21 November 2018

Amber Rudd – the new Work and Pensions Secretary – wants to sort out Universal Credit. Emma Norris says she will have to start by reversing the defensive response to honest criticism of the project.

Amber Rudd told the Today programme she wants to “listen and learn” about the problems with Universal Credit. While her tone was not a complete reversal of her predecessor Esther McVey, it was at least a step in the right direction.

One of the main problems with Universal Credit has been the Department for Work and Pensions's tendency towards defensiveness rather than honest engagement with criticism of the project.

Right from the outset, DWP failed to sufficiently engage with Universal Credit’s intended users, particularly with their capacity to deal with one of its biggest proposed changes: the expectation that most claimants would make claims online. This proved a major stumbling block and led to the goal being changed to ‘digital as appropriate’. The department then began a full ‘test and learn’ approach with both staff and claimants; meaning it would use feedback to make improvements to the project during implementation.

A ‘test and learn’ rollout should have given DWP an opportunity to identify and fix persistent flaws, including the five-week wait for the first payment and the poor incentives for second earners (who under the current system will keep only 37p in every pound of their pay from a part-time role).

But although the department has been testing, it doesn't always appear to have been learning. 

The National Audit Office (NAO) published a damning review of Universal Credit a few months ago. It outlined hardship among claimants, a department ignoring feedback and doubts over whether the project would ever be value for money. The response from the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was not a commitment to investigate this, but denial.

Rudd’s signal that she wants to engage with problems is therefore a welcome change. This won’t be easy. For example, providing more flexibility in payment schedules would involve major IT change. But this is probably the last chance to turn the policy around.

Merry-go-round of ministers and officials in charge

Universal Credit has also been badly affected by turnover in political leadership. Rudd is the fifth Work and Pensions Secretary in two years. Even at the official level, there has been significant turnover. At one point, Universal Credit ran through five different civil service leaders in just four years.

This would be a shocking level of turnover and disruption for any major project – but for government’s flagship domestic reform it is indefensible.

For now, we will have to wait to see what Rudd does next. She has a chance to change the course of Universal Credit if she listens and acts on persistent implementation problems, and if she sticks around long enough to make a difference.