Universal credit and satellite navigation: you might wonder what the two have in common.
Generally speaking, a sat-nav gets you to where you want to go and it also gives you an estimate of your arrival time. If you stop for a coffee or get stuck in traffic, the clever little gizmo recalculates the time you’ll reach your destination.
The battered old bus that’s transporting universal credit to its promised land appears to be in all sorts of trouble; no-one is quite sure if it’s travelling in the right direction, some of the passengers have been left behind and it needs significant repairs if it’s to get through its MOT. The universal credit project is badly in need of a sat-nav itself to help get the project back on track.
This analogy is not intended as a cynical sneer at the beleaguered project. It’s just an observation of where the government appears to have reached with universal credit. It’s a view from the outside, looking in, because in truth, many of us are mere spectators, when we’d rather be participants.
And who are we, the spectators? We are the revenues and benefit departments who have been administering benefits on behalf of the DWP for the past 30 years. And we are the software suppliers and partners who supply the systems that help administer those benefits and revenues.
We haven’t merely observed the welfare reform programme of which universal credit is a major part. We have successfully designed, developed and implemented some of the key changes that have helped deliver new government legislation and also helped to reduce unnecessary expenditure while increasing both effectiveness and efficiencies. Ultimately, the factors that contribute to the success of large government projects are built around providing services and systems that will easily allow citizens access to, and engagement with, a work and benefits programme that has the appropriate building blocks in place including experienced suppliers, a community, and healthy competition between potential third-party suppliers.
The creation of a sounding board for frank communication is also important to ensure that everyone is aware of the key facts. Housing benefit reform has worked because it was built and delivered by long-established teams, with a track record of success by those who know their market. The challenge now is to continue to lobby for a greater voice in the transition to universal credit and a more significant role in its delivery. Housing benefit differs from the other constituent parts of universal credit in that housing costs are more complex and less generic than income replacement. Therefore, it will require different local supporting mechanisms. Let’s hope that these differences are recognised and catered for in order to allow for successful migration and delivery.
We’ve already developed systems that have delivered long term, consistently strong performance. Local authorities and their suppliers have created an environment where new ideas can be trialled and best performance has been able to evolve. Equally, if something isn’t broken, we’ve not been compelled to fix or replace it.
We have also developed a community that understands systems and how they work. The debate surrounding universal credit has highlighted some of the issues surrounding system development.
Initially, the DWP appeared to be using agile methodologies and success was almost guaranteed. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Perhaps there was an over reliance on suppliers with an expectation to magically deliver exactly what the customer needed or wanted.
Finally during the summer, reports were circulating about the project as it was in April; the simple truth is that once system development goes off track, it will not be turned around in a couple of months. A fact made all the more true as ongoing work had been suspended during that time.
In conclusion, it’s time to work more closely together to get universal credit back on track.
It’s going to be a long journey which will need a detailed plan, teamwork, utilisation of past experience plus… a sat-nav.
Nigel Blair is head of product management & innovation at Northgate Public Services.