The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been consistently criticised for its lack of transparency since the controversial Universal Credit programme was launched nearly eight years ago.
The department has fought court battles against Freedom of Information campaigners to prevent the release of key documents. It has obfuscated repeatedly to journalists about problems with the IT. And until the House of Commons in December ordered DWP to release a series of project reviews to the Work and Pensions Committee, it had kept these critical progress reports from MPs too.
On the occasions that DWP is forced to reveal its hand on Universal Credit (UC), you can understand why it prefers such secrecy.
The release this week of the committee’s summary of UC project reviews since 2012 shows the scale of the challenge and the potential for calamity as the new digital version of UC is rolled out nationwide over the course of this year.
That’s even without considering concerns highlighted over assurance processes that have seen UC press on even when failing to meet agreed success criteria.
The summary confirmed Computer Weekly’s story that Gov.uk Verify, the identity assurance system developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS), lies at the heart of the risks facing the scaling up of UC to Jobcentres across the UK.
Much of the savings anticipated for the welfare reform programme were based on applications being submitted and processed automatically – with minimal manual intervention. The starting point for this automation is Verify – the way that claimants are expected to prove they are who they say they are online.
As we revealed, barely a third of claimants have successfully used Verify, and in the early implementations of UC this has meant significantly greater involvement from Jobcentre staff than planned – costing £963 per claim, compared to a target of £250.
DWP has even had to develop its own identity system to compensate for the weaknesses in Verify – making the third ID system in use in Whitehall, alongside HM Revenue & Customs’ Government Gateway product – not to mention another being developed by the NHS. Oh, and then there’s yet another underway for the Scottish government.
The committee report highlights fears that the rapid scaling up of UC users due to take place this year will push Verify beyond its already limited capabilities, with potentially significant implications for DWP staff as well as benefit claimants.
Greater transparency throughout a programme with such widespread social consequences might have caused embarrassment for DWP, but more public scrutiny could have helped point this important and much-needed reform in a better direction.
DWP has listened and learned from much of the past criticism of UC, for which it deserves credit. But it is time to deliver greater openness too –not only for the success of Universal Credit, but for wider government digital transformation initiatives too.