MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee have called for an end to the ‘twin-track’ development of Universal Credit systems to make better use of taxpayers’ money.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been working on two Universal Credit systems simultaneously - one that underpins the current rollout to pilot ‘Pathfinder’ sites, and an ‘end-state’, digital solution, which will be open sourced and web-based, that will replace the Pathfinder system in 2017.
However, the committee believes that the department is wasting millions of pounds developing IT software that has no future.
“Given the small number of people currently claiming UC, the government should consider whether it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to abandon further development of the existing system and focus solely on the end-state solution,” said committee chair Dame Anne Begg in the committee's latest DWP monitoring report.
So far, DWP has spent £40.1 million on IT software that now has no use and £91 million on software with a useful life of only five years instead of the planned 15 years, which Begg described as “a matter of deep regret”.
At the same time as it develops the ‘end-state’ version of UC at an estimated cost of £25 million to £32 million to November 2014, the government plans to spend a further £37 million to £58 million on developing the existing system to increase its functionality so that it can be extended to couples and families this year as part of the Pathfinder programme.
'Excruciatingly slow' rollout
As well as the waste of money, the committee criticised the “excruciatingly slow” rollout of Universal credit, which DWP has repeatedly described as “controlled”, saying that it was too slow to scale up in time for national rollout.
“The end-state solution will first be tested on 100 claimants and DWP is still some way from being in a position to take this small step. Although we agree with an incremental approach, there is a difference between sensible caution and a snail’s pace,” the committee said.
“It will only be possible to prove that the end-state solution will work for the millions of households which will eventually claim UC when the IT can be tested at scale.”
DWP should also be clearer and more open in its plans and progress reports, using plain English explanations and providing more detail, the committee said.
“Effective select committee scrutiny depends on the provision of accurate, timely and detailed information by government departments. DWP has not always provided this to the committee in the case of Universal Credit,” Begg said.
“On two occasions, the government has made public the details about major changes to the timetable for UC implementation only when forced to do so by the prospect of oral evidence in front of the committee. This lack of openness and transparency is not acceptable.”
In response to this committee report, it recommended that DWP should provide more information about what the end-state solution for UC IT means in practical terms.
It should also set out the latest estimates of the costs of developing the digital solution beyond November 2014, including the costs of hiring in-house IT specialists and contractors, the committee said.
DWP was recently forced to draw on the government’s digital services framework and to hire more people with the necessary expertise to work on the end-state UC system after the Government Digital Services (GDS) team it had been working with pulled out of the project, taking its digital savvy IT team with it.
In January 2014, there were just three DWP IT officials and five GDS officials working on the digital solution. DWP has estimated it will need to recruit 50 IT specialists to carry out the work on the digital solution.
Furthermore, the committee asked DWP to provide an estimate for when the end-state solution will be ready to test on the first 100 households, when it will be extended to a more representative sample and when it will be fully implemented.
In response to the criticisms made by the committee, a DWP spokesperson insisted that Universal Credit and its IT systems were “very clearly working well”.
“We deliberately started in a slow, controlled and safe way, which the committee itself has long recommended, so we can expand Universal Credit securely to more people.
“Universal Credit is on track and we will start expanding it to other Jobcentres from this summer.”
In addressing the impairment of software costs, it said that reworking software was standard in a large project like UC, and that the £40.1 million that was written off should be considered insignificant, just two percent, of the £2 billion development and delivery budget.
It also argued that working on a second generation system made sense, giving the department an opportunity to use new technology to fix the welfare problems of the old benefits system.
Universal Credit is currently alive for single jobseeker claimants in 10 sites in England and Wales.
Rugby council, which went live with the system in November 2013, recently revealed how in addition to the IT, top-down communication was a problem for Universal Credit.
The council likened its efforts to communicate with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to “banging your head against a brick wall.”
Chancellor George Osborne recently created further confusion around the ever-moving UC completion date by saying that the new system would be “fully available” across the UK by 2016 in his latest Budget document.
DWP has previously said that the national UC rollout will not be complete until an unspecified time after its original 2017 deadline.