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Open source 'wasn't available' two years ago, says Universal Credit chief

Derek du Preez | Dec. 11, 2013
Howard Shiplee said that the UK welfare project will now be using open source and web-based tech

The head of delivery for the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) flagship welfare reform project, Universal Credit, has said that the department didn't adopt open source and web-based technologies at the beginning of the project because "such things weren't available" two and a half years ago.

Howard Shiplee told the Work and Pensions Committee this week that the department is now using open source technologies in its enhanced version of Universal Credit, which was initially developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and will be rolled out nationally by 2017 for most claimants.

The existing system being used in pathfinder pilots and developed by the likes of IBM, HP and Accenture will be largely be replaced by the digital version.

"The current system for Universal Credit is a conventional system being developed on a waterfall approach. When you look at digital [the enhanced system], it's very different - it relies not on large amounts of tin, black boxes, but uses open source and mechanisms on the web to store and access data," Shiplee told MPs.

When asked why he didn't adopt this approach two and a half years ago at the start of the project, Shiplee said: "Technology is moving very rapidly, such things weren't available as they are today."

Universal Credit aims to merge benefits such as jobseeker's allowance, income support, housing benefit, child tax credit and working credit. The IT system supporting it will require real-time data on the earnings of every adult, from a new Pay as You Earn (PAYE) system being developed by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

DWP plans to spend £2.4 billion to implement Universal Credit up to April 2023 and has spent £425 million up to April 2013. Most spending so far (£303 million) has been on contracts for designing and developing IT systems. However, to date there have been a number of suspected problems with delivery.

Writing down IT assets over five years
Work and pensions secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith told the committee that he is in control of the project and that there is "no debacle". However, he admitted that the department has had to write off, or 'impair', £40.1 million worth of IT assets to date — nearly a fifth more than the £34 million figure revealed to the National Audit Office earlier this year.

Moreover, this figure could increase: "If anything goes wrong going forward, that [figure] might be different," said Duncan Smith.

Mike Driver, finance director general at DWP, said that Universal Credit consists of £152 million worth of intangible assets, with £34 million of this to be used as software code in the final digital version.


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