Universal Credit: chronicle of a death foretold

This blog post was first published on Nov 11, 2010, in reaction to the Universal Credit ‘White Paper’. It’s normal to say “I hate to say it ….”. I don’t hate to say it – I was right.

Welfare Reform: it’s the implementation, stupid

It has entered popular mythology that in the 1992 US Presidential election Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville hung a notice over Clinton’s desk that said “it’s the economy, stupid”. (It didn’t quite happen like that, but it’s close enough.)

This Government could do with a notice hung in every Ministerial office saying “It’s the implementation, stupid.” This is going to especially apply to the welfare reforms unveiled by Ian Duncan Smith today.

What sparked me into thinking about this today was hearing a Minister on the BBC’s the World at One intone seriously that job-seekers who appeared to be work-shy would be interviewed and judged by Jobcentre Plus advisers who ‘know them well’ and are ‘well placed’ to make these judgements.

Now, I generally think the JCP has done reasonably well at its job, and the merger between the main parts of the old Benefits Agency and Employment Service is a rare success story in Whitehall mergers. But it takes prodigiously rose-tinted glasses to think that JCP advisers actually get to know all their ‘clients’ individually. Ministers need to get real.

The bit of the White Paper that ought to send a chill down the spines of all involved in implementing Universal Benefit is as follows:

“The Department for Work and Pensions will be responsible for the delivery of Universal Credit and will make extensive use of online technology to allow people to better manage their claim and understand the benefits of entering paid work. We expect to start taking claims for Universal Credit from October 2013.”

Oh dear. Thirty odd benefits consolidated into a single system, with all the IT requirements, retraining, process design and a host of other implementation issues are going to be solved in just under three years. Really? Are they serious? Fortunately, Whitehall has such a brilliant track-record of implementing big IT projects….

Moreover DWP has very little experience of providing this stuff on-line. At present the best systems they have are on-line form filling, where the completed forms are then printed off and someone deals with them as good old paper files. They are going to jump from where they are now to integrating 30 odd systems into a web-based system in just three years? Seriously?

And of course implementation will require co-operation across several government departments, including DWP, Treasury, Communities and Local Government, etc – and again, we all know how good Whitehall is at joined-up government….

Here’s just one example from the White Paper:

“Recipients who have earnings from employment will have those earnings  automatically taken into account. We intend to use HM Revenue & Customs  proposed real-time information system to identify earnings and to calculate the net Universal Credit payment due by applying the appropriate taper to the  gross payment. This means that those recipients who receive earnings through Pay As You Earn will not need to inform us for payment purposes if the amount of their earnings change.”

Good luck with that.

Just think about the implementation muddles the Government has managed to generate around the relatively simple proposed change to Child Benefit and multiply that by thirty and you get some idea of the train wreck on the horizon. Just read Chapter 4 of the White Paper, and weep at the naïve optimism.

And of course, all of this requires primary legislation before they can even start to specify and sign-off development plans for the systems and technology needed to make this all work.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am broadly sympathetic to the idea of simplifying benefits. I agree with the aim of people being better off in work than on benefits. I agree there are some people abusing the current systems and this should be stopped as much as possible.

But the potential for disaster and what Ian Duncan Smith charmingly calls “perverse disincentives” and other disasters in this rushed reform are legion. I hope I’m wrong, but that really would be the triumph of hope over experience.

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