Universal Credit - a platform for public good?

If you were to score public policy areas on how important, difficult and divisive they are then I think benefits would come out top. If it was easy to sort out, someone would have. Getting it wrong means people in great need suffering in ways we don’t want, or lots of wasted money, or both, or worse. The politics of the rules that govern those payments is hard, and I’m not going to discuss them here. Instead I’m going to consider the platform that enables them.

What all politicians of all stripes would like is more flexibility in the design of their policies that the current systems just don’t allow. The ‘benefits cliff’, where going from benefits into work can be a very bad financial move, is not there because anyone wants it to be. It is there because the technology platforms are not in place to allow anything else.

To change that, the Universal Credit (UC) platform will be putting together at scale the population databases for two departments - HMRC and DWP. I think - and I stand to be corrected - that this is pretty unique in UK government terms, potentially a first in departments joining up like this.

This is why PAYE schemes have been moving to ‘real time’ information - i.e. on a monthly rather than annual upload. Having worked with what are generally known as realtime systems I have to say that polling monthly isn’t what I call realtime, but everything is relative!

What this does is link up the data-sets and allow benefits payments to be factored based on actual employment payments. This gives policy makers access to a whole new degree of freedom in policy design. That policy will of course be a political matter, but as we go along there will be elements of new capability that no politician will want to roll back from once they have it.

From a technical standpoint I’d assume that such an integration is not unusual, but the situation is more publicly visible and more constrained than in a private sector environment. Mistakes can also create a lot of suffering or opportunities for fraud. So it certainly won’t be easy.

So, evaluating the programme, we’re talking about an incredibly significant move forward for the benefits payment platform that, if successful, will significantly increase the opportunity for politicians to design sensible benefits policies. If it doesn’t go well the mistakes will have a huge impact either on vulnerable individuals or public finances. So do it, but get it right.

What’s disturbing me is that the narrative in the media about the IT element is as always limited to the extent to which the project is on time and on budget. Those things are important, but not as important in the long term as doing it and getting it right. Focusing on the wrong things, in other words.

What is disturbing me even more is that a lot of the groups commenting on the UC system are talking along these lines, that I’m quoting from this Guardian article:

“Predominantly IT-based administration represents a big risk, given the poor record of large-scale government IT projects”

This is, sadly, an argument for never doing any IT projects at scale. There is certainly something to be said for only doing IT projects at scale when you really need to. However, in terms of need or benefit this is certainly a contender. That position also displays an ignorance of the reasons why other programmes have not been successful or indeed why some of them have been…or for that matter what is being done on UC. Both in and out of the public sector we do a lot of IT at scale and tend to find it is useful to do so. This platform will be very useful in the long term, and it has no option but to cover national-scale processes.

UC is, in addition to being a massive change for benefits, an early example of the ‘digital by default’ strategy. There is a very sane rationale for moving government services online as far as possible - by default, as it were - and providing mechanisms for those who can’t / wont go online as a backstop. It is probably that element rather than the integration that is new - particularly with such a large captive audience including vulnerable groups; you can bank where you like, you have limited choice over who will pay you benefits...

‘Digital by default’ is something that the general public have not really engaged with terribly much yet, but that will change as UC comes online over coming months. So to those working on UC, I say this: All strength to your arm, get it right, and keep thinking of the people who will be using what you create. Stay focused on #userneeds and let the media and politics become the background.

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About the author

Thoughts on membership, the profession, and the occasional pseudo-random topic from the BCS Policy and Community Director.

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