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Universal Credit criticisms highlight old cultural failings



The Public Accounts Committee's report includes criticisms that have echoed around government for more than a decade

MPs have been less sympathetic than the government auditors in their latest look at the Universal Credit programme. The latest report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is by no means a hatchet job, but it is more critical in tone than the judgement from the National Audit Office (NAO) last November.

While the NAO emphasised the progress in key areas, the PAC has focused on lingering shortcomings, and made clear that it is worried about the IT infrastructure; and the programme won't be a success unless that IT works.

Like the NAO, the PAC has reserved judgement on whether Universal Credit - the flagship policy of Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan-Smith - will ultimately provide value for money, but it's clear that, with the programme not expected to be fully implemented until at least 2019, it will be a long time before the value is realised.

While the PAC report picks through developments particular to this programme, it contains criticisms that are depressingly familiar, and most reflect cultural issues in Whitehall.

One is the rapid turnover of senior responsible owners, which the report says has undermined efforts to manage the changes, and has been identified as a major cause of failure in big IT programmes since the early 2000s. Another is the lack of openness and unwillingness to face up to past failings, an old Whitehall vice that makes it harder to find a credible way forward. Then there's a failure to obtain the data to assess the costs for handling each case; reflecting the low appreciation of the importance of data.


It's also notable that the report does not highlight a couple of the issues that have affected the programme: the early emphasis on agile methodologies and subsequent claims that it was set up all wrong to make them workable; and the Government Digital Service's retreat from involvement at the end of 2013. These have provided signs of different groups theoretically working together but not from the same playbook.

Whitehall has been subject to criticisms like this for a long time, and the record on Universal Credit suggests that some of its departments are very slow to learn any lessons. Combine this with the fact that Universal Credit was hideously complex project to begin with, and it's no surprise we're looking at a 10-year programme that will take longer before it shows if it was worth the pain.

Picture: Iain Duncan-Smith, Work and Pensions Office through Wikimedia, Open Government Licence v.1

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