Will Universal Credit be a government IT disaster or prove lessons were learnt?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Universal Credit Programme is the largest overhaul of benefits in the UK for a generation. DWP is on its third CIO in a year following the sad loss of Philip Langsdale.The Universal Credit project has been described by some politicians, political and technology commentators as another public sector IT disaster in waiting.

On February 19th David Pitchford, chief executive of the Major Projects Authority, was announced as being brought in for three months to supervise Universal Credit. The Major Projects Authority was formed to improve the delivery of central government projects.


Described by DWP as “a single payment for people who are looking for work or on a low income,” the Universal Credit Programme is claimed to simplify the benefits system, improve work incentives and reduce fraud and error. Universal Credit will replace income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance; income-related Employment and Support Allowance; Income Support; Child Tax Credits; Working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit.


In December 2012 Philip Langsdale, DWP CIO since late 2012 passed away in what a series of commentators have said is a serious loss to Whitehall and the Universal Credit Programme. On February 6th Government CIO Andy Nelson was announced as the new DWP CIO.


Permanent Secretary for Work and Pensions Robert Devereux confirmed at the appointment of Nelson that he would be responsible for the “imminent start of Universal Credit, the Personal Independence Payment and the Benefit Cap”.


In 2011 the Universal Credit Programme became headline news when an Intellect report, commissioned by DWP and leaked to the Observer newspaper, reported that IT suppliers to DWP felt that the project deadlines were too ambitious and feared of a lack of practical testing of alternative prototypes.


Joe Harley, DWP CIO until spring 2012 agreed with the Public Accounts Committee in March 2011 that the Universal Credit Programme was the most complicated IT programme the department had undertaken, but said the civil service had learned from the large IT failures of the past.


The latest Programme Director is Hilary Reynolds, who is now preparing for the first use of Universal Credit in April. This testing phase known as the Pathfinder will roll out in  Ashton under Lyne, Oldham, Warrington and Wigan.  Then there will be six monthly increments of national delivery from October onwards.


Information on what the Pathfinder will comprise of is not forthcoming from DWP. However, a recently released letter to Local Authority CEOs states that “for the majority of local authorities, the impact of UC during the financial year 2013/14 will be limited”.


DWP revealed that the Pathfinder will start on the 29th April, and will be only for “a small number of simple Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) claims”.

 Analysis from Brian Wernham

Related:


I welcome DWP’s change to a strategy of ‘prove before we move’ which Hilary Reynolds has adopted. Because the April Pathfinder will only include a limited sub-set of technology that will operate Universal Credit, it will instead focus on the business processes and interactions with claimants. The second phase from 28 October 2013 to 31 March 2014 will roll-out some of the technology on an incremental basis which is “intended to extend the number and type of UC claims across the country.


The incremental trial and roll-out using the ‘prove before we move’ strategy is a step in the right direction. But, Andy Nelson, DWP’s new CIO, must be clear about the purpose of the Pathfinder and be ready to adapt and evolve not just the technology, but also the policy.


The Cabinet Office has been pushing the need for more feedback and reaction from public policy trials. A recent paper co-written by academic and author Ben Goldacre, stressed the importance of proving policy in trials before roll-out.
“I believe that Government CIOs need to ensure that pilot projects go beyond simply proving the technical robustness of new systems, they need to work with policy colleagues to test different models for implementing new regulations before committing to national roll-out.


Nelson needs to apply the ‘Pareto’ rule - the team should focus on the 20 per cent of a new system that brings 80 per cent of the policy objective. The challenge for his team is to identify which 20 per cent of the system should be prioritised for roll-out from October.


Government CIOs need to move beyond mere technocratic delivery of product - they need to interact at policy level to optimise value for money (VFM) of policy impact.


By becoming more agile, the Universal Credit Programme can become an exemplar of this philosophy.

About Brian Wernham


Brian Wernham is an IT Strategy Advisor and has provided independent advice to several Central Government CIOs. He was ICT Lead at the NAO, and worked on several VFM audits. His latest book “Agile Project Management for Government” takes an evidence-based look at the claims made for agile approaches to technology projects in governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Brian Wenham

Join the debate:


Have you been involved in the DWP Universal Credit Programme as an IT supplier or leader and what are your views on the scale, risks and opportunities of this programme, join the debate by contacting CIO UK.