In the run-up to the last UK general election in 2015, the Labour Party’s then shadow employment minister Stephen Timms pointed out that the target completion date for the Universal Credit welfare reform programme had “slipped four years in four years”.
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In July last year, the secretary of state for work and pensions, Damian Green, moved the completion date back to 2022 – five years later than the original 2017 target set at project launch in 2011. That makes about seven timescale slippages in all.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is still cautious when talking about future deadlines for the controversial benefits scheme – as shown by a recent freedom of information (FOI) request.
Independent IT programme manager and FOI campaigner John Slater has been a dogged thorn in the side of DWP for over five years, pushing the department through the courts to reveal unpublished documents in an effort to bring greater transparency to one of the highest-profile IT failures of the Coalition government.
Currently, Universal Credit seems to be going well – at least, compared to its troubled early stages. The “full service” version – formerly referred to as the “digital service” – is at last being rolled out country-wide. The previous version – the remnants of the system that was “reset” in 2013 at a cost of £130m – handled only the simplest of claims, whereas the full service covers the entire complexity of the scheme to replace six different in-work welfare benefits with a single payment.
Full-service roll-out is due to be completed by September 2018 – meaning that all new benefit claims will be handled through Universal Credit. A bigger challenge lies ahead – migrating about seven million claimants for the existing benefit schemes onto Universal Credit. The UK government – perhaps no government anywhere – has ever attempted such a large-scale data migration.
Slater’s latest FOI request asked DWP for further information on the planned completion date – at the time of his request, this was still set to be 2021.
DWP, however, claims that it no longer works with deadlines or targets, citing its use of agile development as the justification.
“The Universal Credit Programme deploys ‘agile’ techniques to ensure the system develops incrementally and this is how it is managed through its governance route. We work in short phases and, as explained before, ‘target dates’ are not features of agile programme management and are not how we run Universal Credit. We articulate the scale and structure of our delivery plans for Universal Credit in terms of phases of roll-out, to specific jobcentres and local authority areas,” said the DWP response to Slater’s FOI request.
Slater points out that this is perhaps stretching the definition of “agile” somewhat.
“The DWP is hiding behind this argument that agile means you don’t have a plan and this isn’t true,” he told Computer Weekly.
“At the programme level there should be some kind of high-level plan that sets expectations of when things need to be completed. Where agile has been applied to programmes rather than projects there is still a map/programme portfolio/goals/plan or whatever people want to call it that covers each of the projects or work-streams (depending on how the programme is structured) and when it needs to be completed.”
Given that the secretary of state has already told Parliament that Universal Credit has a 2022 target completion date, you can have some sympathy with Slater when he adds: “The response seems to confirm to me that the DWP is making it up as it goes along and doesn’t have any kind of credible plan showing how long it will take.”
DWP acknowledged to Slater that the 2021 target has been mentioned in documents supplied to the Universal Credit Programme Board, but stated the date has “yet to be confirmed”. It said:
“In line with agile methodology, the sooner the activity, the more detail there is. These activity streams are called:
“Governance and project management, which gives details of reviews and assessments that take place to review progress. This activity stream refers to a 2021 closure date, which is yet to be confirmed.
Transformation and planning, which looks at the interfaces and frameworks that need to be in place for Universal Credit to roll out. This looks at migration and refers to ESA/tax Credit claimant migration completed by 2021.
“UC product development, which describes the digital features Universal Credit will make use of. There is a reference to decommissioning legacy IT in 2021, which is yet to be confirmed.
We have not yet started to plan any activity around project closure or legacy decommissioning; nor have we started any significant planning for the ESA/tax credit stage of migration, which, as you may know, is now planned to complete in 2022.”
MPs have repeatedly criticised DWP for a “veil of secrecy” and lack of transparency over Universal Credit, and Slater’s experience suggests the department continues to take a highly cautious approach to what it reveals about project development and timescales.
Amazingly, given the programme has been going since 2011, the full business case for Universal Credit has still not been submitted or signed off by the Treasury – that’s due to take place in September this year.
At that time, perhaps DWP will finally reveal more detail about how it will avoid further delays during a three-year migration period that will present significant risks to Universal Credit roll-out.