Universal Credit and its IT – an inside track?

By Tony Collins

An excellent BBC Radio 4 “Inside Welfare Reform” Analysis broadcast yesterday evening gave an insider’s view of the IT-based Universal Credit programme from its beginnings to today.

It depicted Iain Duncan Smith as a courageous reformer who’s kept faith with important welfare changes that all parties support. If they work, the reforms will benefit taxpayers and claimants. The broadcast concludes with an apparent endorsement of IDS’s very slow introduction of UC.

“When real lives and real money are at stake, being cautious is not the worst mistake you can make.”

So says the BBC R4 “Analysis” guest presenter Jonathan Portes who worked on welfare spending at the Treasury in the 1980s and became Chief Economist at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002. He left the DWP in 2011 and is now director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The BBC broadcast left me with the impression that UC would today be perceived as meeting expectations if DWP officials and ministers had, in the early days:

– been open and honest about the complexities of IT-related and business change

– outlined the potential problems of implementing UC as set out in internal reports and the minutes of programme team meetings

– explained the likelihood of the UC programme taking more time and money than initially envisaged

– urged the need for extreme caution

– made a decision at the outset to protect – at all costs – those most in genuine need of disability benefits

– not sold UC to a sceptical Treasury on the basis it would save billions in disability claims  – for today thousands of disability claimants are in genuine need of state help, some of whom are desperately sick, and are not receiving money because of delays.

Instead UC is perceived as a disaster, as set out in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary last night.

A £500m write-off on IT?

Other noteworthy parts of the BBC R4 Analysis broadcast:

– The Department for Work and Pensions gave selective responses to the BBC’s questions. Portes: “We did ask the Department for Work and Pensions for an interview for this programme but neither Iain Duncan  Smith nor any minister was available. We sent a detailed list of questions and have had answers to some.”

– Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, gave her view that the next government will have to write off £500m on IT investment on Universal Credit – about £360m more than the Department for Work and Pensions has stated publicly.

Hodge told the BBC: “We are now on our fourth or official in charge of the project and the project has only been going four or five years. Anyone who knows about project management will tell you that consistency of leadership is vital. I don’t think there has been ownership of the project by a senior official within DWP.  I think they and ministers have only wanted to hear the good news. Management of the IT companies has been abysmal.

“I still believe, though I haven’t t got officials to admit to this, that after the general election we will probably be writing off in excess of half a billion  pounds on investment in IT that had failed to deliver… The investment in IT that they are presently saying they can re-use in other ways is not fit for purpose. The system simply cannot cope.”

The BBC asked the DWP for its comment on the scale of the write-offs. “No answer,” said Portes.

Parliament told the truth?

Stephen Brien, who has been dubbed the architect of Universal Credit, gave his first broadcast interview to Analysis. He worked with IDS at the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank set up by IDS in 2004. Brien saw IDS on a nearly daily basis.

Portes asked Brien when IDS first realised things were going off track. “The challenge became very stark in the summer of 2012,” said Brien.

Portes: What was your relationship with IDS?

“My office was across the corridor from his.  I would join him for all the senior meetings about the programme. I would keep him updated as a result of the other meetings I was addressing within the programme team. When it became materially obvious we had to change plans it was over that summer [2012].

Portes: But that was not the public line. In September 2012 this is what IDS said (in the House of Commons):

“We will deliver Universal Credit on time, as it is, on budget, right now.”

IDS appears to have given that assurance while being aware of the change to UC plans.

UC oversold to Treasury?

Portes: “The really big savings were supposed to come from disability benefit. And here trouble was brewing. The problem was the deal IDS had done with the Treasury. The Treasury never liked UC. It thought it was both risky and expensive. And the Treasury, faced with a huge budget deficit, wanted to save not spend.

“With pensions protected disability benefits were really the only place savings could be made.  The previous government had contracted ATOS to administer a new medical test – the Work Capability Assessment – to all 2.5 million people on Incapacity Benefit but only a few pilots had started.

“IDS and the Treasury agreed to press ahead.  Some claimants would be moved to new Employment and Support Allowance but the plan was that several hundred thousand would lose the benefit entirely – saving about £3bn a year.

“Disability living allowance which helps with the extra cost of disability would also be replaced with the new, saving another £2bn…

But …

“By now the new work capability assessment was supposed to have got more than 500,000 people off incapacity benefits. Instead they are stuck in limbo waiting for an assessment.

“By now the new Personal Independence Payment should have replaced disability living allowance saving billions of pounds more. Instead it too has been dogged by delay.

“Just a few days ago the Office for Budget Responsibility said delays in these benefits are costing taxpayers close to £5bn a year. This dwarfs any savings made elsewhere and leaves a potential black hole in the next government budget.”

How many people left stuck in the system?

The BBC asked the Department of Work and Pensions’ press office how many claimants, and for how long, they have been waiting for claims to be resolved. Portes: “They didn’t answer. But their own published statistics suggest it is at least half a million.

“One aim of the reforms was to cut incapacity benefit and the numbers had been on a long slow decline between 2003 and 2012 but now it is rising again. So much for the Treasury saving.”

Who is at fault?

Publicly IDS talks about a lack of professionalism among civil servants and that he has lost faith with their ability to manage the UC-related problems. Rumours in the corridors of Westminster are that behind the scenes IDS has attempted to blame his permanent secretary Robert Devereux.  On this point, again, the DWP refused the BBC’s request for a comment.

Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, who appointed Devereux, told the BBC that tensions between IDS and Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office did not help. “Robert [Devereux] was in a very difficult position. He was in a world where Francis Maude was trying to deliver, efficiently, programmes for government and on the other hand IDS was seeing the centre as interfering and criticising whereas he knew best: it was his project; he was living it every day. There was a lot of tension there. Really what we need to do is get everyone sitting round a table trying to work out how we can deliver outcomes that matter.”

Was Devereux set up to fail?

O’Donnell: “With hindsight one can say this is a project that could not be delivered to time and cost.”

Were DWP officials to blame?

Stephen Brien said: “There was a real desire from the very beginning to get this done. I think there was a desire within DWP to demonstrate that it could again do big programmes. The DWP had not been involved in very large transformation programmes over the previous decade. There was a great enthusiasm to get back in the saddle,  a sense that it [UC] had to get underway and it had to be well entrenched through Parliament.

“These forces – each of them – contributed to a sense of ‘we have got to get this done and therefore we will get this done.’”

Too ambitious?

Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, told the BBC: “If you know what it is you want to do and you understand what is required to get there, then what’s wrong with being ambitious?

“The trouble is that when you get into the detail you find you are bruising people, damaging people, people who genuinely will always need our help. Taxpayers, our constituents, expect us to implement things so that they work, rather than see project after project go wrong and money squandered.

“There may come a point where we say: ‘we have spent so much money on this and achieved so little, is the game worth the candle?’”

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Dispatches documentary. 

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3 responses to “Universal Credit and its IT – an inside track?

  1. Pingback: Universal Credit: The human cost of the UK’s new “unworkable” welfare system – diginomica

  2. Looking for blame must lie with the CIO & CTO at DWP at the time of investigating the project. Sure the Permanent Secretaries shoulder responsibility but what do they and politicians know about IT capabilities?

    I was pushing to be heard on new software that had already been proven to do means testing at UK Sport (Oracle based so plenty room for scaling). I wrote a brief on how to both think and deliver on new this way and building what IDS was describing in 2010 as a “Dynamic Benefits System”. A 3 pager that brought simplicity to allow delivery of such a dynamic system. AND it was ignored! Nobody visited UK Sport to see in action. It was clear our message was not welcome they know better…..well with hindsight not so!

    If anyone wants to see what it said let me know. But when civil servants ignore new proven ideas to the great cost to taxpayer then that needs to be investigated and those responsible held to account? When that starts to happen then and only then will progress be made…..?

    Like

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