BBC News 24 TV – April 2013 – Agile Government and the Universal Credit project – Interview with Brian Wernham
BBC News anchor Annita McVeigh interviews Brian Wernham on 7:15pm news on April 28th, 2013 – the day that a critical report on Univesal Credit was issued by the NAO
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Presenter (Annita McVeigh): I have with me IT expert Brian Wernham, author of the book ‘Agile Project Management for Government’. Welcome! In terms of the Universal Credit – well, this is the softest of soft launches, isn’t it? One JobCentre – around a couple of hundred people in the Greater Manchester Area. Is this a tough enough test of this system to begin with?
Interviewee (Brian Wernham): Well, I think that the Department for Work and Pensions has been very canny (Note: Brit. slang: having shrewdness) here in taking this thing slowly. They don’t want to get into a ‘Big Bang’ implementation which has caused so many IT disasters in the past. For example, in America at the moment there is a big political storm. There are nearly one million veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq have their applications on hold at the Department of Veterans Affairs just because their computer systems won’t talk to the Department of Defense systems. They went live all at once with a new system. So, this is precisely the opposite. I would be surprised if there are more than one or two dozen people who went onto Universal Credit today.
Annita McVeigh: OK. Do you think then that this is the right approach to do it in such an incremental fashion?
Brian Wernham: Well, I would say: “Incremental” because I am into ‘Agile Government’, and that is the opposite of ‘Big Bang’. The question here is: “Can it be ramped up fast enough?” We have just four postcodes around the Ladysmith Centre just East of Manchester going live today. It is only less than 1% of claimants in those four postcodes will be on Universal Credit in the next year. And even as this rolls out nationally, we are still talking only about single people who are out of work – not the people who have got complicated households, and are on part-time work and need the encouragement to work more hours.
Annita McVeigh: So – how flexible do you think this new system is going to be? And how ‘Agile’, to quote one of the words used in the title of your book – because it is going to need to be very agile – with new tax information coming into it all the time… And especially I am thinking about people who might be agency workers, freelance workers on short term contracts – you know – that sort of thing?
Brian Wernham: These are precisely the people who are not going to be going live for the first year. All of that complexity is taken out of the equation by only taking on people who are out of work in single households, who are not disabled, who don’t have children – ‘plain vanilla’ cases if you like… Although the interesting thing is that over this year, people who go onto this Universal Credit system who were very simple cases, may get married, may have children, may have other things that happen to them. They will stay on the Universal Credit system even if their lives get more complicated, and more of the system gets used. But still, until October this year we are looking at less than 3,000 people that are going to be going onto the system, and from October this year onwards that will still be only ‘plain vanilla’ cases that are rolled out throughout the rest of the country.
Annita McVeigh: OK – so before we build on that analogy, by the time we move on from those plain vanilla cases, to more complicated ‘confectionary’ – realistically when is the Government going to be able to do that? And Frank Field (Note: Opposition Member of Parliament) that we heard from a little earlier he was quite pessimistic – hoping that it would work, but a little bit pessimistic about it – where do you sit on that scale: optimistic, or pessimistic?
Brian Wernham: I am always an optimist – but in terms of project planning, though you should always plan for the worst, even as you hope for the best! So, we are looking at over 8 million households going live by 2017– that’s means more like 12 to 18 million people who live in those households going live at a rate of, well, 300,000 people a month being put onto this system from April next year onwards – if they are going to meet this target.
Annita McVeigh: OK – so big challenges ahead. Brian Wernham, thanks very much for your expertise and coming along.
Brian Wernham: Thanks Annita!