Lessons from the Digital Transformation of the UK’s Universal Credit Programme
By Michaela Caudill and Colleen Pulawski
August 22, 2022
In 2010, the UK’s Coalition Government announced Universal Credit (UC) as an initiative to overhaul the national welfare system and replace six social benefits and tax credits – including unemployment, housing, childcare, essential living, and disability benefits – with a single, means-tested program administered by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
The government introduced UC with the goals of simplifying the benefits system, creating incentives to work, addressing poverty, and reducing fraud and error. UC was also designed to be “digital by default”, with a suite of new digital services critical for its implementation by DWP.
Earlier this year, the Beeck Center hosted Lara Sampson of Public Digital to speak about her experiences designing UC as a digital service as its former Head of Product with DWP. Sampson shared the strategies DWP employed to turn around what she described as an “utter failure” of the department’s initial attempt at implementing the program.
Diagnosing Universal Credit Programme’s initial failure
When the UK coalition government announced UC in 2010, the DWP agreed to complete the work by 2013. UC is a far-reaching and complex program: in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the six benefits bundled in UC accounted for £67 billion in expenses across 13 million claims, with residents accessing benefits through multiple channels.
By April 2013—just months away from the implementation deadline—the project had moved through five senior responsible officers, spent £425 million, and had zero users. That’s when Sampson became UC’s Head of Product. She shared her diagnosis of UC’s initial failure:
The team treated UC as a technology project. Rather, Sampson said, the UC project was a “human behavior” project. UC fundamentally changed the way the state interacted with residents, which demanded more than simply the implementation of new tech to succeed—it demanded new relationships, new understandings of resident needs, and new operational processes.
The 2013 deadline instilled fear-driven behavior. Sampson described he UC team as driven by a fear of failure to meet an unrealistic deadline. That fear led to siloes, micromanagement, over-engineered workflows, hiding barriers and setbacks from decisionmakers, and a general aversion to change in a project that was fundamentally defined by it.
Learning from failure: UC’s second chance
The GDS had the authority to halt the UC project and force it to start over—and it did, bringing about an inflection point in the project’s working culture. The principles and practices adopted by the UC team the second time around offer key lessons for government practitioners undertaking digital transformation efforts.
Lesson 1: Use Agile – but don’t talk about it. The UC team used an Agile framework, but never used the term “Agile”—they found it to be alienating jargon. Instead, they strategically communicated that they would “start small” and “test and learn” with a relentless focus on the needs of beneficiaries. These simple phrases articulated the team’s new workflow as tangible and pragmatic, allowing the team to bring decision makers along with them as they experimented to figure out what worked.
In short, the team didn’t simply adopt best practices for building digital services, they engaged in the critical translational work necessary for generating buy-in for a new way of doing.
Lesson 2: Prioritize multi-disciplinary collaboration. The UC team included engineers, product managers, UX researchers, and designers; but also brought in operational delivery, policy, and security staff in its second iteration. Members of this cross-cutting team dedicated 100% of their time to the work and were empowered to contribute to decision-making. Importantly, the new team worked in a space offsite from DWP, which was integral to shaping a new culture and overcoming past failures.
Sampson made clear that the operational delivery staff in particular brought indispensable expertise on the complexity of the benefits ecosystem; empowering them as full team members meant they could effectively advise on the integration of digital solutions with the on-the-ground realities of service delivery.
Lesson 3: Work toward outcomes, free of implied solutions. The new UC team developed a guiding outcome and assessed all efforts against it: “Support people to find more work, more of the time, while providing financial support to those in need”. This helped prevent resources from being spent on unnecessary “widgets” that didn’t meet real needs. What’s more, the team worked closely with policymakers to ensure the UC policy landscape was free of service design strictures that would needlessly constrain or pre-determine development decisions.
Lesson 4: Attend to the full service-delivery ecosystem. The UC team worked across the numerous channels—directly through the online application portal, but also in job centers, prisons, and contact centers—where residents would interact with UC to build a fully-functional, holistic solution.
A success for digital service delivery
The UC team’s new workflows turned the UC digital transformation initiative around and the team was able to build a functional, end-to-end digital solution.
In 2020, UC served as a critical service for the millions who needed rapid social support during the pandemic, many of whom were accessing benefits for the first time. Lara also argued that an increased responsiveness to policy change is one of the biggest benefits of the program’s new service infrastructure.
Digital transformation projects are often derailed by problems like the ones that plagued UC in the early 2010s. But the strategies DWP deployed to improve its implementation of UC demonstrate that such issues are not insurmountable.
By gleaning lessons from the UC team’s approach, we hope government practitioners engaged in digital transformation are not only able to better diagnose issues when their own projects derail, but are also able to effectively and efficiently course correct.
The Digital Service Network shares what works in government digital transformation, with a goal of replicating and scaling proven approaches. We help leading digital service teams and practitioners continue to succeed and connect newcomers to training, technical assistance, and community support as they chart a new course in their governments. The project is based at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.
Video of the one-hour panel session with Sampson and her colleague James Stewart is posted on the Beeck Center’s YouTube channel.
Michaela Caudill is a community manager with the Digital Service Network at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. Find her on Linkedin.
Colleen Pulawski is a Researcher for the Digital Service Network and Intergovernmental Software Collaborative at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University