A train crash waiting to happen - why it is not too late too save Unified Credits

No wonder IT firms avoid the Party Conferences. The ill-informed criticism of technology suppliers is nearly as bad as the well-informed attacks on the consultant-driven relationships between them and their public sector customers. But we have to change reality before we can sustain a change of image. The final death of the centralised NHS IT systems will not be enough if Universal Credits go down the same track.

The comments in response to the recent Daily Telegraph editorial and news cover correctly highlight the professional concerns over the way in which the introduction of long overdue reforms are being introduced. Unfortunately the response of officials and supplier has been to close ranks with a view to getting more steam and passengers on board rather than change track. Before the Major Projects Review was published I compared the DWP “vision” for the Unified Credit with the NHS “vision” of a unified patient record  About the same time I also commented on Sir Humphrey’s view of how to use agile methodology .

DWP are using “agile methodology” for a classic consultant-driven “waterfall” approach (i.e. no feedback loops in the light of practical experience) to a delayed big-bang exercise. It is intended for incremental implementation programmes. In consequence they have removed the agility and flexibilty that are its hallmarks.

More interestingly DWP has already alibied itself for failure by predicating success on the implementation of the “real-time” (again a most interesting abuse of terminology) updating of PAYE codes. I was chairman of the Real Time Club for its 40th anniversary. The attendees at the dinner included current and former civil servants for several of government’s largest projects. Anything less “real time” than the updating of PAYE records is difficult to imagine.

Those in most need of the flexible support that the Universal Credit is supposed to deliver tend to lurch in and out of work with unpredictable needs and no access to government other than via a post office or mobile phone, unless a nurse or policeman points them at Citizens Advice. The expectation that they might have a PAYE code other than “emergency” (alias standard rate) is unrealistic because of the inherant delays in the people processes, especially for temporary abnd part-time workers at the far end of sub-contracting chains.  

It is not too late to move the Universal Credit to an incremental change programme, dusting off some of the many past proposals for incremental, rapid payback change that have been dismissed out-of-hand by DWP officials or their incumbent suppliers because they would distract attention from the big picture. The “only” problem is the loss of face. But that cannot be under-estimated given the allegations of what might be found before those responsible have been able to cover their tracks and take the redundancy package. 

P.S. Why are the origins and development cost of the DVLA on-line licensing system such a secret when it is such a success. It am told this is because it was so imaginative and cheap that there is a very real fear that  others might be tempted to replicate the approach and slash 90%, not just 10%, from the cost of collecting tax or paying benefit. 


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