“I know why Universal Credit IT is failing” John Seddon message for Margaret Hodge

Press Release from John Seddon’s Office

Service design expert Professor John Seddon has a message for Margaret Hodge today as she chairs another session of the Public Accounts Committee on the implementation of Universal Credit this afternoon.

The National Audit Office got it wrong. The problem is not weak management, ineffective control or poor governance.  The problem is the design. A standardised IT system cannot deal with complex and variable demand from benefit claimants. In my open letter to Iain Duncan Smith in January 2011, I urged him to abandon the plans to deliver Universal Credit online because I knew it would fail and why. The crucial factor is the complexity of the service.  When what is being delivered is simple and unvarying, moving it to telephone or internet channels may be effective.  When it is complex and variable, as benefit claims always are, it is an expensive mistake to attempt to deal with the demand online. 

David Cameron was right to say today that Universal Credit is immensely complicated. But it is only complicated because the design is wrong. 

I have strong evidence from pioneers in local authority benefit offices that a simpler approach will deliver better service at much lower costs. The essence of the better design is for skilled staff to deal with claims at the first point of contact, usually face to face. Claimant needs and problems come in a variety of interlocking forms and guises; solving them all at first point of contact face to face results in huge cost savings since it reduces further demands on the DWP and on other public and voluntary services. It’s counter intuitive but true”.  

About John Seddon

John Seddon is a service design expert, occupational psychologist, researcher, professor, management thinker and leading authority on change in the public sector. He is a visiting professor at Hull and Derby University Business Schools and author of several best sellers including Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: the Failure of the Reform Regime and a Manifesto for a Better Way.




  1. Hossylass says:

    Well bless you John, but you have missed the point of UC.
    Its not about delivering a better service to the customer – its about reducing benefit by controlling to the penny the amount of money people have, and to have the capacity to make all benefits conditional, and therefore sanctionable.

    But yes, a system of variables, that in themselves are variable in number, is too complex and dynamic.

  2. FDUK says:

    Even if UC is about cutting costs John’s point is still valid.

    The Tories should be applauded for trying to get welfare benefits to make work pay. The sanctions would be unnecessary if they actually got work to pay.

    Getting the process right is critical and there is no sign of them taking on board John’s points. They will only make things worse and if UC is implemented in its current form it will be a disaster. Trying the get the DWP to centralize UC was madness. Hadn’t they heard of the CSA or WTC fiascos?

  3. Laura Davis says:

    Anyone who has worked frontline in a benefit office, as I did for a long time (albeit many years ago) and who is now client facing in any large organisation with modern systems, can say exactly why the IT can’t work. Claimants have constantly changing circumstances, perhaps daily with chaotic lifestyles. One day they may be sent to a hostel, have a row next morning with staff and be told to leave, return to their partner and get kicked out a few days later, return to mum, etc. By the time they presented there may have been 10 different assessments, all in the past, which we were able to summarise on paper assessment sheets, come up with a total and get authorised for payment that day. Even then, we had 75% annual staff turnover (I left with a nervous breakdown). Now think about what you do just to pay for anything online: all the sequential steps which, if interrupted, lock you out and leave you at the mercy of a call centre. All information now is input to a silo, which is in the present only and nothing can be done in arrears. You can’t leave anything required out for the time being: you can’t get a figure wrong, you can’t add anything that you need to draw attention to, that may nominally affect one thing but have a knock-on effect. The result of this will be smashed up open access terminals and unfortunate so-called ‘staff’ (interns) drafted in from the unemployed themselves to ‘help’ with their claims – I was asked by the jobcentre when I signed on two recessions ago, if I wanted to join them! And double the contracts for one’s friends, the bosses in G4S security of course. The DWP clients will be telling you on Newsnight that they have no alternative but to burgle your house, since their claim has been messed up and you can’t expect them to wait months for their entitlement. These failed projects have one thing in common: no one ever consults either the frontline staff or their managers, to find out what could actually work. Best of luck IDS.

  4. Al-memani says:

    Why not pay everyone a fixed benefit every week for food clothing housing and have employers pay upto the fixed amount to universal credit according to hours worked and any excess paid to the employee after deduction of tax at 50% what ever the surplus income


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