Friday 21 September 2012

The Government Digital Service, no time to fit in Universal Credit, too busy

They're a ruthless lot, GDS.
They have to prioritise.
Millions of people could be given the opportunity to make work pay?
Too bad.
GDS have a website to write.

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At last the technical IT problems with Universal Credit (UC) are beginning to be reported in the national press, please see selected examples below.

UC is important. "Make work pay" means rescuing people from the poverty trap, where dependency rots their souls, as Frank Field puts it. And tragically, as Mr Field also puts it, "UC is on course for disaster".

There are political problems with UC. That is a matter for Parliament, and Parliament is debating it – the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee is considering 500 pages of evidence from 70 organisations.

Suppose that Westminster resolves the political problems. Then what?

Then UC will still fail because of the IT problems introduced by Whitehall.

Digital by default
Whitehall has decided that all public services, including UC, should be "digital by default". That is, public services should be delivered over the web, and only over the web, please see newspaper articles quoted below. But something like ten million people in the UK have still never used the web. They will be "excluded by default".

Assisted digital
Whitehall has invented a phrase to plug the gap between the unwebbed and UC – "assisted digital". There will be an assisted digital programme, they say, to help their web novice parishioners to register with UC and to claim. There is no such programme, there is nothing more than the phrase and Whitehall's actual response, as opposed to their promised response, is simply not to answer the telephone, please see newspaper articles quoted below. That, Whitehall believes, will force people to use the web.

Identity assurance
Once forced onto the web, how do claimants prove that they are who they say they are? If they can't, either we risk denying benefits to people who are entitled to them or we risk automating benefit fraud. That invidious choice is currently avoided on the web by using the UK Government Gateway, which requires user IDs and passwords.

Whitehall believes that the Government Gateway is old-fashioned and too difficult for most people to use, and has promised to replace it with a new "identity assurance" service. Another phrase, another promise, another failure, please see newspaper articles quoted below, no use to UC, there is no new identity assurance service.

In their more lucid moments, Whitehall departments warn individuals, businesses and each other that the web is a dangerous place to be. Identity theft, industrial espionage, viruses, man-in-the-middle attacks, hacking, distributed-denial-of-service, you name it, it's a cyberthreat.

GCHQ has established an academic institute for cyberdefence. GCHQ appear to understand the problem. And yet simultaneously, schizophrenically, Whitehall has decided to put all public services including UC on the web, please see newspaper articles quoted below.

Cloud computing
"Cloud computing" is the solution, whatever the problem, according to Whitehall. Whitehall wants a G-Cloud – a government cloud – and they want to put all our data in the cloud where, they claim, it will be secure, it will be maintained in real time, always up to date and always accurate, cloud computing is flexible and cheap and efficient and trusted and always available (resilient, no down time, always safely backed up) and green and modern and fit for the 21st century.


Not in this 21st century. Not on this planet.

Whitehall's G-Cloud team hosted a lively debate about the problems of cloud computing, pulled all the questions together and tried to crowd source some answers. They can't have liked the answers submitted and published only one – the limiting case of a crowd. The problems remain, unresolved, even the founder of Google is warning Whitehall against cloud computing, and yet G-Cloud proceeds, ensuring maximum risks to UC.

It is a sad fact that IT projects tend to come in late and over budget. Staggeringly late and eye-wateringly over budget. UC is meant to be different. UC is using "agile" systems development methods and "agile" means that systems are flexible, delivered on time and within the budget.

"Agile" is just another word. Computer Weekly magazine reported in June on an emergency project of the US military's:
... the effort is part of an emergency reform of IT projects using agile methods, on orders issued by the Department [of] Defense last year after 11 major computer systems went $6bn over budget and 31 years behind schedule.
Transformational government
UC is the victim of "transformational government", the overall Whitehall plan which incorporates "digital by default" and "assisted digital" and "identity assurance" and "cloud computing" and "agile". Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, looks utterly sincere in his desire to make work pay but he has failed. His officials have prevailed and undermined UC.

Steve Dover, for example, the director of major programmes at DWP and clearly a card-carrying member of the Transformational Government cult, worshiping computers and full of contempt for human beings, is quoted in the Guardian on the subject of UC as saying:
The starting point, I said to our telephony collaboration teams based in Newcastle, was just think of a contact centre, but it has got no people in it and think of an operating model that has got no back office, and start from there.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, is in charge of both cybersecurity (don't use the web) and the Government Digital Service (GDS, only use the web). How does he reconcile the two? On 31 October 2011, he announced that he was funding the nascent identity assurance industry with £10 million taken from ... the £650 million cybersecurity budget.

When it comes to IT, our politicians are apparently helpless in the hands of their officials.

Officials like Steve Dover, and ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken, the executive director of government digital services and Senior Responsible Officer Owner of the identity assurance programme. Bracken trundled Francis Maude off to Estonia to see what transformational government looks like in action. Before that, Mr Maude was made to go to California to listen to Google talking about the identity ecosystem. Later, there was a trip to Washington for Bracken's Government Digital Service (GDS) team.

Estonia, of course, precisely because the country's government has been transformed and relies entirely on cloud computing, was brought to its knees by the Russians in a matter of days in 2007. Why does ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken wish to expose the UK in general and UC in particular to the same vulnerability?

The trip to California included a talk given by Google on identity management. If the suggestion is that perhaps Google could provide the identity assurance that UC and other public services require, it should be understood what that implies. Application for benefits and the administration of their payment would become dependent on Google, whose name could conceivably one day replace Her Britannic Majesty's in our passports. As custodians of our identity, the company would tend to become part of the Constitution. Is Constitutional change in the remit of ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken?

The Washington boondoggle included a photo opportunity in the White House library, enough to turn anyone's head, and was the occasion for groupthink with GDS's transformational government opposite numbers working on NSTIC, the US National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. The fact that the US administration is pursuing the same mistaken strategy as the UK's does not alter the fact that it is mistaken.

GDS's serious responsibilities are set out on its website under the following headings – assisted digital, digital engagement, directgov, ID assurance, innovation and single government domain. They concentrate on the single government domain task, producing GOV.UK, a re-write of all the departmental government websites that already exist.

No time to waste on UC
When GDS aren't visiting Estonia or the US, they're re-writing websites. They're not promoting digital engagement, they're not providing assisted digital services and DWP don't have the new identity assurance system that they need and that they were promised.

They're a ruthless lot, GDS. They have to prioritise. Millions of people could be given the opportunity to make work pay? Too bad. GDS have a website to write.

A selection of recent newspaper reports on the state of UC:

Last Saturday's Guardian, 15 September 2012, Welfare bill won't work, key advisers tell Iain Duncan Smith:
Seventy organisations wrote to the Commons work and pensions select committee last week, raising a host of potential objections to the universal credit, including doubts about the ability of the government to successfully deliver the IT necessary to unify benefit payments or use real-time wage information to ensure that work always pays better than welfare.

Those working with the vulnerable said the insistence that the system be wholly internet-based will leave many unable to access benefits, and claim the government does not have a plan B.
Next day's ObserverUnemployed deliberately held in call centre queues to promote website:
Jobseekers are being kept hanging on the telephone for at least five minutes before they are connected to a member of staff in jobcentres – a deliberate move to encourage people to make online claims, internal documents obtained by the Guardian reveal ...

Charities said that vulnerable people often do not have internet access ...

Underlining the new policy is the government's target that 80% of new claims for unemployment benefit should be made online by September 2013 ...

The problem for the welfare secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is that the online flagship universal credit policy will only work if claimants not only claim jobseeker's allowance and other benefits online but also manage their benefits and job searches online ...

The Department for Work and Pensions emphasised that the government tried to ensure that poor people could access jobcentre call centres ...
Monday's Telegraph, Cyber attacks threaten welfare reforms, ministers warn:
Cyber-attacks by criminal gangs and hostile states are the biggest threat to the Coalition’s welfare reforms, ministers have said.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said he had sought advice from major internet retailers such as Amazon about how to keep his Universal Credit systems running, despite electronic sabotage and fraud.

Universal Credit is due to replace scores of individual benefits from next year, simplifying claims and allowing claimants to keep more of their benefits when they take paid work. The regime will be internet-based, with ministers intending that most claimants apply and report a change in circumstances online.

Appearing before a Commons inquiry into the reform, Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, was asked what was the biggest risk to the programme. “I’ll say what the challenges are, what we need to get right: to get the security system working properly,” he said.

Private security companies will be commissioned to develop a system of “identity assurance” to check that only real claimants can get benefits. “That’s one of the biggest challenges,” said Lord Freud.

Mr Duncan Smith said: “There are states that wish to attack things, criminals that want to commit fraud.”

Unlike retailers, he said, the new system would have to keep running regardless of disruption: temporary interruptions of service would harm claimants. “We must always be ready for the moment we need to pay people the money,” he said.

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