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Is the UK's welfare department learning from its digital mistakes?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 28, 2014
The Department for Work and Pensions has had a difficult couple of years, but it now seems to be trying to get digital right

Anyone who follows myself and Stuart on Twitter, or regularly follows our posts on diginomica, will know that we have been attempting to get to grips with the UK welfare department's digital woes for a number of months now. The Department for Work & Pensions has had a difficult couple of years with its flagship welfare reform project, Universal Credit, which aims to merge a number of existing benefit schemes into a single payment. The project has been heavily criticised by pretty much everyone and has seen some £40 million of IT assets already written off. However, a 'reset' was announced last year and the department is in the process of creating a new digital mobile-first version of Universal Credit, which will ultimately replace the development of the existing system.

Although I recently labelled the new digital version of Universal Credit 'one big mystery', given that DWP is releasing very few details about its plans for the project, what we do know is that it is being developed in a very different way to the original system. The Government Digital Service initially helped put DWP on the right digital track, but now the department is fending for itself and plans to roll out the new system to a small number of locations later this year. From what I understand, GDS and DWP were able to build the spine for the 'enhanced' Universal Credit system in a matter of weeks, and it is already said to be more robust and scalable than the existing system – which was largely being build by suppliers HP, Accenture, IBM and BT.

However, much of the reason that the existing system failed was because it was being built using a traditional 'waterfall' approach, where specifications were handed out to suppliers and the department just kept writing cheques, even though it had little idea about where things were going wrong. Under the new digital project, DWP will largely be developing in-house and taking back control of what is required to build a system that will ultimately be accessed by millions across the country, many of which have constantly changing requirements.

One of my old colleagues at Computerworld UK recently pointed out to me that DWP is now taking advantage of the government's Digital Services Framework to help build the system – a very wise move in my view. The Digital Services Framework was created by the Cabinet Office to complement the more well known G-Cloud – where it should be used by departments to in-source digital skills and technologies that are required to create highly customised products (whereas the G-Cloud is used for commodity off the shelf procurement). The call-off notice states:

"GDS has helped DWP in the development of a Proof of Concept for UC, and DWP is now working to deliver a Beta – private version of a new digital service which will eventually be available on line to all customers, supplemented by face to face and telephony channels."

“DWP’s future development approach will be based on previous ways of working with GDS colleagues. 

"DWP want to continue with development activity driven by a genuinely multidisciplinary team, working collaboratively in a single location - Westminster."

The department is using the contract for software development and software engineering, web operations, front-end design, agile delivery, and service design. When I was pointed to the notice I kind of just assumed that DWP was desperately trying to figure out a way that it could quickly ramp up the development of a digital product that was going to be rolled out nationally, when only a few short months ago it had just three IT in-house staff working on it. However, today I noticed that the department has announced its intention to use the Digital Services Framework again for a completely different system...

Is DWP finally starting to get it? 

A notice released by the department claims that it is now looking for “additional capacity” via the Digital Services Framework to create a minimum viable product for the department's new Single Tier Pension system – a new flat rate scheme that aims to simplify pensions in the UK. It's interesting to me that DWP hasn't reverted to its old, traditional ways of working and is going straight for the Digital Services Framework to build the beta for this. The notice states:

“Delivery objectives: We build a minimum viable product of the STP digital service, something which allows us to test the

service in a live environment with a small number of claimants and agents. Digital culture: We have reinforced agile project culture into the team to allow the design and build of digital public services to become part of business as usual,

“User needs: Ensure that the STP service is built and iterated based on real user needs, underpinned by trustworthy data and high quality user research. The high level requirement of the Beta phase is to build the minimum service possible to effectively test the core processes it involves. We will then iterate the service, based on user behaviour and what we understand to be the user needs beyond the minimum product.”

What a turnaround. I'm not totally clear on the costs or the scale of this system, although it is almost certainly likely to be less complicated than Universal credit, but I am genuinely pleased to see that DWP is attempting to work in a different way – this coming from someone who has spent the best part of two years criticising the department for almost everything. Don't say I don't give credit where it is due! That's not to say that the project will be a success just because they have decided to work in an agile way and they are trying to source the right skills and technologies, because let's face it, there's still a lot wrong with the way DWP works – largely the reluctance to create a culture that embraces failure, where it prefers to operate with political agendas in mind. However, it's a start and it's good to see that there is no huge contract notice or RFP being released for this project, which would no doubt have outlined millions of pounds worth of work, eventually be handed to the usual candidates, and then be slammed a few years down the line by a not-so-surprising National Audit Office report.

A side note

However, it isn't just the fact that DWP is using the Digital Services Framework that has caught my attention. It's also the fact that this is the first kind of announcement that I can recall for the framework itself – I don't remember any other department publicly speaking about its use of the Digital Services Framework since it went live towards the end of last year. This is slightly worrying. The G-Cloud framework is constantly banded about as a success by the government and the amount of spend is regularly pushed out the public for review, with some handy tools online that can be used to measure how it is performing. However, there has been an eery silence with regard to the Digital Services Framework...

The framework was very much sold to us as another opportunity for smaller businesses to get some government work and as a tool for departments to get to grips with their digital projects. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said when it was launched:

“We want to have a highly competitive market for government business, access to innovation, and to drive growth by working with businesses of all sizes. That’s how we will deliver world-leading digital public services and build a stronger economy,

“The Digital Services framework shows how we are levelling the playing field for government contracts and living up to our ambition to support growth by giving opportunities to new entrants and smaller suppliers who can deliver innovative, cost-effective solutions based on user need.”

The government said upon the framework's go-live that we could expect some £40 million worth of spend in the first nine months. Well, we are six months in and we haven't heard a peep. That's not to say that there hasn't been spend or the framework isn't on track, it's just from my experience that when we aren't told anything, that's usually because there's something they would rather us not know. However, I have put the question to the Cabinet Office and I have been told that I will be getting an answer in the coming days – so fingers crossed it's good news!

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