By Tony Collins
Much of what Iain Duncan Smith said at the Work and Pensions Committee yesterday made sense. In essence the DWP’s plan is to delay putting most of the claimants onto the Universal Credit system until the technology is proven to work.
But there is little evidence it will work at scale, handling reliably and accurately millions of claimants and complex cases. It emerged yesterday that the DWP has still not yet agreed with suppliers a specification for the UC systems, and the latest business case has yet to be approved. How can anyone say on the basis of the limited work so far that the technology will work?
And Howard Shiplee, Director General of Universal Credit, made the point yesterday that the technology is only part of the story. For UC to work there have to be changes in culture, operational procedures within the DWP and the retraining of tens of thousands of staff.
IDS is doing what various sets of ministers and officials did during the distended failure of the NHS’s £11bn computer programme, the National Programme for IT [NPfIT]: in assuring Parliament all was well they always used the future tense. The programme “will” give everyone in England an electronic patient record. But nothing was delivered that provided evidence the promises would be fulfilled. It took a new government to admit the NPfIT was a failure.
UC differs from the NPfIT in a crucial way. The NPfIT did not need to work. It was conceived at the top without support from the NHS. Many hospitals didn’t want centrally-bought IT foisted on them. The NPfIT was wanted, in the main, by a small number of politicians, officials and big suppliers. UC is needed and wanted. Simplifying the horrifying complex benefit systems has all-party support. Shiplee is right when he says UC has to work. But he didn’t yesterday commit himself to a timeframe.
The last major benefits computerisation project – called “Operational Strategy” – took about 10 years to finish. It did not achieve the promised financial benefits and benefit systems were not combined as originally intended but, in the end, the technology worked well for its time.
If UC does work there’s every reason to believe it will be in a similar timeframe to Operational Strategy: about 10 years. But could IDS keep his job while saying UC will be fully delivered in 2020 or beyond? I doubt it.