Digital welfare (II): transformation through technology

18 November 2016

Universal Credit (UC) is a high-profile issue. But with this profile, it is perhaps surprising that the transformative nature of its design and delivery is so rarely remarked upon. As I am fond of saying, UC is all about work. And perhaps a consequence of that is nearly all of the focus is on the system of financial incentives and making work pay. But if that was all that UC was, it would be just another tweak to the 1948-designed benefit system. Yes, the single taper and work allowances will transform the lives of many making work a realistic prospect. But UC goes much deeper.

First, we are bringing together the delivery, currently split across Local Authorities, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) into one body to make journeys into work (and out where work is temporary) much smoother. We know that many people baulk at having their financial arrangements reset if they move into low-paid work – it’s just too easy to fall between the three agencies and see entitlements delayed. And where we can, there are common rules so people see as little disruption as possible when they move in and out of work.

Second, it is designed to be like work, paid monthly and you pay your bills – rather than the State. For the more vulnerable, of course, we have retained the ability to support them with more interventions. But for the majority we expect them to take responsibility.

Third, because it is all about work, that is the expectation. So when you are not in work, your job is looking for work, with an expectation of 35 hours of job searching a week. And for some of the three million people we expect to be in work and on UC, an expectation that over time they increase their income from work.

None of those things can be delivered through the old-style, 9-to-5 jobcentres. We need to transform the whole system, its users, the claimants and employers, their representatives and the people who run the system. To do this we have had to put users at the heart of design, and then test and learn from small-scale trials before expanding.

That’s not just new for DWP. It is also new for the groups who represent claimants and employers. And for DWP, we have taken the construction of the system in-house. For the first time in over 20 years we are building the digital system ourselves, so we have had to hire people with new skills and learn.

Quite frankly this is transformation on a scale rarely seen or attempted but we are up and running, and the system is being used today in around 30 of the country’s 710 jobcentres. We haven’t got everything right yet. We didn’t expect to. But it is working, with over 99 per cent of claims made online and nearly 90 per cent of changes of circumstances. We still have a long way to go, but for every 100 people who got a job in the old system, 113 people on UC get one.

Neil Couling, Director General for the Universal Credit Programme, Department for Work and Pensions

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