Digital welfare (I): transformation through technology

18 November 2016

In recent years, the Department for Work and Pensions has taken significant steps towards digitising the delivery of welfare.

Universal credit (UC), designed with digital in mind, encourages claimants to apply and manage their activities online. Universal Jobmatch enables claimants to search for jobs digitally, while employers can use the platform to post vacancies and review CVs. Real time information (RTI) ensures benefit payments reflect the monthly income of claimants, reducing the risk of fraud and error.

The importance of these reforms cannot be underestimated, but policymakers are only just scratching the surface of digital’s potential.

The introduction of RTI and the rich content of online UC journals will significantly improve policymakers’ ability to monitor the effectiveness of government interventions – paving the way for a new generation of initiatives based on ‘what works’ in welfare.

Online benefit accounts could significantly improve communication with, and monitoring of, claimants – providing a new channel through which interventions could be delivered.

And beyond UC, online account could significantly improve the experience of, for example, disabled claimants who may find complicated paper forms difficult to complete. User-friendly online applications and assistive technology could make the benefits system more, not less, accessible. However, making the most of such technology requires digital skills, and vulnerable claimants – for example, those with mental health issues, homeless people and people from very low income households – are often least equipped to use it. The Department must mitigate against this.

The combined effect of this reform programme would be to personalise support. In too many areas, welfare remains unresponsive to the needs of individuals. Turning these aspirations into reality, therefore, would see money directed towards the most vulnerable, and outcomes for citizens improved. A smarter, and more effective welfare state – this is the goal that awaits policymakers if the full potential of digital can be harnessed.

William Mosseri-Marlio, Senior Researcher, Reform

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