The Department for Work and Pensions’(DWP) enhanced digital system for Universal Credit, which will be used for the national rollout in 2017, is currently being supported by just three DWP IT employees.
According to the department’s latest annual report it plans to spend up to £32 million to November this year developing the digital system. The total spend on the Universal Credit IT programme will reach £2.4 billion up to April 2023, but the government has yet to reveal figure for how much the new digital system will make up of this final cost.
The Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) was called in to put the troubled welfare reform project on track after it was found that the existing system being developed by system integrators including IBM, HP and Accenture was not scalable, not flexible and had security problems.
GDS worked with DWP on developing a new ‘digital spine’ for Universal Credit, which will now be developed by DWP alongside the existing system. The digital spine' will ultimately replace the current Universal Credit system when the unified benefit payment moves from trials and is rolled out to claimants across the country.
It has since been revealed that GDS is pulling out of the project, amidst rumours that Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith ere disagreed over the future direction of the project.
However, there are still five GDS IT employees working on the digital version of Universal Credit.
The final system aims to merge benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit and working credit. The IT system supporting it will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
DWP is now undertaking a recruitment drive to support the digital Universal Credit development and is looking to hire 50 new IT specialists for the department.
Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, Chris Bryant MP, told Computerworld UK that the current situation is of concern.
“It’s worrying to discover that after the spat with Francis Maude and the Government Digital Service, DWP currently only has 3 IT specialists working on the digital solution to Iain Duncan Smith’s delayed and over-budget Universal Credit project,” he said.
“We know that DWP itself estimates that 50 IT specialists will be required to continue this work – quite the deficit. IDS should start focusing on delivering a policy that works, rather than fighting colleagues and blaming officials.”
Computerworld UK contacted DWP to find out the size of its IT department, but had not received a response at time of publication.
It has been reported that the current suppliers working on the existing system will be squeezed out of development, but DWP has now said that they are not ‘excluded’ from tendering and “capability and value” are at the heart of its procurement process.
Furthermore, it expects that the digital solution will not be fulfilled under one single contract, but rather developed using resources that can be brought in as and when they are required. DWP believes there will be a number of commercial arrangements in place.
Despite the latest revelations, DWP believes that the “necessary skills and expertise will continue to be in place” to deliver the digital Universal Credit system.
Duncan Smith recently told MPs on a select committee that he is in control of the project and that there is “no debacle”. However, he admitted that the department has had to write off, or ‘impair’, £40.1 million worth of IT assets to date – nearly a fifth more than the £34 million figure revealed to the National Audit Office earlier this year.
Moreover, this figure could increase: "If anything goes wrong going forward, that [figure] might be different," said Duncan Smith.
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