DWP prepares the ground for NAO to reveal what's really happening in Universal Credit IT

In an unprecedented show of partial openness, the head of the troubled Universal Credit programme has gone public on some of the problems in the government’s flagship welfare reform project.

This apparent change of heart over the secrecy surrounding Universal Credit is likely to have only come about because of the forthcoming publication of a National Audit Office (NAO) report into the programme, due out tomorrow (5 September).

The NAO report is bound to reveal just how deep the troubles in Universal Credit – and in particular its IT programme – have run.

Meanwhile, further rumours have emerged about just how bad the IT has been.

First, Universal Credit director general Howard Shiplee wrote an article for The Telegraph earlier this week, on his “first 100 days” initiative to get the programme back on track. For the first time, he has formally acknowledged there have been major problems:

“There were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn’t and with suppliers not managed as they should have been. There is no doubt there have been missteps along the way. But we’ve put that right,” he wrote.

He was more careful in describing the state of the IT aspects of Universal Credit – not surprisingly, since as recently as July he publicly denied any problems with the IT at all.

“We are working with the new Government Digital Service (GDS) to explore an enhanced IT programme that would offer more flexibility and security to benefit claimants. We’re planning to take the best of the existing system and make improvements using GDS support,” Shiplee wrote in The Telegraph article.

The obvious questions is what, exactly, is this “enhanced” IT system, and what “enhancements” were needed compared to the previous plan.

There have been plenty of rumours that millions of pounds of IT work has been scrapped. A story in The Guardian today – citing sources close to the Universal Credit project – claims that Shiplee ordered a complete redesign of the IT.

The Guardian claims that £270m has been spent so far with the key IT contractors, IBM, BT, Accenture and HP, but can only speculate based on its sources that a large proportion of that may not be “fit for purpose”.

Computer Weekly has asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) how much, if any, of that IT work will no longer be used, and we’re awaiting a response, although I suspect they may leave the dirty details to be revealed by the NAO.

For months now, the rumours about IT problems at Universal Credit have swirled around the Westminster circus, with DWP constantly denying them. Nobody who has followed the project closely believed those denials, but the degree of secrecy around the programme ensured that nobody who knew the truth was willing to speak out.

Even IT suppliers that had been involved and later spurned from the project were unwilling to go on the record.

The strong likelihood is that the NAO will reveal the real reasons why nobody wants to talk about Universal Credit. My bet is the report will make gruesome reading for the DWP, who will respond with great positivity about how they have now put the project back on track.

The next test will be whether or not the brief opening of the curtain by Shiplee will lead to greater transparency going forward. Another multimillion-pound Whitehall IT disaster looms, and public scrutiny of future progress is essential.

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