How COVID-19 helped accelerate the UK’s biggest digital transformation

The measures to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) implemented in March 2020 led to a sudden increased demand for the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP’s) digital services.

Simon McKinnon, Chief Digital Information Officer, said: “Our focus was clear: to get money to people as swiftly as possible and help safeguard vulnerable people.” The DWP Digital team who are responsible for driving forward DWP’s transformation, reacted quickly in the face of unprecedented number of claims for Universal Credit – more than 10 times the usual number.

DWP Digital had to ensure that critical services were available and fully supported to deal with the demand, which included making 6,500 rapid IT changes in 6 months. It also meant distributing more than 40,000 devices to colleagues delivering frontline services from home and tripling Virtual Private Network (VPN) capacity to enable more than 32,000 home workers to connect to servers.

Improving services to customers

The crisis accelerated the digital transformation of a number of DWP’s services, including the Confirm Your Identity service. Over 500,000 customers have used the service since its launch in April which has enabled over 250,000 people to remotely confirm their identity, removing the need for a face-to-face appointment. Before it’s launch only 15% of all new claims had customer identities remotely verified, this now stands at 55%, significantly reducing the need for customers to physically attend jobcentres.

Payments capacity for Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit was trebled, allowing the department to make up to 180,000 one-off or repeat payments to customers per day.

Local jobcentres were turned into virtual processing teams and a virtual contact centre was set-up to support the exceptional amount of new claims, using software to enable colleagues to safely handle inbound and outbound calls from home.

The Pension Credit online service was introduced sooner than planned, giving customers an additional way to claim and negating the need to go out to post a form.

The Bereavement Payment Support service software was updated to temporarily bypass death and marriage/civil partnership verifications which, in normal times, take time to complete. This led to quicker payment processing times to customers.

Shruti Kohli, who works in DWP Digital’s innovation lab said: “In the Innovation Lab, we’re constantly looking at tech and tools to support the department’s COVID-19 response. For example, when the number of calls to DWP increased we looked at how digital channels could alleviate pressure and what technology was available, for example natural language processing techniques to capture the intent of callers and help answer queries quickly.

“Innovation has evolved and the changing ways we’re doing things has become more normal.”

New ways of working

COVID-19 meant DWP Digital had to change the way it works by pausing some strategic plans to focus on urgent priorities. Helen Roberts, Deputy Director, said: “The call for us to apply our digital expertise to address departmental problems wasn’t an opportunity, it was a necessity.” The response showed how aggressively the department could make big, successful changes to digital services. Showing that it is possible to deliver difficult things quickly in government.

Craig Eblett, Digital Delivery Director said: “Responding to the COVID -19 recession, the challenges it will bring and using the lessons we’ve learnt, are our key priorities for 2021.”

DWP Digital is adopting an iterative approach to understanding its future ways of working. The long-term vision will be based on feedback from teams about what’s working, what isn’t, what could be better and how we can resolve issues.

Craig added, “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.

Most importantly, we’re supporting our people with their personal wellbeing and getting their work life balance right.

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. Our priorities for 2021 include giving our colleagues a better working experience.”