By Tony Collins
As the head of the Universal Credit programme, Howard Shiplee, returns to work after being off sick with bronchitis, news emerges that the DWP is to lose its IT head Andy Nelson whose responsibilities include Universal Credit.
The highly regarded Nelson is to leave this summer after little more than a year as the DWP’s CIO.
The DWP’s press office – which for more than a year had a brief to tell journalists that Universal Credit was on time and to budget – is saying that Nelson’s brief was the whole of the DWP’s IT. The implication is that Nelson had little to do with Universal Credit.
But Nelson’s brief specifically included Universal Credit. At the weekend IDS told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that the IT for Universal Credit is working. If that were so, wouldn’t Nelson want to be associated with such a high-profile success?
The FT, in an article in February on Shiplee’s sick leave, pointed out that Terry Moran, the civil servant in charge of universal credit at its inception, retired from the department last year after an extended period of sick leave.
Hilary Reynolds, a department civil servant who was appointed programme director in November 2012, moved to another role four months later. She in turn had taken over from Malcolm Whitehouse, who had stepped down from the programme around the same time as Moran.
Departures of top DWP people may be one of the few outward signs of the true state of UC IT until the next government reviews the programme and perhaps announces the results.
On the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme on 9 March 2014 IDS suggested he is being entirely open about the Universal Credit programme – he invited the media and come and see where it is being rolled out. But the DWP keeps hidden its internal reports on the actual state of the programme. The Information Tribunal is currently weighing up whether the DWP should be ordered to publish one of its internal reports on the Universal Credit project.
IDS on BBC’s Sunday Politics
Below is a partial transcript of IDS’s interview with presenter Andrew Neil on the Universal Credit project. IDS refers incorrectly to write-offs of £28bn on IT programmes by the last government, and he gives some seemingly contradictory answers. If the government needs a spokesman to argue that day is night and night is day, IDS is probably the man.
Andrew Neil (presenter) Why has so much been written off on UC although it has barely been introduced?
IDS: “It’s a £2bn project and in the private sector IT programmes write off 30%-40% regularly because that’s the nature. The point I want to make here is that UC is already rolling out. The IT is working. We are improving as we go along. You keep your eye on the bits that don’t work and you make sure they don’t create a problem for the programme.
“The £40m that was written off was to do with security IT. I took the decision over a year and half ago. That is the standard write down – the amortisation of costs over a period. The existing legacy systems were written down in cost terms years ago in the accounts but they continue to work right now.
“We are doing pathfinders and learning a lot about it but I am not going this again like the last government did which is big bang launches and then you have problems like they had with the health IT and it crashes. You do it phase by phase, you learn what you have to do and you make the changes, then you continue to get the rest of it out.
“The key point is that it is rolling out and I invite anybody from the media etc to come and look at where it is being rolled out …”
Neil: You say it [Universal Credit] is being rolled out but nobody notices. You were predicting that one million people would be on universal credit by April and now it’s March and there are only 3,200 are on it.
IDS: “I am not bandying figures around but it is 6,000 and rising. I changed the way we were rolling out over a year ago. Under the advice I brought in from outside – he said: you are better off Pathfinding this out, making sure you learn the lessons, roll it out slower and you gain momentum later on.
“On the timetables for the roll-out we are pretty clear. It is going to rollout in the timescales originally set [completion by October 2017] but the scale of that rollout … so what we are going to do is roll it out in the North West, recognise how it works properly, and then you roll it out region by region.
“There are lot of variations and variables in this process but if you do it that way you won’t end up with the kind of debacle the last government had in the health service and many others where they wrote off something in the order of £28 billion pounds of IT programmes. We won’t be doing that. There is £38bn of net benefits so it is worth getting it right.”
Neil: When will UC be universal – when will it cover the whole country?
IDS: “By 2016 everybody who is claiming a benefit will be claiming universal credit.
Neil: But not everybody will be getting it by then.
IDS: “Because there are some who are on sickness benefits and they will take longer to bring on because it is a little more problematic, and a bit more difficult because many of them have no work expectations. For those who are on tax credits and job seekers allowance they will be making claims on universal credit and many are already doing that now. There are over already 200,000 people around the country who are on parts of universal credit now.”
Neil: When will everybody be on UC?
IDS: “We said they would be on UC by 2018.”
Are you on track for that?
“Yes we are. 2016 is when everybody claiming this benefit will be on. Then you have to bring on those who have been on a long time on other benefits. UC is a big and important reform. It is not an IT reform. IT is only the automation. The important point is that it will be a massive cultural change. The change is dramatic. You can get a jobseeker to take a small part-time job immediately while they are looking for work. That improves their likelihood of getting longer work and it means flexibility for business.”
The DWP says it needs a “safe space” to discuss the progress of its projects without the glare of publicity. That’s one reason it refuses to publish any of the reviews it has commissioned on UC. But the hiding of these reports, which have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, means that IDS can go on TV and say almost whatever he likes about progress on the Universal Credit project, without fear of authoritative contradiction.
Why does the Cabinet Office allow the DWP and other departments to keep secret their internal reports on the progress or otherwise of their IT-based projects and programmes? Probably because the Cabinet Office’s minister Francis Maude doesn’t want to be too intrusive.
So we’ll be left guessing on the state of big IT-enabled programmes until the scheme’s defects are too great to be hidden or the NAO publishes a report. Will the former that be the fate of Universal Credit IT?