NAO wants evidence for latest examination of Universal Credit

Two previous reports found poor performance on delivery of an “over ambitious” programme.

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The National Audit Office (NAO) has put out a call for evidence to inform its latest once over of Universal Credit – after two previous reports found poor performance on delivery of an “over ambitious” programme.

Scheduled for the Spring, the latest report will examine whether the DWP is on course to deliver UC in accordance with its plans, assess whether there are early signs that UC delivering its objectives, and analyse what impact it is having both on claimants and on local stakeholders.

The on-going roll-out has been most recently criticised for leaving claimants destitute over Christmas and New Year.

This week, the government was accused in the Commons of lacking “empathy and understanding” towards claimants –  with the Peabody Trust alone estimating 60,000 households will have made a new UC claim before Christmas and won’t get an initial payment until after the festive period.

The government has made a series of changes to Universal Credit in the Budget but critics are still calling for a pause in the system to allow fixes to be made.

Earlier this month, David Gauke, secretary of state for work and pensions, was forced into releasing ‘confidential’ reports on the impact of Universal Credit – warned campaigners the contents should not go public, despite his claim they contained nothing damning.

During that Commons debate, Labour’s Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions select committee, described persuading a man not to kill himself out of desperation at the situation UC left him in – and cited another speaking of lucky week going to a funeral so the family could finish off the food.

An unmoved Gauke fell back on familiar accusations of scaremongering, more concerned with warning MPs that the documents he was releasing on an “exceptional basis” should not be disclosed further.

It is, however, understood that government will continue to challenge any formal public release of the papers – despite Gauke’s assertion that government had nothing to hide over UC.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has already said the public interest required the papers to be published publically and full.

Field said he would seek advice from Commons speaker John Bercow about the condition that the committee keep the reports confidential .

Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams said the reports should be published “unredacted and unedited” to expose the scale of  implementation and design failures during the “mismanagement” of the UC roll-out.

Now, the NAO is to undertake another assessment of the roll-out plan after two previous reports found poor performance on delivery of an ‘over ambitious’ programme which started in 2016.

That plan pitched a full service available to new claimants in all job centres by September 2018 with existing claimants transferred by 2022.

The new NAO study will examine whether the DWP is on course to deliver UC in accordance with its plans, assessing whether there are early signs that UC is delivering its objectives, and what impact it is having both on claimants and local stakeholders.

Two previous NAO reports – in 2013 and 2014 – identified key areas of poor performance hindering progress.

In 2013, the NAO concluded that the DWP had not achieved value for money in that early implementation, with the department unable to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300m to develop and having been forced to delay the roll-out.

That report described the DWP as ‘overly ambitious’ in both the timetable and scope of the programme.

The department was said to have taken 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.

Nor, the report said, was the DWP able to explain how it originally decided on its ambitious plans or evaluated their feasibility.

The report found that, given the tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan, it was ‘critical’ that the DWP should have good progress information and effective controls.

In practice, the department did not have any adequate measures of progress, the report said.

The department was forced to stop work on its plans for national roll-out in early 2013 and reassess its options for the future.

While the NAO acknowledged the programme still had potential to create significant benefits for society, the delivery ambition had to be scaled back for the setting out of realistic plans.

At the time, over 70% of the £425m spent to date had been on IT systems, with the department having written off £34m of new IT systems without knowing whether they would support national roll-out – while existing systems offered limited functionality.

The NAO highlighted the example of an existing system lacking a component to identify potentially fraudulent claims, leaving the department reliant on  multiple manual checks on claims and payments.

To the NAO, such checks were not feasible for a system running national, with delays to the roll-out reducing the expected benefits of reform.

The report found that, if the DWP maintained a 2017 completion date it raised risks by requiring the rapid migration of a large volume of claimants.

Though the NAO acknowledged ‘some action’  by the DWP – at the end of 2012 – to resolve problems, the department had been unable to address the underlying issues effectively.

The source of ‘many problems’ was identified in the apparent absence of a detailed view of how UC was meant to work.

In addition, poor control and decision-making was identified as undermining  confidence in the programme and contributing to a lack of progress, with the department particularly lacking in IT expertise and senior leadership suffering frequent changes.

The DWP opted not to introduce UC for all new claims nationally in October 2013 as planned and reconsidered a full roll-out to instead extend the pilots to six more sites – with these new sites taking on only the simplest claims.

Re-visiting its assessment a year later, the NAO said it was too early to determine if the DWP would  achieve value for money in its implementation.

Since the reset in early 2013, the report found the DWP had reduced delivery risks by significantly extending the timetable for introducing UC and choosing a more expensive twin-track approach.

That involved the roll-out of its ‘live service’ using pre-2013 IT assets while at the same time developing a new digital service.

To the DWP, the additional costs were are justified because it expected UC to achieve substantial benefits sooner and more safely.

However, the NAO found such potential benefits did not mean UC represented value for money – regardless of how it is implemented and the cost of doing so.

Though the DWP had developed and refined its ‘test and learn’ approach while continuing to expand its live service, the NAO said the department was slow to produce long-term plans for the future services, while HM Treasury required the programme to produce more ‘realistic plans’ before it backed the business case.

In the longer term, the report recognised the DWP had reduced risks in its planned transfer of most tax credit claimants to UC  by extending the timetable to the end of 2019.

It was, the report said, becoming ‘increasingly unlikely’ that the DWP could transfer over one million tax credit claimants on to UC by April 2016 as planned without significant operational risks.

At the time of the re-assessment, the department’s digital service had been delayed and was still in the very early stages of development.

It would, said the NAO, depend heavily on manual intervention able, as it was, to handle only a small number of claims – despite an approaching deadline for testing with all claimant types – even the most complex.

The DWP did not have a contingency plan should the digital service be delayed or fail and had not evaluated whether it could use the live service instead.

The NAO estimated that using live service systems, without further investment, could cost £2.8bn more in staff costs.

In principle, the DWP’s approach should, the report said, allow it to learn from experience, improving the design and readiness of services and reduce risks.

Though the DWP was said to still be struggling to stabilize senior leadership roles and responsibilities, the report recognised a more active approach to managing suppliers and establishing financial control within the programme.

Among the NAO’s recommendations was that the department establish a clear basis for making decisions across the strands of the programme.

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