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Universal Credit on-track - and thanks to agile, says discharged IT boss

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jobcentre-queue.jpgUniversal Credit is not turning into a car crash, the programme's discharged boss has told Computer Weekly.

Speaking out after he and other managers were moved off the unfinished project, Steve Dover said the programme was still on track.

And he said it would live up to its name as the most ambitious agile software project ever attempted.

But critics said Dover's removal from Universal Credit, the government's £2bn flagship IT project, is a sign that it is succumbing to the fate written in the ingredients with which it was begun in 2010: chiefly immense ambition and expenditure, trying to do too many ambitious things at once, to a political timetable, and large contracts with large IT suppliers - all risk factors the coalition government had vowed it would abolish to stop public IT projects keep going wrong.

Dover insisted he had not been shunted off. He was still employed as corporate director of major programmes by the Department for Work and Pensions, the government body responsible for the project. He had merely finished his part on it.

"I've got it to a point where we've designed and delivered what we need to deliver," he said.

"And now its got into an operational mode. We've been talking about how we should reform and reorganize the programme for about six months and so we've implemented that."

Developments

The department answered critics today by announcing it had awarded contracts for six companies to develop a crucial part of the system - a means of checking people's identities online. The £25m venture would be the first stab at an ambitious system that would become the identity assurance application for use across the entire government. Universal Credit is also waiting on HM Revenue & Customs completing its own ambitious real-time tax returns system by April.

Malcolm Whitehouse, Universal Credit programme director was also discharged with responsibilities for the project last week, a move that went against accepted wisdom about project management not being swapped out before they finished the job.

The pair had sought to beat improbable odds by adopting agile software development methods, an approach favoured by the Cabinet Office, which is overseeing Universal Credit, and the Institute for Government. But its methods were unproven and compromised.

Dover defended the project's agile credentials and insisted it would never have got as far as it has without them.

Agile

"It is as agile as it absolutely can be. In fact it's taken agile further than anything has ever taken it before. And its not just the IT. It's about the programme. It's about the business and the IT.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's more truly agile than many things are out there that are purporting to be so," he said.

There were however other indications that the DWP had been forced to take drastic steps to keep the programme on track.

A source close to the project said Dover and Whitehouse had been shunted off in a hurry. The department was replanning the whole thing. Press reports claimed it was going over-budget and over-schedule. If it was going awry, would it be because it wasn't agile enough or because agile wasn't enough?

Agile developers who had been working on the project proved hard to pin down. The source claimed Universal Credit had run foul of the former possibility: it wasn't agile enough.

"You are trying to put a whole system in, in one term of parliament, aren't you? It's impossible to do a big system like this in one term of parliament. And it's not an agile approach. If you go two and a half years without delivering anything, that is not agile.

"Agile is supposed to deliver things incrementally. That is the point. It doesn't matter what sort of magic you've got internally. If you don't deliver incrementally, it's not agile," said the source.

Worse, he said, Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, had been kept in the dark about how poorly the project was running.

He compared the secretary to an emperor and the DWP IT department as his tailor. The tailor tells the emperor his new suit was sharp, but as soon as he takes it out on parade it starts to unravel.

But the source was short on detail. He didn't know why the Universal Credit directors had been discharged. He didn't know why the project was being replanned. He didn't know what was being rethought. The project was nigh-on impossible, he insisted. Nobody had the guts to tell the minister that it was going to take two terms of parliament.

The DWP press office said it had made no decisions yet about Dover and Whitehouse's future roles. Whitehouse's phone has been off. The department insisted the project was still on track to meet its deadline for rollout beginning in October 2013.

Sackings mount over DWP data leaks

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DWP CIS security breaches - FOI - 23 MAR 2012.pngPublic bodies have sacked at least 120 staff for abusing their access rights to the Department for Work and Pensions' Customer Information System, a government database containing details of every citizen in the country that will be at the heart of the coalition government's Universal Credit benefits system.

DWP admitted the latest sackings to Computer Weekly as Channel4 closed a year-long investigation into cowboy private investigators who steal private data from government databases for cash. A Channel4 Dispatches documentary, aired last night, revealed how the rogue operators in the burgeoning security industry were getting illegal access to personal data stored in government databases. Undercover reporter Chris Atkins bought with just a few hundred pounds data about people's state benefits, health complaints and criminal records.

Local Authorities sacked 46 staff between January 2010 and March 2012 after they were caught abusing their rights to access the DWP database, Computer Weekly can reveal exclusively.

DWP itself sacked 57 staff in the two years to March 2012 after they were caught snooping for personal data in their own system, the department told Computer Weekly in answer to a Freedom of Information request.

Snoops

The revelations bring to 120 the total known DWP database sackings since 2007. But this could be just the tip of the iceberg. DWP has disclosed information about only a small portion of those staff with access to the CIS. Having previously ignored requests for information about members of its own staff caught snooping, it has now revealed only those who were caught in the last two years.

The DWP citizen database is used by at least 200,000 people across almost the whole of central and local government. The DWP told Computer Weekly, as it has repeatedly since 2009, that it cannot reveal the full extent of data breaches on its national database because it does not "keep central records". HM Revenue & Customs, which employs a staggering 80,000 people, has refused access to information about any of its staff caught abusing their rights to access the DWP database.

Channel4's investigation found in response to another FOI that the DWP had, aside from sackings, disciplined 992 of its own staff in 10 months for breaching security of the CIS - five people every day. Full exposure of breaches and sackings at DWP and HMRC, which are merging their computer systems to form the Universal Credit benefits system, might damage the credibility of the flagship coalition programme.

Three years after Computer Weekly exposed the problem, local councils are still sacking people at the same rate. They have been forced to sack five staff on average every three months for snooping on on the CIS. Between January and March 2012, they sacked seven. Those sacked have been caught looking up celebrities, neighbours, family members, colleagues and acquaintances.

Channel4 Dispatches - Watching the Detectives - Chris Atkins undercover camera.jpegSpooks

The Channel4 documentary exposed a private investigator who bragged and then followed through on a claim that he could use an "internal contact" to get people's personal data for cash.

Stephen Anderson, director of Crown Intelligence and Security Limited, dredged up personal information about activists the undercover reporter said were causing a nuisance for a retail corporation. For £500, Anderson retrieved detailed records about claims for state benefits made by James Leadbitter, a climate change and anti-capitalist activist from Burnley.

On discovering illegal data breach, Leadbitter told the programme: "I feel sick. Why don't they just break into my flat and go through my stuff...I would struggle to get that information out of the DWP."

The source of the data was unconfirmed. The investigator did not reveal whether he used his inside contact or blagged the information by pretending to be someone he wasn't. The benefits data may have come from local authority databases or the DWP CIS. Further investigation not shown in the programme revealed that someone had been trying to blag data from a DWP call centre. It looked like the investigators were testing various well-trod routes to the data.

DWP claims the sackings prove its security checks are adequate: they catch staff who look up information they shouldn't. It records and tracks details of staff accesses on the system. It said the benefits data obtained by Channel4 did not come from DWP.

Never-ending megadeals embarrass gov ICT strategy

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Ten days before Cabinet Office gave a recent progress report on its flagship ICT policy to end oligopolistic megadeals, it signed two such megadeals worth over £1bn combined.

At £525m a-piece, the two key contracts DWP will use to deliver Universal Credit could not have come at a more inconvenient time. DWP needed to produce a massive system in a hurry. So it signed massive contracts with Accenture and IBM, two suppliers in the "oligopoly" that government pledged in its ICT Strategy it would "put to an end".

The central planks of its ICT policy - the means by which it would end oligopolistic megadeals: open source, open standards and software re-use - are meanwhile floundering.

Conservative condemnation of Labour's record of big IT bodges rested before the 2010 general election on its pledge to prohibit projects costing more than £100m. It made a meal out of the matter, lambasting Labour's big IT failures: the Child Support Agency, Identity Cards and the NHS National Programme for IT.

These failures already have a lot in common with the coalition's Universal Credit: big transactional systems managing flagship government policies that concern the big departments of state.

Diminishing returns

A "presumption" against such deals became coalition policy. It also adopted a "presumption" against the use of the "competitive dialogue" procurement procedure, as Francis Maude said last month it had.

Both the Universal Credit contracts were let after competitive dialogues 10 days earlier. This time last year, Maude promised no more megadeals. This year, he's saying no more gold plated contracts. Next year it will be, no ground left to give.

There is already a presumption against Competitive Dialogue, in European competition law. The procedure can only be used in exceptional circumstances: it has questionable competitive credentials. It allows government agencies to pre-qualify suppliers in complex procurements before deciding which ones are permitted to bid. In each of the Universal Credit contracts the government invited only two suppliers to bid.

So what did government mean when it said such deals would be broken up into £100m chunks "wherever possible"?

Computer Weekly put the question to HMRC and DWP heads of IT at the aforementioned suppliers' conference: what criteria determine when "wherever possible" is not possible?

They couldn't answer.

Because there are no such criteria.

Can we therefore assume that "wherever possible" is not possible simply when one of the big departments needs to produce a big system? I.e., that it is business as usual between government and its ICT "oligopoly".

The coalition has kept the National Programme for IT going (simultaneously scoring political points by condemning it). The CSA system was not merely scrapped, it was replaced. Identity Cards were always to use existing government biometric and biographical databases. Those databases live-on under the Con-Dems and may yet be used for the same purposes. (Now with the Interception Modernization Programme, the coalition plans to build more such databases, breaking another pre-election promise).

Universal Credit has similarly employed contractual arrangements set up under Labour: the Application Deployment Services framework procurement launched in March 2009. (Cabinet Office has also pledged to dispense with frameworks). Two contracts worth about £600m are still to be let under the ASD competition. Capgemini has been given a £70m corner of the deal. That with the IBM and Accenture contracts will run until 2018.

Universal Credit

Computer Weekly put it to Kenny Robertson, DWP IT director, that if the government wanted to break its IT contracts up and give more business to SMEs then these DWP contracts would have been an ideal opportunity.

"You ignore the timing of this," he said. "What do you expect people to do, tip their contracts upside down and start afresh? That competition has been running for several years. It's been openly competed. You can't just stop business change."

ASD replaced an existing contract not due to expire until 2014, four years after July 2010 when the coalition imposed its moratorium on and reconsideration of major IT contracts.

DWP let ASD after a competition that lasted two-and-a-half years, incorporating the moratorium and austerity contract renegotiations under which the government claimed to have saved £1bn and would reap a further £2bn savings.

Accenture (and others)

This all seemed to have no effect on Universal Credit. DWP awarded Accenture, Capgemini and IBM the topmost of the range of possible contract values it budgeted in 2009 before the coalition government changed the rules on ICT and started renegotiating contracts.

Robertson had told an earlier meeting of suppliers DWP had already made progress by splitting what used to be a single £multi-billion contract with EDS. (Though its parts are worth half-a-billion a-piece and this was done under Labour, remember).

DWP could now actually see what prices it was paying for its constituent parts, said Robertson. It had no idea, by implication, what the constituent parts of its last arrangement were costing. The Universal Credit contracts had, he said, incorporated policy measures including employing more SMEs on the job. But if the HMRC's £8.5bn deal with Capgemini is anything to go by, the ambitions of such requirements may fall well short of the ideal the coalition presented to voters.

So what happens if, as it looks, the government has let the glue of its strategy go soft - the open source, open standards and software re-use by which it intended to cut its £16bn of ICT expenditure and deliver it in ways other than through its clutch of large integrators?

Robertson claimed shifting the infrastructure of government was not an easy thing to do. Other senior civil servants have made the same defence. "The particular hole we are in took us an enourmously long time to dig - bear with us, we are working hard to get out of it," Liam Maxwell, Cabinet Office ICT futures director, told suppliers recently.

The big departments of state have their major business tied up for years to come. The big suppliers will not freely give up market share. The big ideas in the coalition ICT strategy will need the government to give them some welly if they have any hope of being anything more.
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The limits of Agile: Emergn CEO on Universal Credit

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The Department of Work and Pensions set out in January to achieve the seemingly unachievable: develop a £2bn Universal Credit system in two years. An Agile software development methodology would make it possible, said the DWP. But its Agile credentials are questionable.

Computer Weekly was fortunate then to meet Alex Adamopoulos, CEO of Emergn, the firm of management consultants brought in to sprinkle Agile fairy dust over the DWP, and ask him about this miracle cure.

DWP is learning how to do Agile as it goes along, he tells Computer Weekly.

The learning process - the "transformation" in Agile-speak - will take as long as the project. Adamopoulos insists this is manageable.

"When you are doing transformation - when you are running a change programme at the same time as running a project - it's part of the process," he says.

Doing all this in time for Universal Credit's April and October 2013 deadlines is what Adamopoulos calls a "fair and aggressive time-line". He's confident the job can be done and Agile will do it.

Consider that in respect of the nitty-gritty job DWP is trying to do and it sounds like a high-stakes game of Scrapheap Challenge.

It has just 18 months left to integrate its vast estate of antique computer systems into a modern whole capable of handling £74bn budget and 6m people.

Scrapheap Challenge.pngNo Agile project has been as big, as ambitious and as public. But it's already looking hairy.

The department said in June the large systems integrators that dominate government IT were not up to the job, echoing the government's line on the causes of public computer bodges. It would rely on SMEs to do the Agile work on universal credit.

Empty promises

It then gave Universal Credit to the usual suspects. Accenture, BT, HP and IBM have been confirmed as lead suppliers to the programme.

DWP meanwhile refuses to say precisely which companies have been employed to do what work for what money under what contracts. It won't even confirm the names of those employed.

It will say only that it is using existing contracts to do the work. It has not updated public records with details of those contracts it has awarded.

A DWP spokeswoman said this week it would be improper to discuss those contracts it has signed because there are other contracts it is still negotiating. CW put it to her that this was nonsense. That was four days ago. It took seven days to get that far.

This is 18 months after the Prime Minister made a song and dance about transparency in contracting after the coalition was elected in 2010.

The Agile-in-government brigade also makes a fuss about contracts. Adamopolous makes a fuss about contracts too.

The government supply chain is "broken", he says. Suppliers became more interested in satisfying their contracts than their customers, he says.

Conventional IT contracts are said to stymie Agile projects. Emergn solved the problem by working with Gallen Alliance lawyer Susan Atkinson to design an Agile addendum the DWP tacked on the end of the contracts it has with Universal Credit suppliers. They remain unpublished, as do the old contracts we are told are rubbish. We will have to take them at their word that what has come is better than what went before.

Agile vs. Agile

Another problem with the government supply chain, says Adamopolous, is that these large integrators all have their own methodologies.

"They come to you prepared to sell their solution. When you come to another supplier, they have a different approach. There's no continuity," he says.

The idea is that suppliers use their different methodologies as a competitive instrument, much as software suppliers use proprietary standards to stake a market as their own.

Adamopolous accuses systems integrators of "bad behaviour". They use their time in a customer account as a "land-grab". They're too busy competing with one another when they are supposed to be serving their customer's interests.

This is not the case with Universal Credit, he says. Emergn solved the problem of competing methodologies by imposing its own trademarked methodology on Universal Credit suppliers instead. The Major Projects Authority, a Cabinet Office and Treasury auditing team, commended this, as though it was any better.

Universal Credit Starting Gate Review.pngBut the DWP didn't really know Agile. The MPA said it had been trained to do the "interpretation" of Agile favoured by Accenture, its lead developer.

This was a  "slightly less 'lean' version" of Agile than something or other it did not specify in the report (which we publish exclusively here).

Agile is a 10-year old systems development methodology. It's been combined with similarly adaptable business process disciplines to produce an amorphous methodology for tending an amorphous reality in the wider business world.

How could either the DWP or the MPA declare confidence in it or the Universal Credit project when they can't even pin a tail on it?

Agile-like

Emergn's own version of Agile, by Adamopolous's admission, isn't really Agile.

"It's a combination of lean, Agile, design thinking and systems thinking," he says. "We've taken products from each to develop our own way of working."

This is what Emergn has applied to DWP and its suppliers. And that's important because, he says: "Agile might not be the answer for the problem they are trying to solve."

The Institute for Government gave a similar view at the Agile Business 2011 Conference in London last week. It draughted its own Agile principles after extensive interviews with proponents of lean and systems thinking.

IfG researcher Jerrett Myers held a talk about progress made since the IfG published the influential System Error report he co-authored in March, and which advocated Agile.

The only progress of note came three weeks later when the Cabinet Office adopted the IfG's Agile recommendations in its ICT Strategy, telling all government departments they should get at least one Agile project on the go, and establishing DWP as Agile lead for government.

The biggest lesson had been the identification of a significant challenge: that two-thirds of all government IT is outsourced, under inadequate contracts (and to the same suppliers).

"The message from all of this is that Agile can be very difficult to run in a large organisation and it can take some time," Myers said last week.

The MPA had already concluded in reference to Universal Credit, Agile was "unproven at this scale and within government".

Computer Weekly reported these findings. Adamopolous is very unhappy about it.

"I don't think its unproven," he says. "I think it is proven. It depends how you define scale."

Unproven

But he can't cite any examples of Agile projects as large or as complex as Universal Credit, especially in UK government. He resists citing his own large customers, which include the BA project used repeatedly as the example for Universal Credit.

The Agile community has a lot to prove. It seems sensitive, perhaps nervous about its ability to wrest control of large, complex projects from the hands of ignorant bureaucrats and placing it in the hands of engineers and users in the real world. It must be the way we build 21st Century infrastructure projects: complex, adaptable, devolved, modular. We're almost there. Don't spoil it now.

A lot's riding on Universal Credit. Adamopolous insists the £2bn project is Agile.

"Its very Agile, from the vision statement, to the stakeholder buy-in, from the acceptance from the managers and the teams, and from the suppliers' perspective.

"It is an Agile transformation programme. Universal Credit is as Agile as they come," he says.

That appears to mean it will by its Agile nature adapt to its antagile parameters, which are many: the need, as Adamopolous puts it, to spread the Agile way "downstream" from those core managers and teams who have been "transformed" thus far; its reliance on HMRC's conventionally-run Real-Time Information project; the need to squeeze mammoth requirements into a mouse-run time-scale; to accommodate contracts the DWP already has with those oligopolistic suppliers who were supposed to have become disfavoured in UK.gov.

Collusion

It means these large suppliers, who have been accused casually of anti-competitive collusion, are now being officially encouraged to collaborate.

Adamopolous emphasises the importance of collaboration for this and all Agile projects. He is proud of the extent to which suppliers are collaborating together over Universal Credit. The Agile way involves teamwork.

"We have a collaborative supply base on the ground," he says. "That's a unique selling point. Because you usually have a competitive environment. When you're in an account and you have suppliers on the ground, they compete for more business.

"But what's nice about this particular arrangement is the collaboration of the suppliers to do what's right for the customer. That's a huge point because it's not what you would traditionally expect."

Adamopolous is uncomfortable being asked about the line between collaboration and collusion. He doesn't believe allowing Universal Credit's large suppliers to be matey might cause any problems. The interview becomes tetchy.

We meet the day Steve Jobs dies. Fortune magazine columnist Philip Elmer-DeWitt had told the Radio 4 Today programme how Jobs had stopped living in a hippy commune when one night he slept under the kitchen table and "watched everybody sneak in and steal food from the refrigerator".

Collaboration

Adamopolous says its right to be cynical but customers are demanding their suppliers collaborate more.

"The collaboration isn't cosy," he says. "It's not like we are all hanging out together and acting like one big company.

"There is a spirit of doing what's right for the customer. That is an Agile principle. It's people over process...

Alex Adamopolous - CEO - Emergn.png"...And transparency," he says genuinely, though after a prompt from his public relations assistant.

"The main goal now is to work for the common good," he adds.

But there appears to be no more transparency in Universal Credit than there was under any public or private sector IT project that went before.

Adamopolous refuses to say how much Emergn is getting paid for its work on Universal Credit or to discuss his contract. Emergn's a private company, he says. Private companies don't have to discuss what they do, he says. He won't even say what Emergn's turnover is or how many employees it has.

The common good is as amorphous a concept as Agile. Thus transparency in Universal Credit appears to extend only as far as it is convenient for those handling its £2bn budget. It lacks even as much transparency as would be necessary to encourage competition. It falls well short of the ideal punted by the coalition government and the proponents of Agile with all their matey thumbs-up talk of collaboration.

It is indeed unclear how, without transparency, collaboration over £2bn of public money could become anything other than collusion.

The Agile way is commendable on the face of it. Its emphasis on devolved decision-making and team work are intuitively better than disempowered working methods designed for manufacturing production lines of an earlier age.

Industry is learning that complex tools like software can solve complex problems in more intimate harmony with the outside world only if they are operated by workers empowered to think for themselves.

Unemployed.pngBut as ever with systems built to support high-stakes political gambits like the coalition government's benefits reform programme, the fear of reputational failure is greater than the risk of project failure.

Politics too has yet to get Agile. Power is not as adaptable as it would have its tools be. The concomitant lack of transparency has been characteristic of past IT bodges. There are yet only vague reasons why it won't happen again.

How Gov aimed to exploit personal data trade

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The £3bn trade in tip-offs about people caught in car accidents has exposed the seedy side of the personal data market. Seedier still are draft government plans to cash in on this bonanza when it ought to be sticking to the Tory manifesto promise to give people a right to call the shots over their own personal data.

Plans to replace Labour's ID scheme with a private sector system of identity assurance, which Computer Weekly revealed Cabinet Office had floated to industry in April, have led inevitably to a proposal for the private sector to become more active as custodians of people's personal data as well. This is already happening to a large extent but, much to people's dismay, the private sector seems less interested in being custodian than exploiter.

In the Cabinet Office plan, British citizens would be represented by electronic identity and attribute agents (attribute being jargon for an item of personal data) in a "marketplace in trusted data provision."

"The 'trusted attribute service' economy is based on the exchange of attributes (aka claims) which are data items from a trusted source relating to an authenticated individual," said the Cabinet Office draft technical blueprint.

"They also provide a mechanism for third parties to expose such data, and operate in a market for that service," it said.

It went on to say how government could cash in on the billions already being made in the market for personal data. The idea was that people build a network of trusted relationships online and personal data supplied from members of their network can be assembled in combinations of ever-greater numbers of attributes to meet higher and higher levels of security clearance. Companies providing that data could charge for it, like police forces and insurance companies have been charging ambulance chasers for tip-offs when people are caught in a car accident.

"Government attribute providers" would under the Cabinet Office plan exist in all major government departments and feed personal data about the citizens in their charge to private sector identity and attribute agents.

"Possible examples" of data the government could trade included "nationality", the "right to work", and verification of national insurance and driving licence numbers.

"The government could potentially charge the private sector for this service," said the draft plan.

That might simply involve verification of data: whether someone is a benefit claimant or a disqualified director, or a confirmation of their nationality. In the virtual world, a yes/no answer is indistinguishable from the actual transmission of a string of data such as: "unemployed, disqualified director, from Jamaica".

These were draft plans presented for discussion. Though it is not unknown for the government to trade in people's data. DWP had for example been giving BT access to its national insurance database under arrangements that have not been disclosed.

The Cabinet Office Identity Assurance Scheme could not rely on a private sector ID market if it did not engage in actual exchange of personal data with private sector providers. The draft plan proposes people should have control over the trade in their data. But it is tempered by a warning that this may not always be possible.

That, as has been demonstrated by the example of the insurance scam, is the element of the coalition government's private sector ID scheme set to match in dread Labour's Big Brother: a market in which people's "attributes" are traded in such a frenzy that it inflates prices, leading people to be fleeced simply for being "known", pestered by vultures like ambulance chasers, and with who knows what other unforeseen consequences.

An answer to this problem has been proposed by the personal data model government has piloted at Brent and other councils, and with which the DWP and Cabinet Office have been closely involved.

That is the Mydex model, in which people are given the means to control their own personal data in their own personal agent: deciding who gets to see it, who gets to use it and on what terms. It would even give people the means to flog their own data, making them the primary agents in any market.

If that sounds too good to be true, its because the market is already getting carried away with itself. Banks are getting in on the act, as if early evidence hasn't already shown how the personal data market can inflate to the detriment of ordinary people without their help.

The government needs to act quickly to carry its pre-election promises on civil liberties to their logical conclusion. That does not mean making a song and dance about dismantling Labour's ID scheme only to throw everyone's identities to the dogs in the private sector. That means ensuring people have the means to control their own personal data, wherever and however it is held.

Universal Credit possible if politicians don't interfere, says IT chief

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Benefits sign.pngDWP can manage the massive reorganisation of computer systems demanded by Universal Credit as long as politicians don't move the goalposts and over-complicate matters for departmental techies, said a senior departmental techie.

The department has meanwhile concluded after an audit of the shanty town of benefits systems on which it has to build Universal Credit, some of which are genuine antiques, that it must scrap some of them because it would be impossible to adapt them in the time given.

The project, which involves merging six different benefits systems into one in five years, has also thrust DWP into a close partnership with HMRC that will involve building a unified system from components consolidated across their two computing infrastructures.

Steve Riley, IT director at Job Centre Plus, told Computer Weekly the two departments were already working to consolidate their systems into core components to be incorporated into a unified Universal Credit system, under the eye of programme director Terry Moran, former chief executive of pensions.

But an ongoing review of DWP systems was determining whether the strategy would indeed deliver UC and another two major policy reforms the coalition government had requested be implemented simultaneously: replacing disability living allowance with an independent living payment and introducing a single tier pension.

"Our part for the politicians is that if they keep the benefits simple, we can do this," said Riley.

"One of the projects I worked on was pension credit, which was supposed to have been a simplification of pensions. It ended up being more complicated than what we had. So there is a partnership with politicians that they keep it nice and simple as well," he said.

Scrapping VME

Riley described the systems strategy at a recent Inside Government conference, where he said the DWP had concluded that it must scrap some of its oldest computer systems to get the job done.

"What we are building with Universal Credit, we are hoping to re-use a lot of what we've already got. [But] Our big systems are really difficult to change. The testing of them is three or four months alone

Old VME system compressed.png"We've got a large number of outdated, inflexible IT systems - VME systems," he said. "Changes take about 18 months in the lifecycle of a VME application."

"We can't manage it with those VME systems. We will have to replace those with systems that are componentised."

DWP hoped it could extend the consolidation and reuse programme beyond UC, so that it could build its other major reform projects using the same systems components. The matter was being reviewed to see if reuse would allow the systems to be delivered simultaneously.

It was certain, however, that UC would reuse core components consolidated across numerous existing systems.


It was a vast project, but DWP hoped it would be made simpler by delivering it in smaller chunks, in the agile fashion promoted in the Cabinet Office ICT Strategy.

Reform

DWP had bought into a rules engine called OPA it hoped would cut months from the time it would take to systemize the rules for UC.

It had also identified the core activities that would be consolidated from all its existing benefits systems: things like collecting evidence, calculating payments, making payments, maintaining accounts.

Citizens were meanwhile expecting things to be done in an online. Job Centres were no longer like miserable betting shops. But the VME systems were holding back DWP's rejuvenation.

It took 26 weeks to train DWP staffers to use the systems. There were 11 different systems employers used to put information online. It aimed to handle 80 per cent of claims online.

It's new policy was self-service and digital by default as long as it didn't exclude people with accessibility issues. It had cut its use of paper 50 per cent and aimed to automate 75 per cent of its processes. But about 30 per cent of people who relied on the DWP were digitally excluded in one form or another.

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