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BBC News TV – September 2013 – Brian Wernham analyses NAO report on £425m Universal Credit Programme…

September 10, 2013

BBC News anchor Annita McVeigh interviews Brian Wernham on 7:25pm news September 5, 2013 – the day that the National Audit Office (NAO) published a critical report on the £425m Universal Credit Programme. (See Brian’s previous interview with Annita in April here)

Trouble viewing or hearing sound? Download 50mb video in one minute here to play on your machine, or read the interview transcript below.
BBC Presenter (Annita McVeigh):

Now – it is a flagship programme at the heart of the Government’s welfare reforms, but it has also been extremely controversial and this morning the Universal Credit scheme came under fresh criticism from the National Audit Office. The watchdog said that it found evidence of weak management and poor governance. The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith had to come to the Commons to answer an ‘Urgent Question’ from Labour on the issue.

Well, with me now is Brian Wernham, a Fellow of the Association for Project Management and author of ‘Agile Project Management for Government’.

Welcome! It doesn’t appear that the project management here has been particularly ‘agile’.

Are you surprised by these findings?

Interviewee (Brian Wernham RPP FAPM):

Well, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) started out to produce a system that is intensely complicated, and they’ve spent three years designing, developing… leaving the testing until the last moment before it went live. So therefore I would say that this is a ‘big bang’ project – a classic ‘waterfall’ project, if you like, where they spent a lot of time designing, building, testing, but without the piloting and phasing in that you would expect from an Agile project.

Lots of other Government departments and Agencies have produced good results using an Agile Government approach. What the DWP has done is a ‘big bang’ project, and it looks as though there will have to be quite a lot of rework.


Now, you said “Not enough piloting”. Is that the main reason for things going wrong in your opinion, or should there have been even better testing of the computer software before even getting to the piloting stage?

Brian - still portrait - purple tie - UC undertitle


Absolutely! If you look at an example of good practice: let’s say DVLA. When you need a tax disc for your car, you just log on to the system, get your credit card out and it checks the insurance online, carries out a few anti-fraud checks, and then a few days later a tax disc pops though the post. That’s a nice example of a piece of Agile technology that’s been piloted, and incrementally put live, pretty much without too much ‘hoo-hah’ or ‘ballyhoo’. They’ve just built the software, put it live, and put in links to police number recognition systems for example, so that the police when driving down the road can check that cars have insurance…

Hoo-ha and ballyhoo

…the Government Digital Service (GDS) have gone live with “”. Martha Lane-Fox had set that up as a new idea, and they put that live incrementally, a bit at a time. So I think that it is more than just piloting, and it is certainly (a better approach) than waiting three years to see if it is going to work…


Over £30m has already been written off, effectively. Do you think that it is going to be the cause of more money being wasted?


The NAO Report makes it quite clear that the DWP accounts are not ready to sign-off yet. So there are £425m that has to be accounted for yet…


So just elaborate on that for us… £425m has to be accounted for?


Yes. Up to April of this year £425m has been spent on the development of the system, £125m of which was spent with Accenture Consulting, for example, as detailed in the report. That normally would be put onto the balance sheet as an asset. So what the accountants are now discussing is: “Is this an asset, or not?”


So you are saying that it could be more than £30m that could be written off?

Brian and Annita


We know for sure that it is £34m written-off to date…


And it could be more?


The report says that this is something that will have to be considered before the accounts are signed-off. The accounts are usually signed-off in July, and we are here now in September…


And just a final thought: Obviously there have been technology glitches and software problems with other Government projects – you know: that’s well catalogued… Are you surprised that it hasn’t gone completely smoothly on this occasion with such a big project – a flagship project for the Government?


The problem is that it was made into a big project rather than being phased in. Maybe taking a few benefits at a time rather than all 6 at the same time across HMRC, DWP, Local Authorities with Housing Benefit – it is fiendishly complicated having to calculate these monthly Universal Credit statements that have to be sent to every claimant. If this had been (rolled) out in a more incremental, agile fashion, and if there had been better project management capability within the DWP – because fully 20 pages out of the 60 pages in the NAO report are all about project management capacity within the DWP.


There were 5 project leaders within one year I noticed.


Five – tragic incidents and difficulties… But that really should not stop an (important) project – you should be able to have secondments and shadowing so that people can move in. I was talking to someone at a Government Department today and they were tearing their hair out because they had wanted to go to the Major Projects Academy at Oxford Saïd Business School so that they could get their certificate to be a Project Sponsor on these sorts of projects – it’s one year of training, but their bosses said that there wasn’t a business case for them to do so…


Well, some very interesting thoughts there – Brian Wernham, Fellow of the Association for Project Management, thank you!

Brian Wernham: Thank you Annita!


See Brian’s previous interview on BBC TV here


From → Agile Governance

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