Universal Credit still on track, says Whitehall IT chief

28 Feb 13
The coalition's flagship Universal Credit programme remains on track although it has been taken over by a Whitehall troubleshooter, the government's chief operating officer has insisted.

By Richard Johnstone | 1 March 2013

The coalition's flagship Universal Credit programme remains on track although it has been taken over by a Whitehall troubleshooter, the government's chief operating officer has insisted.

Stephen Kelly

In an exclusive interview with Public Finance, Stephen Kelly gave assurances that the programme would be completed on time, with trials in April ahead of a national roll-out from October.

Kelly said 'everything that I see today suggests' that the Department for Work and Pensions will meet its deadlines for the project.

Groups including the Child Poverty Action Group, Unison and the Local Government Association have raised concerns about the viability of the scheme, which will merge six benefits into one payment.

Then in February it was announced that the executive director of the government's Major Projects Authority, David Pitchford, had taken over the running of the programme following the death of Philip Lansdale, who was the DWP's chief information officer.

Kelly told PF that Pitchford would go to 'help out' on the delivery of the scheme for 12 weeks, as four pilot schemes across Greater Manchester get under way.

The programme 'is tracking' where it is supposed to be, but ministers had to decide 'what do we need to do, given this very sad set of circumstances, to support success for DWP and success for [Work and Pensions Secretary] Iain Duncan Smith', he added.

'I'm really pleased that David said yes. He will go and help to make sure we deliver on time.'

However, Kelly warned it was 'realistic' to expect errors in the scheme as it is rolled out in stages to the end of 2017. 'We are dealing with a federated organisation of 400,000 people [across the DWP].

'I come in every morning and I see 99% of really good stuff happening by very dedicated civil servants with huge talent and passion around public sector ethos. But, invariably in this scale of operation, there will be things that probably don't always go according to plan.'

Universal Credit is 'probably the most radical benefit reform programme for 70 years', Kelly said, and is the centrepiece example of how information technology can be used to improve public services.

He added that Whitehall departments were now at a 'seismic point in the implantation' of the government's Digital Strategy, which last November set out the plans to digitise more than 650 transactional services.

Reforms are needed as some government IT systems are 'stuck in the dark ages', and are acting as 'an anchor on the system of reform and change' across Whitehall, he said.

'In 2010, we found in the UK central government we were spending £6bn a year, and at least five times as much per employee than Tesco were spending.

'When you look at the government IT system, we're stuck in the dark ages, candidly. When I come in in the morning and switch on my PC, it takes me seven minutes to boot up, and we are spending more than any representative company.'

A number of reforms to major projects such as the Universal Credit were being introduced so they were 'iterative' and 'agile' - split into small component parts, with lessons shared between each.

This 'quiet revolution in the heart of Whitehall' would lead to wholesale reforms in how government worked, he added. 'A lot of things around open policy and data transparency also speak to a much more iterative approach.

'You can argue that the civil service may have been trying to boil the ocean in the past, disconnected from the execution challenges [of policies]. Now we are into a world of iterative, more agile development.'

Cross-government standards for putting services online are currently being revised by the Cabinet Office. This follows their draft publication last November, alongside the strategy.

There are also 20 transactional services where Kelly wants to see significant progress soon. He said that the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs were early contenders to roll out new services.

'What I'm looking to - at the end of this year - is a significant swathe of transaction services that are either live, or with projects [that] kick off with delivery in months, not years.'

The new standards will be used by the Cabinet Office to support departments as they move transactional services online, and it will also decide if projects go ahead under the new system, he told PF.

'What we are seeking to do is support departments… and then have authority for signing off the projects, but also be involved in the start so that we set the journey appropriately and correctly and then have a check point at the end to make sure it does what it says on the tin.'

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