Digital version of universal credit still pricey, wobbly, failing to deliver – MPs

Too many staff, too few claimants, in-house ID system with 50% success rate...

Screengrab from the Thick of IT - Brit govt satirical comedy show. Cast text furiously while in crisis mode.

Many Brits are still unable to access the "digital-only" version of Universal Credit, the delayed and much-derided welfare reform intended to roll six benefits into one single payment – according to MPs.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee said the UK government's Department for Work and Pensions has yet to produce a full business case seven years after the programme started, with "considerable uncertainty about its costs and benefits" remaining.

Ged Killen, Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, yesterday told the House of Commons that if a universal credit claimant forgets their username or password, they must attend a face-to-face interview at a Jobcentre to reset it.

"The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions cannot give a date for when that will be fixed," he said.

The committee's report, based on 10 unpublished reviews compiled by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) between 2012 and September 2017, said the digital service will be rolled out to 10 Jobcentres per month between February and April 2018 compared to over 60 per month in previous plans.

"The UC digital service is currently operating with more staff and fewer claimants than the DWP expected," it said. "This makes it expensive to run. The March 2017 [review] found that costs per claim were £963 in January 2018. This was a substantial decrease on the £1,750 in April 2016, but still almost four times the target of approximately £250 by May 2019."

Failure to verify

To make its promised efficiency gains, the system must become "far more automated". However, identity verification is currently a manual process for a large proportion of claimants. "Delays to the rollout and automation of the digital service reduce projected efficiency savings."

Problems with the Government Digital Service's Verify programme were named as one of the major obstacles.

The department had intended to use Verify as an alternative to the face-to-face identification. However, by September 2016 it found Verify had caused problems "in a wide variety of fields". The IPA found that "assumptions based on insight work into customer journey are not at all aligning with reality".

Only 29 per cent of UC claimants could complete the Verify process, and the levels of manual activities involved for the remainder were "not sustainable at scale".

The DWP responded to concerns about Verify by developing an in-house system called Prove your Identity. A July 2017 update advised the UC board that Prove your Identity could, combined with Verify, help achieve a 50 per cent verification success rate.

However, the report praised the department for bringing the programme back from "the brink of complete failure" it had reached in 2013, when the system was reset.

Problems initially arose from the programme being "very focussed on IT" from 2011. "This created a risk it would deliver a transactional processing system but will not achieve the policy intent," warned the report at the time.

'Shocking absence' of supplier control

The ramifications of the "extraordinarily poor" early management of UC were most evident in the department's "now well-documented mishandling of its IT suppliers, which included Accenture, IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom," it said.

In its November 2013 report, the Public Accounts Committee found the programme had "a shocking absence of control" over its suppliers and had failed to "implement basic procedure for monitoring and authorising expenditure".

It said: "Those suppliers were rewarded handsomely for ultimately pointless design and development work conducted without clear sets of requirements or an overarching objective. Many millions of pounds of public money were wasted."

The MPA found that in continuing to accept instructions from DWP in the absence of a blueprint for UC, the suppliers had exhibited "unacceptable behaviour" and had failed in their professional duty of care to their client.

"The programme is now run more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose," said the report.

The October 2015 review found that the programme had left behind its "fixation" with in-vogue "agile" software development methodology, which had left "the agile tail wagging the digital dog". ®

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