DWP Universal Credit IT System Slammed By Watchdog

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DWP hits back at the NAO report, as Iain Duncan Smith blames poor management by civil servants

The National Audit Office (NGO) has issued a damning assessment of the IT systems of the Universal Credit System run by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Universal Credit scheme includes a new payment system for those on low incomes or looking for work, and is designed to consolidate six separate welfare payments into one comprehensive system.

Universal Credit: £34m written off

However, the NAO said in a report it has concluded the Department for Work and Pensions has not achieved value for money in its early implementation of Universal Credit.

It said the DWP is not yet able to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300 million to develop and has been forced to delay the national roll-out of the programme to claimants. It also said that poor management had hampered the scheme.

It said the Department was overly ambitious in both the timetable and scope of its programme. It also said the DWP took risks to try to meet the short timescale and used a new project management approach which it had never before used on a programme of this size and complexity.

It said that over 70 percent of the £425 million spent to date has been on IT systems, and that the DWP has already written off £34 million of its new IT systems and does not yet know if they will support a national roll-out.

“The existing systems offer limited functionality. For instance, the current IT system lacks a component to identify potentially fraudulent claims so that the Department has to rely on multiple manual checks on claims and payments,” the NAO said.

“Such checks will not be feasible or adequate once the system is running nationally. Problems with the IT system have delayed national roll-out of the programme.”

Thus the introduction of the Universal Credit for all new claims nationally in October 2013 will not be achieved, the report suggested.

“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,” said Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office.

“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. Universal Credit could well go on to achieve considerable benefits if the Department learns from these early setbacks and puts realistic plans and strong discipline in place for its future roll-out.”

DWP statement

But the DWP, stung by the report, has hit back, saying the report did not take into account any developments it has made on the project since April.

“Universal Credit is a vital reform that will ensure we have a welfare system that means people are always better off in work than on benefits and we are a country that truly backs those who work hard and want to get on,” said a DWP spokesperson. “We are committed to delivering Universal Credit on time by 2017 and within budget, and under new leadership we have a plan in place that is achievable.”

“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 2 of the country’s leading project management experts to lead Universal Credit,” the DWP also said.

Iain-Duncan-SmithBad Management

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, also defended the scheme, insisting he had not lost his grip on the project. He said he had already intervened to address the report’s criticisms, as the NAO acknowledged.

“In 2011, I was concerned that the department as the report points out that the department was not being very clear about what they were doing and how it was going to be achieved,” he said. “I instituted my own internal inquiry in early 2012, which told me that unless we made some changes, it would not be deliverable in the way we wanted it.”

He also said the new people had been brought in to better manage the scheme. “This is not an IT disaster, this will be delivered in time and in budget,” he said. “I am not and will not be paying a penny more.”

And he even further and took the unusual step of blaming civil servants for the IT failings.

“I fully accept, because I could have written this report myself, that the problem was that those charged with actually putting together the detail of the IT – I am not a technologist and neither are you – we rely on people telling us that is correct – did not make the correct decisions,” said Iain Duncan Smith. “But we intervened to change that and all the programme directors from outside have said we did the right thing. Even the report says this is the right process.”

The DWP is currently operating a Pathfinder programme, which is already testing the system in Manchester to make sure the IT systems work.

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