Ever since it became clear that public spending was going to have to be reduced dramatically, I’ve been arguing that across the public sector ‘business as usual’ wasn’t going to deliver the needed savings.
Some departments, councils and quangos have singularly failed to evaluate how they deliver their services, simply opting to cut front-line services to deliver required reductions in cost. Those responsible for this mindset have seemingly escaped criticism, when they should be held to account for a mind-crunching lack of imagination, ingenuity or indeed talent.
One department that this criticism cannot be levelled is the Department of Work and Pensions. Under IDS’ leadership they are proposing a radical re-thinking of how benefits are delivered, with the universal credit replacing tens of other benefits as part of a massive simplification of the benefits system. (51 benefits to around 5)
Quite simply, the enormous costs of administering such a byzantine system (and the associated loss of £3bn+ in errors, treble the amount lost to fraud) is exactly the sort of spending that should be focused on as ripe for cutting. Whatever your views on the reductions in benefits, the fact the administration alone runs into billions should be reason to agree the status quo isn’t sustainable.
So, now the policy battle has been won, IDS needs to deliver the reforms. And here’s where I think an enormous political risk lies, for IDS personally and the coalition.
With the last Governments’ NHS IT debacle, the criticism was often an academic exercise around how much it cost. The ‘human cost’ was not reported, and beyond the hugely unfortunate staff trying to use the systems there were no perceived ‘victims.’
Benefits are quite different. Every IT failure, delay or error will lead to inevitable stories about families unable to feed or clothe their children, tenants being evicted and the disabled being abandoned by the state. If the error is big enough, there will be public outrage on a scale not seen since the Poll Tax. Those who are most likely to live hand-to-mouth will be left empty handed. Perhaps we might see the first deaths caused by a Government IT failure.
The systems involved are currently spread across a range of departments, from the DWP itself to HMRC, The Treasury, with probably others in Health, Education and Business. It’s a myriad web of awkward, old, complex systems many of which are utterly incompatible with others.
To deliver the needed cost savings, these need to be integrated, simplified and then a new system deployed. Not to mention the modernisation that will remove as much human administration as possible, which is where the greatest cost currently lies. As much paper as possible needs to be eliminated, preferably with online services hugely increased. This needs to happen quickly to deliver the required spending reductions this parliament.
And all of this when dealing with the most complex lives, in the most deprived areas, when many do not have internet access and of course not forgetting that many in the civil service have a vested interest in this failing, either at a high level enabling them to keep the armies of staff which have traditionally been the greatest measure of ‘status’ or on a lower level, their individual jobs.
Reforms of this type have long since been the cash cow of the major systems integrators, who have made huge profits delivering systems that rarely deliver their promised functionality and always cost more than expected. Britian has one of the worst track records in delivering IT projects, and much has been written on how this track record can be improved. (And sadly all too often ignored.)
IDS should heed the advice of Edward Leigh, then chairman of Public Account Committee (PAC), before embarking on the reforms. On the DWP’s project with EDS (now HP) in delivering the Child Support Agency’s IT, he said:
“The Department for Work and Pensions never really knew what it was doing in dealing with the contractors EDS and the system was a turkey from day one.”
This is exactly the kind of project for the coalition to set itself apart from Labour’s failures and ignite the British IT industry. The same approach will not work, no matter how much the likes of Accenture, HP or Capgemini promise it will “this time” and the cost could be catastrophic, both financially and politically.
Now is the time to experiment with innovation, run a series of real pilot schemes and open the doors to the best ideas in the country. If the doors remain closed to the same club, all of whom have a vested interest in blocking innovation to protect their own profits, the public will not afford the Coalition the same acquiescence afforded to Labour’s health IT boondoggle.
If the technological infrastructure is wrong, lives will be ruined. The same approach will not deliver – the choice is whether IDS allows those for whom failure is a profitable or personally preferable option to destroy the most important reform agenda for a generation.
IDS was given a huge political trophy, gift-wrapped by George Osborne and the Treasury. The question for IDS should be why it’s ticking.