DWP already struggling to recruit digital skills for Universal Credit IT development

DWP is already struggling to recruit IT staff with the digital skills it needs – not just for Universal Credit but also other IT projects

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is already struggling to recruit IT professionals with the digital skills it needs, as it faces a race against time to meet key 2014 deadlines – not just for Universal Credit but also other vital IT projects.

Insiders told Computer Weekly that recruitment of skilled software developers to work for the department’s new digital chief Kevin Cunnington is progressing slower than anticipated.

The lack of readily available skills in the recruitment market is jeopardising both Universal Credit and other DWP digital projects, such as the single-tier state pension scheme.

The DWP’s latest draft business case for Universal Credit (UC) identified the availability of digital skills as one of the major risks to the project, but that risk appears to be hitting home sooner than expected, according to a source.

The new “end-state” digital system for UC is scheduled to start testing in May with 100 benefit claimants, but the source suggested DWP is already considering bringing in an external supplier for early development work in order to meet that deadline.

Using a new IT supplier would also raise questions about the earlier decision to freeze the existing Universal Credit contractors – HP, IBM, Accenture and BT – out of development for the “end-state” system.

Cunnington has urged his staff to ask suitably skilled people they know personally to apply for the DWP vacancies – the jobs have so far not been advertised internally within the civil service, leading to some unhappy staff, said the source.

“Kevin Cunnington said at a staff meeting that we should alert anybody we know who is an expert in IT, digital and agile development to apply. This caused consternation as such an approach goes against standard HR policies, The jobs have not been advertised internally suggesting in-house civil servants cannot do this development activity, which is not an entirely fair assessment,” said the source.

The need to rapidly recruit digital skills has come about as a result of the early withdrawal of the Government Digital Service (GDS) from further involvement in Universal Credit.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has insisted the plan was always for GDS to step back and allow DWP resources to complete the development. But Computer Weekly’s sources – alongside a report this week in The Guardian - said that disagreements between GDS and DWP over the best approach to the project caused GDS to pull out far more quickly than expected, leaving DWP under greater time pressure to recruit an in-house team.

Cunnington has, however, set up a “digital academy” for staff, which has been a popular move internally.

“Staff are happy about this as it may mean in time less dependency on suppliers, though this is really a pragmatic approach and likely to include a combination of in-house and external resources,” said the source.

DWP has consistently stood by the revised plans for Universal Credit announced last month.

"We have been very clear that DWP will take over development of the new digital service following the initial GDS work. Our current plans will see all new benefit claimants claiming Universal Credit by 2016, with most existing benefit claimants moving on to Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017,” DWP said in a recent statement.

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