The director of the National Audit Office (NAO) has said that the Department for Work & Pensions' (DWP) IT plans for Universal Credit were "probably over ambitious", placing blame mostly on governance issues within the department.
Max Tse was speaking at a Westminster Social Policy Forum Keynote Seminar this week in London where he said that although the NAO supported the vision for the government's welfare reforms, execution has not been perfect.
Universal Credit aims to merge benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working credit. The IT system supporting it will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
The NAO recently released a damning report on Universal Credit, where it claimed that the project had been badly managed and has failed to deliver against its rollout targets.
"Broadly we support the intention, the aim to simplify the system - simplifying incentives. The strategic direction, the overall aim of this, is still something that a lot of people support from all over the political spectrum," said Tse.
"I think we felt that it wasn't necessarily the overall ambition, but the ability to decompose that and prioritise within that. So why were there IT security issues dominating for so long and why were they so hard to resolve?"
He added: "The IT ambition was probably over ambitious, but I think that was a symptom of lacking the clarity and focusing down on what they wanted to do."
Computerworld UK recently revealed that DWP's enhanced digital system for Universal Credit, which will be used for the national rollout in 2017, is currently being supported by just three DWP IT employees.
According to the department's latest annual report it plans to spend up to £32 million to November this year developing the digital system. The total spend on the Universal Credit IT programme will reach £2.4 billion up to April 2023, but the government has yet to reveal figure for how much the new digital system will make up of this final cost.
Tse said that a lot of the issues have resulted from a lack of flexibility on DWP's part to make decisions about the IT. He said that some of Universal Credit's programme boards have 50 members, which stifles the department's ability to quickly make a decision and change direction.
However, despite this, Tse said that DWP has caught the problems early enough for the project to still succeed.
"I think all big projects are going to have some problems, nobody does it perfectly and there are always things you are going to want to work out. We were very concerned about the level of indecision and governance around Universal Credit - but the good thing is that that has happened at a very early stage, before people are receiving these benefits and before people are being affected by problems with IT," he said.
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