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Driving innovation in government

An insider's perspective on the organisation, culture and methods used to drive innovation in the Department for Work and Pensions

In DWP Digital, we have demonstrated that we can make big, successful changes rapidly in response to Covid-19. By combining technology and innovation, we’re tackling the country’s most complex and important problems.

At some point in their lives, everyone in the UK will come into contact with services from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The department receives about 200 million calls and administers £191bn in benefits each year.

In March 2019, there were 1.8 million people claiming Universal Credit, one of DWP’s critical services. However, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, this rapidly increased to three million people.

This required DWP Digital to use tech smarter, better and at a greater scale. All public sector organisations need to understand that they have a responsibility to innovate – often boldly – to provide valuable services to citizens. 

The main objectives of having this space are to bring diverse thinking with external partners and to promote a culture of innovation within the organisation.

The Innovation Lab has a blended approach. It has a core multidisciplinary in-house team who work closely with many partners, including corporate, academia, small businesses, startups and other government departments.

Design thinking methodology is adopted, providing a fresh approach to problems. Design thinking is about delving much deeper into the underlying user’s needs and using a diverse range of sources and voices from inside the organisation and beyond to collaborate on better services and products.

And we have a strong focus on the rapid development of working prototypes to explore new technologies. A typical project will last about six to eight weeks with one-week sprints.

Make it real, make it quick

In our Innovation Lab, we focus on the solution and aim to make it real as soon as possible to help hone assumptions. We use the same metrics as other strategic projects, but are clear on where we’re making assumptions and close them through practical experiments.

A realised prototype crystallises the vision and focuses the work on solving the problem at hand.

There can often be an unwillingness and restraint to go early into developing things. However, the lab enables us to explore new solutions through building prototypes early to create a minimum viable product.

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Using innovation to transform DWP’s services allows us to bring new benefits to customers as we can understand their needs at a deeper level.

Our focus is innovation. What differentiates that innovation from new inventions is easy application to solving real-world problems that can improve the lives of users – which is how we should be measuring value.

A recent example is our work coach project, which looks at using video as part of the identification process. The aim is to create a vision of how people can gain substantive help through digital channels to create a more positive user experience.

Another service DWP Digital has transformed is the Tell Us Once cross-government service, which allows a bereaved person or next of kin to report the death of a relative once – rather than having to contact multiple parts of government. This information is shared across other relevant departments.

User researchers focused on the users of the service and their needs, mapping their customer journey. This research gave insight to pain points and their impact, allowing them to reduce the stress on bereaved family members.

Future strategy 

Central to DWP’s strategic plans for the future is to move from being a product-orientated organisation to providing customer-centric, joined-up services – and technology and automation are central to doing this.

We are in the middle of building a set of usable digital products. Each new end-to-end user- or agent-facing service journey will be realised through real-time collaboration of these digital elements.

This event-driven architecture will allow components to detect and react to events from anywhere else in DWP in real time. This is a key enabler to quickly and cost-effectively design services around the holistic, often complex needs of citizens. 

Like all public sector organisations, we are committed to supporting customers throughout their lives with efficient, user-friendly, digital-first services. And this is why we are committed to innovation.

In the new year, we will publish an e-book on the DWP Digital website to share more tips about how to really embed innovation into an organisation.

Simon King is head of user-centred design at DWP Digital, the digital unit in the Department for Work and Pensions. DWP Digital is actively recruiting digital specialists across many roles and needs the best digital specialists to help transform at pace. Visit the DWP Digital careers site for more information.

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