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New dole system is 'digital by default', like it or not

Claimants who do not comply will be 'nudged' by 'back office' workers

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Universal credit – the government's "new and improved" benefits system – will be the first major government service to be digital by default.

This is according to Steve Dover, director of major programmes at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Dover says: "There will be a back office to deal with the more vulnerable in society, but it will be thinner and there will be a massive web-enabled internet channel for the vast majority of the transactions that will be done for universal credit," he told the Government ICT Summit event in London.

The project, which started a year ago and will begin rollout next year, has been a massive undertaking, Dover said, which he said involved "changing the culture" of the department. It will see the introduction of an operating model that will start to reduce the DWP's telephony channels.

"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," said Dover.

There will be a contact centre with staff as well and voice recognition technology, but the public will be "nudged back" to the web channel, he added.

The project has generated much interest around its use of an 'agile' development model. When the DWP began "dabbling" with agile, it ran into trouble because of its lack of understanding and subsequently sought help from outside organisations, in particular from the SME Emergn, and has retained the company's services, Dover said.

"The biggest danger is to let those specialists go. You can reduce them, but you need to keep them there, because people need to remain on that journey," he told delegates. "For example, it takes about six months to get one of our people to the point where they can do professional facilitation of agile elaboration workshops... It takes up to two years to become a fully fledged agile coach."

An "agile" approach will enable the introduction of universal credit in October 2013, Dover said: by comparison other methods of delivery would have delayed the project until February or March 2015, budgets would have doubled and "there would have been huge arguments along the way with our partners, our service providers, and within the departments between all the different silos: policy, business design, IT, implementation, release and operations".

However, concerns remain around how likely the universal credit scheme will be to deliver. A spokesman for the civil service PCS union, which represents DWP staff, said: "Some of the most vulnerable people in society will rely on universal credit, and it is absolutely essential that the underlying IT works. Give that the recent history of government IT is littered with failures, we have yet to be convinced that this will be successful. Failure, however, will be catastrophic."

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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