It has been a while since I penned something on Universal Credit – the UK government’s £2.4 billion welfare reform project that aims to simply social security benefits into one single claimant. A while indeed. During 2013 I spent more time writing about the failings of the IT system that is being used to support the new scheme than I did on any other subject! But the beginning of this year has been eerily quiet and very little detail has emerged since some damning reports and the revelation that the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) will be writing off a lot of the systems it has developed so far, to start again and create a new digital ‘end state solution’.
However, it appears that I’m not alone in thinking that all has gone quiet. DWP is currently refusing to put information about the new system’s business case into the public domain and MPs are criticising the department for its secrecy – something that it has been slammed for in the past.
But let’s have a quick recap. DWP intended to rollout its original Universal Credit system by 2017 – however, following a number of problems with scalability, flexibility and security, it was decided that this system would instead be used in a select number of pilot areas to see how claimants dealt with the changes to social security benefits, but ultimately will be written off over a five year period. To date some £40 million of software has already been written off. It will now be replaced by a new digital mobile-first version that is being built in-house by the department.
Why the secrecy?
I’m of the belief that DWP’s decision to change course and create a new digital version for Universal Credit was a much needed, bold move. However, I also strongly believe that the department shouldn’t be wasting millions of pounds on developing the existing system alongside the new digital one, if it is ultimately going to be of no use to anyone in the very near future. However, those points aside – the department is currently not doing a very good job of explaining the benefits of the new system and is being very secretive about how much it is going to spend on it (we currently only know it has a budget of £25-32 million up to November this year), what the timelines are and how it will work.
When DWP announced its plans to effectively scrap the failing IT system, it said that it was putting a new business case together for the digital one, which was to be approved by ministers, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. However, today I notice that this business case isn’t going to be put into the public domain for interrogation. Answering a parliamentary question, Minister of State for Employment, Esther McVey, said:
“In line with standard practice, as the universal credit business case includes details of a sensitive nature the Department will not be putting the business case into the public domain.”
Ah, here it is again. That lovely little get out clause – commercial sensitivity. This is something that departments and civil servants have been heavily criticised for in recent months, with MPs stating that ‘commercially sensitive’ information should be released into the public domain (unless there is a bloody good reason for not doing so) because it helps hold big projects of this nature to account. This is taxpayer money after all.
A select committee of MPs summed it up nicely last week when releasing a report looking at the troubled Universal Credit system, where they said:
“There remains worrying uncertainty about the new Universal Credit IT system, says the Work and Pensions Committee in a report published today. This includes how it will work, how much it will cost, and who will develop it.”
In other words, no one has a bloody clue what is going on within the walls of the Whitehall department it’s very hard to assess how things are moving forward, if there is no information being released. Committee Chair Dame Anne Begg made some rather incisive comments on the release of the report. Some of which include:
“Only 4,280 people were claiming Universal Credit by December 2013 and the majority of these claims were of the simplest nature. By comparison, in the same month, 1.22 million people were claiming Jobseekers Allowance. This demonstrates the scale of the challenge still facing the Government in trying to implement UC by 2017.
“Whilst it is right to ensure that the system works properly before extending it, there is a difference between cautious progress and a snail’s pace. Given the excruciatingly slow pace of roll-out to date, it is hard to see how the most recent implementation timetable can be met.
“Given the small number of people currently claiming UC, the Government should consider whether it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to abandon further development of the existing system and focus solely on the end-state solution.”
She added that the end-state solution is still not ready for testing on the first 100 claimants and there is no indication of when it will be possible to test it on a bigger and more representative group. In an answer to a separate parliamentary question, Esther McVey said that the department expects to trial an “early version” of the enhanced digital service to a “limited number of claimants” later this year. Good to hear, but still a sufficient lack of detail.
“Universal Credit and its IT systems are very clearly working well, with claimants receiving the new benefit and moving into work.
“We deliberately started in a slow, controlled and safe way, which the Committee itself has long recommended, so we can expand Universal Credit securely to more people.
“Universal Credit is on track and we will start expanding it to other Jobcentres from this summer.”
After my own dealings with DWP, the culture of secrecy doesn’t surprise me. For months I was told that everything was fine with the existing Universal Credit system and that media reports were just speculation. I’ve also since had pedantic arguments with spokespeople about criticising the existing system – which no matter way you look at it, even if it is working fine now in pilots, obviously isn’t good enough for an all out national rollout. End of.
MPs have said that the department hampered the Committee’s scrutiny of Universal Credit by not providing accurate, timely and detailed information. This is completely unacceptable. The department is dealing with taxpayer money here and I think that given its troubled progress to date, as much information should be put into the public domain as possible so that we know exactly what to expect in the future.
However, given that Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, is facing a general election next year, we should also expect that the political spin machine will be in full swing for the next twelve months. Any further bad news could be bad news for an election, so until then I imagine that DWP will remain very tight lipped.