There are so many committed teams delivering digital services all over government, it feels unnatural to highlight just one - but when it comes to doing stuff that matters, at scale, and under pressure, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) team developing the Universal Credit (UC) Digital Service is impossible to ignore.
Here's a video demonstrating the UC Digital proof of concept developed by DWP and GDS following the 2013 reset of UC:
Not an easy ride
Their mission is to simplify the welfare system, and to help more people to move into work, while supporting the vulnerable.
From the moment the UC Digital Service team was established in summer 2013, they’ve been at the sharpest of sharp ends. The entire UC programme was being reset. The UC Digital Service was given the herculean task of developing the strategic “end state” service, to support the full diversity of people who might claim UC at some point during their lives.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride.
And as the UC Digital Service scales up from a few hundred diverse claimants in South London to cover the whole of the UK, there will doubtless be more bumpy moments ahead. This stuff is hard.
Doing the hard work to make things better
But, when you spend time with this incredible team, it’s impossible not to be impressed with just how much they’re getting right in designing a service that will give this radical policy the very best chance of success.
Let me give you a few examples:
- They’re not building a website; they’re creating a new service to deliver new policy. That requires a new organisation, with new ways of working and a new culture, as much as it requires great user journeys or quality code.
- They have strong backing from the top of DWP, from Ministers and Permanent Secretary down. The Universal Credit SRO Neil Couling provides exemplary leadership (he’s at every show and tell), chair of the UC Programme Board Sir Robert Walmsley is applying appropriate governance with refreshing alacrity, and the digital support from Kevin Cunnington has been crucial.
- They make sure they really understand and meet the needs of UC’s users. All users. Even the most vulnerable. Especially the most vulnerable. And they never forget that DWP frontline staff are vital users too.
- They don’t pretend they get everything right first time. They watch how users interact with the service, and then they iterate the whole service to better meet the policy intent. Sometimes they iterate code, sometimes process, sometimes training, sometimes policy - it’s all one service.
- They’re not scared to deploy the real-world user insights they’re gaining to challenge policy decisions or existing custom and practice, sometimes long-standing. Doing the hard work to make things simple.
- They swiftly and cheaply prototype multiple different ways to meet the policy intent, ditching those that don’t work in practice in favour of continuing to iterate those that do. That’s the future of policymaking.
- They’re confident enough to start small, recognising that the value of early work often lies in learning about the reality of users and their needs, and testing the most important assumptions.
- They know that the unit of delivery is the team, and that each team must contain the right mix of specialist skills and experience. Those with deep frontline operational experience are highly prized for their often priceless insights.
- They scale up carefully and organically. They started with one team, and are now up to six, but have grown at a steady pace so their culture and quality hasn’t been compromised.
- They invest the time in hiring high-quality specialist skills, and are happy to seek support from the centre when they need it, be that from GDS, CESG or elsewhere. From its inception, the UC Digital team welcomed the support GDS can offer, a close collaboration which continues to this day.
- They make sure all those joining understand the intent behind the policy. Indeed, they constantly remind each other of the point of UC - to simplify welfare, help people gain sustainable employment, support the most vulnerable.
- They are agile. They update the service early and often. They are highly disciplined in their agile planning, they prioritise ruthlessly, and their testing and integration is continuous.
- But they’re not dogmatic. Where it makes sense, they’ll accommodate other project methodologies - for instance, when integrating with some parts of DWP’s legacy IT estate.
- They don’t try to do it all themselves. If they can use an existing tool or capability they will - though they know when not to compromise the coherence and quality of the service. They’re not afraid to do less.
- They know that security, like user experience, is the responsibility of the whole team, and requires defence in depth, awareness of emerging threats and agility to respond swiftly.
- Openness. They’re open with each other about what is and isn’t working, and honest with stakeholders about what is and isn’t possible. They know the value of such a culture, and fight tooth and nail to protect it and maintain it.
I could easily add more.
The challenges continue
It would be wrong to suggest that the UC Digital Service team is getting everything right - indeed the demonstrations they give during their regular cross-government show-and-tells rarely go unchallenged.
The challenges that lie ahead as they build on and replace the existing ‘live’ UC service remain profound; daunting even. It’s vital the team are given the time and space to iterate towards a mature operational service, able to support a reality that is often messier and more complex than appreciated.
But if anyone can do it, they can.