By Tony Collins
The DWP is conceding in its own tangential way that the IT for Universal Credit is not up to scratch; and an article in the Daily Telegraph suggests that Universal Credit this year (and perhaps well beyond) will handle so few claimants that the calculations for the time being could be done by hand, or on a spreadsheet, and not automatically by IT systems. The Register, through anonymous sources, has confirmation of this.
The FT says there will be a progressive national rollout of the coalition’s welfare reform in just six additional jobcentres which it said was the “latest sign the project is falling behind schedule”. It added that a significant shake-up of the IT underpinning universal credit is under way.
The DWP said David Pitchford, the Whitehall troubleshooter who took over the running of Universal Credit for three months, had been asked to “review” the IT and ministers had “accepted his recommendation that they should explore enhancing the IT for universal credit working with the government digital service”.
“Advancements in technology since the current system was developed have meant that a more responsive system that is more flexible and secure could potentially be built,” said the DWP.
The FT quoted Howard Shiplee, who has led the Universal Credit project since May, as denying claims from MPs that the original IT had been dumped because it had not delivered. “The existing systems that we have are working, and working effectively,” he said.
He added that he had set aside 100 days not to stop the programme, but to reflect on where it has got to and start to look at the entire total plan.
Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, doesn’t concede that the timetable for the implementation of Universal Credit has changed. He told the work and pensions committee on Wednesday that numbers of claimants would ramp up during 2014 and he insisted that all claimants would be on the system by 2017, as originally planned.
“We get fixated on things like IT; the reality is it’s about a cultural shift,” Duncan Smith told MPs.
Iain Duncan Smith makes it clear that his DWP staff and suppliers, with the help of HMRC, are implementing Universal Credit with extreme care. Labour’s work and pensions spokesman Liam Byrne says the Universal Credit project is a shambles. The truth is hard to fathom.
For years the DWP has rejected press reports that the IT for Universal Credit was in trouble. It is able to do without fear of authoritative contradiction because it keeps secret all its consultancy reports on the state of the Universal Credit project, despite FOI requests.
The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and his officials talk much about the need for openness and transparency. Isn’t it time they persuaded DWP officials to release their internal and external reports on the detailed challenges faced by suppliers and civil servants on Universal Credit and other major government IT projects?
All big government IT projects are characterised by secrecy and defensiveness, although a little information about them is in the vague and subjectively-worded Major Projects Authority annual report.
One by-product of departmental defensiveness and secrecy is that the IT suppliers – in Universal Credit’s case HP, IBM and Accenture – are likely to continue to be paid even if the project is halted and redesigned. It’s probable the suppliers would argue that they have successfully done what they were asked to do in the contract. Who knows what the truth is?
The DWP is in effect protecting its suppliers from public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has been this way for decades and nothing has changed.