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WANTED: New head of crashingly expensive, error-prone and frankly cursed one-dole-to-rule-them-all system

UK's DWP needs it next year

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Whitehall mandarins are deeply touchy about what historians may eventually consider to be one of the Tory-led coalition government's biggest domestic failures – the widely slammed Universal Credit benefits' system.

In fact, that sensitivity around Universal Credit (UC) has led to the Department for Work and Pensions scurrying to find a new head for the troubled project, a whole year before its current boss, Howard Shiplee, is expected to exit his contract.

On Wednesday, government minister Mike Penning told Parliament:

The director general of Universal Credit was appointed on a two-year contract to May 2015. To ensure a smooth transition in advance of the next General Election, the search for a replacement to lead the programme through to its completion will commence in due course.

The Register asked the DWP why it needed 12 months to seek out Shiplee's successor.

"Howard Shiplee is director general of UC so it's [Penning's parlimentary response] talking about finding a replacement for him," a spokeswoman at Iain Duncan Smith's department said. "His contract ends in May 2015 and we know this can be a lengthy process we're starting this search in due course to ensure we get someone of the right calibre."

There has been a revolving door at the DWP ever since Universal Credit's inception in 2010.

Shiplee's successor will be the seventh person to lead the struggling project in the space of under three years - and that's assuming that he or she isn't roped in early to replace Shiplee, who has suffered ill health in recent months.

The DWP has burned its way through top management at Universal Credit. First, it lost Steve Dover and Malcolm Whitehouse when it was starting to become clear that the technology underpinning the handout system would not be up to scratch for complex claims.

Then Hilary Reynolds did a very short four-month stint at UC as it headed deeper into crisis mode, even as Duncan Smith denied any such crisis existed. She was moved sideways and replaced by David Pitchford, the head of the Major Projects Authority, who had been brought in by the DWP in early 2013 after the sudden death of Philip Langsdale, the chief information officer tasked with taking an "overarching look" at the entire project.

Pitchford's reign was understood to be brief and brutal. He left in September last year, not long after Shiplee – of London Olympics fame – stepped in to face down MPs and critics who complained about multiple problems with the £500m one-dole-to-rule-them-all scheme.

Those who are easily spooked might say that, given its chequered history to date, the delayed Universal Credit system is cursed. But then, seven is a lucky number, at least. ®

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