Universal Credit has replaced Labour’s NHS supercomputer as the ABC of how not to manage an IT project. Just six months after the hip Government Data Service outpost was brought in to take over enhance the project, they’ve been pushed aside. According to the Cabinet Office,’a team within DWP will now take the digital solution forward’— again.

According to some sources, the tensions between the GDS and the Whitehall mandarins arose when Francis Maude sided with the GDS by wanting to bin all the existing work and start from scratch. Writing off three years of work is not to be taken lightly. When faced with such a decision, IT project managers have to ask themselves whether there is ‘no conceivable way we can produce the final product out of the work so far’. Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP disagreed and the existing work has plodded along.

The DWP first attempted to rescue UC by flirting with agile programming. Agile is a popular way of writing software; by writing code quickly, testing as you go, signing off work on the fly and moving onto the next (small) task. Agile works well in small teams, where everyone is in a collaborative environment. Less so with a £13 billion project, affecting 8 million people and produced by four IT giants. The DWP later shifted back to traditional project management methods before the GDS were parachuted in this summer.

UC is now moving onto a ‘twin-track’ approach, with the DWP following ‘principles laid out by GDS’ – i.e., agile programming. It’s possible that all the work completed for the much-delayed Pathfinder stage will be scrapped. Either way, it’s a blow for the GDS. The arch Tory modernisers, like Steve Hilton and Rohan Silva, envisioned the service as their tool for turning around troubled IT projects, and bringing a swifter, smoother Californian working style to Whitehall. Unfortunately, Universal Credit was either too big, too complex or too controversial for the GDS to take on.

As Rachel Sylvester writes in her latest Times column (£), the fight for Universal Credit exemplifies the tensions between the traditionalists and modernisers in the Civil Service. The fact that UC has returned to Iain Duncan Smith’s domain is ‘a clear sign that the hoodies have been seen off by the bowler hats.’

Sadly for Duncan Smith, the project has become a circular firing squad — with no one wanting to take responsibility for it and each different approach failing. Instead of a streamlined system designed to end welfare waste and dependency, we have another IT failure, that appears far from being complete and has cost the tax payer millions.

Tags: GDS, Government Digital Service, Iain Duncan Smith, UK politics, Universal credit