Thematic Review 2 : Practical Implementations of Information Systems
When reviewing practical implementations of information systems (IS), incredible failures provide very valuable lessons even if they are ongoing. At an estimated £12.8bn, far in excess of the originally estimated £2.2bn (Ballard, 2013), the UK's Universal Credit project will be the single-most expensive failed or overbudget custom software projects, although when adjusted for inflation the UK's NHS Connecting for Health project (mostly abandoned in 2011), also cost around £12bn. Apparently if one wishes to study exceptional failures in IS, government in general, the UK in particular, and the subcategory of health and welfare is a good place to start. Whilst this may seem slightly snide, it is backed by empirical evidence. Only the US's FAA Advanced Automation System (c$4.5b USD, 1994) is really within a similar sort of scale of failure.
Universal Credit, like many such projects, on a prima facie level, seems to designed on reasonable principles. Announced in 2010, with the objective to simplify working-age welfare benefits and encourage taking up paid work, it would replace and combine six different means-tested benefits, and roll them into a single monthly payment and which, as paid work was taken up, would be gradually be reduced, rather than having an all-or-nothing approach, following the "negative income tax" proposals, as proposed by Juliet Rhys William and Milton Friedman (Forget, 2012). The project was meant to start in 2013 and completed by 2017. Under current plans (there have been at least seven timetable completion changes), this has been pushed out to 2023 (Butler, Walker, 2016).
It is important to note that the majority of problems that confront the Universal Credit project were not just limited by IT, although there are plenty of those. Attention to detail is evidently lacking, perhaps overlooked by decision-makers who have a minimal visceral understanding of those who require welfare. For example, part-time work can lead to a situation where people can work more and be paid less (Toynbee, 2013) and the self-employed could lose thousands of pounds per annum. The transition period from old welfare payments to Universal Credit meant that people on already marginal incomes experiencing delays in payments, with the National Audit reporting to eight months (Richardson, 2018). As a result, there are numerous instances of people falling behind in rent payments, food banks requests rocketing, (Savage, Jayanetti, 2017) and some even turning to prostitution (Quayle, Box, 2018). These are, in an economic model, a producer-consumer issue where the producer is a monopoly provider of a good (welfare) which has near-vertical demand due to need. From a business perspective in IS, it reflects not just administrative errors, but also a lack of project planning with sufficient input from users.
However, in addition to these errors, the project has fraught with IT issues. With 15 different suppliers providing components of the outsourced IT systems in the initial stages (DWP, 2012), the suppliers themselves voiced concerns at the capacity to build a nation-wide reporting system within the short time-frame initially provided (Boffey, 2011). The system requires real-time data from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed with HM Revenue & Customs. The resulting IT system has been described as "completely unworkable, badly designed" and already "out of date" (Jee, 2014) and a subsequent survey of staff found that 90% found the system "inadequate" (Jee, 2015). An audit of the system found that the IT systems "depend heavily on manual intervention and will only handle a small number of claims".
Information Systems needs to founded on quantitative and realistic expectations of the capacity of a technology to deliver a good or service, and with project plans that incorporate end-users, as they will be people who "feel the pain" of a poorly designed system. In the case of welfare, this is no mere consumable, but rather pain in a very visceral and, without having to engage in hyperbole, even mortal requirements. The evidence provided so far is that the Universal Credit system has engaged neither in a realistic assessment of the IT requirements and capabilities, was designed without sufficient input of the final recipients of the service, and as a result, has delivered a sub-par project. Overall, it constitutes the worst IS project in history.
Ballard, Mark (2013), Universal Credit will cost taxpayers £12.8bn, Computer Weekly, 03 June, 2013.
Boffey, Daniel (2011), Universal credit's 2013 delivery could be derailed by complex IT system, The Observer, 19 June 2011
Butler, Patrick., Walker, Peter (2016) Universal credit falls five years behind schedule, The Guardian, 20 July, 2016.
DWP Central Freedom of Information Team (2012), FoI request from Mr. Robinson, 18 October, 2012
Forget, Evelyn L. (2012), Advocating negative income taxes: Juliet Rhys-Williams and Milton Friedman, Proceedings of the History of Political Economy Conference Spring 2012.
Jee, Charlotte (2014), Leaked memo says Universal Credit IT 'completely unworkable', Computer World UK, October 27, 2014
Jee, Charlotte (2015), 90 percent of Universal Credit staff say IT systems 'inadequate', Computer World UK, March 9, 2015
Richardson, Hannah (2018), Universal Credit 'could cost more than current benefits system', BBC News Education, 15 June 2018
Savage, Michael., Jayanetti, Chaminda (2017), Revealed: universal credit sends rent arrears soaring, The Observer, 16 September, 2017
Toynbee, Polly (2013), Universal credit is simple: work more and get paid less, The Guardian, 12 July, 2013.
Quayle, Jess., Box, Dan (2018), 'I was forced into prostitution by Universal Credit', BBC News, 19 November, 2018.