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26 November 2014
Anyone reading the headlines this morning would be forgiven for thinking that the Government’s flagship Universal Credit (UC) reforms have, again, been savaged by the National Audit Office (NAO). This is not the case. Whilst today’s NAO report is indeed critical in places, overall the tone could be said to be one of cautious optimism:
“In principle, the Department’s approach should allow it to learn from experience, improve the design and readiness of services and reduce risks. However, in our view the Programme is at too early a stage to determine if the Department will achieve value for money in its implementation of Universal Credit.”
More specifically, today’s report cites the Department’s attempts to “de-risk” delivery through the revised timetable and “twin-track” approach (continuing with the current live service and developing the digital model simultaneously) and improve the service through a “test and learn” methodology. It also highlights improvements made to financial controls and governance, and the new “multi-layered” target operating model, the previous lack of which had been heavily criticised by the Major Projects Authority. As a think tank arguing for better public services we applaud these changes.
That is not, of course, to claim that all is well: the loud note of caution. The NAO is right to call for more detail on how the programme will accommodate more complex cases. Likewise, the Department must be clear about how the digital service will be integrated with the broader programme, set key milestones for its delivery and set out its contingency plans for any delays or limitations. Challenges also remain in staffing, both in terms of senior project management and digital capability – issues that apply across the civil service and which Reform has highlighted repeatedly – and the governance whilst improved is certainly not perfect.
These issues are in part why the NAO is unable to say whether UC can deliver value for money and why, as they argue, it is so important that the Department “confirms its plans for delivering Universal Credit in terms of cost, time and functionality, against which it can be held to account for the good use of public resources”. But within this, let’s not lose sight of the vision behind the reforms. Universal Credit is not about implementing a new IT system, it is about creating a benefits system that reduces poverty and incentivises work. Taking the time to get this right seems a worthwhile exercise.
In The Blunders of our Governments Sir Ivor Crewe and Anthony King lament the “deficit of deliberation”, and worry that UC may be a “blunder-in-waiting”. In this latest re-setting of the programme is the most hopeful sign yet that the academics’ call for “taking one’s time” is being adhered to. Rather than politicising the delay we should welcome the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ new “careful, controlled” approach to Universal Credit roll out.
Charlotte Pickles is Senior Research Director at Reform