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Universal Credit CRUNCHED: Dole handouts IT system to be rebuilt

New boss says only good chunks will be rescued from £500m project

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The man brought in to steer the government's crisis-hit one-dole-to-rule-them-all IT system has admitted that the Department for Work and Pension's Universal Credit project has been poorly managed and needs to be completely overhauled.

Howard Shiplee was hired by Work and Pensions Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith in May this year. He had previously been in charge of building the Olympics Park and was a replacement for UC boss Philip Langsdale who died last December.

"It’s clear to me there were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn’t and with suppliers not managed as they should have been,” Shiplee said in an article in the Daily Telegraph that preempts the release of what is expected to be a scathing National Audit Office report that's due out tomorrow.

In July, Shiplee revealed to MPs that he had in fact parked the Universal Credit project for 100 days to allow him to "reflect on where we've got to and start to look at the entire and total plan going forward".

At that point it had become clear - despite ministerial denials - that Whitehall's plans for reforming its welfare system at Jobcentres around the country were not only beset with problems but also facing big delays.

Shiplee added that Duncan Smith had "reset" the entire UC programme after the project was flagged up by the Major Projects Authority as being at high risk of not being completed on time.

The MPA was headed up by David Pitchford – the penny-pinching Oz who was later parachuted in to oversee the loathed Universal Credit project, following the sudden death of Langsdale.

By March this year - just a month after Pitchford had taken up office at the DWP - then-UC project director Hilary Reynolds announced her surprise intention to leave the programme within days of Duncan Smith's department denying - once again - that the project was suffering from major IT management problems.

By July, the crisis appeared to deepen further when Pitchford resigned.

Shiplee claimed on Tuesday that he was "confident" that "we are now back on course and the challenges are being handled."

The Register revealed in the summer that the IT system built for Universal Credit was so flawed that skilled staff working on a pilot scheme had been forced to enter data by hand.

At the time, the DWP told us its plans hadn't changed.

But Shiplee has now said:

Through new processes and people, we have strengthened all the basics of sound project management – governance, leadership and financial management. This includes establishing a clear plan for delivery and introducing more independent oversight, so the big challenges are tackled not sidestepped.

Shiplee was keen to stress that Universal Credit was not "just about IT".

"That's a big mistake," he said. "This is about changing the way we do business – and changing people's behaviour by ensuring there is always an incentive to be in work. So while the enhanced IT option – which will help us deliver this change – is being finalised, we will press ahead with rolling out the cultural elements of Universal Credit to support this transformation."

The DWP is now working with the Government Digital Service team "to explore an enhanced IT programme that would offer more flexibility and security to benefit claimants," Shiplee said.

And here's the big change: Duncan Smith's department isn't completely scrapping the £500m Universal Credit IT system, apparently, but instead is taking "the best of the existing system" and adding improvements with support from the GDS.

It's unclear how much taxpayer money has been lost as a result of the botched implementation of Universal Credit.

Perhaps the government's spending watchdog will reveal more tomorrow about how much cash has been wasted to date.

In July, the DWP confessed that only six Jobcentres would be equipped with the new dole system come October this year. A national rollout of Universal Credit was due to go fully live by the autumn, but rounds of testing that should have kicked off in April failed to happen.

Do you know anything else about the development and testing of the Universal Credit system? Are you working on the Pathfinder project? Please get in touch and let The Register know. We guarantee your anonymity. ®

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