Friday, 13 December 2013

Universal Chaos

As if I hadn’t only just emerged from counselling after my wrestling match with the touchy-screeny-zoomy unpredictability of Windows 8, last week my new laptop announced its intention to upgrade itself to Windows 8.1. There was no button on offer marked “Sod off, can’t take this hassle right now”, so I grudgingly accepted an assurance that I’d be able to continue “working” - nice sarcastic touch, Microsoft - and hit “OK”.

The assurance was initially accurate, but after two hours turned into lies. I was given 15 minutes to settle my affairs, then the machine threw me out and embarked on an hour-long list of mysterious activities with vague labels such as “Getting your apps ready” and “Taking care of a few things”, each bearing a clearly spurious “progress” percentage measurement. Periodically the machine would pretend to restart and I’d get myself in position, hands poised above the keyboard like a mad organist, only to recoil again in frustration at the message “Setting up a few more things.”

What the hell did it all mean? Was I simply being fobbed off because I might get narky if told the truth? “Deleting your contacts, just because I can.” “Feeding your data to a horse.” “SkyDrive contents being transmitted to the NSA.” “Woah, guv, I dunno who set up this PC, but ‘e seems a proper cowboy to me.”

If I’m an “IT professional”, Billy Connolly’s a shipyard worker. It was long ago and far away, and I’m truly sorry about all those who got hurt. But at least, as I sat there frustrated, I could summon a smidgin of industry experience to convince myself that things might work out. The hard disk was making no horrible gear-crunching noises. No smoke was belching from the DVD drive/ cup holder thing. It was irritating that only the previous day, with typical timing, I’d cancelled my monthly “peace of mind” cover with PC World - but there was no cause for panic.

When an invisible process is whirring away, and the only information you’re getting about it is unspecific pap, you need some relevant knowledge to help you evaluate the context and give yourself a fuller picture. That very challenge faced the Commons Work and Pensions Committee this week, when Iain Duncan Smith and a couple of flunkies gave evidence to them about the roll-out plans for Universal Credit.

Fortunately, the Committee did have one member whose background was up to it. However, it was nothing to do with IT. It was Glenda Jackson’s experience of working with comedians. She made it witheringly clear that “Taking care of some stuff” doesn’t quite cut it when it translates into “Writing off £40.1 million squandered on system code that’s as useful as a grill-pan made of cheese.”

Universal Credit is, by common consent, the most fundamental upgrade to the Welfare State since Attlee, amalgamating six different means-tested benefits. It will affect a vast number of people; we can’t yet say how many, because the Government is still busy buggering up their lives. Development costs are quoted as £2 billion, but since it’s an IT project, here’s a board and some darts. However, if done right, it may actually be the solution to a generally acknowledged problem.

So it’s a shame that the Tories have entrusted its delivery to, let’s be charitable, an incompetent fantasist in the face of whose cack-handed intransigence we’ll be lucky not to see people starving on the streets.

Many commentators condemn IDS as a lying, malevolent wretch. Not being able to afford a lawyer, I wouldn’t go that far. I’d say he suffers from a delusional world-view constantly contradicted by the evidence of his eyes, a gap he bridges by inventing colourful narratives that would be risible if they weren’t so tragic. Who else could be brought to tears witnessing the deprivation of people in Easterhouse in 2002, yet later adopt policies that make their lives even worse? In ordinary society, this gossamer-thin grasp of reality tends to get you sectioned. In Westminster, apparently, it nails you a rock-solid Cabinet seat and an after-life in ermine.

Things have looked dodgy for Universal Credit ever since April, when its initial trial was hastily pared back from tree-trunk to twiglet. At present the software kind of works for single first-time claimants, placing it roughly on a par with a Biro and box of index cards. However, it can’t cope with couples, though that’s OK, because the stresses induced by IDS’s welfare policies will probably destroy most relationships anyway. Heaven knows what will happen if a Bloomsbury Group ménage-à-trois or a new age commune tries submitting a claim.

So the wheels are spinning, the exhaust has fallen off and a worrying amount of steam is escaping from the bonnet. Project staff surveys are festooned with phrases such as “soul-destroying”, “absence of strategic leadership” and “firefighting and panic management”. Could all this perhaps jeopardise Universal Credit’s go-live target of 2017?

At first we were repeatedly told, “Perish the thought. Everything will be just fine.” This raised to snapping point the eyebrows of anyone who’s ever worked in an IT project that’s behind schedule. Then IDS, ever careful not to fart unless he knows a brass band is marching past, sneaked out a ripper under cover of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Universal Credit would, er, not quite be ready by 2017 for 700,000 claimants currently on disability benefits. Complex cases, you know. Only fair to give them longer. Everything else tickety-boo. Project well within budget. I believe I can fly.

Thus, on Tuesday, as the hapless Work and Pensions Committee endured guff such as “Reworking 30% of the code is normal” and “The plan is in essence the same” and “It’s an agile project, we’re learning as we go along”, all of them knew in their hearts it was cobblers. But, for all Glenda’s scorn, in the polite world of Westminster no-one could quite come out and say it. And certainly no-one knew what to do about it.

Folks, the position is clear. Your system has been infected with the IDS virus. Stop what you’re doing, shut the thing down and get specialist help. Just ask any IT professional.

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