Universal credit plagued by bloated IT disaster

British Secretary for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, is blaming a “Titanic” IT failure of his own pet project – the universal credit system – on civil servants.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report declared the £2.4 billion scheme a bloated mess, plagued by serious IT problems which could raise the total project balance in the hundreds of millions.

Speaking with BBC Today on Radio 4, Duncan Smith said he could have “written this report myself”, before saying the problem was with those who put together the IT details. He claimed those responsible “did not make the correct decisions”.

Of the government’s expected spend of £425 million up to April 2013, £303 million of this has been spent on contracts for designing and developing IT systems.

The NAO’s progress review of Universal Credit has found that even the government’s pathfinder pilot scheme, launched April 2013, is woefully underequipped – supporting just the simplest new claims and built around limited IT functionality. The report found that processes needed further input from staff, knocking the proposed scalability without yet more IT investment, not entirely useful considering the NAO’s claims that over 90 percent of new claimants begin online.

Because of shortfalls in the programme, the department will not be able to roll out universal credit nationally by October 2013 as originally planned – instead being forced to launch just six pathfinder websites from the month instead. The department is also unsure of how much the IT systems it has built will even support national roll-out, as pathfinder systems are not comprehensive and don’t let claimants change any details of their circumstances online as originally planned.

In fact, in May 2013, the department decided it needed to write off a sizeable £34 million – or 17 percent – of new IT assets.

Duncan Smith said the Universal Credit system will still be delivered on the “overall timetable” of 2017. “It is a very important reform and it is a reform that will save the government and taxpayers money and improve the lot of those most needing it,” he claimed.

Last month, shadow work and pensions secretary for Labour, Liam Byrne, slammed the welfare overhaul as being in “serious trouble”, and costing the tax payer “up to £1.5 billion”.

“There seems to be something very wrong in the mind of the man at the helm of DWP,” Byrne said of Duncan Smith. “He has a mandate to reform but the instruction to deliver appears to have got lost somewhere in his office.”

Byrne has now said the scheme is a “Titanic-sized IT disaster” and claimed Duncan Smith has both lost control of the department and alleged a cover up. 

At the very least, the project looks like it will serve as a boon for IT contractors.