Guest Article by John Frost, Head of Revenue & Benefit Services at Cambridge City Council
The recent technical setbacks for BlackBerry the provider of one of the worlds most popular smartphones [during October millions of customers worldwide had their messaging and email service disrupted] should act as massive wake-up call to the DWP and HMRC that putting all your information technology eggs into one basket has serious drawbacks and, when there is a failure, millions of customers are immediately affected, everyone gets to know about it; and itâ€™s costly.
It would seem that the hardware keeping the whole of BlackBerryâ€™s worldwide csystem running, or not as the case was, is centrally located at a site in Egham, Surrey.
The global failure was something to do with a switch failing, then the backup system failing and as a consequence millions of Blackberry customers being unable to communicate or use their various so called â€˜appsâ€™.
There are some frightening similarities between the setbacks that BlackBerry smartphone users recently experienced and those that benefit claimants, and potential claimants, are likely to experience if the DWP continues along its path of centralising the administration of the vast majority of welfare benefit applications and claim processing functions for Universal Credit onto a solitary technology platform.
As well as the possibility of alienating many of their customers there are justifiable concerns being expressed that in driving ahead with Universal Credits in its current form, a â€˜perfect stormâ€™ is looming.
The DWPâ€™s drive along with HMRC to migrate working age benefits and tax credits over to a single platform is in itself a risky venture especially when at the same time it is attempting to integrate numerous old benefits systems and forcing most citizens to apply online, whilst seeking to cut its own running costs by £2.7bn. Itâ€™s a big ask for two government departments not known for excelling in change management or their successful utilisation of major IT systems.
As Blackberry will testify, dependency upon a single technology platform to deliver so much to so many in real-time certainly heightens the risk of failure, error and inevitable hardship. To claimants that hardship is much more serious than losing the ability to tweet; it represents no payments, overpayments, delayed payments or incorrect payments.
Yet again we hear that about six million people are set to receive tax rebates averaging £400, while another million will learn they have underpaid their tax by about £600.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have said that letters would begin going out in the next few months, with those owing money able to pay in stages. Itâ€™s good to see HMRC getting those letters out so swiftly and exercising such generosity in allowing taxpayers to spread what they owe over time.
The Public Accounts Committee described the implementation of a new PAYE computer system used by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) as “flawed”. It said up to 22 million people had not been taxed accurately since 2004-05 causing “unacceptable uncertainty and inconvenience”.
But it would seem that such warnings are not being heeded; no one is listeningâ€¦â€¦
Local authorities rightly fear that the drive to centralise many of the aspects of the welfare reforms will further disaffect the least well-off in society as they are forced to negotiate their basic financial needs and wellbeing online to a remote impassive so called â€˜agentâ€™.
Housing and Council Tax Benefit support is highly visible and are key components in a local authorityâ€™s arsenal of services that support the wellbeing of a whole community. They naturally link into housing, employment and social mobility and, as such, should remain within the overall control of local authorities.
That does not mean that in administering local schemes at a local level we cannot become more efficient, more customer focused, more creative and effective in the ways in which we use our information technology and deliver our services.
What is does mean is that any downtime or outage in terms of service provision is limited to a single local authority, not the whole country and the fact that local authorities are accountable to their local community and elected members, such rare service outages and downtime are normally resolved within hours not days or weeks.
There is no doubt that for many BlackBerry users not having their beloved apps for a few days must have been traumatic. I know of at least one devoted user who described the experience as hurtful to have not been able to BBM – for those familiar with the BlackBerry youâ€™ll know what that meansâ€¦They thought they might have to revert to using a telephone or even writing a letter.
Compared with the possibility of millions of claimants not getting their Universal Credit payments on time, being over or underpaid their entitlement, the plight of the Blackberry users pales into the ether; but lessons can, and should be learnt, and itâ€™s not too late for the DWP and HMRC to have a rethink on their overall strategy for delivering Universal Credits from a single untested archaic platform.
The solution to avoiding “core switch failure” is to scrap the attempt at having a single all-singing, all-dancing centralised IT delivery system and without delay elicit local authority involvement, ICT expertise and know how into how best to set up a new localised delivery system, thereby reducing the risk of universal failure and outage. You could call it â€˜avoiding a BlackBerry dayâ€™!
We are told that some 18 million people will in one way or another be affected by the introduction of Universal Credit. The governmentâ€™s over-reliance on a single centralised system to administer a whole package of differing benefit and tax payments, all rolled into one single payment, is a high risk strategy, which could and should even at this late stage be avoided.
It is acknowledged that councils are the experts in administering Housing and Benefits and a range of other discounts, exemptions and refunds, which all link into their other social and financial responsibilities for housing policy and homelessness.
Centralisation of the housing elements of the welfare reforms threatens to sever these critical community links, thereby fragmenting the wellbeing of claimants as well as the social fabric of a local society.
The recent problems that beset BlackBerry may prove to be costly in the long term. The government has indicated that the new system of Universal Credit will save the taxpayers [they need to be reminded weâ€™re all taxpayers] about £480m. The government should take note that by putting all of their Universal Credit eggs, or in the case of BlackBerry, pies in one basket, they are taking a huge risk that may ultimately cost them more than the predicted savings.
The good news is that the company behind BlackBerry mobile phones has said full global service has been restored after days of disruptions. The firm, Research In Motion, said any delays in emails or instant messaging should subside as the huge backlog is clearedâ€¦ Now where have we heard that word â€˜backlogâ€™ before?
John Frost is the Head of Revenue & Benefit Services at Cambridge City Council as well as the Chair of the Northgate National Benefit User Group.
P.S. You can tweet John via his BlackBerry – firstname.lastname@example.org