Universal Credit – digital by what?

SUMMARY:

There are multiple key components to the UK government’s phenomenally ambitious Digital by Default strategy – but are the cracks already beginning to show?

screen-shot-2012-05-22-at-13-34-42There are multiple key components to the UK government’s phenomenally ambitious Digital by Default strategy – but are the cracks already beginning to show?

Take Universal Credit as a case in point. The programme is intended to merge social security benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit, and working credit into a single payment.

It’s a bold plan politically – and equally so from in IT perspective as the programme is dependent on real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

Yup, that’s as complicated as it sounds. Still, we plough on regardless.

The scheme is due to be rolled out across the UK from October this year with the project due to be complete in 2017.

But the the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had to admit last month that only one of the four planned pathfinder pilot areas was able to go live at the end of April as planned.

Asthon-under-Lyne’s trial kicked off on 29th April, but three others – in Wigan, Warrington and Oldham – have now been pushed back to July.

The programme has already had more than its share of management turnover.

Most recently Programme director Hilary Reynolds “moved on to other work” within DWP just four months after being appointed, following the lead of her predecessor Malcolm Whitehouse who stepped down late last year.

David Pitchford, who had been working as the Major Projects Authority’s executive director, stepped up to become temporary lead in February. Pitchford will now assume all responsibilities.

The DWP insists that all is well and things are still comfortably on track for the October deadline.

But what are we to read into what appears to be a semantic shift with potentially huge implications for the digital ambitions of the government?

The government’s targets for Universal Credit were clear:  80% of all claims to be made online by 2017.

But in April Local Government Chronicle (LGC) reported that DWP officials have begin to talk in terms of “digital as appropriate” rather than “Digital by Default which is an interesting change in emphasis.

According to LGC, the pathfinders were not given access to the core IT systems until March – less than a month before they were to start testing the system. It quotes one pathfinder source as claiming:

DWP have got real problems around the ICT solution. The IT is not ready. The original [pathfinder] rollout was 29 April and we were still being told at the end of March that it was going ahead [in April].”

For its part, DWP again insists that there is not significant shift in emphasis or policy:

Claimants to Universal Credit will engage with the new benefit online, and our digital by default emphasis has not changed. Since the very beginning we’ve known that some people will not be able to manage their claim online, and that’s why they will be able to get help from us over the phone and in person.

We have been working with local authorities on the best ways to help people get online and be digitally independent for a number of months now.

There is no more vital IT project underway in the UK public today than Universal Credit. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Coalition government may stand or fall on the success or failure of the programme.

More importantly, unsuccessful delivery will impact on the lives of those dependent on benefits and have a terrible impact on people’s lives.

Critics warned from the off the scale and ambition of the programme was too great – and let’s face it, the track record of such schemes in government scarcely inspires great expectations.

Digital ambition is all to be lauded; digital over-ambition somewhat less so…