On 5 December 2017, the House of Commons instructed the Department for Work and Pensions to provide us with Project Assessment Reviews (PARs) of its Universal Credit (UC) programme carried out by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). The Department provided the PARs and other related reports on 19 December 2017. They provide internal assurance for government about programme finances and delivery between 2012 and 2017, based on interviews with those most closely involved. They do not examine Government policy or the consequences for claimants.
In 2013 the UC programme was on the brink of complete failure. It is to the Department’s credit that it has brought it back from that brink. Though it has been subject to extensive delays, the programme is now run more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose. It continues, however, to face major challenges. Chief among these is automating the service. While the IPA’s call for the “industrialisation” of UC for complex cases and vulnerable customers is an unfortunate choice of phrase, UC can only deliver its promised efficiency gains if it becomes cheaper and less labour-intensive. The Department has consistently struggled to convince the IPA that UC can scale as planned. The Department must balance the considerable costs of further delays against the costs of pressing ahead. The “firebreak” in the rollout in January 2018 and the full business case, which was due in September 2017 and is now expected to be considered by the Treasury in March 2018, are important points of reflection.
When it chooses to proceed with further major steps in the programme the Department should do so having met clear performance criteria agreed in advance. Their failure to do so up to now is a refrain through the IPA’s reports. So too is criticism that UC would have benefitted from better engagement with local authorities. They are critical to the success of UC.
The Government’s approach to major programme assurance is flexible. The IPA agrees with the programme team a distinct timetable and scope for each review. This meant that some important findings on UC were not followed up in detail. Notably, the latest review, which considered the readiness of the digital service for accelerated rollout in late 2017, was explicitly excluded from considering whether previous IPA recommendations had been acted on, whether UC would achieve its business case, and whether it was delivering its policy intent. We were also very surprised that such a major programme has not been subject to the scrutiny of a PAR for over two crucial years of its development.
In the eighth year of the programme, a full business case for UC has yet to be submitted. There remains considerable uncertainty about its costs and benefits, not least in its employment impact for claimants other than those in the simplest circumstances. Scrutiny of the programme would benefit from a more transparent approach by the Department. Given its confidence that the programme is on track, the DWP should also benefit from greater openness.
While the UC programme has come a long way since it was reset in 2013, some of its biggest challenges are yet to come. Examining those concerns will form an important part of our ongoing inquiries, alongside our work on policy improvements.
29 January 2018