Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith – the person ultimately responsible for the delivery of Universal Credit – has been touring TV and radio stations this morning, and facing questions in the House of Commons, to try to present a positive light on the scathing criticism of his flagship welfare reform programme by the National Audit Office (NAO).
He is pointing the finger at IT experts in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and claiming responsibility for putting the project back on track after its now thoroughly well-documented problems.
The government line goes something like this: “The project is back on track. Once we realised it had problems, we sorted them out. Everything in the NAO report is in the past, we have rectified everything it identified.”
It’s just about all that Duncan Smith can say without losing face even further.
But why don’t you make up your own mind about whether this is a project that can be saved – here is a list of past statements by DWP staff and ministers, and what we now know was actually happening at the time:
On meeting overall budgets and timescales for Universal Credit reforms
Duncan Smith told the BBC today: “This will be delivered within budget and within the timescale.”
The NAO report said: “The department will have to scale back its original delivery ambition and is reassessing what it must do to roll-out Universal Credit to claimants.”
And: “If the department keeps to its planned 2017 completion date, delays to roll-out will leave less time to deal with any problems identified during migration.”
And also: “The current senior responsible owner is looking at different options for the timing of full roll-out.”
On whether the IT is working
Howard Shiplee, the latest director general of Universal Credit, told MPs on the Work and Pensions select committee in July 2013, in response to a question about rumours of IT problems: “No, that is not the case. We are currently reviewing all that has been built. The existing systems that we have are working, and working effectively.”
The NAO report now reveals that £34m of IT work has already been written off, and more than £140m of money spent is under review to determine if the IT developed has any lasting value.
Furthermore, in March this year, a DWP spokesman told Computer Weekly: “It’s categorically not true to say that work has stopped on Universal Credit.”
Thanks to the NAO, we now know that at that time, the project was in the middle of a “reset” during which work was temporarily halted to allow almost every aspect of the programme – including the IT – to be reviewed.
Meeting IT budgets and timescales
In response, the DWP told us: “The IT is already mostly built. It is not a single IT system, but is being built part-by-part on an agile basis as well as bringing in existing systems. It is built and tested, on-time and on-budget.”
The NAO report now reveals that the IT budget has increased by 60% from £396m to £637m, and may yet increase further as the IT work completed so far is assessed to see if it needs to be replaced or reworked.
The NAO report also said: “The department believes that the majority of the built IT is high quality, but has not been fully developed and cannot support scaling up the programme as it stands.”
The Guardian also reported that: “In March 2013 Duncan Smith told parliament that Universal Credit ‘is proceeding exactly in accordance with plans’. However, the report outlines how the project was ‘reset’ a month earlier.”
Use of agile methods
Duncan Smith told MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee on 17 September 2012: “The whole point about the agile process, which I find frustrating at times, because we cannot quite get it across to people, is to understand that agile is about change; it is about allowing you to get to a certain point in the process – one leap: check it out; make sure it works; and as you go into the next leap you come up with something that says, ‘We can rectify some of the issues in this, and make that even more efficient’.”
And Steve Dover, former DWP programme director for Universal Credit, said in November 2012: “It is as agile as it absolutely can be. In fact it’s taken agile further than anything has ever taken it before. And it’s not just the IT. It’s about the programme. It’s about the business and the IT. As far as I’m concerned, it’s more truly agile than many things are out there that are purporting to be so.”
But according to the NAO: “The Cabinet Office does not consider that the department has at any point prior to the reset appropriately adopted an agile approach to managing the Universal Credit programme.”
The NAO highlighted poor supplier management as one of the many failings of the project. In its early days, DWP committed to a wider Whitehall initiative targeting 25% of spend to go through small businesses.
DWP recently told Computer Weekly that: “SMEs were involved from the outset of Universal Credit. DWP encourages the use of SMEs where it is appropriate.”
But we exclusively revealed last month that less than 1% of Universal Credit IT spend has gone to SME IT suppliers – instead, the money has been shared mostly between the four major system integrators, IBM, HP, Accenture and BT.
Those suppliers have been told by DWP not to comment on their involvement in Universal Credit.
So, what do you think? Who do you believe? Is Universal Credit a project that is back on track? You decide…