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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will begin the national roll-out of the Universal Credit digital service in May 2016, permanent secretary Robert Devereux told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The digital service, which has so far only been trialled in small pockets in south London, will be deployed nationally from May 2016 onwards, beginning with five job centres a month.
“We said we are going to start the digital service in May, so we will start it in May,” said Devereux.
He added that originally, the department planned on rolling it out to 50 job centres a month, but decided on only doing five it got “some contingency in there”.
“From the back end of 2016, we will start rolling out 50 a month,” he said.
There are more than 700 job centres in the UK and due to the slower than planned roll-out, the department aims to complete the roll-out of the full digital service in the middle of 2018.
Universal Credit aims to replace six existing benefits. The DWP aims to finish rolling out a limited version of the system by the end of 2015, but only targeting the simplest of claims and using an IT system that will mostly be thrown away once the digital service has been completed.
The digital version supports a wider range of applicants, including more complex cases, and is being developed in-house by DWP’s team. When asked by the PAC if they used any outside consultants, Devereux said the department had not signed any contracts with outside consultancies, but said the department have gone to some companies to get “man power” and have “some people that are interim employees” and had not been recruited as civil servants.
DWP criticised for lack of visibility
The Universal Credit programme has been far from problem free. In February 2015, a PAC report said the DWP had spent £700m on the programme, with the PAC not convinced it was value for money.
So far, DWP has spent £344m with suppliers to develop the existing IT systems. However, once the in-house digital system is fully live, DWP only expects to use £34m of that work, meaning it will have scrapped more than £300m of IT development work.
According to a report by the Major Projects Authority, the total lifetime costs of the programme will be £15.8bn.
In the PAC hearing on 7 December 2015, the DWP was criticised for its lack of milestones available in the public domain. It had also not informed the PAC that it signed the outline business case for Universal Credit during the week of 30 November to 6 December 2015. The DWP expects to have the full business case signed by September 2017, when the roll-out will almost be complete.
Member of Parliament Stephen Phillips said that due to the DWP’s lack of transparency – with only five broad milestones available to the public – tax payers, the committee and the general public had no way of knowing if the programme was going well or not.
“It’s difficult to work out the progress that’s been made, because apart from the five milestones there is nothing else in the public domain. There is no further milestone, so we can’t determine if it’s successful or not,” he said.
He added that he could make no assessment of whether the programme is behind schedule or not “because there is no visibility”.
Devereux said the DWP simply couldn’t “show every twist and turn in the project”, but that he would make sure “between now and the end of 2016, we’ll be very clear on how many job centres we’ll be doing”.
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