Universal Credit: The IT project that will outlive us all

'Reset' deadline kicks the problem into the long grass

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Analysis Universal Credit feels like it has been around since time immemorial. If the programme ever arrives, its implementation will have spanned three Parliaments - outlasting the careers of many MPs.

The Department for Work and Pensions has consistently maintained that the programme is on track, which may be true if one ignores the ever-shifting goal posts and deadlines.

The latest estimated completion date for Universal Credit is 2021, four years later than originally expected. Even that date was revised in November 2015 by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, which said it could be delayed by another six months.

The DWP reset the programme in 2013 following serious concerns raised by the Major Projects Authority, the body responsible for overseeing high-risk projects. Just six months later it slipped back into an 'amber-red' rating - meaning successful delivery is unlikely.

Since then the DWP has taken a ‘twin track’ approach, which deploys IT systems developed prior to the 2013 reset while simultaneously developing a 'Digital Service' that Universal Credit will eventually operate.

However, a House of Commons briefing paper released this month and seen by The Register, noted that since the reset the programme has been "substantively delayed on at least three separate occasions".

Stephen Timms, a Labour MP, said the programme in its current incarnation "still seems to me pretty disastrous".

He has asked the DWP what proportion of the new technology required to implement universal credit has been complete for each year since 2011, but was told the department does "not have a detailed point-in-time breakdown." So it is impossible to judge how much has been achieved in terms of IT build in the last four years.

He is not alone in his criticism. A report by right-of-centre think-tank Civitas released this month concluded that the "glacial rollout" of Universal Credit mean its goals of simplifying benefits, making work more attractive and bring benefit expenditure under control "face considerable difficulties in being achieved".

Civitas noted: "The government predicted in March 2013 that there would be 4.46 million claiming Universal Credit in 2015-16. The actual number in July 2015 was a mere 75,427 registered claimants (although this doesn’t confirm they were receiving benefit), 4.38 million short of the projected total for that date."

As of January 2016, the figure of total claimants has risen to 322,188. However, project management expert Brian Wernham notes the number of new claimants to sign on to the service is reaching a plateau. According to the January stats, 20,461 sign ups occurred in the last month.

The DWP will need a massive ramp-up if it is to hit the target of six million by 2021.

The Register asked the DWP how confident it is that it will meet the 2021 deadline, given the three timescale slippages since it was reset in 2013, from the original revised date of 2018-19.

The department did not respond to the specific question but said: “This revolutionary new benefit is rolling out on time and on budget. It is already in three-quarters of all job centres, and will be in 100 per cent by Spring.”

But as the House of Commons briefing document notes, the job centre roll-out is initially for new claims only and for select claimant types. The DWP’s efforts so far have targeted claimant groups whose claims were comparatively simple to manage, it said.

Therefore there will be much more complexity ahead.

"The roll out of Universal Credit involves not simply the creation of a new benefit but development of an entirely new administrative systems to support it," it added.

A detailed timetable for the full introduction of Universal Credit has not yet been announced.

At the current rate, more timescale slippages may well happen. But Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith may well hope that by the time it reaches the next Parliament, it won't be his problem any more. ®


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