By Tony Collins
Has the Department for Work and Pensions put itself, to some extent, beyond the scrutiny of Parliament on the Universal Credit IT programme?
Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee Universal Credit progress update was drafted by the National Audit Office. All of the committee’s reports are effectively more strongly-worded NAO reports.
If the Department for Work and Pensions cannot be open with its own auditors – the National Audit Office audits the department’s annual accounts – are the DWP’s most senior officials in the happy position of being accountable to nobody on the Universal Credit IT programme?
The National Audit Office and the committee found the Department for Work and Pensions “selective or even inaccurate” when giving some information to the committee.
In answering some questions, the committee found officials “evasive”.
Today’s PAC report says:
“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays. The Department’s response to the previous Committee’s recommendations in the February 2015 report Universal Credit: progress update do not convince us that it is committed to improving transparency about the programme’s progress.”
On the basis of the limited information supplied by the DWP to Parliament the committee’s MPs believe that the Universal Credit has stabilised and made progress since the committee first reported on the programme in 2013, but there “remains a long way to go”.
So far the roll-out has largely involved the simplest of cases, and the ineligibility list for potential UC claimants is long. By 10 December 2015, fewer than 200,000 people were on the DWP’s UC “caseload” list.
The actual number could be far fewer because the exact number recorded by the DWP by 10 December 2015 (175, 505) does not include people whose claims have terminated because they have become ineligible by for example having capital more than £16,000 or earning more so that their benefits are reduced to zero.
The plan is to have more than seven million on the benefit, and the timetable for completion of the roll-out has stretched from 2017 originally to 2021, although some independent experts believe the roll-out will not complete before 2023.
Meanwhile the DWP appears to be controlling carefully the information it gives to Parliament on progress. The committee accuses the DWP in today’s report of making it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the department to account. Says the report,
“The programme’s lack of clear and specific milestones creates uncertainty for claimants, advisers, and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the Department to account.”
These are more excerpts from the report:
“In February 2015 the previous Committee of Public Accounts published Universal Credit: progress update … The Department accepted the Committee’s recommendations.
“However, we felt that the Department’s responses were rather weak and lacked specifics, and we were not convinced that it is committed to ensuring there is real clarity on this important programme’s progress.
“As a result, we recalled both the Department and HM Treasury to discuss a number of issues that concerned us, particularly around the business case, the continuing risks of delay, and the lack of transparency and clear milestones.
“Recommendation: The Department should set out clearly how it is tracking the costs of continuing delays, and who is responsible for ensuring benefits are maximised.
“The Department does not publish accessible information about plans and milestones and we are concerned by the lack of detail in the public domain about its expected progress.
“For proper accountability, this information should be published so that the Committee, the National Audit Office and the general public can be clear about progress…
“… the Department did not acknowledge that the slower roll-out affects two other milestones, because it delays the date when existing claimants start to be moved onto Universal Credit and reduces the number of Universal Credit claimants at the end of 2019.
“The flexible adaptation of milestones to circumstances is sensible, but the Department should be open about when this occurs and what the effects are. Instead, the Department’s continued lack of transparency makes it very difficult for us and the public to understand precisely how its plans are shifting.
“Claimants need to know more than just their benefits will change ‘soon’; local authorities need time to prepare additional support; and advisers need to be able to help people that come to them with concerns…
“Recommendation: By May 2016, the Department should set out and report publicly against a wider set of clearly stated milestones, based on ones it currently uses as internal measures, including plans for different claimant groups, local authority areas and for the development and use of new systems. We have set out the areas we expect these milestones to cover in an appendix to this report…
“The Department was selective or even inaccurate when highlighting the findings of its evaluation to us.”
The DWP has two IT projects to deliver UC, one based on its existing major suppliers delivering systems that integrate the simplest of new claims with legacy IT.
The other and more promising solution is a far cheaper “digital service” that is based on agile principles and is, in effect, entirely new IT that could eventually replace legacy systems. It is on trial in a small number of jobcentres.
The DWP’s slowly slowly approach to roll-out means it is reluctant to publish milestones, and it has reached only an early stage of the business case. The final business case is not expected before 2017 and could be later.
The committee has asked the DWP to be more transparent over the business case. It wants detail on:
- Projected spending, including both investment and running costs for:
- Live service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
- Digital service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
- Rest of programme (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘External supplier costs’)
- Net benefits realised versus forecasts.
Meanwhile the DWP’s response to those who criticise the slow roll-out is to give impressive statistics on the number of jobcentres now processing UC claims, without acknowledging that nearly all of them are processing only the simplest of claims.
To whom is the DWP accountable on the Universal Credit IT programme? To judge from today’s report it is not the all-party Public Accounts Committee or its own auditors the National Audit Office.
No government has been willing to force Whitehall departments to be properly accountable for their major IT-enabled projects or programmes. Sir Humphrey remains in control.
The last government with Francis Maude at the helm at the Cabinet Office came close to introducing real reforms (his campaign began too forcefully but settled into a good strategy of pragmatic compromise) but his departure has meant that open government and greater accountability for central departments have drifted into the shadows.
The DWP is not only beyond the ability of Parliament to hold it accountable it is spending undisclosed of public money sums on an FOI case to stop three ageing reports on the Universal Credit IT programme being published. The reports are nearly four years old.
Would that senior officials at the DWP could begin to understand a connection between openness and Lincoln’s famous phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Department for Work and Pensions “evasive” – Civil Service World (This article is aimed at its readers who are mostly civil servants. It is likely it will find favour with senior DWP IT staff who will probably mostly agree with the Public Accounts Committee’s view that the DWP hierarchy is, perhaps because of culture, evasive and selective with the information it gives to Parliament and the public.)