Universal Credit’s “multiple frustrations and complications”

By Tony Collins

universal creditJournalists who are trying to find out the current state of the Universal Credit programme will get little help from the Department for Work and Pensions unless its press officers sense that the eventual outcome will be positive.

Sometimes journalists call me as part of their research. They want to know whether UC will end up as another government IT disaster. I had such a call yesterday.

The conversation focused on IT. But it’s a maxim in the industry that major change programmes in the public sector usually fail or are delayed for managerial rather than technical reasons.

The introduction of a new passport system failed when a better, more secure system slowed down the issuing of new passport applications.

Instead of halting the roll-out to see how to speed up the issuing of passports – by changing procedures or spending more on staff and equipment – the Home Office continued the rollout and chaos ensured. That wasn’t the fault of the IT.

It may be a similar story with Universal Credit. Even if the IT as far as it goes works well, claims handling is a laborious process,  The main systems do not handle calculations of gross income, net income or back-office integration, all of which are managed manually.

Chaos is unlikely because the rollout is going so slowly.  But the amount of manual intervention required means the slow rollout is enforced rather than merely voluntary.

[This slow rollout is despite an IT budget for UC including migration costs from 2010 to 2014/15 of £812m as at December 2012. Within this budget, £303m had been spent to March 2013, mostly with the DWP’s main IT suppliers Accenture, IBM, HP and BT.]

The programme is also running into non-IT difficulties such as delays in issuing first-time payments to claimants because of a variety of reasons around the complexity of new procedures, and tenants unable to pay rent because the money hasn’t gone directly to landlords.

If UC goes nationwide, as Iain Duncan Smith says it will next year, it will still be able to handle only limited numbers of claimants, in the tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands and certainly not millions.

This article is a reminder that Universal Credit faces problems that go beyond the IT. A North West housing association said a survey of its tenants had exposed flaws in the universal credit system, with some claimants turning to pay day lenders to get by.

After taking part in a pilot in 2013 of the roll out of UC, First Choice Homes Oldham found that their tenants had suffered “multiple frustrations and complications with the system”. Data collected this summer from 40% of the housing association’s tenants on UC found that:

• 55% found the period between making their UC claim and receiving their first payment very difficult. 44% managed financially by borrowing and 18% had taken out a pay day loan.

• 74% had not been offered personal budgeting support by the Department for Work and Pensions. However, 57% of the tenants that were offered this service took up the offer.

• 37% did not receive their payment on the same day each month, making budgeting even more difficult.

• 59% of tenants had not found work since claiming UC.

When asked by FCHO to name the first three bills that would be paid once they were in receipt of UC, 19% of tenants did not name rent as a priority bill.

So will UC succeed?

It’s laudable that the coalition is trying to simplify the benefits system. No pain no gain. But it’s not doing it openly. IDS pretends all is well when clearly it isn’t.

This means that UC becomes an impossible project to manage well. No programme leader can take big problems to IDS because big problems are not supposed to exist. UC desperately needs a new political leader who has no emotional equity in its success.

It’s right (and largely involuntary) that the DWP is going slowly in rolling out UC. This way chaos is avoided.

But to handle millions of claims, the processing of UC transactions and payments needs to be a fully automated process. The DWP is working on that – what Iain Duncan Smith calls an “enhanced digital service”.  Nobody seems to know much about it. IDS says it is going to be tested later this year.


Now into its fourth year of implementation, UC is still mired in uncertainty, despite IDS’s self-confident remarks at the Tory conference.

The facts are likely to emerge when the National Audit Office publishes its updated report which is expected before the end of this year. The DWP may already have drafted its press release saying the NAO report is outdated, which is part of the problem with UC and other big government IT-based programmes: they are more governed by politics than pragmatism.


8 responses to “Universal Credit’s “multiple frustrations and complications”

  1. Today’s ministerial statement features this obfuscatory gem

    “The Department will personalise support to maximise flows into work as more households move onto Universal Credit as legacy benefits close to new claims from 2016. This establishes the Universal Credit service across Great Britain, complete by 2017, with the caseload continuing to build naturally thereafter.”



    • Thanks for the link. The bit you’ve chosen or the whole IDS written statement is worthy of a nomination for the Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull award (for the worst examples of written tripe). http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/campaigning/awards.html
      It looks as if IDS has asked a civil servant to write a public update on what is happening with UC, when not much is happening. The DWP expected at least 184,000 UC claimants by April 2014 (and that’s according to the revised business case dated Dec 2012). In fact there were fewer than 12,000 claimants by August 2014. Given these statistics what can IDS say? Tony Collins


      • Yes – I feel sorry for the author.

        The salient fact is that we’ve moved from the 2011 position, that:

        All claimants will have transferred to Universal Credit by sometime in 2017

        via the early 2014 position:

        All claimants except for some on ESA will have transferred to Universal Credit by sometime in 2017

        to the current position, which appears to be:

        The infrastructure to support the transfer of claimants to Universal Credit will be in place nationwide by 2017 and no new claims for legacy benefits will be possible. Existing claimants of legacy benefits will continue to be transferred to universal credit in a process of unknown duration.

        For what it’s worth, I think the original decision to have ambitious timetables for the pathfinders and a relaxed itinerary for full implementaion was probably the right one. And at least the problems with Universal Credit are currently affecting very few people, unlike the continuing problems plaguing PIP and ESA – or the horribly botched big-bang implementation of tax credits back in 2003.


    • So, 100,000 claimants (mostly very simple cases) by May 2015. Half a million (out of an envisaged seven point seven million) by May 2016. Managed migration (actively shifting people off legacy benefits) apparently abandoned. Legacy systems to be run into the indefinite future. Councils who were told to run down housing benefit teams will have to rethink. Yet Iain Duncan Smith still claims that universal credit will bring up to 35 billion pounds of economic benefits – a statement that is technically true I suppose, whatever figure you put on it.

      Click to access uc-at-work.pdf


  2. DWP press releases on universal credit are fey, fleeting constructions wreathed in smoke and garlanded in ambiguity. One effort last year stated that:

    “Universal Credit will expand to 6 new Jobcentres starting from October 2013. ”

    This was widely reported as disappointing news – only six new Jobcentres would be starting in October. The truth, that the six new centres would come on stream between October and the following March, was hidden in paragraph 18. of housing benefit general bulletin 2013/G10.

    “18. We are also on course to meet our commitment to roll out Universal Credit to a further six sites between October 2013 and spring 2014, starting with Hammersmith this month”

    I didn’t see much evidence of the DWP press office attempting to correct the erroneous impression it had fostered.


    • Tim Morton

      Indeed, I rarely get excited by these announcements now and consider much of the Universal Credit stories to be a smoke screen for the brutal; sanctions regime which affects many many more people in real time than this grand project..


  3. Tim Morton

    does IDS stand for Ianhanced Digital Service?


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