pogonici - Fotolia

Released documents show scale of Universal Credit problems before 'reset'

It took four years, several appeals and the persistence of project manager John Slater for the DWP to release documents relating to its Universal Credit programme

After a four-year long legal battle by independent project manager John Slater, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has released documents showing the scale of the early problems surrounding Universal Credit.

The DWP has been arguing in court since 2012 that the risk register and issues log should be kept secret.

The documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show a snapshot of the programme and its risks in 2012, around a year before it was “reset” in 2013 due to several technical problems and delays.              

The documents show that DWP officials knew of problems with the programme in 2012, while senior figures continued to publicly state that the project was on time and on budget, ahead of the reset.

Slater said the 2012 risk register for Universal Credit showed a focus on meeting deadlines and communications campaigns while, worryingly, risks surrounding previous government IT project failures, accessibility and commercial risks are left out.

The risk register – which is several pages long – lists problems that could occur during the roll-out of the programme and the actions taken by the Universal Credit team to prevent them from happening.

Slater told Computer Weekly that, after reading the risk register, he was left with a feeling that “the programme was out of control” at that time. Most of the mitigation, even on issues referred to as “high risk”, was superficial, he said.

Read more about Universal Credit

“If you look at the areas where effort was put in to the mitigation plans, a lot of it was around communications and perception, rather than what was going to cause them problems and could be a serious risk.”

There are several points on the risk register relating to communication.

“The media may not be fully engaged with DWP resulting in publicity that is negative or controversial,” stated one risk, and continued: “There have been previous instances of the media having a negative view of the government’s ability to deliver new programmes and projects.”

Business case assumptions

Another risk – which listed communications as a solution – related to preparing claimants to shift to online services, which could be adversely affected if the communication was ineffective.

“Credibility of programme and delivery organisation will reduce as a result,” said the document. However, there is no mention of what would happen if claimants could not use the online system.

Another key factor was that the DWP’s "Strategic Outline Business Case" for Universal Credit – which was not approved by HM Treasury until September 2014 – relied heavily on a high uptake of the online system.

“The Strategic Outline Business Case assumes a take-up of 50% claims online during 2013‐14, rising to 65% by 2017‐18 and a steady state of 68%,” the risk register said. It added that “more than 50% of claimants know about online self-service and have access to the internet, but may prefer telephony or face to face channels”. It stated that “30% of claimants do not have the skills to operate IT”.

To mitigate the risk of people not wanting to use the online system, the main focus, according to the risk register, fell to communications and marketing.

“The risk register talked about the Strategic Outline Business Case needing a certain number of claimaints using the online services for it to add up,” Slater said.

“They got nowhere near this level of claimants, which suggests the business case has been blown out of the water and raises questions around its validity.”

The full business case for Universal Credit is due to be approved by the end of 2017.

Money worries

The risk register said another risk lay in the changing scope of the programme, meaning the settlement the programme received as part of the 2010 spending review (SR10) would not be enough.

“There may be changes to the scope of UC that may lead to greater funding being required than that allocated across SR10,” it said.

An update to the register, dated 3 May 2012, said: “An issue has been raised regarding fears that our committed spend may outstrip our spending envelope.”

By the end of 2012, the government had spent £638m on the IT for Universal Credit, with £441m going on design and development.

In September 2013, a National Audit Office (NAO) report revealed that at least £130m of IT work would have to be written off by the time Universal Credit finally went live.

The NAO report also stated that “the department was warned repeatedly about the lack of a detailed ‘blueprint’, ‘architecture’ or ‘target operating model’ for Universal Credit”.

Despite this being the department’s first major project using an agile methodology, and the government’s chequered history of government IT projects, those were not mentioned in the register as potential risks.

The Universal Credit programme was reset in 2013, with the department deciding on a “twin-track” approach. The DWP has almost finished rolling out a limited version of the system, targeting the simplest of claims and using an IT system that will mostly be discarded, once the digital service has been completed.

The future of Universal Credit

In a statement to Computer Weekly, a DWP spokesperson said: "Universal Credit is revolutionising the welfare system and this type of planning is normal and sensible for a project of this scale.

"These documents are nearly five years old and out of date. The reality is UC will be available in every jobcentre across the country by the end of the month and claimants are moving into work quicker and earning more than under the old system."

The national roll-out of the Universal Credit digital service will begin in May 2016, starting with five jobcentres a month, as Computer Weekly previously reported. This will then increase to 50 jobcentres a month once the DWP is confident “the system can cope with the higher volume”. The DWP aims to complete the roll-out by March 2021.

According to a report by the Major Projects Authority, the total lifetime costs of the programme will be £15.8bn

In a Public Accounts Committee report, published in February 2016, MPs criticised the DWP for its lack of transparency surrounding the programme and called for specific milestones to be published for the roll-out.

“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the DWP to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays,” the report said. 

Read more on IT for government and public sector