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Government Universal Credit IT System Woefully Understaffed

Michael Moore joined TechWeek Europe in January 2014 as a trainee before graduating to Reporter later that year. He covers a wide range of topics, including but not limited to mobile devices, wearable tech, the Internet of Things, and financial technology.

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New government service to support a flagship reform is only supported by three employees

Despite assurances from the Department of Work and Pensions that the new IT system to handle Universal Credit is on track, the DWP’s nnual report reveals that the project to build the system is staffed by only three employees.

Universal Credit is a major overhaul of Britain’s benefit system, combining several existing services into one. Despite announcing it plans to spend up to £32 million on developing the system before a national rollout in 2017 as part of a £2.4 billion overhaul, the project appears to be somewhat understaffed and is now in danger of losing political backing, according to a report by by IDG.

Delays to the system are proving to be both a major expenditure and source of worry for the government. The DWP called for more support from the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) last year, when the, which is being developed by companies including BT, IBM, HP and Accenture, was criticised for not being scalable, flexible or secure enough.

Iain-Duncan-SmithCostly delay

The GDS is now withdrawing from the project, leaving the DWP to get on with it, apparently due to internal disagreements between the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (pictured here) and Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude over the future direction of the project. GDS will keep five of its employees on the Universal Credit digital project, however, due to its involvement with developing the background ‘digital spine’ infrastructure, which will replace the existing Universal Credit system when the benefit is rolled out nationwide.

Reports that the project was in trouble were denied only last week by a DWP spokesperson, who told TechWeekEurope that “we have been very clear that DWP would take over development of the new digital service following the initial GDS work”, adding: “Our current plans will see all new benefit claimants claiming Universal Credit by 2016, with most existing benefit claimants moving onto Universal Credit during 2016 and 2017.”

The DWP is understood to be recruiting hard to battle this manpower shortcoming through a drive to sign up 50 new IT specialists for the digital Universal Credit service.

Universal Credit is an attempt by the government to combine six types of existing benefits, including jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit, and child tax credit, into one payment. It was announced by Iain Duncan Smith in 2010, and was due to begin in October 2013. However, the system is still in its trial phase, having been hit by a number of setbacks, with the actual start date now apparently delayed until later this year.  

Chris Bryant MP, Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, told IDG that the situation was deeply troubling.

“It’s worrying to discover that after the spat with Francis Maude and the Government Digital Service, DWP currently only has three IT specialists working on the digital solution to Iain Duncan Smith’s delayed and over-budget Universal Credit project,” he said.

“We know that DWP itself estimates that 50 IT specialists will be required to continue this work – quite the deficit. IDS should start focusing on delivering a policy that works, rather than fighting colleagues and blaming officials.”

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