If Universal Credit isn't to fail, Iain Duncan Smith must learn from the flaws of Obamacare

These are the three questions IDS should currently be asking


As Iain Duncan Smith labours to introduce a vast Universal Credit scheme that uses all the wonders of digital technology, he should look across the Atlantic and shiver. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will see that an even larger exercise in delivering social benefits online (in this case health insurance rather than welfare) has run into horrendous difficulties. Obamacare, which requires the building a new, online health insurance marketplace for an estimated 24 million Americans, has proved to be a disaster.

It was supposed to go live on at the beginning of last month. The programme has been plagued by glitches and is well on the way to finally destroying what remains of the Barack Obama’s credibility as a can-do president. His “Yes we can” has been replaced by “No we can’t”. One IT specialist has been quoted as saying that as many as five million lines of software code may need to be rewritten before the website runs properly. It probably won’t be ready until the New Year.

What Mr Duncan Smith is attempting to do is also very ambitious. Universal Credit is due to replace six means-tested benefits for working-age households. These cost a colossal £67bn in 2012-13. The Government is also using Universal Credit to try to encourage claimants to start work or to earn more. It wants a simpler system. And it expects Universal Credit to reduce administration costs, fraud, error and overpayments, and increase take-up.

So Mr Duncan Smith urgently needs to ask himself what he can learn from the mistakes the Washington administration has made. Here are the precise questions he should pose.

Question one: Am I paying sufficient attention to warnings of difficulties ahead?

President Obama’s team didn’t do so. In May 2010 the White House received a memo from a trusted health professional. It stated: “My general view is that the early implementation efforts are far short of what it will take to implement reform successfully… The relevant people need a vision about health system transformation and the managerial ability to carry out that vision. The President has sketched out such a vision. However, I do not believe the relevant members of the Administration understand the President’s vision or have the capability to carry it out.”

Unfortunately, Mr Duncan Smith’s team seems to be making a similar error. A recent National Audit Office assessment of progress noted: “From mid-2012, it became increasingly clear that the department was failing to address recommendations from assurance reviews. Although the nature and emphasis of its recommendations changed over time, the key areas of concern raised by the Major Projects Authority in February 2013 had appeared in previous reports.”

Question two: Have I established a clear, durable chain of command?

One of the major criticisms of the American project has been that no single person has really been in charge. There was nobody who said: “My job is the seamless implementation of the Affordable Care Act.” Alas, the introduction of the Universal Credit system seems to be facing the very same problem. The programme has had five senior responsible owners since mid-2012. And note the strange nomenclature – “Senior responsible owners”. The very phrase seems to indicate a lack of grip.

Which is presumably why the National Audit Office observed that “throughout the programme the department has lacked a detailed view of how Universal Credit is meant to work. The department was warned repeatedly about the lack of a detailed ‘blueprint’, ‘architecture’ or ‘target operating model’ for Universal Credit. Over the course of 2011 and the first half of 2012, the department made some progress but did not address these concerns as expected. By mid-2012, this meant that the department could not agree what security it needed to protect claimant transactions and was unclear about how Universal Credit would integrate with other programmes.”

Question three: Has the Department of Work and Pensions got enough money to do the job well?

In the US, one of the problems was that Mr Duncan Smith’s equivalent, Kathleen Sebelius, US Secretary of Health and Human Services since 2009, simply couldn’t scrounge together enough money to keep a group of people developing the exchanges working directly under her. This at least was the opinion of one former official quoted by The Washington Post. Yet we know that Mr Duncan Smith’s department is going through a period of great financial stringency. It is reducing running costs by £2.7bn between 2009-10 and 2014-15. And it plans to reduce costs by a further £565m in 2015-16.

The introduction of Universal Credit is already well behind schedule. It was first meant to be ready by October 2013. Then it was pushed forward to 2015. Now officials are talking of a 2017 completion date. My guess is that it will be fortunate if the scheme is fully up and running by 2020. And unless Mr Duncan Smith gets a grip, it is virtually certain that he will have left long before.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal  

What is 4Chan? And why does it threaten women like Emma Watson?

Memphis Barker
Chuka Umunna was elected MP for Streatham in 2010  

Could flirty Chuka Umunna be worth a punt for Labour’s top job?

Matthew Norman
Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world