By Tony Collins
Soon the Department for Work and Pensions will choose a Director General, Technology. Interviewing has finished and an offer is due to go out to the chosen candidate any day now.
The appointee will not replace Howard Shiplee who runs Universal Credit but has been ill for some months. The DWP is looking for Shiplee’s successor as a separate exercise to the recruitment of the DG Technology.
In its job advert for a DG Technology the DWP seeks a “commercial CIO/CTO to become one of the most senior change agents in the UK government”.
The size of the salary – around £180k plus “attractive pension” – suggests that the DWP is looking for a powerful, inspiring and reforming figure. The DWP’s IT makes 730 million payments to a value of 166bn a year.
In practice it is not clear how much power and influence the DG will have, given that there will be a separate head of Universal Credit (Shiplee’s successor) and there is already in place a Director General for Digital Transformation Kevin Cunnington.
What’s a DG Technology to do then?
The job advert suggests the job is about bringing about “unprecedented” change. It says:
“The department is undergoing major business change, which has at its heart a technology and digital transformation of the services it provides, which will radically improve how it interacts with citizens.”
The role, says the advert, involves:
- “Designing, developing and delivering the technology strategy that will enable unprecedented business change.”
- “… Reducing the time to taken to develop new services and cutting the cost of delivery.”
The chosen person needs “a clear record of success in enabling the delivery of service driven, user focused, digital business transformation,” says the advert.
What the DWP doesn’t say
If DWP officials took a truth pill when interviewing candidates they might have said:
- “No department talks more about change than we do. We regularly commission reports on the need for transformation and how to achieve it. We issue press releases and give briefings on our plans for change. We write ministerial speeches on it. We employ talented people to whom innovation and productive change comes naturally. The only thing we don’t do is actually change. It remains an aspiration.
- “We remain one of the biggest VME sites in the world (VME being a Fujitsu – formerly ICL – operating system that dates back to the 1970s). VME skills are in ever shorter supply and it’s increasingly costly to employ VME specialists but changing our core software is too risky; and there is no commercial imperative to change: it’s not private money we’re spending. We’ve a £1bn a year IT budget – one of the biggest of any government department in the world.
- DWP core VME systems run an old supplier-specific form of COBOL used on VME, not an industry standard form.
- We’ve identified ways of moving away from VME: we have shown that VME-based IDMSX databases can be transitioned to commodity database systems, and that the COBOL code can be converted to Java and then run on open source application servers. Still we can’t move away from VME, not within the foreseeable future. Too risky.
- We’d love the new DG Technology to work on change, transformation and innovation but he/she will be required for fire-fighting.
- It’s a particularly difficult time for the DWP. We are alleged to have given what the Public Accounts Committee calls an unacceptable service to the disabled, the terminally ill and many others who have submitted claims for personal independence payments. We are also struggling to cope with Employment and Support Allowance claims. One claimant has told the BBC the DWP is “not fit for purpose”.
- The National Audit Office will publish an unhelpful report on Universal Credit this Autumn. We’ll regard the report as out-of-date, as we do all negative NAO reports. We will say publicly that we have already implemented its recommendations and we’ll pick out the one or two positive sentences in the report to summarise it. But nobody will believe our story, least of all us.
- If we could, we’d appoint a representative of our major suppliers to be the head of IT. HP, Fujitsu, Accenture, IBM and BT have a knowledge of how to run the DWP’s systems that goes back decades. The suppliers are happily entrenched, indispensable. That they know more about our IT than we do puts into context talk of SMEs taking over from the big players.
- One reason we avoid major change is that we are not good at it: Universal Credit (known internally as Universal Challenge), the £2.6bn Operational Strategy benefit scheme that Parliament was told would cost no more than £713m, the £141m (aborted) Benefit Processing Replacement Programme, Camelot which was the (aborted) Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks, and the (aborted)) Debt Accounting and Management System. Not to mention the (aborted) £25m Analytical Services Statistical Information System.
- They’re the failures we know about. We don’t have to account to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of our big projects, and we’re particularly secretive internally, so there may be project failures not even senior management know about.
- We require cultural alignment of all the DWP’s most senior civil servants. This means the chosen candidate must – and without exception – defend the department against all poorly-informed critics who may include our own ministers.
- The Cabinet Office has some well-meaning reformers we want nothing to do with. That said, our policy is to agree to change and then absorb the required actions, like the acoustic baffles on the walls of a soundproofed studio.