User-friendly Digital Government? A Recap of Our Conversation About Universal Credit in the United Kingdom

On September 30, 2020, the  Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project hosted the first in its series of virtual conversations entitled “Transformer States: A Conversation Series on Digital Government and Human Rights” exploring the digital transformation of governments around the world. In this first iteration of the series, Christiaan van Veen and Victoria Adelmant interviewed Richard Pope, part of the founding team at the UK Government Digital Service and author of Universal Credit: Digital Welfare. In interviewing a technologist who worked with policy and delivery teams across the UK government to redesign government services, the event sought to explore the promise and realities of digitalized benefits. 

Universal Credit (UC), the main working-age benefit for the UK population, represents at once a major political reform and an ambitious digitization project. UC is a “digital by default” benefit in that claims are filed and managed via an online account, and calculations of recipients’ entitlements are also reliant on large-scale automation within government. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the department responsible for welfare in the UK, repurposed the taxation office’s Real-Time Information (RTI) system, which already collected information about employees’ earnings for the purposes of taxation, in order to feed this data about wages into an automated calculation of individual benefit levels. The amount a recipient receives each month from UC is calculated on the basis of this “real-time feed” of information about her earnings as well as on the basis of a long list of data points about her circumstances, including how many children she has, her health situation and her housing. UC is therefore ‘dynamic,’ as the monthly payment that recipients receive fluctuates. Readers can find a more comprehensive explanation of how UC works in Richard’s report.

One “promise” surrounding UC was that it would make interaction with the British welfare system more user-friendly. The 2010 White Paper launching the reforms noted that it would ‘cut through the complexity of the existing system’ through introducing online systems which would be “simpler and easier to understand” and “intuitive.” Richard explained that the design of UC was influenced by broader developments surrounding the government’s digital transformation agenda, whereby “user-centered design” and “agile development” became the norm across government in the design of new digital services. This approach seeks to place the needs of users first and to design around those needs. It also favors an “agile,” iterative way of working rather than designing an entire system upfront (the “waterfall” approach).

Richard explained that DWP designs the UC software itself and releases updates to the software every two weeks: “They will do prototyping, they will do user research based on that prototyping, they will then deploy those changes, and they will then write a report to check that it had the desired outcome,” he said. Through this iterative, agile approach, government has more flexibility and is better able to respond to “unknowns.” Once such ‘unknown’ is the Covid-19 pandemic, and as the UK “locked down” in March, almost a million new claims for UC were successfully processed in the space of just two weeks. Not only would the old, pre-UC system have been unlikely to have been able to meet this surge, this has also compared very favorably with the failures seen in some US states—some New Yorkers, for example, were required to fax their applications for unemployment benefit.

The conversation then turned to the reality of UC from the perspective of recipients. For example, half of claimants were unable to make their claim online without help, and DWP was recently required by a tribunal to release figures which show that hundreds of thousands of claims are abandoned each year. The ‘digital first’ principle as applied to UC, in effect requiring all applicants to claim online and offering inadequate alternatives, has been particularly harmful in light of the UK’s ‘digital divide.’ Richard underlined that there is an information problem here – why are those applications being abandoned? We cannot be certain that the sole cause is a lack of digital skills. Perhaps people are put off by the large quantity of information about their lives they are required to enter into the digital system, or people get a job before completing the application, or they realize how little payment they will receive, or that they will have to wait around five weeks to receive any payment.

But had the UK government not been overly optimistic about future UC users’ access and ability to use digital systems? For example, the 2012 DWP Digital Strategy stated that “most of our customers and claimants are already online and more are moving online all the time” while only half of all adults with an annual household income between £6,000-£10,000 have an internet connection either via broadband or smartphone. Richard agreed that the government had been over-optimistic, but pointed again to the fact that we do not know why users abandon applications or struggle with the claim, such that it is “difficult to unpick which elements of those problems are down to the technology, which elements are down to the complexity of the policy, and which elements are down to a lack of digital skills.”

This question of attributing problems to policy rather than to the technology was a crucial theme throughout the conversation. Organizations such as the Child Poverty Action Group have pointed to instances in which the technology itself causes problems, identifying ways in which the UC interface is not user-friendly, for example. CPAG was commended in the discussion for having “started to care about design” and proposing specific design changes in its reports. Richard noted that certain elements which were not incorporated into the digital design of UC, and elements which were not automated at all, highlight choices which have been made. For example, the system does not display information about additional entitlements, such as transport passes or free prescriptions and dental care, for which UC applicants may be eligible. The fact that the technological design of the system did not feature information about these entitlements demonstrates the importance and power of design choices, but it is unclear whether such design choices were the result of political decisions, or simply omissions by technologists.

Richard noted that some of the political aims towards which UC is directed are in tension with the attempt to use technology to reduce administrative burdens on claimants and to make the welfare state more user-friendly. Though the ‘design culture’ among civil servants genuinely seeks to make things easier for the public, political priorities push in different directions. UC is “hyper means-tested”: it demands a huge amount of data points to calculate a claimant’s entitlement, and it seeks to reward or punish certain behaviors, such as rewarding two-parent families. If policymakers want a system that demands this level of control and sorting of claimants, then the system will place additional administrative burdens on applicants as they have more paperwork to find, they have to contact their landlord to get a signed copy of their lease, and so forth. Wanting this level of means-testing will result in a complex policy and “there is only so much a designer can do to design away that complexity”, as Richard underlined. That said, Richard also argued that part of the problem here is that government has treated policy and the delivery of services as separate. Design and delivery teams hold “immense power” and designers’ choices will be “increasingly powerful as we digitize more important, high-stakes public services.” He noted, “increasingly, policy and delivery are the same thing.”

Richard therefore promotes “government as a platform.” He highlighted the need for a rethink about how the government organizes its work and argued that government should prioritize shared reusable components and definitive data sources. It should seek to break down data silos between departments and have information fed to government directly from various organizations or companies, rather than asking individuals to fill out endless forms. If such an approach were adopted, Richard claimed, digitalization could hugely reduce the burdens on individuals. But, should we go in that direction, it is vital that government become much more transparent around its digital services. There is, as ever, an increasing information asymmetry between government and individuals, and this transparency will be especially important as services become ever-more personalized. Without more transparency about technological design within government, we risk losing a shared experience and shared understanding of how public services work and, ultimately, the capacity to hold government accountable.

October 14, 2020. Victoria Adelmant, Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.