Universal Credit still struggles with digital issues, says NAO

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) flagship digital benefits system, Universal Credit (UC), is costing more than originally planned, and still suffers from issues with technology.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report on the system found that the costs of establishing the new digital infrastructure and benefits system have increased from £2bn in the original full business case in 2018 to £2.85bn.

Despite the increase in costs, there are still several issues, including digital identity. Originally, the system was designed to rely on the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) Gov.uk Verify identity assurance system when claimants make their applications online, but this has not gone as smoothly as planned.

“It had originally been expected that 90% of claimants would be able to verify their ID this way but, following problems with the government’s Verify service, it has been recognised that this will not be achieved,” said the NAO report.

“In January 2020, 20% of new claimants verified their ID online. Of those who attempted the online process, 40% were successful. Claimants who do not verify their ID online must usually do so at the Jobcentre.”

As previously reported by Computer Weekly, the DWP turned to the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) digital identity system Government Gateway to help with UC applications during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 1.4 million people have applied for UC as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, a process that requires all claimants to register online and prove their identity using the Gov.uk Verify system.

However, Verify was unable to cope with the surge in claims and, as a result, people were placed in queues behind tens of thousands of other applicants, and made to wait hours – in some cases until the next day – to complete the process.

Because of the issues, anyone with an existing Government Gateway account who has used the system in the past 12 months can now use that digital identity to register for UC, instead of creating an account using Verify.

There are also issues around digital skills and data. The NAO report said the DWP holds ethnicity data for only 40% of people who have made new claims since January 2017, and that vulnerable people, who may struggle with digital illiteracy or digital access issues, were more likely to suffer delays in receiving payments.

“The department does not have all the information it needs to track vulnerable claimants and ensure its support is effective,” said the report. “The department provides a range of support for vulnerable claimants, particularly at local level, and staff can make notes on individual claims.

“However, it does not use data ‘flags’ or markers to highlight claimants’ vulnerabilities or complex needs within the Universal Credit digital system. This means it cannot produce national-level management information on vulnerable claimants, and its front-line staff cannot use data within the system to easily identify all those people who might struggle with the process.”

The report said the DWP uses an “agile approach to continuously improve and automate the system and supporting administrative processes”.

It added: “The department prioritises planned improvements into development phases, which last around six months each. The number of improvements or changes the department can make to its digital system at any one time is limited.

“This is because teams must test each change to make sure it is working and delivering value before they can alter other areas. The department also needs to avoid overloading its front-line team with changes and new processes.”

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