The government has backed down in its fight to keep documents on Universal Credit (UC) out of the public eye, and will finally publish internal project assessment reviews (PARs) of the programme.
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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been fighting for years to stop the documents going public, despite being ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to publish them under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last month, the Work and Pensions Committee released a summary of five years’ worth of Universal Credit PARs undertaken by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), after the House of Commons ordered the DWP to provide the reviews to MPs in December last year.
The summary of the reviews showed that the full business case for Universal Credit has yet to be approved, and that despite the government pressing on with the roll-out of the full UC digital service, there are still problems with the programme to be resolved.
MPs on the committee have heavily criticised the DWP for its lack of transparency on the programme. “Public, parliamentary and governmental scrutiny of this major reform would be better served by a more transparent approach by the department,” the committee said at the time. “Given its confidence that the programme is on track, the DWP would also benefit from greater openness.”
Despite this criticism, the DWP has continued to insist that the full reports should not be released to the public. However, in a U-turn decision, work and pensions secretary Esther McVey said in a written statement that although she believes UC “does not lack scrutiny”, she sees “no point in continuing to argue” the case to keep the documents out of the public eye.
But McVey added: “With regard to future reports, I emphasise that the steps I have decided to take today, to disclose the material subject to proceedings, are exceptional.
“I remain of the view that it is critical to the effectiveness of the IPA assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential.”
McVey said she accepted that the public and the House of Commons have “significant interest” in the project, and that she supports “the principle of transparency”, but believes “there are better ways of addressing this concern, rather than undermining the mechanism that provides senior responsible owners with an independent external perspective on the programmes they are responsible to parliament for”.
The release of the documents come after a long battle by IT programme manager and freedom-of-information campaigner John Slater, who back in 2012 originally submitted an FOI request for UC documents. Since then, the DWP has fought long and hard to keep from publishing the reviews, despite being told to do so by the ICO, and a hearing on the subject was scheduled for next month.
Slater told Computer Weekly that the information finally being made public “good”, and he is delighted that the documents have been published, but said he is “disappointed” that the DWP decided to appeal the decision of the ICO in the first place, spending the public purse on doing so.
He added that McVey’s comments,saying that future reports will not be published, as well as the department’s continuous efforts to keep secrets are “appalling”.
Read more about Universal Credit
- Government plans to plough on with Universal Credit despite calls to pause the project as people struggle to make claims successfully.
- Citizens Advice highlights issues around making and managing UC claims online, lack of digital skills and problems with identity verification through Gov.uk Verify.
- Public Accounts Committee report slates lack of transparency around Universal Credit and calls for specific plans for the roll-out of the digital service to be made public.
The UC programme has been beset by problems from the start. In 2013, the government performed a “reset” of the programme, and by the end of 2015, it had rolled out a limited version of the system, referred to as the “live service” but targeting only the simplest of claims and using an IT system run by external providers that is rarely updated.
The department began deploying the “full service” across the country in May 2016, covering the full replacement of six different in-work welfare benefits with a single payment.
In September 2016, the IPA set out four factors that needed to be improved before large-scale roll-out of the digital service could proceed – automation, IT performance, management information and verification, according to the summary of the reports, published by the Work and Pensions Committee.
But by March 2017, there were still problems with all four criteria, and “progress had not, at that stage, been sufficient to give full confidence that UC was ready for the scale of change proposed”, according to the Work and Pensions Committee report.
“Operational targets were not being met: the programme was underperforming on several measures that indicated how quickly claims were being processed,” it said. “There was also considerable variation between the 58 Jobcentres operating the full [digital] service at that stage.”
Earlier this year, Computer Weekly revealed that problems with Gov.uk Verify meant that barely one-third of benefits claimants have been able to successfully apply for the new UC digital service using the government’s flagship online identity system.
Last month’s committee report confirmed this, and added that the DWP has developed its own ID system to complement Verify. But even with that addition, the systems are only achieving a 50% verification rate for users, the report said.
Despite delays and concerns about the Universal Credit programme, the DWP is ploughing on with the roll-out, which is now planned to be complete by 2023. ......................................................................... ..................................................................................................................................