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Universal Credit Programme - a review of governance to date

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"Under the microscope" - APM Governance SIG Workshop held on 8 January 2014


Universal Credit is an ambitious and complex societal transformation programme (not IT project) being led by the Department for Work & Pensions. This massive central Government programme has spent over £475m to date, but has only enrolled 2,500 claimants (against the total 17m people to be covered by the scheme by a deadline of 2017).

The APM Governance SIG held a workshop on 8 January which used the established APM Governance SIG ‘Directing Change Guide’ as a baseline to assess the performance of the governance and leadership of the Universal Credit programme to date.

The main findings were that the objectives were ambitious in the extreme, and that governance, leadership capability and behaviours have been unacceptably poor. Good governance is not only about authority, process and structure – it is essentially about behaviour of people.

The business case has not been underpinned by a clear vision, end state and intermediate state blueprints, or an implementation strategy that was based upon realism. Therefore a poor baseline existed against which to track performance.

The leadership role for the programme has been unclear: sitting uncomfortably between the Minister (held politically accountable), the Permanent Secretary (held accountable for Value for Money) and the ‘Senior Responsible Owner’ (SRO) – the key (sponsor) role held accountable for a successful outcome and benefits delivery. Due to a mix of circumstances and poor performance, this SRO role has been held by no fewer than six people in the last 12 months. Continuity of the SRO (sponsor) role is one key success factor for good governance.

The culture did not support open and transparent communication leading the MPA to describe it as a “fortress mentality”. The findings from Assurance reviews were not implemented in a robust manner.

Consensus was reached from the workshop that monitoring and control needed to be improved with a framework for people management and programme / project approach that is based on capability and capacity. It was initially claimed that an Agile approach was being used for delivery, but little experience or capability existed to either deliver or govern. The actuality has been an attempt at a ‘big bang’ transformation that has failed to embed rather than an incremental build.

The overall conclusion and recommendation was that following the APM Governance SIG Directing Change Guide would have avoided many of the issues – and still might going forward if adopted.

The Sept 2013 Executive Summary NAO Report can be viewed here .

Directing Change can be viewed here .



The UK Government’s Universal Credit (UC) Programme has received wide publicity over the last year, not all of it good. The National Audit Office issued its progress report in September 2013. The report outlined key aspects of the project such as its aims, progress against plans, and programme management; furthermore it highlighted serious concerns by the Major Projects Authority over programme implementation and governance.

The key facts are:

  • Expected cost of implementation of DWP UC to 2023 £2.4bn (including initial running costs);
  • Over £475m spending to date
  • 6 Senior Responsible Owners since mid-2012;
  • £38bn possible net benefit of UC between 2010 to 2023 (business case Dec 2012);
  • £637m planned IT investment in the current spending review period from the Dec 2012 business case (revised from the previous review – £396m May 2011. Actual spend on IT is £303m to April 2013.

Key areas discussed at the workshop:

1. Programme Vision, Strategy and Benefits Realisation

Delegates highlighted a fundamental weakness of the business case for the UC Programme. They concluded that it was ‘an economic case’ but had no clear vision or roadmap. There was no clear programme implementation framework or strategy, it lacked a ‘strong vision’ and blueprint (both end and interim states) that would normally support the business case, contextual factors had not been clearly identified; and timescales had been simply imposed (and unrealistic) rather than developed. Delegates considered the role of ‘ministerial imperative’ in not only defining but developing the business case. They found that the ‘what’ in the strategy is not coherently defined and technical feasibility not thoroughly developed or carried out to provide the blueprint.

The discussion noted that the NAO report had majored on the cost impact of the programme, whereas the delegates surmised that time and quality were probably higher priority objectives.

The MPA has issued repeated warnings of potential failure due to the lack of understanding of the ‘end state’ (points 11 and 18 of the NAO report). The blueprint and ‘business architecture’ or ‘target operating model’ would provide stakeholders and programme / project teams with a strong vision and focus of direction. At present the programme strategy and management is reactive in its nature and implementation. This was highlighted in the discussions and it was agreed that there was a need to: 

  • Establish the blueprints – end state and intermediate operating states (the what)
  • Agree and articulate the programme strategy and roadmap (the how);
  • Be clear on the priority of time / cost /quality objectives;
  • Develop a plan and accountabilities for benefits realisation (how will they be achieved?);
  • Develop a stakeholder and relationships management plan (who needs to be influenced / influential).

2. Timescales and Matching Spend to Progress Timescales have been over ambitious, as outlined above.

The short-term objectives are not clearly aligned to the vision or strategy for the programme, and there has been a lack of effective performance management. The delegates debated these issues in detail and highlighted:

  • Lack of challenge of the realism of the timescales
  • Lack of measurement and poor baseline against which to measure “outcome performance” against spend as the ‘end state’ or intermediate states are not clearly defined;
  • Lack of realistic reporting between civil service and ministers (the need to challenge and push back on Ministerial demands);
  • Consequences of the previous point in the ability to secure additional resources against ‘real timescales’;
  • Significant disconnect between political ambition and delivery capability / progress.

The feeling amongst delegates was that the culture of the civil service and behaviours of individuals in key governance positions is at fault. Ministers can effectively disempower SROs and project managers (who too readily relinquish power and in the process responsibility) thus rendering “professional challenge” impotent.

3. Implementation framework - Agile and Assurance

DWP adopted an ‘Agile’ approach to develop processes and systems combined with its ‘traditional’ approach to IT programme management. DWP experienced contracts, governance and assurance structural problems which led to delays, major restructuring and reviews. The lack of control and transparency had become a huge issue and concern for the MPA that led to the damning report in Sept 2013 (points 19 - 22). The groups debated these issues and found that:

  • Adopting Agile was too much of a risk given the embedded ‘traditional’ approach to managing IT Projects at DWP and lack of capability for both delivery and governance of Agile was not addressed;
  • Inadequate training for staff and lack of detailed plans exacerbated the situation;
  • Poor measurement of progress and performance management. Discussions then led to questioning Project Assurance structures and mechanisms and the MPA perception of “fortress mentality”:
  • What was the actual purpose of the series of reviews and the learning process adopted to establish focus and direction for the UC Project?
  • Was there simply a culture of reviews for ‘tick box’ purposes that were ineffective and contradictory?
  • It was clear that actions from assurance reviews had not been implemented and with no real consequences for lack of implementation.

The delegates felt that a framework was needed for people management and a programme approach that is based on capability and capacity – so ensuring that new approaches such as Agile are effectively blended in with a working culture that contains structures and systems which have the platform for excellent delivery and governance.

4. Leadership and People Management

Discussions highlighted the role of programme /project leadership and concerns raised by the MPA. There have been six SROs within a 12 month period – each with their own perspective and approach. The project is also dogged people management issues.

The specific roles and responsibilities on the programme for each of the leadership team members needed clarification within a consistent framework that take into account DWP working culture and reporting lines. The actual top to bottom governance structure needs clarification and reporting lines made clearer.

Delegates felt that talent acquisition of people with proven competencies in each of the key programme roles is needed. Stakeholder and relationship management is going to be key to the success of such a ‘political project’ – this means individuals being aware and addressing the real issues of ‘ministerial imperative’.

Behavioural and attitude changes are needed to inspire confidence in the programme and to allow development of open communications to bring better transparency and control. In addition a robust people performance framework is needed to ensure clear expectations are set and performance is developed / improved.

Conclusions and Learning

Universal Credit is an ambitious and complex societal transformation programme (not IT project) being led by the Department for Work & Pensions. It is complex and is in desperate need of effective governance and leadership. This large investment from the public purse requires competent leadership and governance together with a competent team to deliver the programme successfully. The key stakeholders need to communicate effectively with integrity that generates trust without fear.

From the four areas above it is clear that there are matters to be address:

1. Programme Vision Strategy & Benefits Realisation – The business case, strategy, blueprints and benefits framework need to be clarified and restated. Directing Change principles 5, 6, 8 apply;

2. Timescales and Matching Progress to Spend – schedules need be aligned to the overall programme strategy, vision and blueprints, with clear milestones for effective performance (key performance indicators throughout the plans) measurement. Clear reporting timings need to be established that ensure accountability for deliverables. Directing Change principles 4, 10, 11 apply;

3. Implementation framework - Agile and Assurance – programme strategy must be aligned to blueprints and the capability of the people and operating culture of DWP. Directing Change principles 3, 9 apply;

4. Leadership and People Management – effective governance is a key ingredient for success – the NAO report has highlighted the need to clarify key roles and responsibilities within the governance structure and reporting. There is also need to address the stakeholder and relationship management issues such as the conflicts and tensions of a political project that contains a strong ministerial imperative.

Hopefully, there will now be continuity of the programme sponsor role, another essential success criterion.

People deliver projects - when they are equipped with the right knowledge, skills and experience, exhibit the right behaviours and attitudes, and are truly accountable for their performance - delivered via effective performance management processes that are aligned to the business case and project plans (both technical and soft plans). Therefore the development of an effective HRM platform is imperative to project success.

Directing Change principles 3, 4, 7, 12 apply.

Amerjit Walia, Fellow APM, Chartered Fellow CIPD

Brian Wernham, Fellow APM


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