Universal Credit digital system reaches key milestone as DWP delays roll-out

The digital system supporting the Department for Work and Pension's Universal Credit programme has passed a major development milestone

The digital system supporting the Department for Work and Pension's Universal Credit programme passed a major development milestone – just as the government put back the final deadline for the full roll-out of the welfare reform.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) digital team passed the “alpha” stage assessment by the Government Digital Service (GDS). 

As part of the GDS's “digital by default” service standards, every new Whitehall digital system must pass a series of assessments – known as discovery, alpha and beta – before going live.

The approval means the Universal Credit digital service can now move to the beta stage, which involves the first public test. DWP had previously promised the system would trial a sample of 100 benefit claimants before the end of 2014.

The purpose of the alpha assessment is to evaluate best practice in the system. It typically involves developing a simple prototype, based on research into user needs conducted in the discovery phase.

“The assessment panel found the service team is mostly working along the right lines. The team is building the service based on user needs and has made changes to the alpha based on findings from user research, which has been conducted both with users (claimants) and internal users (agents),” said the GDS assessment report.

“The team is working in an agile way, adapting and improving processes. A lot of thought has already been given to the security and privacy implications of the forthcoming beta, as well as to the importance of assisted digital provision. Although they haven’t yet had a complete, hands-on demonstration, engagement from ministers has been strong.”

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However, the assessment identified areas needing further attention.

“The service is already impressively advanced in many respects but, in the areas of analytics, open source and building a multidisciplinary team, the assessment panel recommends it still has work to do in preparing for the beta phase,” said the GDS report.

The digital service is being developed to replace much of the system currently used to roll out Universal Credit for early applicants. At present, these include only the simplest cases, such as single people who are not home-owners. Universal Credit is intended to replace six existing benefits with a single system, to make sure claimants do not lose income if they get a job.

Early IT development for Universal Credit was beset by problems. By the time the welfare programme is fully rolled out, it will have scrapped at least £130m of IT development work.

Uncertainty over existing benefit claimants

In a progress report on Universal Credit the DWP published this week, the time scale for that roll-out was postponed. Under the original plans, all claimants were expected to be on Universal Credit by 2017/18. The DWP has now said all new claimants will be on the system by 2017 – leaving open the question of when existing benefit recipients will be transferred.

Previous plans scheduled more than 200,000 existing benefit claimants for transfer to the system every month in the 14 months leading up to its full launch, at the end of 2017. This would have been the biggest migration of data from one benefits system to another ever undertaken by the DWP. But the new timetable makes no clear commitment to when that will happen. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC he expected all existing claimants to transfer to Universal Credit by the end of 2018.

The DWP originally intended for one million people to claim Universal Credit by April 2014 but, so far, just 26,000 claimants have applied, as part of regional trials – mostly single people, the simplest type of claimant to process. More complex claims – such as couples and families – are being trialled in a limited number of jobcentres. 

Last month, Duncan Smith announced the nationwide roll-out of Universal Credit for new single claimants would start in February 2015. It is due to be available in 100 jobcentres by Christmas 2014, but needs to function in all 700 UK jobcentres, to meet DWP targets for new claims to legacy (non-Universal Credit) benefits to halt for single people by 2016.

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