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UK.gov best revise 'agile' universal credit system

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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) needs to revise its 'agile' approach to developing ICT systems for universal credit to avoid additional costs, the Local Government Association (LGA) says.

In written evidence (PDF) to Parliament's work and pensions committee, the councils' body says that if the plans for the new single benefit are not revised, the DWP and councils will face further expenses.

For councils the extra costs will arrive in the context of dealing with and supporting universal credit payments.

According to the LGA, key assumptions behind the agile development of universal credit, which will replace five work-based benefits with a single benefit from 2013, are "not grounded in reality".

According to government's IT strategy, an agile approach means splitting up complex problems into smaller components which can be worked on individually; testing elements using feedback and learning from mistakes; responding as new technology becomes available; and including users within the development process to ensure the ensure the result meets their needs.

A spokesman for the DWP told Government Computing that the agile approach to building universal credit is "successful", however.

"It is being tested with claimants and will be delivered on time and on budget," he said. "We are also building a new system to deliver universal credit incorporating many existing IT systems run by the department today."

Councils are concerned about the DWP's Automated Transfer to Local Authority Systems (Atlas) project. Atlas is intended to increase the amount of information that can be sent automatically to local authorities, in a format that allows direct loading into their systems.

The LGA says that some councils have reported difficulties in coping with the overwhelming volume of information produced by the system.

"This has required manual intervention by council staff and led, in some cases, to delays in payments," the LGA says in its evidence.

It also says that councils have concerns about the ability of IT suppliers to update their systems in time to enable the administration of new localised council tax support schemes. In addition, they have concerns about the potential associated costs.

"With 326 billing authorities in England all potentially with different schemes and most vying for the simultaneous attention of the three main IT suppliers, there is a real risk that councils will not have fully operational IT systems ready to deliver localised support for financial year 2013-14," it says.

The LGA is one of 70 organisations involved in the benefits system to have raised concerns about the implementation of universal credit with the committee.

In its submission, the London Borough of Newham says it is unclear whether the IT system will be designed to provide different language formats to meet the needs of all claimants.

Liberata, which supplies revenues and benefits services to local government, raises questions about the ability of claimants to use the relevant IT.

The company says it is difficult to comment further until the details about how "the more vulnerable" are to be supported in applying for universal credit, which will be the first major government service to be 'digital by default'.

"The fact that there will not be a clerical claim form available at all is a decision which is concerning," Liberata says.

This article was originally published at Government Computing.

Government Computing 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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