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Tony Collins

Tony Collins is an investigative and campaigning journalist and former Executive Editor at Computer Weekly. With his friend and colleague David Bicknell he wrote "Crash", which found common factors in the world's largest public and private sector IT-related failures. He wrote "Open Verdict", a book on the strange deaths of defence scientists. He writes, and gives talks, on the tensions and disputes between suppliers and users.

Universal Credit: welfare systems to stay, new interfaces on Agile principles

IT changes to bring about Universal Credit will be kept as simple as possible

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At this week's regular Wednesday morning meeting of permanent secretaries, senior officials at the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs gave a presentation on Universal Credit and the IT-related plans. 

The Government says Universal Credit will  radically simplify the welfare system to "make work pay and combat worklessness and poverty".  The aim is to bring together out-of-work benefits, housing benefit and tax credits into a simplified single Universal Credit, in part to stop people losing money, or gaining little, when they work longer hours or come off benefits and start a new job. 

The  reform will depend on the existing tax and welfare systems, some of which date back more than 20 years and use Fujitsu's "VME" operating system which was developed for mainframes in the 1970s.  

Some details about the IT for Universal Credit were revealed by Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer and Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office who was speaking at an event organised by the Institute for Government to mark the publication of its report "System Error:  fixing the flaws in government IT".

Watmore said the IT plans include locking down existing systems and using Agile principles for a new interface, the idea being to bring about Universal Credit in the cheapest, quickest and least-risky way possible.

He told a packed audience at the Institute for Government on Wednesday about a meeting, that morning, of permanent secretaries.

"We had a presentation from DWP and HMRC on how they are going to implement Universal Credit and the related tax changes. I am pleased to say that the method they proposed to that meeting was to lock down the legacy, build the interface platform to it, and use Agile methods as a way of developing that policy ..."

He added that this was a flagship government policy that could be introduced according to new methods. But what was most important, he said, was not the technology, process or enabling method but "what you do with it". 

"If one believes that Universal Credit is the transformation of the welfare state, which ministers believe today, then our job as technologists and officials in the wider sense, is to bring that about in the quickest, cheapest and least-risk way.

"I am pleased to say that the programme plan that was put forward this morning could have been the perfect case study for this [Institute for Government] report … I think it is a great example of not only saying what we are going to do but doing it." 

Watmore said that legacy systems will have to stay.

"The legacy is there. You could wish it wasn't but it works. To replace it would be a colossal waste of money and a colossal risk. When you have something that works, stick with it and build around it. 

"It is what airlines do and governments around the world do. The real key is how to link to that legacy in a quick, easy, and interoperable way. 

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