Tuesday 18 September 2012

Universal Credit, ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken and Sir Jeremy Heywood

At last the technical problems with Universal Credit (UC) are beginning to be reported in the national press:
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.
Who's in charge of identity assurance? The Cabinet Office. More specifically, the Government Digital Service (GDS). Why is identity assurance one of Lord Freud's "biggest challenges"? Because there is no identity assurance available to UC or any other public service. Lots of talk. Lots of blogging. No identity assurance.

Ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken is the executive director of government digital services and Senior Responsible Officer Owner of the identity assurance programme. He flew Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, out to California to see the future:
Andrew Nash, Google’s Director of Identity, ran us through the current issues facing identity.He explained how Google aim to grow and be part of an ecosystem of identify providers, and encouraged the UK Government to play its part in a federated system. The UK ID Assurance team and Google agreed to work more closely to define our strategy – so look out for future announcements. Andrew also took the opportunity to walk the Minister through the Identity ecosystem.
He may have walked through the "Identity ecosystem" but ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken hasn't produced an identity assurance system that DWP can use for UC.

That job has been left to Vince Cable's Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). The idea is to incubate a whole new market of trusted companies whose business it is to maintain Personal Data Stores (PDSs). We will each have a number of PDSs, according to BIS, and these will allow us to transact with government. PDSs will allow us to register for UC, for example, and for benefits to be paid computer-to-computer, with no messy human intervention adding "friction" to the system.

What companies? Who is going to maintain all these PDSs? BIS don't say. They don't say who and they don't say when. How long does it take to grow a mature identity assurance ecosystem from scratch? How long can UC wait?

UC faces any number of political problems. They may or may not be solved. Even if they are, UC will still be snookered by an unworkable IT system design. That design must have been agreed by Iain Duncan Smith's officials at DWP. They must have agreed to implement GDS's infantile science fiction ideas. And BIS must bravely have agreed to try to create a PDS industry overnight.

Obviously Iain Duncan Smith will get the blame for the failure of UC. And that failure will be a tragedy. The opportunity for people to escape the poverty trap will have been lost. If work can't be made to pay, says Frank Field, then the resulting state of dependency will rot people's souls.

But the failure is Whitehall's. N [please see comments below] And according to the Spectator, that failure is countenanced and even encouraged right from the top, by Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary:
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the civil servant effectively running Britain, is letting it be known that he is ‘sceptical’ about Duncan Smith’s mission. This, in Whitehall, is the equivalent of a go-slow order. Civil servants will not waste time or personal capital on anything likely to join the identity cards and the NHS supercomputer in the graveyard of ministerial follies.

... [David Cameron] should throw his weight behind Duncan Smith rather than seeking to remove him. He ought to remind Sir Jeremy that, as head of the civil service, he is paid not to be ‘sceptical’ about government policy but to implement it. Welfare reform is the thorniest problem in government, which is why so many ministers have ignored it. It is far safer, politically, to leave the poor to rot.


Aubrey Herbert said...

This does not add up. You have a convincing case, consistently argued, on the design and implementation of this technically flawed scheme. Yet the conception and the IT operation of it are inseparable. If IDS is ploughing ahead with his scheme in the face of evidence that the technology won't work then he should be told to hold back until it does.

And here's where you go wrong. Part of Heywood's job as Cabinet Secretary must be to challenge the eternally over-optimistic view of Ministers and their advisers that their IT and non- IT projects will be alright on the night. Yet you swallow the Spectator's obviously and insultingly DWP spun line that an ideologically unsound and absurdly powerful mandarin is frustrating this one's progress for some sinister political reason. It's hard ro reconcile that with all your previous posts in which you fault Whitehall for failing to do what the Cabinet Secretary appears now to be doing!

That's not only illogical. It ignores your own logic.

David Moss said...

On reflection, I think you’re right, Mr Herbert. Right that “this does not add up”. I think it would have added up if I had stopped writing at the skull-and-crossbones.

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