Universal Credit: the case against optimism

5 December 2014

Reform’s Charlotte Pickles saw a case for “cautious optimism” in her blog on the 26th November.

National Audit Office (NAO) reports are often described as being “glass half full/glass half empty”. The recent NAO report on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Universal Credit project was all things to all men (and women).

Let me give my view on the other half of the glass – the empty delivery against promise after promise by the DWP to deliver this new benefit to help millions of claimants claw their way out of poverty.

It is now over a year since the Universal Credit system and supporting staff processes was meant to be fully live and rapidly rolling out in October 2013.  When that deadline was missed, we learnt from the first NAO report that the security/logon has been written off. The wrangling over this admission between the NAO and DWP went on for six months – delaying the publication of DWP annual accounts – an unheard of occurrence. I was the first ‘DWP watcher’ to comment publically on this.

Now, another year on, we find out that there are still no more than 17,850 claimants on the Universal Credit caseload.  And these are the plain vanilla cases only.

The NAO report is a massive 61 pages long. Each sentence is measured and precise, there is no duplication or overlap of information – each fact reported is placed within careful context. For a mere administrative IT project to receive such careful and detailed description is unprecedented.

This is a report which could have easily been used as a political football, so the NAO have been very careful not to provide any easy ‘soundbites’ for the mainstream media.

But reading between the lines within the report, and looking at the details provided in the appendices we can unpick the following facts:

  • Confirmation that at least £239 million has been wasted on unusable IT to date and more is on the cards for write-off
  • There has been a massive four-way tug-of war between DWP, the Treasury, Cabinet Office and the NAO, with the DWP dragging its heels on transparency and realistic planning at very step
  • The take-on of Tax Credits next month has been abandoned. Missed by the main stream media and hidden away in the detail of the report

So although the report does accept that the Department has made attempts to “de-risk” the delivery by using a “twin-track” approach, the fact is that it is now nearly 5 years into a major programme of change, and nothing has changed for 99 per cent of those targeted in this reform.

Brian Wernham, IT project expert and author of ‘Agile Project Management for Government’ (Maitland & Strong 2014)



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