Weak Whitehall management delays Universal Credit

4 Sep 13
Plans to launch the Universal Credit across the country over the next four years were ‘overly ambitious in both the timetable and scope’ and suffered from weak management, the National Audit Office has said, and must be reassessed.

By Mark Smulian | 5 September 2013

Plans to launch the Universal Credit across the country over the next four years were ‘overly ambitious in both the timetable and scope’ and suffered from weak management, the National Audit Office has said, and must be reassessed.

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Implementation of the scheme to merge six existing benefits, including Jobseeker’s Allowance, has been hindered by ‘ineffective control and poor governance’ auditor general Amyas Morse said.

The NAO report, Universal Credit: early progress, said the DWP had failed to achieve value for money in the programme’s early implementation, and spent more than £300m on systems without being able to assess their value.

Many problems resulted from ‘the absence of a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work,’ auditors found. ‘In addition, poor control and decision-making undermined confidence in the programme and contributed to a lack of progress.

‘The department has particularly lacked IT expertise and senior leadership, with frequent changes in senior management.’

The DWP was too ambitious about the programme’s timetable, which included an initial roll-out to new claimants from next month and a plan for the scheme to be used by all benefit claimants by 2017.

As a result, the department took risks to seek to achieve it, including adopting an ‘agile’ project management approach that it had never previously used on a programme of such size and complexity.

Auditors also found the DWP was ‘unable to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility’ and nor did it have ‘any adequate measures of progress’.

Although Universal Credit ‘still has potential to create significant benefits’, the DWP must scale back its timetable and set realistic delivery plans, they warned.

Some £425m has been spent on Universal Credit, 70% of it on IT systems, but the DWP has written off £34m worth of its new IT, and does not yet know if these systems will able to support national roll-out.

Instead of launching the national scheme next month, Universal Credit will instead be extended to six more pilot sites, on top of four existing ones, which will be able to take on ‘only the simplest claims’, the NAO said.

‘Delays to the roll-out will reduce the expected benefits of reform and – if the department maintains a 2017 completion date – increase risks by requiring the rapid migration of a large volume of claimants,’ the report found.

Morse said: ‘The department’s plans for Universal Credit were driven by an ambitious timescale, and this led to the adoption of a systems development approach new to the department.

‘The relatively high risk trajectory was not, however, matched by an appropriate management approach. Instead, the programme suffered from weak management, ineffective control and poor governance.’

Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge said the DWP embarked on the programme ‘with little idea as to how it was actually going to work.

‘Confusion and poor management at the highest levels have already resulted in delays and at least £34m wasted on developing IT.’

A DWP spokesman said: ‘The report does not cover the significant developments we’ve made since April including the “go live” in Greater Manchester, our progress on the IT challenge, the latest plans for expansion from October, or the fact that we brought in two of the country’s leading project management experts.

‘Under this new leadership we are making real progress and we have a plan in place that is achievable and safe. The NAO itself concludes that Universal Credit can go on to achieve considerable benefits for society.’

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