This morning saw the publication of progress report on Universal Credit by the National Audit Office, and it makes quite grim reading. Ian Duncan Smith has come out fighting, stating categorically that the project will be delivered on time and within budget, but much remains to be done. Labour accused ministers of trying to cover up a ‘Titanic-sized IT disaster’.
The report, ‘Universal Credit: early progress’ considers the Department’s aims for Universal Credit, progress against plan and programme management. It concludes that Universal Credit plans were driven by an ambitions timescale, and this led to the adoption of a new approach. The programme suffered from weak management and ineffective control. It concludes that at this early stage, the programme has not achieved value for money.
One of its key findings is that ‘The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national roll-out’. It notes that the Department has started a limited pilot scheme (a ‘pathfinder’) with a scope narrower than originally planned, and that the Department has delayed the rolling out of Universal Credit nationally, outlining a further risk that ‘to keep to the 2017 completion date, the Department would have to migrate a large volume of claimants within a short time frame’.
On programme management, it found weaknesses including lack of transparency and challenge, inadequate financial control over supplier spending and ineffective departmental oversight. So far £34m of its new IT systems has been written off.
On a more positive note, Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, stated that "Universal Credit could well go on to achieve considerable benefits if the Department learns from these early setbacks and puts realistic plans and strong disciplines in place for its future roll out".
As alluded to above, Ian Duncan Smith has stated that the problems highlighted in the report, which was based on work undertaken up until May, have been fixed. New senior management is in place, additional pathfinder pilots have been set up, the project plan has been flexed and Universal Credit will be delivered on time and within budget. He noted that although this is a major IT project, other projects in his department have and are being delivered successfully, including the recent roll out of RTI.
Time will tell. In an earlier post on this topic in July 2012, when the All Parliamentary Group on Taxation delivered a report on ‘PAYE at the Crossroads’, Community member Christopher Try commented, “Government cannot do big IT projects. They are always obscenely expensive failures."
We wait to see if the improved governance processes, revised timescales and new pilots will put the project back on track.