By Tony Collins
Yesterday in Parliament Iain Duncan Smith gave a statement on Universal Credit – then MPs asked him questions. Conservative MP Nigel Mills asked IDS a straightforward question:
“Can the secretary of state confirm that the Treasury has now signed off the whole business case and laid to rest that fear that they were not going to do that?”
IDS gave a clear reply: “That is exactly what was being asked before the summer break and the answer is they have …”
But the UC programme has not received Treasury approval for the full business case, nor even the outline business case. Today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update” says that the UC programme received approval in September 2014 for the “strategic outline business case” only.
An NAO official says this is a “long way from Treasury approval” of the full business case.
Until the full business case is approved, UC has no formal funding beyond the current spending review. Meanwhile the Treasury has been funding UC in “small increments” according to the NAO.
The Department of Work and Pensions is due to produce the outline business case next summer, before the next government’s spending review.
The “outline” business case is supposed to set out how the programme is affordable and will be successfully delivered. It summarises the results so far and sets out the case for proceeding to a formal procurement phase.
The “full” business case documents the contractual arrangements,
confirms funding and affordability and sets out the detailed management
arrangements and plans for successful delivery and post evaluation.
The absence of approval for the outline or full business case underlines the uncertainties still in the UC programme. Indeed the latest NAO report says it’s too early to tell whether UC will prove value for money.
But the DWP has reduced risks by extending the roll-out. The programme is now not expected to be completed before 2020. The original completion date was 2017.
The DWP has a twin-track approach to the UC IT programme. It is paying its existing main IT suppliers to support the introduction of UC – the so-called “live” service – while an agile team develops a fully-automated “digital” service that is designed to do all that the “live” service cannot do without manual intervention.
The agile system has yet to be tested – but it has cost only about £8m compared with more than £90m spent on the “live service”.
Labour MP Glenda Jackson, who is a member of the Work and Pensions committee, suggested to IDS yesterday that his promises to MPs on Universal Credit’s roll-out have all been broken and that he has told the House of Commons “porky pies”.
IDS replied that his intention is to ensure that UC is rolled out in a safe and secure way.
You’d never know from IDS’s replies to MPs yesterday that the Universal Credit programme doesn’t yet have either outline business case approval or full business case approval.
In other words, the Treasury has yet to be convinced the UC programme is feasible or affordable. It is paying for the programme in increments.
IDS told MPs the programme has business case approval. He did not make it clear that the programme has the early-stage strategic outline business case approval.
His comments reinforce the need for the National Audit Office to scrutinise the Universal Credit programme. Left to the Department for Work and Pensions, the facts about the programme’s progress, problems and challenges would probably not emerge, not in the House of Commons at least.
Some MPs have said for years that Parliament is the last place to look for the truth.
IDS also said yesterday that the original deadline for completion of UC by 2017 was “artificial” – though he has quoted the 2017 date to MPs on several occasions.
Will UC succeed?
UC as an IT-based programme is not doing too badly, to judge from today’s NAO report.
Indeed it seems that the Department for Work and Pensions, when under intense scrutiny, can start to get things right.
Though existing systems from major suppliers look increasingly unlikely to be able to handle the predicted volumes without a large and expensive amount of manual intervention, the agile digital system, though delayed by 6 months, looks promising, at a fraction of the cost of the conventional “live” system.
The NAO is scrutinising the programme. The DWP’s own auditors seem to be doing a good job. The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is making useful recommendations. And the programme has an independently-chaired board. [The NAO says the programme board has been hampered by limited information and suggests this is because the DWP gives the board “good news” statements rather than facts.]
All this scrutiny is powering the programme in the right direction, though the uncertainties remain massive. As Campaign4Change predicted, the programme will not be complete before 2020. But who cares, if it works well in the end and losses are minimised?
DWP officials are learning lessons – and UC could end up as a template for big government IT-enabled programmes The twin-track approach of using existing suppliers to deliver support for major business changes that yield problems and lessons that then feed into an entirely new agile-based system is not a cheap way to develop government IT – but it may work.
What DWP officials have yet to learn is how to be open and truthful to Parliament, the media – and even its own programme board.