Think tank the Institute for Government (IfG) has just published a report on progress on delivering the government’s flagship welfare reform project, Universal Credit, that says use of agile and better grasp of IT and project management skills by civil servants means there is now genuine hope for delivery.
Its study, Universal Credit: From disaster to recovery?, by one of its senior fellows, Nicholas Timmins, looks at not just the failures that the beleaguered project has so visibly been dinged by, but what he calls its “potential recovery”.
That may surprise some, as it’s only three years since the National Audit Office reported that the plan to simplify the country’s complex welfare system by creating one single working-age benefit powered by new technology was, in his terms, “heading for nowhere but the rocks”.
The system was notoriously completely “reset” as a result by its primary ministerial sponsor, former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith.
But Timmins, a former Financial Times reporter and historian of the welfare state, who has been tracking Universal Credit since its inception, says that after careful scrutiny of the project: “The reforms are in a much better state”. As a result, something that is recognisable as Universal Credit “may well emerge at the other end”.
Timmins has come to his findings after an extensive research process and interviewing many of the key stakeholders, including Duncan Smith (the study concludes with over 300 footnotes and references).
Agile reset role
Key to the kind of recovery the report has in mind has been the application to Universal Credit of the government’s preferred system development approach, agile, he says.
“Universal Credit was started again using a genuinely agile approach to its build, while continuing to use, with some enhancements, the original build – the ‘live service’ – which allowed a lot of learning about how claimants and staff would react to key elements of the behaviour change and business change that is at the heart of Universal Credit… while the timetable now runs out to 2022, there is more flexibility in it to allow the test and learn approach, with room to rewrite when elements do not work or can be improved.”
Agile also means that incremental version of key parts of the system can be rolled out and tested easier, Timmins believes: “There have now been more than 40 releases of the digital service, with many more to come, as what is now dubbed the ‘full’ service tangles with the real world.”
Another positive, he believes, is a deepening of in-house expertise at the Department for Work and Pensions, which “continues to build up its in-house IT expertise, a correction of the mistakes made in outsourcing across government in earlier times”.
“What may well prove a better way of handling business transformation projects is being demonstrated,” says the study, “engaging much more closely with the staff and the recipients than in the traditional waterfall method, and adopting a test and learn approach”.
A cross-government programme to help train civil servants in project management is also helping, though “how well all that will work in the long run” remains to be seen.
Also crucial to the project’s recovery, Timmins believes, is the fact that since November 2015 – “and for the first time” - a direct financial interest in Universal Credit on the part of the Treasury was finally cemented, so that all parts of government are now finally Universal Credit aligned behind it.