As Osborne gets to his feet, the eyes of the media are inevitably trained on him with the Statement guaranteed to be the main political agenda item of the day and occupy the attentions of both government and opposition.
So all in all it’s a perfect time for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to slip out some unwelcome words on the subject of Universal Credit (UC), the UK public sector’s most important IT initiative of the moment.
Cynical opportunism? Perish the thought!
We’ve written a lot about UC over the past few months.
It’s one of the defining policies of the current government in the UK, an ambitious scheme to boil a myriad of social security benefits down to one single payment.
It’s a massive undertaking and one that is entirely dependent on the underlying IT to deliver success - and that’s where it’s all been going a bit wrong.
Through it all, the responsible government minster Ian Duncan Smith has been adamant that UC is on schedule, despite the IT underpinning it being essentially unfit for purpose and on the verge of being written off.
But Duncan Smith has been consistent in his statements
- July: "We are bound to the timescales set: between October 2013 and 2017, all of those who fall within the ambit of Universal Credit will be on Universal Credit."
- September: “We will deliver this in time and in budget."
- October: “Universal Credit will roll out very well and it will be on time and within budget”.
- October: “Universal Credit will roll out and deliver exactly as we said it would.”
- Etc etc etc.
But what’s this this morning? He’s blinked! Duncan Smith told the BBC what we all knew in our hearts anyway. It's not going to hit its deadlines after all. Or as he put it:
"We may take a little longer…
“Howard Shiplee [the man brought in to turn the programme around] may say we want to take a little more time…
"But essentially Universal Credit as a benefit will be the benefit by 2016 and the remains of the vast, vast majority of the stock will be in place pretty much by the end of 2017."
Cutting through the political flim flam, this is a major blow to Duncan Smith who has made UC his personal mission.
The official statement from the DWP keeps its options open and buries the possibility of delay right at the bottom:
Our current planning assumption is that the Universal Credit service will be fully available in each part of Great Britain during 2016, having closed down new claims to the legacy benefits it replaced; with the majority of the remaining legacy caseload moving to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017.
Final decisions on these elements of the programme will be informed by the development of the enhanced digital solution.
That leaves the door neatly open for further slippage of course.
The enhanced digital solution referenced here relates to the involvement of the Government Digital Service (GDS) which is now getting stuck into trying to reboot the IT systems development.
In its statement, the DWP says:
As part of the wider transformation in the development of digital services, the Department will further develop the work started by the Government Digital Services to test and implement an enhanced online digital service, which will be capable of delivering the full scope of Universal Credit and make provision for all claimant types.
Or as we might translate it:
What isn’t clear yet is actually just how far GDS is going to be able - or perhaps be allowed - to deliver the necessary assistance.
From what I’m told, the scuttlebutt at the moment centres around what one Whitehall source pitched to me as a turf war between the DWP and the Cabinet Office.
The latter, according to my admittedly unsubstantiated source, wants GDS essentially taking charge; the former wants to cover its proverbial and plough on with its current suppliers as getting out of existing contractual arrangements would risk the possibility of (a) legal action by the suppliers and (b) expose some uncomfortable truths about the shortcomings of the contract management at play here.
The current suppliers themselves seem to be floundering through no fault of their own.
One told me off the record recently that the mentality has become one of:
"keep your head down, cash the cheque and hope someone tells us what we’re supposed to be doing."
Where to now?
To date the DWP’s stance has been that all the criticisms levelled by the likes of the Public Accounts Committee are historical in nature and that action has been taken to get things back on track. If we’d all just hang on in there, we’ll soon see improvement.
That’s fair enough. But if the DWP wants us all to trust it then actions such as cynically slipping out this update under cover of the Autumn Statement aren’t going to help further that ambition.
UC is, as the cliche goes, too big to fail. Absolute transparency and clarity of IT strategy is needed all round to restore confidence - and that's just not visibly there yet.
The DWP talks vaguely about some nirvana in which the best of the current systems are married up with new digital initiatives. What does that even mean?
I’ll stick my neck out now and say that I’d bet my pension on most of the work that’s been done to date being scrapped and written off.
It’s that old joke again. How do I get from A to B? Well, I wouldn’t start from here.
In the official DWP statement, Duncan Smith argues:
"This is a once-in-a-generation reform. And we're going to get it right by bringing it in carefully and responsibly."
So do it!