Universal Credit bodged its bodge

Iain Duncan Smith looked like a fall guy when he started work on Universal Credit. He humbled forward to take the stage for his grand social project, with a little shove from his superiors. He looked so earnest, with his army officer poise. They waved him on: yeah you go for it, Iain.

Yet Universal Credit was just the sort of IT project his superiors had long since pilloried for always being bodged, wasting billions in tax… you know the words by now.

Leaving aside the fact that Universal Credit will give government more power to redress inequality than any disheartened socialist toiling under the post-Thatcher yoke might dream possible.

There is still this knee-jerk IT bodge story, which for now is all Universal Credit is to most people. That story is a matter of great hypocrisy.

The prime minister and his most grandiose lieutenants had promised they wouldn’t do big IT projects like Universal Credit. They wanted to break the big government computer systems up, and government as well.

They effectively won power by doing so much jeering at the last, Labour government’s ambitious, computer-powered social reforms that their faces got stuck in rictus.

And they wanted to cut social security payments to the poor – to make it harder for people to get help from the state, not easier.

Yet when Smith, work and pensions minister, said he wanted to build a huge computer system to improve the way his huge government department gave a huge amount of money in welfare payments to the poor, they said yeah you go on Iain. They said they would make an exception to their rule that there would be no more big state IT.

Not only that, they said they would do this perilously ambitious project in just two years and for just £2.4bn, as though they had banged their heads and forgotten everything they had said before about big IT bodges. The surest way to create an IT bodge was to overestimate how cheaply and quickly you could put a system together, and then to make a big political parade out of it, leaving yourself no choice but to drive all your resources recklessly into it. So that’s what they did.

They were letting Smith attempt to build a grand, national benefits system of unfathomable proportions against a very specific, goofy budget and breakneck schedule. Just like the last lot.

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Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister responsible for ensuring the government didn’t do any more IT bodges, then lumped Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions with three other ambitious IT reforms at the same time.

The biggest told-you-so story in politics consequently became that Universal Credit was as big an IT bodge as ever.

But when you’ve got an organisation like the DWP, with 90,000 staff making £70bn of payments to 7m households through under a variety of regimes and through a national network of 700 job centres, 10 call centres, and throughout local government as well, your IT systems are going to be big and complex; and you are going to build them only after trial and error, unexpected pitfalls and climatic changes. Other civil engineering projects would come close to the same volatility if they did their construction out of Tetris.

Universal Credit’s troubles did seem to prove the Tory case against big state organisations. It got knees jerking all round. But it wasn’t quite so.

Its trouble was that the Cabinet Office’s ‘independent’ Major Projects Authority approved its grossly unrealistic schedule. And that the extra requirements the Cabinet Office piled on the programme’s shoulders quadrupled its chances of failure. It made unprecedented demands of the contracting model, the design methodology, the transaction model, its security precautions, the complex rules by which it administers benefits to people, and the organisation itself. This all caused the DWP so much trouble that the Cabinet Office, with its MPA hat on, had to freeze the programme. In the two years of chaos that ensued, with Cabinet Office ripping up DWP’s plans and removing the extra burdens it had earlier imposed, the public perception was another big state IT bodge. The programme consequently went two-years over-schedule, as if to prove the case.

When Universal Credit was at last resumed in November, Cabinet Office had forced DWP to alter some of its big state designs. Its revised solution was more in keeping with its own favoured model of public IT: something more amenable to reform; and particularly amenable to its own favoured reform, which was to automate government functions and make their staff redundant.

Cabinet Office usurpation of DWP’s project was partial however, according to the NAO report on the affair in December, because its own designs were unproven at high levels of scale and dependability demanded by the social security system.

DWP had been reluctant to move too quickly to Cabinet Office’s radical tune. It had the nation’s £70bn social security resting on well-rooted, dependable computer systems. The Cabinet Office’s own alternative designs turned out to be to be premature. It was not even possible to say whether they would be reliable enough to run the social security system even in 2019, said the NAO in November.

The transformation of DWP from an organisation of 90,000 people into a Cabinet Office web app has consequently slowed. But not much.

The transformation was already inevitable to some degree, as people transact more of their lives online. The question has been how soon: whether it would be accelerated for the sake of a Tory strategy to break up government and cut social security.

DWP now expects up to 74 per cent of people will process their social security claims online under Universal Credit in five years time.

At least when the DWP back office is laid off over coming years they will be able to fall back on the Universal Credit system that replaced them.

* CORRECTION: This article originally said Cabinet Office strove to process 100 per cent of Universal Credit claims online. This is not necessarily so, though its strategy was “Digital by Default”. Sarky outgoing comment also added.

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