Universal Credit chief Neil Couling: Major welfare reform was always going to be a challenge. Here's what I've learned

Writing exclusively for CSW, Neil Couling – director general of the Department for Work and Pensions' Universal Credit programme – says strong political backing, a "test and learn" approach to delivery, and giving staff the space to develop has helped get the welfare reform scheme back on track

Universal Credit is now up and running in all of our 712 jobcentres, in every region across the country. We have reached an important milestone in the delivery of this landmark welfare reform. The full service – which will see us taking claims from the full range of legacy benefits – is now poised to go national. And in a rare occurrence for a major government project, lifetime costs for Universal Credit have actually fallen by over £2bn.
At the start of its journey, there were many who doubted the feasibility of Universal Credit. Today the situation is different. 

What’s behind this turnaround? The answers aren’t complex, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. It takes an enormous amount of work to develop a digital product to provide payments for millions of families across the country, one which works across government departments and combines six separate benefits. And we still have a lot to do. 

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Deploying a system like Universal Credit can never be without challenges. We’ve frequently been faced with new demands that call for novel solutions – but throughout, certain things have been key to ensuring the success of Universal Credit.

First and foremost, we’ve benefited from unwavering political and organisational support. The former secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith’s commitment and drive was vital, as is the vision and determination of welfare reform minister Lord Freud. 

And under our new secretary of state, Stephen Crabb, this dedication continues. That devotion to delivering Universal Credit runs throughout the department. Ask any work coach or agent in our service centres and you’ll see that staff support is extremely strong – and that they’re not shy about showing it. That kind of consistent, core support is absolutely essential to the delivery of a project of this scale.

"In the early days the external debate on Universal Credit was often focused on IT. While a sound technological infrastructure is core to our success, the really inspiring stuff is starting to make the headlines" – Neil Couling

Secondly, we adopted a new approach to planning Universal Credit. Instead of a multi-year roadmap, we split the plan into bite-sized chunks, and developed the detail for the next phase in the light of the previous ones. This has become known as "test and learn", and it has allowed us to adapt our plan based on experience to ensure that Universal Credit minimises disruption of the benefit system because – and let’s remember this – Universal Credit is a major, fundamental reform. You can’t just turn one system off and another one on. With Universal Credit there is no standing start. Real people in genuine need rely on the benefits system, and they have always been my primary concern. 

Thirdly, we’ve hired some of the best experts that Whitehall and the wider world has to offer, giving them space to develop Universal Credit and empowering them to set the rhythm of the programme so it can be implemented safely and securely. As a Senior Responsible Owner, with the ultimate responsibility for delivery, that doesn’t always make you feel comfortable – but it is the best way to build the system I have come across.

Our team extends beyond our immediate colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. We’ve built strong working relationships with our partners in HMRC, local authorities and the devolved administrations. We’ve developed the trust to have frank and open discussions, and to jointly author our delivery plans where we can. We work with our partners, rather than attempting to "manage" them and, even when we disagree, we listen and try to address their concerns.

In the early days the external debate on Universal Credit was often focused on IT. While a sound technological infrastructure is core to our success, the really inspiring stuff is starting to make the headlines. Universal Credit is fundamentally about work and helping those at the very bottom of the income scale have a chance to succeed. For every 100 people on JSA who find work, 113 people in Universal Credit get a job. People on Universal Credit put more effort into looking for work, find work more quickly and stay in work longer.

For someone like me, with over 30 years in DWP, this is incredibly exciting. Over the last two years, as we’ve started to put Universal Credit in place across our country, we’ve seen the real difference it makes to people’s lives. We’re opening up work for countless individuals, some for the first time, and transforming their lives and those of their families.

But don’t just take my word for it, ask a work coach, or one of the employers who are excited about how much better Universal Credit is than the previous system. And, yes, as I keep reminding people, there is a lot more to do, and no doubt challenges to overcome in the future. But we are on our way – and as this milestone shows, with the right people, the right approach, and strong cross-government support we are making Universal Credit a success.

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