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UK.gov's digi-by-default plan slammed: Show us the savings - MPs

Concerns raised about cost, security, ID, data accuracy and uptake

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A letter that demands answers to a wide range of concerns expressed by MPs about the government's digital-by-default has landed on Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude's desk.

The Science and Technology Select Committee's chair Andrew Miller fired off the missive (PDF) to Maude, after gaping holes were spotted in evidence submitted to the panel during a public grilling last month.

It is now calling on the minister to provide responses to unanswered questions about cost; security; awareness and uptake; identity assurance and data accuracy; and public confidence.

The letter came on the eve of Iain Duncan Smith's scheduled appearance in front of the Work and Pensions Select Committee this morning.

The Secretary of State will be expected to defend the Department for Work and Pensions' record on the much-criticised rollout of one of the government's biggest IT projects: Universal Credit, which has been beset with technical problems, contract squabbles and numerous management shake-ups.

A key tenet of UC is the government's grand plan to shift public services online. That proposal is heavily steered by Maude's Cabinet Office, which oversees the Government Digital Service - a team made up of around 200 website developers and designers.

Maude has long claimed that taxpayers would see huge savings from the government's digital-by-default proposal, which was birthed by LastMinute.com co-founder Martha Lane Fox. She has now found a seat in the House of Lords to push that agenda even harder.

But according to the Science and Technology Committee, questions remain about how Maude's department has worked out its sums.

The panel of MPs has asked the Cabinet minister to explain what savings would be made from moving transactions - such as the dole office system - online. The politicos said they were surprised that Maude had failed to offer up a compelling justification during questioning for his digital-by-default strategy, given that he has long claimed that the programme would benefit the public purse.

The committee said in its letter to Maude:

It is not evident to the Committee that the government has a handle on measuring these savings. We welcome your message that savings are being made but urge the government to be clearer about the detail of both savings being made as services become digital by default, as well as the costs of designing, or redesigning, the services.

MPs told the minister that they were also concerned about "inadequacies in government software" that was flagged up to the panel by vice president Dr Martyn Thomas, who is IT policy chair of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Thomas noted that the government was often guilty of using "old, unpatched and non-updated software" and warned that such behaviour "may lead to security vulnerabilities".

The committee asked Maude to confirm that the government was "confident that [the] software developed meets the highest engineering standards."

It continued:

Dr Martyn suggested that the government could be importing the security vulnerabilities of authorised ID assurance providers into their online services. The committee is concerned that sensitive personally identifiable data could be compromised and be the subject of unauthorised use.

PayPal and the Post Office - which currently has its own share of IT woes - are among the DWP's approved ID assurance suppliers.

The MPs said that taxpayers were yet to be convinced that government services shoved online could withstand cyber attacks. They concluded in their letter to Maude that "the government should be clearer with the public about this".

On ID assurance specifically, the MPs said the government should consider adding the following principle to this list:

If a dispute arises concerning a citizen's online dataset, that the citizen should be initially presumed correct and that the citizen has the right to instant correction if a mistake has been made.

Public awareness about the government's digital-by-default strategy was found to be low, the committee said. It asked Maude whether the government had effectively tested its public awareness techniques to measure potential uptake of public services online.

As The Register reported earlier this year, concerns have been raised in Parliament about the government's plans to assist the 7 million Brits who remain offline once the digital-by-default agenda gets properly underway.

MPs have warned that digital exclusion could hit the most vulnerable people who just so happen to be those who draw most heavily on the welfare system. According to some sources, these vulnerable citizens are being equally maltreated by the stacking and packing of the welfare system into the Universal Credit project.

Previously, however, the government has done a pretty good job of being dismissive of the argument that the elderly, disabled and unemployed would be hardest hit by its digital agenda. Instead it has insisted that libraries, job centres and other public places will pick up the slack.

As of April this year, work and pensions minister Mark Hoban told Parliament that the DWP had "installed a total of 2,167 new internet access devices (IADs) in Jobcentres for those who do not have their own computer, and we will ensure that digital skills are a key part of the support offered to jobseekers to help them back to work."

Maude has been given generous breathing space to respond to the committee's questions. They want answers from the minister by October this year - which just happens to be the month when the digital wheels in the DWP's Universal Credit system are supposed to start turning.

The committee's chair Miller said:

“A key justification of the digital-by-default strategy is savings to the taxpayer. Yet it is not evident that the government is even able to measure these savings.

“Public trust is absolutely essential," the MP added. "The government must ensure the integrity and security of data and give people sufficient control over their stored personal information, otherwise the strategy will not succeed." ®

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