The Scottish Government has made good progress in implementing the IT systems to support its delivery of social security benefits, according to an auditor’s report.
Audit Scotland’s assessment of progress says that so far the programme has delivered the necessary digital infrastructure but it is likely to become more complex and difficult as it moves into the next phase.
The report covers all aspects of progress in switching the delivery of some benefits from Whitehall to Scottish Government under the Scotland Act 2016.
It involves an estimated spend of £190 million on digital systems, and the delivery so far has been in line with Scotland’s digital strategy, with the re-use of existing solutions and an emphasis on cloud technology. It has also involved an agile approach to development, which is a new way of working for the Scottish Government.
It has used several solutions that are regarded as short term fixes. Some of these have been taken to the long term – such as the use of GOV.UK Notify, the One Scotland Mapping Agreement and Amazon Web Services – and work is in progress on virtual servers and the online forms system.
But solutions still have to be identified for some elements, including cyber protection, payments, customer information and document management.
Interdependency with DWP
Some of the systems employed to date have been interdependent of those of the Department for Work and Pensions, which has increased the costs and workload and a need for contingency arrangements. The report says it is likely the Scottish Government will have to work closely with the DWP for some time.
It also needs a digital tool for determining eligibility for disability related benefits. Work on this will involve a wide range of interfaces with other systems, and there are likely to be complexities around the contracts, with some solutions being developed by more than one supplier.
In addition, while the various elements will be developed over time, there will be competing requirements across the programme that will have to be prioritised.
Another problem will be in recruiting people with the relevant digital skills, which is an ongoing issue for the Scottish Government.
Second wave difficulties
The report says that on the broader front the Scottish Government has done well to establish a new agency and start making benefit payments, and carried out important groundwork to deliver benefits. But implementing the second wave will be more difficult and the executive does not yet have a clear understanding of the key things needed to deliver all the remaining benefits as it intends.
It advocates revisions to the business case and a clear assessment of the overall costs.
Commenting on the overall progress of the programme, Auditor General for Scotland Caroline Gardner said: "The government has done well to date but has had to work flat out to reach this point, leaving little time to draw breath and plan for the challenges ahead.
"The social security team is doing the right things to address that issue, but it hasn't yet got a clear understanding of what's needed to deliver the more complex benefits to come, or how much it will cost. Many decisions about future benefits are still to be made and it's critical that detailed plans are now put in place."
Image from iStock, Tamara Murray