Iain Duncan Smith

There have been rumblings from inside government as to the state of the long-awaited Universal Credit. A number of chronic headaches have emerged in recent weeks, as staff scramble to prepare for the introduction of the Universal Credit system in a matter of days. Now the man overseeing it has admitted that the process has been thwarted.

So is it doomed?


Challenging

The plan (the masterplan of Iain Duncan Smith) is ambitious. It will combine six benefits into a single payment, which will work seamlessly to ensure that it will always pay to work. It will be an efficient way to handle benefits, it will be simpler and clearer, and the aim is for it to be fairer.

The trouble is that bringing all this together has required an enormous step-change in the technology, infrastructure and bureaucracy - which was never going to be simple. Part of the challenge has been the IT itself. The bringing together of technology from HMRC and local councils is undoubtedly testing government boffins to their limits.

Management

However, there are also concerns about the way the project has been managed. In August a leaked survey of staff involved in the project was scathing, with descriptions such as "soul-destroying" and "firefighting and panic management".

Howard Shiplee, who is directing the scheme has written in the Telegraph that the way the process has been managed wasn't brilliant either. He said: "It's 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."

He added that some of the problems were down to bad luck, and that they were "back on course". However, he said: "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."

Delay

Even before Shiplee spoke out it was clear that things were badly off-track. Universal Credit was initially supposed to be rolled out for all new claimants from next month. However, now it will only be trialled at six job centres (and even then only for single people claiming Jobseekers' Allowance). The end goal remains for all claimants to be part of the system by 2017, but we will have to wait and see whether this is achievable.

Given that the process has cost an estimated £420 million - there will be those who argue that bringing in a new system at six job centres has been an extraordinarily expensive business. And there are those who question whether we will get to the end of this project without a great deal more soul-searching and humiliation.