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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Old VME system compressed.png"We've got a large number of outdated, inflexible IT systems - VME systems," he said.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.

500 rogue Gov websites nabbed four years after Varney

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The Cabinet Office has discovered another 500 government websites it needs to shut down as part of the Varney review launched in 2006.

One of the biggest websites for the chop might even be the gargantuan DirectGov itself.

The rogue sites mean it has been one step forward and two steps back for the Government Digital Service, previously called DirectGov after the web portal it managed. The unit was charged with eliminating waste across the public sector web by former HMRC boss Sir David Varney in 2006. But it has found nearly twice as many superfluous websites as it has managed to close.

Sharon Cooper, director of strategy and innovation for the Government Digital Service, told a recent Inside Government conference the unit had achieved Varney's target off shutting all unnecessary public sector websites and subsuming them into DirectGov by March 2011.

It had shut 287 websites by 5pm on 31 March, converging 95 per cent of all public sector information into DirectGov. But it had found another 500 websites that must be axed.

Sharon Cooper - Government Digital Service 3.png"There are still another 500 out there because we found a lot more in the process of trying to shut them down and that work is still going on," said Cooper.

DirectGov, which was transferred from DWP to Cabinet Office on 1 April, had struggled to get some departments to accept its authority.

But its cause was boosted with the publication of Digital Champion Martha Lane-Fox's strategic review of DirectGov last year.

Cooper is now charged with carrying out Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude's order that all government services be made "digital by default", a tall order when so many people were unable to connect to or use the internet.

Cuts by default

The cross-government Cabinet Office Public Sector Employment Relations Committee, a group of Human Resources directors charged with managing civil service job cuts, sanctioned the Digital by Default order in March on the proviso that assistance was given to people who needed help getting online. 

"We are working out how the hell do you do that," said Cooper.

The answer would probably be in the spirit of Varney's recommendation that DirectGov became the primary source of government information. But technology had changed so much the result may be radically different than envisaged in 2006.

Varney Report 2006 Front Cover.pngSo Cooper said the Digital unit would, "like Martha said", have teeth. It would tell all departments what to do on the web. But it was no longer wedded to the idea of "one big monstrous website".

It would set standards and it would monitor departments to see they were complying. It would advise and share best practice. But the Digital unit was still deciding what exactly it was going to tell them to do and how they should do it. 

"One of our big things as we replace the DirectGov infrastructure is to replace that with infrastructure that anyone can use," she said.

"We want to procure a whole cloud-based, future-looking infrastructure rather than the massive enterprise stuff we've had in the past."

DirectGov-less Gov

Just months after clearing out DirectGov's top brass, the new digital unit was even contemplating axing DirectGov portal in a radical revision of Varney's reforms.

"We are thinking, should there be a DirectGov in five years time? Or should there just be a wholesale market-place of open APIs so every transaction is available, so that anybody can use that transaction and embed it in their own service?" said Cooper. "Should there just be a great big asset database on which we can build a version of DirectGov?

Cabinet Office was considering how car insurers might process people's applications for car tax and disabled badges, for example. It was taking the lead from the post-Varney HMRC, which had distributed APIs for PAYE and other systems.

Government Digital Service was still wedded to Varney's vision of government having a "single online presence", said Cooper. It would be demonstrated imminently by a test site called alpha.gov.uk, which was still password protected at the time this article was posted.

Radical plan to cut Local Gov.IT

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The draft local government IT strategy has sketched out the beginning of the end for public sector IT.

It's authors may say it is merely a beginning. But these things are certain: it proposes a programme of radical and disruptive change; it is not going to be easy; and this is a taste of things to come in the long-awaited Cabinet Office ICT strategy.

There will still be IT in the public sector. But much less of it will be public.

Half of all local government IT services will be outsourced by 2015. Councils will employ few if any programmers and engineers. Public sector IT will become commoditised and delivered through the cloud. Local autonomy will largely involve IT managers picking services from a menu.

The government's Big Society reforms will be the cause of all this. Local public services will be at the "eye of the storm", warns Routemap 2015, the draft local IT strategy, which is open for consultation until 4 April. The government's "unprecedented" cuts have created a need for "unprecedented" reform. The changes to council IT will be "radical".

Jos Creese.pngDespite all this, Jos Creese, president of Socitm, chair of the Local CIO Council and the man under whose tutelage these reforms were draughted, says these changes will be locally driven.

The key message for local IT managers, he told Computer Weekly, is "in your own time and in your own way".

The direction of travel has nevertheless been predetermined by irresistible trends on which central government cuts are a powerful catalyst. Networked citizens have high expectations of digital services. Professionals have realised that open data, open standards and transparency are incontestable requirements of the networked age. Digital innovation, joined up services, citizen-centricity and wide collaboration are all emerging quite naturally as every possible actor, from public and private entities to all kinds of people, are thrust into ever greater immediacy by the internet.

What is happening to local government is a form of coagulation. But it is happening slowly. It relies on internet infrastructure, so it must wait until local authorities have finished building their bits of the Public Sector Network, and the public sector as a whole has established a competent way of formulating open standards of interoperability.

Creese and the Society of IT Managers make much of how inappropriate it would be for the government drive all this through as a central IT programme. Creese says the past failure of government IT projects can be attributed to their being "too centrally driven". But Routemap 2015 is a centrally-driven policy that recommends central bodies be established to oversee the centralisation of local IT services.

Centralish

Yes, says Creese from his Hampshire CIO office during a rare slot between meetings, its not like any sort of centralisation we've had before.

"If we get this right," he says, "you will end up with the PSN being a national network of networks. You will get a whole range of private clouds that begin to link together. If appropriate, they will join bigger and more centralised entities.

"But you will get there on a more organic and therefore more enduring basis than simply trying to drive it all on a theoretic basis from the centre," he says.

Bottom up centralisation, you might say. One that will involve dismantling much of the public sector, which is what Routemap 2015 proposes for local IT departments. This is not necessarily a condition of a networked society in which public and private entities operate in closer union, glued together by open data and an assumed civic spirit.

Creese says, therefore, local IT departments might need an incentive to get with the programme. Cuts in central government funding are the primary incentive. They're centrally driven. And dreadfully untheoretical.

Fairish

Then there are the "outcomes", or targets, of this reform programme. They set Routemap 2015's idealistic incentive: "Efficiency and fairness".

Whatever happened to equality? This principle must be more important than ever now huge chunks of local government are being privatized. What will preserve the balance between public service and private profit?

This isn't about "grand plans to make a world a better place", says Creese. It's about being practical. It's about using technology to get things done. IT-enabled change. Putting the citizen in control.

"That's what this is about.

"We want to strike a balance between something that is prescriptive and something that is so esoteric it is purely setting a context and not adding anything directly usable to the debate," he says.

No airy-fairy words like equality then. What we have are "efficiency", the local corollary of central cuts, and "fairness", a Conservative election mantra. While the reforms are often given a veneer that makes them seem apolitical they are driven by policy that is as grandly and theoretically Conservative as a country title.

How IT enabled-change can be fair without ensuring equality is not a concern of these reforms. Now IT is not merely the department at the end of the corridor but the enabler of the Big Society, someone may have to pay some thought to the higher ideals.

DirectGov spunks £200m

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Has DirectGov really spent £200m producing websites, Jerry Fishenden, LSE fop, former Microsoft suit, and general man about town, asked last year.

Since Fishenden had asked the question via Twitter of Sir Bonar-Neville Kingdom, the ostensible Data Sharing Czar of Her Majesty's government, we have to wonder whether whether standards might be slipping at the London School of Economics. Or whether, as Sir Bonar has himself remarked, Autumn 2009 was a particularly good season for mushrooms. 

Nevertheless, it was this week that Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude pledged an historic review of the government's web site estate. It's historic in the sense that we never had so many websites to scrap before.

We've already seen DirectGov's top brass cleared out. This is but the beginning. To mark the occasion, it would be worthless republishing Tweets written on the matter by Sir Bonar, HM Government's first official Twit. That's why we're doing it here.

His Tweets, it is whispered around the fagging sheds outside the corridors of power, have had civil servants squirming in their seats.

"I have no doubt the £66m spend by the DoH in the last three years on two of its Web Sites is excellent Value for Money."

"We will further improve the DoH Web Sites by getting rid of most of them. This will be a great improvement."

"We feel Transform's DirectGov report represents fair value for what we paid them."

"The confirmation of DirectGov's central role as government's Web Publishing Platform in the Transform report is uncontentious."

"Incidentally, we are rebranding Directgov as "DirectGov" to give it a more comtempory feel."

"Now we can recommission these absurdly cheap MySociety Web Sites from proper suppliers like IBM, ATOS and Qinetic."

"One could hardly sustain an indigenous IT industry on the unrealistic budgets bandied about by these NGOs. We need serious Web Sites."

"I feel we should shut down Google and use DirectGov and a national email service. As I recall CESG developed one..."

"Clearly we need a Government Search Engine. We could call it google.gov.uk."

"The UK's flagship Web Site Direct Gov is still looking for a head of innovation. Please apply by last August."

"I have a splendid idea: let's dust down that old promise to put all public services online. It always works!".

"We must be seen to be active. Let us launch official versions of things which people are successfully doing already!"

"We should promote democracy with a web site. We could call it mysociety.gov.uk."

"Let's promote the government agenda for mothers with a website, called both netmums.gov.uk and mumsnet.gov.uk, just to be sure."

"We must ensure that any feedback about Health Services comes from authorized sources via an approved contractor such as capita."

"In light of the irresponsibility of the news media we propose a new Government Newspaper. We plan to call it www.independent.gov.uk."

Sir Bonar has published Tweets in a book, at the launch of which he gave a rather tedious speech you can watch here.

Moronic networks bolster local CIOs

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Since the Big Society is the logical consequence of the networked society, it follows also that local government CIOs are among the best placed to make it happen.

That may be like giving Dilbert the keys to the city. But the big society will only work if local computing infrastructure is opened up. There is little community of the sort we romanticize about in coalition manifestos bar what can be bought or computer assisted. We have to give Dilbert the keys to the city.

Local CIOs are therefore being recruited as evangelists for the new wave, it became apparent at Socitm 2010, their annual conference in Brighton this week. They have the know-how. They are also among the few with instincts attuned to the principles of the internet politics.

Let's assume for the moment the ConDem government has principles. Look for their roots and you will find them in Silicon Valley.

That's where, remember, were formed the architectural principles that made the internet what it is: the centre devoid of intelligence, all processing done at the end points and not on the network, and common protocols assisting the free flow of information - the very nutrients of liberty, innovation, and pompous blogging.

This also happens to be the architectural blueprint of the Big Society. Not the Big Society you're thinking of. Forget arthritic old ladies who have taken half a day getting dressed ever since budget cuts sent their home-help to the doll queue. Forget rain clouds over Birmingham and the Boys from the Black Stuff.

Think Californian sunshine, ashrams full of baby boomers, roller skates and network technology. And remember that most of the bedding for this Big Society lark was laid by, under or despite of Labour. Think, for example, how we can now have no doubt that the centre is devoid of intelligence.

Labour did also co-opt Web founder Tim Berners-Lee's work on setting public sector data free so anyone could see or use it. And it started laying the communications infrastructure over which the public and third sectors will soon work more closely under the ConDem Coalition. Ditto the G-Cloud and open standards.

More freedom

But there's a significant difference between the ConDem and Labour flavours of internet politics.  That's performance management, a phrase as dreaded by internet techies as civil servants. Look up net neutrality to see what all the fuss is about among the former.

The principle dread is the same in both cases. It's "the terror of the unannounced inspection", as Rob Whiteman, managing director of LG Group, described it in Brighton on Monday.

Whiteman was relieved at the ideological shift in the governance of local government under the ConDems. Out go the old hierarchical performance measures, which had councils working hard to please their superiors to the detriment of their locales. In comes local accountability and the transparency that makes it possible.

In comes "peer review", as Whiteman said. Or trabajo de equipo, as rescued Chilean miners might call it. Or solidaridad. That's what the internet politics is all about. Peer review is how the internet is governed through ICANN. It's how open source software is developed. It's how social networks police themselves.

Less money

But don't set the black fag flying just yet. Because as the Roma said to the gendarme, peer review isn't all its cracked up to be.

Peer review is how democracy is supposed to work. But what we are seeing of the internet society so far won't extend further than civil society. And what is freed up in civil society may just go straight into the money-making engines of unaccountable private enterprises.

For now, consider what former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair said to CIOs about this: we have heard how the public sector is "bloated, gold plated, and out of touch" - that's how the current bout of public sector pollarding was sold to us; but what about the bankers?

Still, you've got to start somewhere. If the internet politics does take hold in local government then, as people in ashrams are taught to believe,  it may bring about a bottom up revolution. Quangos are an encouraging next step.

Council to re-use old IT - a social inclusion exemplar

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A council has ended a contract for the disposal of its used computers and plans to make the machines available to local residents, particularly the disadvantaged.

Shouldn't all organisations/IT decision-makers be doing this?

All credit to Stephen Hilton who is leading Bristol City Council's social inclusion work. He gave details of the council's plans at a social inclusion panel at the G2010 government IT conference.

Full article on ComputerWeekly.com

Government 2010 today

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On a panel I'm chairing today on making the web more inclusive are Stephen Hilton of Bristol City Council, John Shewell of Brighton and Hove City Council and Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society.

It's at 3pm - 4.15 pm. There's a live stream of the conference (registration required).

Government 2010

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