Universal Credit shows it is time to make all major government projects open and transparent

After four years of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spending taxpayers’ money on legal fees to prevent the release of key Universal Credit documents, the only surprise revealed by their eventual publication this week was there was so little to be surprised about.

We knew already that, in the early years of the controversial welfare reform programme, the IT development was a disaster, that key security and fraud functionality was overlooked, that there were significant delays and budget over-runs. And we already knew that, despite all this, DWP officials and ministers had continued to publicly state that all was well, when they knew that was not true.

Thanks to the persistence of independent project manager John Slater and former Computer Weekly journalist Tony Collins, the Universal Credit risk register and issues log from 2012 – finally published under freedom of information laws – mostly served to confirm what we had known all along.

The DWP’s response – after fighting through the courts for years – was to point out that the documents have no bearing on how the programme is running today, and to point out they are “five years’ old and out of date”. The fact the documents are actually four years’ old might tell you something about their numeracy too.

DWP is right to say that Universal Credit is being run more effectively now, and its gradual, safety-first roll-out allows the department to better manage risk around what remains a hugely challenging initiative.

But still we have to take it on trust that this is the case. The veil of secrecy around Universal Credit – highlighted and criticised by MPs on the Public Account Committee as recently as February this year – has yet to be lifted.

The committee called for more details of the digital service for Universal Credit to be published, including timescales and key milestones. Nothing has yet been forthcoming. There will be an issues log and a risk register for the digital service – but we can’t afford to wait four years and have a legal fight to see them published.

There has been speculation that the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith – the architect and chief cheerleader of the programme – as DWP secretary of state might herald a new spirit of openness. We have yet to see whether his successor, Stephen Crabb, will respond.

Universal Credit will have cost taxpayers nearly £16bn by the time it’s fully rolled out. There is one more thing we already know – it’s beyond time that all major government projects should be open and transparent and forced by Parliament to be so.

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