Opinion: Universal Credit is becoming less digital-by-default, more digital-by-dummies

Another year, another news gem about a struggling government project. Us technology journalists have barely recovered from our hangovers over the festive period and we are already being handed some astounding revelations about the never-ending debacle that is the Department for Work and Pensions' £2.4 billion welfare reform project, Universal Credit.


Another year, another news gem about a struggling government project! Us technology journalists have barely recovered from our hangovers over the festive period and we are already being handed some astounding revelations about the never-ending debacle that is the Department for Work and Pensions' £2.4 billion welfare reform project, Universal Credit.

Towards the end of last year we at Computerworld UK found it hard to see how things could get much worse for the department and the IT project that is going to impact millions of people across the UK claiming benefits from 2017. But yesterday we found out that not only is the existing system that is being developed by some of the world's largest systems integrators not up to scratch, but the department's new digital solution (the saviour!), which will ultimately be rolled out nationwide, is currently being supported by just three of its IT staff. Three.

According to DWP, it currently has 50 IT staff working on Universal Credit as a whole – which means, yes, that it has less than 10 percent of its technical workforce allocated to the developing the final digital version. The digital system that will this year, up until November at least, have up to £32 million spent on it.

So what do we know so far? The Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) was called in to put the troubled welfare reform project on back 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. It is this 'digital spine' which 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.

However, 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 disagree over the future direction of the project.

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).

Furthermore, 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.

It was also revealed this week, following reports on Computer Weekly that DWP is struggling to recruit agile and digitally savvy employees for the project (maybe GDS has snapped up the UK's digital talent? Unlucky IDS), that the department is undergoing a serious recruitment drive to hire 50 new IT specialists that will be assigned to Universal Credit.

Despite all of this, the line out of DWP's press office this morning is: “We are confident that the necessary skills and expertise will continue to be in place to deliver this service and our ongoing recruitment process is ensuring we have the best digital capability." Fills you with confidence doesn't it?

My issue with all of this boils down to one main point - politics. Well maybe two, politics and egos. Those that have been following Universal Credit closely actually breathed a sigh of relief when the Cabinet Office's GDS was brought in to put DWP on the right digital track. It made sense. There had been endless reports and rumours about the problems facing the existing system, which were pretty much all confirmed by the National Audit Office report towards the end of last year. So bringing in a team to take advantage of the modern digital technologies, where they managed to build a workable digital spine for Universal Credit in just six weeks, was promising.

However, when we then heard that instead of just pursuing the digital system and putting all of its efforts into getting this right, DWP was instead going to follow a 'twin track approach' and continue to develop the existing system, alarm bells began to ring. Why?! Okay, I get that DWP has contracted with a number of suppliers to work on Universal Credit – but does that mean we should keep paying them to develop a system that largely won't be used in a national rollout? And I really mean barely used - DWP is now planning to write down most of the existing IT assets developed over a five-year period instead of a 15-year period as planned (thank God for clever accountants).

Politics and egos

It has been reported that Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude wasn't keen on this twin-track approach (sensible man) and this is why he and Iain Duncan Smith are allegedly at loggerheads over the project and GDS is backing away. However, IDS is faced with a general election next year and this is likely to be at the forefront of his mind when assessing the situation. How would it look if the secretary of state for Work and Pensions turned around and said: “Actually, I'm doing a complete U-turn on Universal Credit. I need the Cabinet Office's help and I'm making the bold decision now to scrap the millions of pounds spent thus far.” It would be PR and political suicide – so I have some sympathy.

However, what this means is that to save face, IDS is taking an approach that, in my opinion, will ultimately not only end up costing the taxpayer, but may actually negatively impact the final digital system. DWP should be taking advantage of the fantastic resource that it has in GDS and run a huge campaign to recruit the best and brightest of UK digital talent in the meantime. Admitting that it doesn't have the skills right now isn't an issue, but be bold and take positive steps to correct that – much better than hiding behind a transparent response of “everything is fine, honest!”. We were told everything was fine months ago - and then the National Audit Office report was released...

It's too soon to tell what the future holds for IDS, DWP and Universal Credit, but if the digital version is going to be a success it needs to come from the top. Don't be afraid to fail, don't be afraid to collaborate and don't be afraid to ask for help. Universal Credit could be a great success for this government but at the moment the whole project has got a serious ring to it of history repeating itself.

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