The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is urgently seeking new IT staff to support the development of the digital update to Universal Credit, after the Government Digital Service (GDS) backed away from the project amidst growing tensions between the two Whitehall departments.
Minutes from a meeting, leaked to the Guardian, state that the friction between Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who has oversight of GDS, and DWP’s Iain Duncan Smith is now causing “high-level” risks to the successful delivery of Universal Credit.
According to the report, the minutes also describe how GDS has accelerated its withdrawal from the project – taking its digital savvy IT team with it.
It is likely that the project will be delayed as a result.
DWP brought GDS in last year to develop an enhanced version of Universal Credit, after it was found that the original system had a number of problems with security and scaling up beyond the scope of the pilots.
Universal Credit aims to merge benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit and working credit. The IT system supporting it will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
DWP plans to spend £2.4 billion to implement Universal Credit up to April 2023 and has spent £425 million up to April 2013. Most spending so far (£303 million) has been on contracts for designing and developing IT systems. However, to date there have been a number of suspected problems with delivery.
Duncan Smith recently told a select committee that he is in control of the project and that there is “no debacle”. However, he admitted that the department has had to write off, or ‘impair’, £40.1 million worth of IT assets to date – nearly a fifth more than the £34 million figure revealed to the National Audit Office last year.
The DWP has said that it will continue to develop its existing system alongside the digital version to “allow for greater understanding of how individuals in different circumstances interact with Universal Credit”, but write down the assets over a much shorter timeframe than it had originally intended.
The Guardian reports that tensions between the Cabinet Office and DWP arose after Duncan Smith refused to scrap the existing IT assets and start afresh with a new digital system – a decision that would have likely caused much political embarrassment ahead of the next general election.
Instead Duncan Smith has insisted on a twin-track approach and benefit claimants will then be transferred from the old system to the new digital one. Maude, according to reports, was outvoted by the majority of other government ministers and project advisers.
A separate leaked document reveals that the quick withdrawal of GDS from Universal Credit is one of the main risks to the project because DWP might not be “able to obtain the skills required to replace GDS within the current market at affordable cost”.
Howard Shiplee, who was brought in to put the troubled project back on track, described GDS’ quick exit as “disappointing” during a meeting held on 27 November.
Anna Harris, Shiplee’s second-in-command, also said that Universal Credit was coded as ‘red’ overall.
The leaked board minutes state: "GDS wished to accelerate their withdrawal from the design-and-build team to allow DWP to take ownership.
"However, as GDS have supplied most of the expertise and resource to date, and a recruitment exercise needs to be undertaken to fill the technical vacancies, there is therefore the likelihood of some delay."