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The problem with Universal Credit? It has marched to a political drum

In working to deliver to an arbitrary timetable, Duncan Smith ignored sound programme management principles.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Whenever we talk to low-income families about welfare reform, they always ask the same question: when will I be moved on to Universal Credit? The National Audit Office’s report on the new benefit published today suggests the answer could be like picking petals off a flower: this year, next year, some time, never…

The report provides a forensic exposition of Universal Credit to date. It documents how the government had to 'reset' UC earlier this year because of the Major Project Authority’s concerns about the programme implementation, how DWP has had to scale back its ambitions with respect to the pilots launched in April and how the vital IT systems that underpin UC are woefully under-developed, forcing the department to abandon the planned national roll-out this October. 

It’s a controlled but withering assessment, which contrasts sharply with the rosy picture the Secretary of State and his officials gave to the work and pensions committee only a few weeks ago.

Why so many problems? Reading between the lines, the report suggests that many of UC’s difficulties stem from the fact that the project has marched to the beat of the political drum, rather than the more sober tempo of sound programme management principles. As the NAO tactfully puts it, "The Department was not able to explain to us how it originally decided on October 2013 or evaluated the feasibility of roll-out by this date". Traditional management approaches would have indicated an April 2015 launch instead.

In the scrabble to honour ministerial commitments, the DWP has had to cut many corners. The report shows that time and again, the UC team has departed from the original brief in order to deliver to deadline. The pilots were radically reduced in scope and size, for example, and the national roll-out has been scaled back to just six new pathfinder sites. 

But these short-cuts have profound implications for the future progress of UC. The IT that supports the 1,000 or so claimants currently trialling the new benefit has cost the department £303m to date, yet is so primitive that the NAO questions whether it can form the basis of the national system. DWP has already had to write off £34m of new IT assets as not fit for purpose, with the report suggesting that other UC investments could prove equally redundant in the longer term.

In working to deliver to an arbitrary timetable, then, DWP has hunkered down and developed a fortress mentality. But in the meantime, those low-income families set to gain under Universal Credit are left waiting. Let’s hope that for their sake, the NAO report, with its robust suggestions for remedial action, can penetrate the departmental defences.