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Universal Credit to benefit from digital assistance?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 14, 2013
Universal Credit might revolutionise the UK social benefits system, but there are technology barriers in the way. Can digital services ride to the rescue? The price of failure is horribly high.

Yet more evidence of the elephant in the room when it comes to digital government: it's all good and well getting public service delivery on a Digital by Default setting, but if the people the service is aimed at aren't ready (or able) to access it on that level then it's all rather pointless.

And if the technology underpinning it also has problems, then that spells trouble all round.

So it seems it is with the UK government's Universal Credit initiative.

UC is a flagship programme for the current government in the UK. Its intention is to take the morass of social security benefits and payments available in Britain and consolidate them under a single monthly payment, beginning to roll out from October this year.

Specifically UC will blend six benefits and tax credits into one in order to simplify the system. It is also planned that improved access to digital services will expand across the Jobcentre Plus network, with 6,000 new computers set to be installed in Jobcentres for claimants use.

There has been a lot of debate around this. The UK benefits bill is soaring and the current system is largely accepted to be out of control and increasingly in need of reform.

But critics of UC argue that it is a massive cultural and financial shift that's being introduced too quickly for many recipients of benefits payments to cope with.

90% rejection?

A recent study by the Citizens Advice Bureau found that nine out of ten people are not ready for the introduction of UC, with respondents claiming not to feel ready to budget adequately or to manage the shift to monthly rather than weekly benefit payments.

The study was based on responses from around 1,800 people in Birmingham, North Dorset and Wales.

From a digital government perspective, UC is supposed to be one of the pioneering programmes. But according to the CAB study, around two-thirds would struggle to use the Internet to manage their UC account. If that's reflected in reality when UC rolls out, the potential for chaos would be significant.

As it happens, UC seems to be experiencing its own delays.

The original time table would see be claimants at six "hub Jobcentres" in England, Wales and Scotland receive the new benefit from October.

Last year the Commons Work and Pensions Committee warned the October 2013 rollout date was

"very ambitious and leaves little opportunity for dealing with any problems which arise".

Earlier this year the government's Major Projects Authority named UC as one of more than 30 flagship schemes at serious risk of failure.

Ian Duncan Smith

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith now says that from October, there will be retraining of 20,000 Jobcentre Plus advisers to help "drive the cultural shift under Universal Credit" across all Jobcentres and 6,000 new computers would be installed across the country.

Six centres - Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton - will begin taking universal credit claims from October - in addition to four other centres already trialling the new system.

Digital to the rescue?

It's also emerging that far from backing away from the digital aspects of UC, the government wants to ramp it up, calling in the assistance of the Government Digital Service (GDS) to look into some of the rumoured issues around the underlying technology.

Agile development was at the heart of the infrastructure development to support UC, but that approach was ditched in May with development reverting to traditional waterfall methods.

Mark Hoban, minister of state for work and pensions, said at the time.

"In its final stages from April 2013, the programme is using the waterfall approach - a standard DWP testing methodology Initial development used Agile. In a programme as complex as Universal Credit, which includes new IT developments and changes to existing IT assets, both agile and waterfall methods may be appropriate at different times."

The UC programme's major IT suppliers include HP, Accenture, Capgemini and IBM who between them have contracts worth an estimated £1.2 billion.

According to a whistleblower talking to Computer Weekly magazine, UC's technology problems are directly connected to procurement practices. The whistleblower claimed:

"Our hands were tied because of procurement. If you don't set up the contract properly, you are on a hiding to nothing…We were effectively on a waterfall project, because it was a waterfall contract.

"Universal Credit was wrong from the beginning. Government needs to rethink the way it procures. Until they change procurement, the rules of the game are stacked against anyone doing agile properly. We were working against the tide.

"You might call it agile, but if you don't set up the contract properly, it’s not. Call it what you like, but if it clucks and lays eggs, it’s a chicken."

David Pitchford, then head of the Major Projects Authority, recommended a new system be built to support the current implementation on the basis that the existing technology is already out of date.

Duncan Smith seemed to endorse this view when he stated:

"In parallel, the DWP is working with the new Government Digital Service to explore the possibility of enhancing the IT, using recent advances in technology to ensure the system is as secure, flexible and responsive as possible."

For its part, the DWP - the department responsible for UC - issued a statement:

“The Pathfinder exercise has shown that the IT system works underpinned by the Real Time Information system [being built by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs].

"But, in parallel, after asking major projects expert David Pitchford to review it earlier this year, ministers have accepted his recommendation that they should explore enhancing the IT for Universal Credit working with the Government Digital Service.

“Advancements in technology since the current system was developed have meant that a more responsive system that is more flexible and secure could potentially be built. This would marry with the best of the existing system – which has proved viable during Pathfinder testing. Any enhanced IT solution will need to be both cost effective and deliverable to original timescales.”

The way ahead?

DWP hopes to deliver UC over a four year period to 2017 and has a budget of £2 billion for this parliament.

The DWP says it is assisting with addressing lack of digital skills among claimants by employing over 1,000 Digital Champions who:

"play a key role in providing help to claimants to get online. Digital Champions support the Department’s frontline staff in promoting to claimants the benefits of digital services, including applying for jobs online, completing CVs, and improving their IT skills. To support this, the Department have installed 2167 new Internet Access Devices in Jobcentre Plus offices."

But while the GDS gets involved with upgrading the tech, that CAB survey lingers around like a bad smell under the politicians noses.

If it works, UC could be a major triumph in reforming a bloated benefits culture. If it doesn't work, its failure will drag some of society's most needy down in its wake.

Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice chief executive, said:

"Our report shows that an overwhelming majority of people do not feel ready to deal with universal credit. The results demonstrate yet again how vital it is that implementing universal credit is not left to chance.

"There is clearly a breakdown in the system if 90% of potential claimants are not ready to deal with this major change to their payments, and ministers must act urgently to address this problem."


High stakes.

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