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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: DWP Digital CDIO Mayank Prakash on making Universal Credit a success

When Mayank Prakash joined the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) three years ago, he had the unenviable task of having to take control of the disastrous Universal Credit programme – as well as digitally transforming the entire government department.

In an interview with NS Tech, Prakash suggests that the working environment at DWP Digital when he joined was markedly different to what had seemed like a toxic culture back in 2013 when the Universal Credit programme began.

Universal Credit had been introduced in a bid to replace six benefits and tax credits and merge them into one payment. The idea was to make it simpler to claim benefits. However, it has been beset by issues from the beginning, including IT glitches, spiralling costs which could mean the project is £10bn over budget, and constant delays.

Back in 2013, a former DWP employee, who had seen first-hand the destructive nature of the department’s IT strategy told Computing that the first consideration for DWP employees was to worry about whether the Daily Mail would approve or not of their actions.  This spawned a mantra within the department to not risk anything, not challenge anything and purely aim for final delivery.

In response, Prakash says that “the story certainly doesn’t reflect the department I joined a year later”.

He believes that today, DWP Digital is an inspiring place to work, and claims that he is continually impressed by employees’ expertise, creativity and commitment.

“We’re building a culture which values creativity, curiosity and personal empowerment over hierarchy or grade. We’re increasingly working in cross-disciplinary teams where policy, operational and digital experts come together to co-create solutions to some of society’s biggest and most important challenges,” he states.

One of the key issues that has been cited by the former DWP employee, among others, is the number of large IT suppliers who have been leading the project. This includes Accenture, IBM, HP and BT.

“Let’s face it, some of the suppliers are saying ‘oh yeah you’re going to give us £10m to write a website, let’s go’,” the former DWP employee, who wished to remain anonymous, had said back in 2013.

This is perhaps where there has been the biggest shift – as DWP has broken up large supplier contracts, and Prakash believes this has enabled the department “to take control of [its] own digital future”.

“Contracts deliver what we need and what we do is no longer constrained by contracts. We treat vendors as partners who we have adult relationships with to ensure we get the best value for money. We shape the roadmaps of leading products. We also work with open-source alternatives and start-ups, using pan-government frameworks as a route to market,” he explains.

But has DWP become more ruthless with suppliers who don’t deliver what they had initially agreed?

“I would not describe us as ruthless but we are certainly rigorous and we know our craft, so we recognise the quality and efficiency of what we get,” Prakash says.

“This makes for interesting partnerships with CEOs of our partners as we encourage them to lead with their competitive advantage,” he adds.

DWP has made two fundamental changes to how it delivers digital projects – including Universal Credit.

“Firstly, as we no longer rely on complex, long term contracts, we have greater control over – and accountability for – our digital services. This gives us much greater agility with iterative delivery,” Prakash explains.

“Secondly, we work very differently within DWP. We’re no longer a ‘supplier’ to DWP, but an integral part of the business. We work collaboratively with policy and operational colleagues to deliver solutions rather than requirements. As policy, operations and digital colleagues, we share DWP’s challenges and outcomes,” he adds.

However, despite these changes, Universal Credit continues to be plagued by issues. There are claims that it could turn into a disaster and push families into debt, and there are calls to halt the programme.

But work and pensions secretary David Gauke confirmed that the government would continue plans to complete the roll-out of Universal Credit by 2022 – five years later than planned.

And Prakash is adamant that there are many benefits to the programme.

“People are moving into work faster and staying in work longer, and we’re expecting it to boost employment by around 250,000 and make around £7billion in economic savings. It is currently available across the country to single jobseekers and to all claimants in 101 of our Jobcentres,” he states.

As for DWP Digital’s role with Universal Credit – Prakash says it is about designing and delivering a user-centred digital service.

“It’s an ambitious digital project, and we’re making good progress. We have already built and integrated 20 digital products and services, and we are continuing to work closely with policy and operational colleagues to improve the system based on user feedback. For example, our new ‘landlord portal’ is simplifying communications between landlords and claimants, reducing the risk of delayed payments”.

While Universal Credit continues to attract the most attention, it only represents 10 per cent of the department’s resources.

Prakash explains that the department has been busy with numerous other projects including the implementation of a new pensions platform last year, and more recently going live with its own hybrid cloud offering.

“Our hybrid cloud offering is opening up opportunities for the department to scale innovative DevOps product teams across all lines of business, building on Amazon Web Services and Azure,” he states.

In addition, DWP is implementing a new multi-channel contact centre, and is experimenting with machine-learning, AI and distributed ledger technologies.

Under Prakash’s guidance, DWP Digital isn’t standing still. Whether it has done enough to ensure Universal Credit can be considered a success, remains to be seen.