DWP looks to Facebook and LinkedIn for social services' digital future

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says it intends to learn from social networking firms and use external data to better understand people's lives

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is taking inspiration from Facebook and LinkedIn to design its digital approach to social security.

The DWP's new system will adapt to people's needs by using external data feeds to create a bigger picture of people's circumstances. The DWP Customer Information System with 100 million citizen records will remain at the centre of its operations, but the department wants to become a network hub of data sources about people's lives, according to Mayank Prakash, director general of digital technology at DWP.

Prakash told the CDO Summit event in London (7 October 2015) the DWP is building "living operations", borrowing an analogy from consultancy Accenture. The DWP will "use the power of data to change our operations in real-time", he said.

The system would use "real-time embedded analytics" to make the department more like Amazon or Facebook, he said. It will create opportunities not possible using DWP's conventional means of delivering information, which is currently based on reports from business and management information systems.

"When you go to Amazon, LinkedIn, eBay or Facebook, do you want to see a business information or management information section? You don't. You want to see real-time, embedded analytics in your face. That is what we are doing," said Prakash.

Such an approach will allow the DWP to follow what is happening in people's lives, he said. But it would also allow people to see where they stood with DWP at any moment.

Child maintenance app

"So we can see real-time what is happening in their world. Rather than get together at the end of a particular process or engagement with us, we can see along a journey what is actually happening," said Prakash.

He said the approach was demonstrated in a mobile app DWP had released to parents paying child maintenance. They could use the app to see "their real-time financial position".

He also cited its services for carers, which had been redesigned for mobile. He said these developments made it "hugely important" that DWP ensures its systems don't go down - and that the department has increased reliability of its 64 IT services by 82% in the last six months, which he claimed was unprecedented in the 42 years of computing at the DWP.

Prakash called this the "next evolution" of work started by Mike Bracken, the former Government Digital Service chief who implemented the government's transformation of “digital by default” public services.

But DWP does not intend to close its national network of 900 high street Job Centres, Prakash said.

"We want our services to be accessible. When we provide services for our country we can't choose our customers. So that's one of the reasons why we will stay on the high street. If you want to change lives, you can't do it online. Changing lives requires calling and having live conversations with people, understanding their needs and helping them," he said.

The DWP was nevertheless looking among startups from Cambridge and Oxford universities, said Prakash, for "disruptive technologies". The department is also working with IT trade body TechUK to find suppliers offering innovative technologies in the areas of social computing, next-generation interfaces for use in job centres, and the internet of things (IoT).

But DWP is "playing both ends of the spectrum", he said, because it is still a top five customer for the five largest technology suppliers in the world. It could disrupt the status quo because it did not compete commercially. This allows DWP to "work with banks to invent the next-generation payment platform for the UK", and to set up online standards for identity, based on the government's Verify identity assurance programme

Prakash’s digital team at DWP recently migrated the digital service being developed for Universal Credit into the cloud. Prakash has described the new Universal Credit digital service as one of the “largest microservices, containerised applications in Europe”.

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