The critical report on Universal Credit from the National Audit Office arrived during the Jewish New Year, so it’s taken me longer than usual to get round to it. The progress towards UC has been slow. The IT pilots are too limited to indicate whether they are capable of a national roll-out; the iterative, ‘agile’ approach was untested. The oversight from the DWP has been inadequate, the process was not transparent and it was not put to the test. Planning, process and project management were all wanting.
While none of this is unexpected, the report does not go as far as it might. The key problems in IT are not just the product of poor implementation; they reflect a fundamental failure to understand the nature of the activity they were supposed to address. When I was first asked about the scheme in the media, nearly three years ago, now, I argued that no computer could possibly do what the government was asking it to do. More than 45 years ago, Richard Titmuss attacked ‘computermania’ and the folly of ‘expecting the computer to solve the problems which human beings have not yet adequately diagnosed’. There is hardly a word of his critique that does not apply to Universal Credit. He pointed to the complexity of family lives, the lack of common characteristics, and the particular difficulties of applying general rules oto the working age population. He pointed out the problems employers would have in collating information, esepcially on information beyond the workplace, and the difficulty of coordinating benefits and tax. And he emphasised, above all, that the rules and principles governing benefits called for issues of ‘moral values, incentives and equity’ to be taken into account. “Computers cannot answer these questions.” (It’s all in a well-known essay, “Universal and selective social services”, in Commitment to Welfare.)
For the rest, of course, it’s been obvious for some time that the implementation was not going well. The procedure was never ‘agile’. The secretive nature of the process meant that even the most basic mistakes weren’t picked up. The chaotic movement of civil servants is the predictable outcome of a project that no-one could be happy about.