Why Has Universal Credit Been Such A Disaster For The Government?

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Universal Credit: DWP battled with GDS, was overly ambitious with timelines and considered suing suppliers

There’s no doubt that Universal Credit has been a monumental disaster to date; with constant delays, millions of pounds written off and a barrage of criticism from insiders.

The programme, which was meant to simplify the working-age benefits for those in and out of work, has been reworked several times, including the baffling decision to remove council tax benefits from the unified system.

It has remained as a national project to replace six benefits with one – a project which most see as beneficial to the UK and its citizens as it provided real incentives to leave inactivity for work.

Unmitigated disaster

government parliament big ben public sector clouds bird © Samot ShutterstockHowever, completion of the programme is not due until 2022, which is twelve years after its inception and five years later than planned.

Only 300,000 people are actually currently benefiting from Universal Credit, rather than the millions that had been projected for this point in time, and various reports have documented the number of issues it has to contend with.

The most recent report from think-tank, the Institute for Government (IfG) has sprinkled some positivity over the troubled project, with the author of the report, IfG senior fellow Nicholas Timmins suggesting that something “that is recognisable as Universal Credit” may well emerge at the other end of a laborious timeline.

The IfG report goes closer than many at inspecting what exactly has gone wrong within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for Universal Credit. TechWeekEurope has highlighted the main issues.

Thoughtless timetables, and suing suppliers

Timmins says the original timetable was “just nuts”. The national roll-out was originally due to start in October 2013 with completion in 2017. One of the suppliers who had signed up to try and deliver it described it as “madness”.

Timmins also found that DWP gave “serious consideration” to suing Universal Credit suppliers Accenture, HP and IBM at one of the project’s lowest points in 2013. However, as the suppliers had written warning letters about the troubles they were facing, he said that it became clear that this was not an option.

One supplier told Timmins that their message to DWP was: “Look, this isn’t working. We’ll go on taking your money. But it isn’t going to work”.

Government servicesAlan Owens, head of technology and communications at law firm DWF explained to TechWeekEurope that complex projects like this usually have very many inter-dependencies, so apportioning legal liabilities can be extraordinarily difficult.

“This is particularly true when there are multiple suppliers and an in-house government team, and the project scope is subject to substantial change, as the DWP project has been,” he says.

“As changes are pushed through, new deals are reached as to the scope and timing of different parts of the project with the suppliers, and any deal regarding past accrued claims are baked into that new deal,” he adds.

Quiz: What do you know about public sector IT?

Timmins report makes clear that it was the management of the suppliers, rather than the suppliers themselves that should take more responsibility for the project’s failures thus far.

He says that unlike other public sector IT projects, a client-side adviser was absent for Universal Credit.

“The department chose to handle the contract management of its suppliers itself without having, it appears, the expertise to do that,” Timmins explains.

The fact that DWP considered suing the suppliers just shows how little they had in order themselves.

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