Should G-Cloud and the GDS be taken seriously as contenders to run Universal Credit?

Today’s release of the Public Account Committee savaging of DWP officials and the departmental response that it does not take account of the changes made recently gives context to recent press cover on the supposed choice facing DWP for the way forward with regard to Universal Credit. Perhaps the most important point in the PAC report is that “The Department has failed to grasp the nature and enormity of the task”. So too have those who pose a choice between building on what has been done to date, irrelevant though it may be to what Minister want and creating a solution in an, as yet unproven, G-Cloud Cookie land.

The transition to the approach behind the Universal Credit requires a massive exercise in organisational change, not only within DWP but also in its relations with central and local government, including the Borders Agency (for the £billions paid to those who may or may not be entitled) as well as HMRC (Real Time PAYE) and others (Housing benefits etc.).

Jumping into technology solutions before addressing people and process issues is one of the oldest and most basic of causes of IT failure. Yet we see mounting pressure on DWP to rerpeat the same mistake – just when they are beginning to follow good professional practice.

At this point it may be helpful to take a cool look at the alrternative approaches being touted.

First G-Cloud Cookie land: This may indeed be a very sensible approach towards providing a common front-end to citizen-facing on-line and commodity services (like Payroll and HR) that have been unnecessarily “customised”. But it is, as yet “unproven” for “heavy lifting” service delivery. Cabinet Office  has not yet demonstrated that it can deliver anything more than comparative trivia (e.g. website rationalisation) – although it has demonstrated that it can help prevent others from wasting money.

Barely £40 million of business has so far gone via GDS to the G-Cloud and 70% of that was on consultancy and training . That balance is probably sensible, given the scale of effort necessary to rebuild the skills of Government as an “intelligent customer” but it does not indicate a mature service and only 132 of the 832 Cloud Store suppliers have received any business – which may indicate why Cabinet Office is so keen to improve take-up.

The consequent spend on people and process , as opposed to technology, is welcome but I was not impressed that the link on the Civil Service webpage on “developing leaders”  to their “leadership strategy” led to “page not found” and a site map – much of the contents of which have not been updated since 2006.

Undertaking major organisational change to deliver a new system, using new technology and skills which are in short supply, appears to me to be no more potentially successful an approach than that which has been roundly condemned by the Public Accounts Committee – albeit they failied to get to the roots of why officials adopted that strategy, despite the expectations of Ministers that they would follow a low risk pathway strategy, with the pilots covering small numbers of claimant coming first, not last. 

I am told that much of the £300 million DWP spend to date was on an attempt to tailor an Oracle system designed for the Australian Federal Government in the belief that this would support what Ministers said they wanted. But that system was created to support a much simpler benefits system and, as the Public Accounts Committee correctly diagnosed , officials had seriously under-estimated the complexity of what ministers were requesting. An early consequence was, therefore, their decision to quietly ignore Ministers requests to begin by trialing pathways with real claimants in the belief that this did not really matter*.

Meanwhile  the bottom up innovation (alias rationalisation) programme set in train by Joe Harley , to make the subsequent transition easier, was discontinued. More-over, when Howard Shiplee took over there were still no automated programme mapping, planning, scheduling and monitoring tools in place to make sense of the myriad of projects, contracts and dependancies that would need to be managed.    

In consequence Howard Shiplee faces a task similar to that which he faced with the Olympic construction programme, but without the authority he needs in order to succeed. He is still surrounded by players for whom saving face and winning inter-departmental battles is more important than the efficient delivery of flexible benefits to those in most need and to those struggling to get back into the world of work. And the technology is, arguably, the least of his problems.

Among the offenders are those who trumpet “digital by default” as the “answer”, without considering the question.

Delivering world class services in the 21st Century does commonly entail using systems which provide secure, resilient and rapid response using potentially mobile devices (laptops, smart phones, transaction terminals etc.) whose identity and location can be identified. But technology needs to be on tap, not on top.

The systems need to be designed around the needs of the users, including the “trusted intermediaries” (district nurse, doctor, sub-post mistress, citizens advice volunteer, care asistant etc.) who should authenticate or authorise “transactions” on behalf of the 20% or so of the population least likely to use the Internet or to have broadband access (whether fixed or mobile) and most likely to be dependent on benefits.       

At this point the confusion over whether DWP will use authentication services that are compatible with those increasingly used by the banks, financial services and the insurance industry (as opposed to US-based, liability avoidance, low transaction value operations) acquires added significance.

It is now almost three years since I first blogged on how to remove the risk from this project with a suggestion for a semi-automated version of the pathway approach requested by Ministers. Given the need to prioritise between the multitude of pathways through the benefit systems, which was one of the excuses for not doing as ministers requested, it is interesting to ponder how much (time as well as money) would have been saved had that approach been seriously considered. Far more important, however, is the need to allow Howard Shiplee to get proper programme management controls in place before forcing him to choose between the technology equivalents of Scylla (re-engineering legacy code) and Charydis (the whirlpool of Cloud Cookie Land).  

* A similar (and equally fundamental) mistake was made with the NHS National Plan for IT – hence Granger‘s discovery that he was expected to “reverse engineer” a consultation process that he was unaware had not taken place until after he had committed to organising a procurement process to meet a timescale and vision signed off by the Prime Minister.e.