Monday, 9 September 2013

The big bang theory

If you look beyond the political point-scoring over the latest debacle on Universal Credit, the real lesson is that the "big bang" approach to IT projects rarely pays off.

A completely inaccuarate depiction of the Big Bang.
Also not a good approach to most software projects.
Well, I hate to say I told you so, but ... I told you so. Just under a year ago, I idly speculated that the next big story about an IT cock-up might be the upcoming Universal Credits system. I won't go over the whole thing in detail, but it boiled down to two concerns: firstly, I was sceptical over whether the intended launch of October 2013 was realistic; and secondly, I know from my experience of ID cards that there is a culture in the civil service of making promises that cannot be delivered. And what do I find yesterday? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Now, before I jump on any bandwagons, it's helpful to put this in a bit of context. Firstly, the National Audit Office is notorious for nit-picking (as is the Public Accounts Committee), and their supposedly damning reports are often little more than minor points blown out of proportion by the press. Secondly, benefit reform is a hugely controversial issue and a lot of criticism (and defence) of this IT project will be down to ideological stance on benefits rather than whether the product does the job. (For the record, I think the principles of Universal Credit - that work should always pay and simplification of a bloated complex system - are a good idea, but there's valid points over using the reform as a smokescreen for cuts.) Nevertheless, it looks like there's more to this one than political hype. The October launch is now just six pilot sites, which is a common Civil Service method of back-pedalling in a way they can claim they "met" the deadline.

So what's gone wrong? There is a good summary of reported mistakes on BBC news, and the thing that struck me the most about this is how similar these mistakes are to the mistakes made with ID cards. Comparing what's happening now to what happened with ID cards, I can tell you the following: