Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's Wrong with Universal Credit? On The Rooting of the Particular in the Universal

According to Hegel, the administration of a corporation's affairs by its own supervisors will often be inept, "for although they know and have before them their own distinct interests and affairs, they have a less complete grasp of the connection between these and more remote conditions and universal points of view". (GWF Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 1820)

Therefore, one of the challenges for enterprise architecture is to maintain a pragmatic balance between the particular and the universal, especially when many of the decision-makers (as Hegel observed) tend to see things from a narrow short-term perspective.

So at first sight, we might think that the UK Government initiative known as Universal Credit represents a welcome exception to this narrow short-term thinking. What a brilliant idea to consolidate all benefit systems into a single simpler system!

The devil, of course, is in the detail. Mark Ballard explains:

Universal Credit would not only re-engineer the complex administration of £70bn social security payments to 8m households, merging six benefits systems across two government departments and local authorities throughout the country. It would also rely on councils up and down the country making their own systems and processes compatible. It would depend upon HM Revenue & Customs completing its own income tax system reforms of unprecedented ambition, Real-Time Information. And HMRC would in turn depend on employers, banks and payroll software suppliers reforming their computer systems and processes as well. Universal Credit would have to navigate this exponentially explosive collection of risk factors. This was a spaghetti junction of high-stakes computer gambits from which Universal Credit would have to pull a benefits payment that was reliable and secure. (Mark Ballard, Universal Credit failures put coalition ICT strategy in purdah. Computer Weekly September 2013)

What went wrong? Agile Development? Procurement? Interdepartmental warfare? Bureaucracy?

"There was an extremely strong command and control culture at the DWP, which goes against agile. We were trying to alleviate that - but it wasn't working," said a source. "The fundamental problem was procurement," said an anonymous participant. "Our hands were tied because of procurement. If you don't set up the contract properly, you are on a hiding to nothing." (Mark Ballard, Why agile development failed for Universal Credit, Computer Weekly July 2013)
Iain Duncan Smith is stuck between using traditional waterfall and systems integration, advocated by DWP, and "agile hacking", advocated by GDS.  (Bryan Glick, The question that matters on Universal Credit: Do you believe Iain Duncan Smith? Computer Weekly Feb 2014, comment by John Alexander)
Any system which is designed to operate with a smaller bureaucracy will be opposed tooth and nail by the bureaucrats mandated to implement it. (Benedict Brogan, Whitehall is shuddering over Universal Credit problems Telegraph February 2014, comment by Littlegrayman)

And was it just poor execution, or was the vision faulty? Paul Spicker thinks the whole project was doomed.

It is easy to blame the IT when things go wrong, but when people are asked to do impossible things, it should not be surprising if they do not deliver. ... The most basic flaw rests in the idea that we can “personalise” benefits for millions of people. There are just too many moving parts; and in a system with millions of iterations, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. (Paul Spicker, Universal Credit: Don’t blame the IT Computer Weekly Feb 2014)

(I want to make two observations here. Firstly, requirements are not additive. Even if each requirement makes sense on its own, that doesn't mean that the whole set of requirements makes sense. And secondly, requirements that make sense in some contexts don't make sense in other contexts. For example, retail may be able to achieve a good level of personalization, because it doesn't matter much if a customer sometimes gets the "wrong" promotional voucher. But it matters a lot if people get the "wrong" benefits, so the stakes are much higher.)

And even the Spectator (a right-wing weekly magazine) complains about ministerial incompetence and inflexibility.

The Universal Credit fiasco exemplifies Duncan Smith’s narcissistic failure to admit and remedy mistakes. As Computer Weekly — a far better guardian of the taxpayer than the Conservative backbenches or press, incidentally – has said, Duncan Smith proceeded with a vast and complicated IT project without learning the lessons from the IT disasters of the Labour years. (Nick Cohen, The conservative case against Iain Duncan Smith, Spectator June 2014)

John Naughton compares Universal Credit with Obamacare, and detects the same problem with both.

How is it that governments stuffed with able and conscientious civil servants screw up so spectacularly whenever IT is involved? ... The strange thing about this is that you wouldn't need to have been a geek to spot the problem with You just had to think architecturally about it. Yet apparently nobody in the administration did. The same applies to the post-9/11 decision to link all the previously separate US security databases into one giant file to which at least 250,000 people had access, one of whom happened to be Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. (John Naughton, Obamacare, universal credit… why do governments make such a mess of IT? Observer December 2013)

You don't have to be a geek. You just have to think architecturally. And thinking architecturally means - among other things - anticipating and resolving the kind of problems faced by projects like these.

Standing up for the universal point of view doesn't justify a Stalinist approach to smoothing out the unavoidable complexities of dealing with real individuals and their messy lives. Is this a failure for IT, or a failure for bureaucracy? And can we tell the difference?

Updated 3 July 2014

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