Universal Credit has been plagued by a variety of problems since its inception.
The original timetable was hugely overambitious – suggesting Universal Credit would be delivered in just four years, whereas, according to the current timetable, it will have taken double that by the time it completes in 2021. It was being designed and implemented by an overloaded department that was already dealing with a host of other business change policies, including Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and that was struggling to find the capability needed to manage major IT builds. In contrast to rules of good policymaking, policy development and implementation were not at all joined up. And it has been subject to constant change at the top – the senior official responsible for the policy, the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO), has changed six times since its inception, creating serious disruption.
This last point is perhaps one of the most damaging. All major project guidance (and our own research) emphasises the need for a stable senior team and a single official owner who feels personal responsibility for a project, but Universal Credit has had the opposite. Lord Freud aside, the one source of consistency it did have was in Iain Duncan Smith – its creator and champion. He was by all accounts passionate about the policy, was at the heart of its development in opposition, and was determined to see it succeed in some form. Without Duncan Smith present, there are questions about how Universal Credit will fare – particularly as the national rollout of the digital service begins in Jobcentres in May.
However, a new Secretary of State could also be an opportunity for the implementation of Universal Credit. Duncan Smith’s deep commitment to the reforms arguably also made it difficult for him to consider it dispassionately or for officials to be honest about its problems. Stephen Crabb can use his position as a newcomer to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to take stock and assess what to do next. What he must not do is continue with the implementation of his predecessor’s policy, but with limited interest.
Universal Credit, as with all major acts of policy implementation, requires focused ministerial attention in order to get it right. This will be challenging for Crabb. DWP is a large and complex department with a host of other challenging priorities, including broader service digitisation. Coming in as Secretary of State will be hard and time-consuming enough – and a role for which there is little preparation or support, as IfG has written about before. But he should not miss this opportunity to reflect on Universal Credit, assess what is achievable given the financial constraints and make strategic decisions about the future of this flagship reform.
The Institute for Government and Nicholas Timmins will be publishing a report on Universal Credit later this year.