DWP accelerates digital transformation amid Covid-19 crisis

The Department for Work and Pensions has released an update of the efforts made in the past six months across key digital services, with progress accelerating due to the pandemic

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has revealed updated numbers that illustrate the acceleration of its digital transformation, as measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus led to a spike in demand for services including Universal Credit (UC).

Some 6,500 IT changes were made in six months as part of the pandemic response effort at DWP Digital, the department said. In addition, the department provided more than 40,000 devices to colleagues delivering frontline services from home, and tripled virtual private network (VPN) capacity to enable more than 32,000 home workers to connect to servers.

According to the DWP, the number of UC online claims has seen a tenfold increase since the pandemic started, and more than 600,000 journeys have been completed through the Confirm Your Identity service, which enables citizens to remotely confirm their identity, removing the need for a jobcentre appointment.

Before the launch of Confirm Your Identity, when users had to register via the Gov.uk Verify service, only 39% of claimants identified themselves remotely. The initial phase of the service saw 15% of claimants re-using their account on Government Gateway, which was offered as an alternative way for claimants to prove their identity following Verify’s performance problems. A further release of Confirm Your Identity has widened who can use the service, which now remotely verifies 52% of claims, with more improvements in the horizon.

In addition, payments capacity for Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit saw a threefold increase, allowing the department to carry out up to 180,000 one-off or repeat payments daily.

The delivery of the Pension Credit online service was made sooner than planned, and the Bereavement Payment Support service software was updated to temporarily bypass death and marriage or civil partnership verifications which would normally take longer to complete, resulting in faster payments to citizens.

“Our focus was clear: to get money to people as swiftly as possible and help safeguard vulnerable people,” said Simon McKinnon, chief digital information officer at DWP.

The key current priorities for the department are in responding to the recession prompted by the crisis and the challenges that it will bring, using the lessons learnt in the first few months of pandemic response to guide the IT agenda for 2021.

As well as accelerating change across its key services, other achievements of the DWP over the past few months included turning local jobcentres into virtual processing teams. This entailed setting up a virtual contact centre so that staff could take and make calls from home. The enhancement of digital channels also included use of natural language processing to capture the intent of callers and help answer queries quickly.

The efforts made to respond to the pandemic meant DWP Digital had to pause some strategic projects, but also showed the team that it is possible to make significant changes to digital services fast and successfully.

“The call for us to apply our digital expertise to address departmental problems wasn’t an opportunity, it was a necessity,” said Helen Roberts, deputy director at DWP Digital.

As the department defines its agenda for the coming months, it is adopting an iterative approach to understanding its future ways of working. According to Craig Eblett, digital delivery director at DWP Digital, long-term vision will be based on feedback from teams about what’s working and where improvements are still needed.

In addition, the pandemic has transformed the ways in which the department works, and providing a better working experience is also among the priorities for next year:

“Our teams are used to working remotely and across locations. But the scale of the crisis has meant that we’ve had to rethink and change our ways of working – and get used to combining work and home,” Eblett said, adding that supporting people’s well-being has also been a consideration since the pandemic began and remote working became the norm.

“Our future working will be more flexible – this will mean positive changes in the ways we work, not just more working from home. We’re not abandoning our digital hubs. We still believe in teams being an essential part of our delivery model and our teams still need a place to collaborate. However, we now have a fresh opportunity to work out what space we need for our teams in the future,” he said.

The DWP updates follow a digital delivery results report published in June 2020, where the department provided, among other things, a preview of the IT changes being made to respond to the crisis. It also included details about a series of more than £10m sunk in failed IT projects, including a health transformation programme.

The blunders also included a deal signed with Computacenter for a cloud-based remote secure access and web gateway systems, which was provided by Palo Alto Technologies, and a purchase of Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection, which is designed to protect IT networks against computer viruses and malware.

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