Watch a blunder in action?

Universal Credit blunders on

Universal CreditA number of recent news items and blog posts in the technical sphere are signposting the UK Government’s Universal Credit programme as the next Government blunder. See our recent blog posts on human bias and systemic problems lessons learned based on a recently published book by Prof. Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe called The Blunders of our Governments. Put the two together and the future looks bleak because another part of the government appears to be incapable of learning lessons. Why is change so hard? Because people won’t learn from the past!

Signposting a blunder

These are the signs that a major government blunder is under way. Bearing in mind a blunder is a change failure in which billions of pounds of taxpayers money is wasted and significant parts of the population are disadvantaged and stressed.

Denial at the very top

In the three years since the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) supremo Iain Duncan Smith launched the ambitious scheme to bring a number of benefits into a single access and payment system the scope and targets for the project have been queried. Not all of these queries are from the opposition, as in earlier blunders many of the questions have come from those tasked with the implementation. They have been ignored and denied by the top man. Ministers and senior civil servants insist the project is on track, on time and on budget. It is hard to believe a very ambitious scheme like this has no problems.

Shifting Governance

Another key marker of a good blunder is rapid changes in the senior responsible owner; the civil servant who is accountable for the delivery of the project. If accountability means consequences for failure then jumping ship is a characteristic of a project that no one wants to be accountable for. There have been FOUR sponsors so far. The latest, Howard Shiplee, has been brought in following his success in delivering the 2012 Olympics construction. But Universal Credit is not about buildings and concrete, its about IT and people (the benefits recipients). Shiplee is clearly a trouble shooter; but according to the top man the project is all OK — so why does it need a trouble shooter?

Assurance raises alarms

The Universal Credit project is far too big to avoid independent scrutiny, so the National Audit Office (NAO) have been over the project books. And they found:

  • Weak programme management
  • over-optimistic timescales
  • a lack of openness about progress
  • trying to use an agile approach within structures designed for the traditional waterfall approach.

If you have been involved in a change project you will have recognised the signs of lack of control and effective governance throughout the project. (I keep calling it a project because that is what the DWP call it).

Agile or Waterfall

A key characteristic of the Universal Credit project is the wholesale adoption of an agile approach. This was characterised by the NAO as “an approach usually used in small collaborative teams”; whereas the Universal Credit project has a team of more than a 1,000 people working on it. Imagine a scrum meeting with a 1000 people? Of course not. Obviously the work has been carefully divided up based on a detailed architecture and operating model for the future system. Well perhaps not, the NAO points out that the project had been running for nearly 2 years without such a blueprint or target operating model. If you don’t know where you are going it can be hard to plan a route — even with an Agile method; or perhaps especially with an Agile method.

There have been major spats between the DWP, the project management and the Cabinet Office (guardians of the Government’s project methodology) about whether the project really is using Agile and the ability of the DWP culture to support the method.

Managing Failure

Recent announcements by Iain Duncan Smith and Prime Minister David Cameron have suggested that previously hard target dates and performance are softening. Not all of the claimants and not all of the benefits at first required will be using the system by the required dates. A ‘more cautious approach’ to the roll out is being taken. The door is opening to the political problem of backing out and reducing the hostages to fortune in the original plans.

The National Audit Office does say that benefits are possible. The original business case predicted some £38bn by 2023. However, it will take much longer to achieve and consequently the costs will be much higher.

What does it mean?

I can see two lessons here:

  1. It is essential to learn the lessons of the past. There is plenty to learn from previous government blunders — there is no excuse for another one. So what are you doing to capture AND use your lessons from change?
  2. Once the signs start showing that all is not well then an open and frank approach is essential. When in a hole …!

What is your experience or comment? Send us a tweet to @C4ChangeMgt.

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