project. So it is going to interesting to see how it develops over the next few years.

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