Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith set me a clear challenge – get Universal Credit ready to roll out and do it safely. And that’s what I’m determined to do.
I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen since I arrived at the department. The team working on the programme – which will merge 6 benefits into 1 and ensure it always pays to work – is incredibly dedicated. The people on the ground working day to day at Jobcentre Plus are excellent at their jobs.
But it’s also clear to me there were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn’t and with suppliers not managed as they should have been. There is no doubt there have been missteps along the way. But we’ve put that right.
Equally, there has undoubtedly been bad luck. The former head of Universal Credit, Philip Langsdale, an acknowledged project management expert, died only 3 months into the job after making early progress. This dealt the programme a substantial blow.
I’m not in the business of making excuses, and I think it’s always important to acknowledge in any project where things may have gone wrong in order to ensure we learn as we go forward.
To that end, the key decision taken by the Secretary of State to reset the programme to ensure its delivery on time and within budget has been critical. When David Pitchford arrived from the Major Projects Authority earlier this year, at the Secretary of State’s request, he began this process in line with those twin objectives.
Since then, I have pushed ahead building on David’s early progress, reviewing our delivery plans, and ensuring that we have a plan in place that is achievable and safe. Through new processes and people, we have strengthened all the basics of sound project management – governance, leadership and financial management. This includes establishing a clear plan for delivery and introducing more independent oversight, so the big challenges are tackled not sidestepped.
I’ve also ensured that as a programme we have a tight grip on our spending, and I have put in place a post for a new director who will be dedicated to ensuring that suppliers deliver value for money.
I am confident we are now back on course and the challenges are being handled.
As the Secretary of State outlined in July, we are working with the new Government Digital Service (GDS) to explore an enhanced IT programme that would offer more flexibility and security to benefit claimants. We’re planning to take the best of the existing system and make improvements using GDS support.
But too many people think Universal Credit is just about IT. That’s a big mistake. This is about changing the way we do business – and changing people’s behaviour by ensuring there is always an incentive to be in work. So while the enhanced IT option – which will help us deliver this change – is being finalised, we will press ahead with rolling out the cultural elements of Universal Credit to support this transformation.
All jobcentres will be using the new Claimant Commitment beginning in October, rolling out completely by the spring. This will spell out clearly what we expect from benefit claimants and better prepare them for the world of work.
We’re also bringing Jobcentre Plus into the digital age, so individuals look for jobs online, apply for their benefit online and access services that will help them get ready for the increasingly digital world of work.
And we’ll build on our experience so far by taking claims to Universal Credit from 6 more jobcentres between October and next spring.
We will continue with our safe and responsible approach which echoes what I learned from my time in charge of building the Olympic Park. One of our big legacy achievements was in helping large numbers of unemployed people into work. We set up training programmes to up-skill existing and new workers, and apprentice schemes to give large numbers of young people the opportunity to start a career. For me, there is a natural link between this success and what we are trying to achieve with Universal Credit.
We can’t underestimate the scale of the challenge. This is a fundamental transformation of the welfare system. It involves rebuilding and merging programmes currently run out of DWP, HMRC and local authorities across the country. It means changing the working practices of these organisations and the thousands of staff working at Jobcentre Plus. It means a complete reordering of how benefit claimants experience the welfare state.
This is no small reform. But it’s a necessary one. And that’s why it’s of paramount importance to me and to the Secretary of State that we get it right.