How to prevent the DWP Universal Credit from being yet another doomed IT project

The coalition government has said that the days of big IT projects are gone. But IT projects do not come much bigger than the DWP plans for a Universal Credit. How can we ensure that it is as successful as the original computerisation of PAYE under Nigel Lawson and Steve Matheson? I have covered the reasons for that success several times. Most recently in a blog last year. But time has moved on and an additional idea, not really practical in the early 1980s, may help ensure that the Universal Credit is a similar success.

It is a refinement of late Donald Michie‘s suggestion of building computer models of legislative proposals to see how they would operate in practice and then reverse engineer them (he called it knowledge refining) to produce the rule books for implementation. Before the rise of outsourcing in the 1990s it was common practice for private sector in-house computer departments to build a mock up of any new system to discuss with the users before confirming the specification. That also enabled staff training to be planned in parallel with system development and testing.


But even then, the “specification” of large public sector systems was commonly “cast in stone” by government and legislators (ministerial announcement followed by primary and secondary legislation) before it went out to procurement (to be agreed in detail by the lawyers and consultants of both sides, paid according to scale, complexity and time taken) before it was passed (already doomed) to those submitted the bid with the lowest nominal price that ticked all the boxes.


The suggestion is to combine Donald Michie’s ideas with past private sector good practice so that the policy advisors use a simulation of the on-line interface of any new welfare or benefit system (linked back to an “artificial intelligence” engine programmed with the proposed “rules”) to refine and define what will lie behind the Ministerial announcement.


That simulation, updated as necessary, can then be used during the consultation and legislative scrutiny processes so that MPs (and their case workers) and the staff and volunteers of Citizens Advice (who should be key advisors in any Welfare Reform programme) can see how the “difficult cases” which clog their surgeries would be dealt with.


It would then be available to the Bill Committee to see the effect of proposed amendments and subsequently used to also check the statutory instruments, procurement documentation, bids and implementation. 


In parallel an analysis of the live transactions flowing through the existing systems should used to inform ministers and those involved in consultation and scrutiny as to how many individuals are likely to trigger which “rules”.  This could lead to not only to better estimates of costs and impact but also better debate as to how rare conditions and exceptional hardship cases could and should be handled. During the EURIM transformational government dialogues Lord Kirkwood (former chairman of the DWP Select Committee) commented that barely 20 of the 1200 or so “rules” were needed for over 80% of claimants on one system and those responsible regarded the complexity as a matter of pride, not shame.


It may also help address the problem that most welfare systems assume predictability of need. Meanwhile “those in most need lead lives of quiet desperation, lurching from unpredictable crisis to unpredictable crisis. Then, if and when they get their lives together, with a brief period of work and prosperity, the system catches up with them and crushes them back to poverty with its demands for payback”. To really help those trying to help better themselves, we require systems that assume chaos and unpredictability. That will entail giving front-line staff responsibility for holistic support and the ability and authority to over-ride the “system”.


That may be a step too far, even for this Government, but without a radically different approach to scrutiny of the legislation to create the new DWP systems, the implementation is likely to be doomed before it starts, whatever the development methodology used and who-ever wins the contract. The work done in 1981 – 2, in advance of the original computerisation of PAYE, had a similar message. The politicians listened. Cabinet agreed the terms of reference necessary. The civil servant in charge was well chosen and given full authority as both programme director and accounting officer. The result was the last major UK government system to be brought in to time and budget.  


On that optimistic note, I will sign off with Christmas Greetings. Once again I will not be sending cards. Instead I am making donations to Barnados, the Salvation Army and Scope (although I still think of it as the Spastics Society). I’d love to be able to send them the “redistribution” element of my tax payments as well. They are far more efficient at helping some of those in most need.