What went wrong with Universal Credit?

I was on holiday last week when the DWP apparently ‘released’ documents requested by John Slater under the Freedom of Information Act concerning the situation prior to the “reset” of the Universal Credit scheme.  I’ve been trying to get access to the released documents, and will amend this entry when I do, but at present I’m faced  with two apparently inconsistent stories about what happened.  The version from the released papers has been reported by Natalie Bloomer in these terms:

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was aware of problems with the cost and implementation of Universal Credit despite publicly saying the project was “on track and on budget” … In February 2012, an internal register recorded concerns about a lack of effective checks and balances which could lead to the project not being fit for purpose.

Computer Weekly has reported this in similar terms.  However, a very different story was reported by Mark Ballard in Computer Weekly last year.

Universal Credit was doing fine and right on time as the Department for Work and Pensions began rolling out its IT system in April 2012 … in November 2012, DWP major programmes director Steve Dover told Computer Weekly he had finished his work overseeing the design and delivery of Universal Credit. Everything had gone according to plan, on budget and on-schedule. … But then Cabinet Office, led by public sector reformer Francis Maude, produced its Digital Strategy for the wholesale automation of public sector work. Within three months, Cabinet Office had taken over Universal Credit, torn up its plans and even scrapped the software DWP had produced to run Universal Credit. … That didn’t stop DWP being blamed for the delay though, and Universal Credit getting flack for being the sort of failure people had been taught to expect from public computer projects.

Could these accounts both be true?  They could, because it’s possible for two different agencies to take very different views of the adequacy and operational viability of a system in development.  It was obvious enough, for example, that one of the holes in the system (checking people’s identity) couldn’t possibly be done adequately through computer based checks during the initial application, and that’s the sort of thing that would reasonably have raised alarm bells in the Cabinet Office.  I won’t be able to say more on that until I get to see the documents in more detail.

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