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DWP extends trial of Universal Credit digital system

The trial for the digital service to support the controversial welfare reform programme has been expanded to two new areas in Sutton and Croydon

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has expanded the trial of the digital system for its Universal Credit welfare reform programme.

The digital service, which will eventually support the full roll-out of the new benefit nationwide, started a trial in one postcode area of Sutton in south London at the end of 2015. That test has now been extended to another postcode in Sutton, as well as one in neighbouring Croydon.

The controversial welfare scheme aims to replace six existing benefits. A limited version of the programme is being rolled out across the country, but only targeting the simplest of claims, and using an IT system that will mostly be thrown away once the digital service has been completed. The digital version supports a wider range of applicants, including more complex cases.

The digital service is being developed by the DWP’s in-house digital team, following the standards set by the Government Digital Service to iterate development of new functionality and test gradually. The software being used in Sutton and Croydon is effectively a working prototype that will be further developed into the final system for national roll-out.

Early IT development for Universal Credit was beset by problems. By the time the welfare programme is fully implemented, it will have scrapped over £300m of IT development work. Under the original plans, all benefit claimants were expected to be on Universal Credit by 2017/2018. The DWP has since revised the target so only new claims will be on the system by 2017.

Neil Couling, the DWP director general of the Universal Credit programme, said in a tweet: “Proud of our amazing digital transformation team for successfully expanding the #UniversalCredit digital service in Sutton & Croydon.”

Couling took over the programme in September 2014, and is the seventh leader of the Universal Credit project since its inception in 2012. 

A report this week by the Resolution Foundation think-tank recommended that the government should review progress on Universal Credit (UC) before proceeding with further roll-out.

Read more about Universal Credit IT

“The improvements necessary to enable UC to, at a minimum, make work pay and smooth the transition into work must be made before millions of families are moved onto the new system,” said David Finch, senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation.

“A failure to revisit and revise policies, and overlooking the changes needed to make UC a success, would represent a missed window of opportunity that may not present itself again once the system becomes fully bedded in,” he added.

A Public Accounts Committee report into the welfare reform scheme in February said that DWP had spent £700m on Universal Credit so far, but had yet to convince MPs it was value for money.

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In other words the DWP is following best practice - testing that the specification is not only right but the digital implementation works and can be replicated before committing to incremental national roll out. Next will come the task of folding in other benefits without relaxing quality control (as appears to be happening with Verify).
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