Tuesday, 10 September 2013

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit

The National Audit Office (NAO) has just published a report on progress of the Universal Credit project. It's fair to say that it's not that impressed.

The Executive Summary can be found here:


It will come as no surprise to anyone with their ear to the ground that the Universal Credit  project is struggling. As I've observed previously, October was supposed to see it 'rolled out' across the country, but as it turns out, and if you'll excuse me replacing their imagery with mine, it will actually dribble out like urine from a prostate-obstructed urethra.

What's gone wrong?

The NAO gives the impression of a project where, although everybody knew where they wanted to end up, nobody was exactly clear about how to get there, and where management-speak trumped actual effective management. Crucially, there appears to be no evidence that anybody had learned from previous government experience with large IT projects.

Is that hyperbole? I don't think so. It's unusual, I imagine, to laugh out loud at a report on the progress of a government initiative, but at times I couldn't help myself. For example, the NAO describes how, at the outset, the Department (of Work and Pensions) decided to use what it described as an 'Agile' approach to its management of the project - an approach that it had never used before. According to the NAO, this approach is described as using 'iterative and collaborative project management to develop its IT and policy'. Well, it didn't work. So in January 2012, the Department introduced 'Agile 2.0', a hybrid of the Agile and traditional approaches.

Crucially, the NAO finds that 'throughout the programme the Department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work.' I don't know about you, but I would have thought that was rather important. Certainly the NAO seems to think so. It notes that there has never been a clear 'blueprint' for the introduction of Universal Credit, nor for the transition to Universal Credit from existing systems. This was also a concern of the Major Projects Authority, who oversaw a 'reset' of the project between February and May this year. Despite this, the concerns that cause this intervention do not, in the opinion of the NAO, appear to have been addressed.

'The Department recognised that the detailed policy for Universal Credit would not be approved by Parliament until 2012. It estimated that its traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to programme management, whereby systems are developed after policy is set, would lead to roll-out in April 2015. The Department was not able to explain to us how it originally decided on October 2013 or evaluated the feasibility of roll-out by this date.'

IT Problems

Unsurprisingly, IT is a key concern.

The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will
support national roll-out. Universal Credit pathfinder systems have limited function
and do not allow claimants to change details of their circumstances online as originally
intended. The Department does not yet have an agreed plan for national roll-out and
has been unclear about how far it will build on pathfinder systems or replace them.

The report records that the Department has had to write of £34 million of its new IT assets. This, together with the delayed roll-out, will reduce the expected savings which Universal Credit is supposed to generate. In addition, the NAO believes that 'it is unlikely that Universal Credit will be as simple or cheap to administer as originally intended.'

What are the consequences?

Of course this isn't all simply an interesting example of government hubris. Real people will be affected by this. The NAO is plainly worried that if the government persists in its requirement that the transition will be complete by 2017 the final transfer process will be compressed: large numbers of claimants would have to be migrated over a very short period of time.

What's Iain Duncan Smith's spin on all this?

His position (see, for example, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/05/david-cameron-24bn-universal-credit-problems) is that:

  • It's not his fault - civil servants are to blame - and in fact he's the hero of the hour for intervening to ensure that problems have been dealt with;
  • The programme will be delivered on time and on budget: losses due to the IT problems will be made up elsewhere.
Regarding the first blob, I'm not really in a position to comment, although I do suggest that as the whole thing is his baby the buck should stop with him. He does seem to have been a bit disingenuous with Parliament, though, as he apparently told it in March that the project was 'proceeding exactly in accordance with plans', despite the fact that the whole thing was 'reset' a month earlier. Perhaps he didn't know.

As for being delivered 'on time and on budget'... If by 'on time' he means 'the roll out will be complete by 2017, as planned', it's still possible, although only by having a very rapid final migration, which as noted earlier gives the NAO some concerns. The roll out for new claimants is certainly not 'on time'.

On budget? Only time will tell. But this can only happen if costs are cut from now on. It would be a miracle if this did not result in poorer quality delivery, and, of course, more problems for hard-pressed claimants.

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