In my previous blog, I talked about the process of applying for Universal Credit online and the implications for those without basic digital skills. As a digital service, it’s easy to interact with and its development has been based on the latest standards for building good digital public services. However, does that mean it’s a good public service?
Digital Service Standards
The build of the Universal Credit service was initially part of the Government Digital Service’s exemplar programme.
There’s lots to like about this approach about to building digital public services, from strong user research to constant iteration and improvement to making the source code open so that it can be reused for other projects. It is a long way removed from the traditional approach of creating a huge specification that a major contractor is paid to deliver, that is delivered years later when requirements have changed.
The GOV.UK Digital Service Standard and the related Scottish Government Digital Service Standard outline an approach to building great digital services. These documents are a recommended read for anyone in any sector planning to develop a digital service.
However, what struck me when going through the Universal Credit application process is the complexity of public services that we expect people to navigate during some of the most difficult periods of their lives.
Navigating the complexity of the benefits system
While the Universal Credit website was as simple as you could hope for, and well-designed to collect a lot of information, the questions it asked alluded to the bureaucracy that lay beyond its boundaries. For example, in my scenario I was asked several questions that might confuse those unfamiliar with the benefits system, including:
Does your child receive Personal Independent Payments?
I don’t think so. What’s that? Should she be? How do I know if she’s eligible? How do I apply? Will it affect my Universal Credit payment?
Have you applied for a Council Tax reduction?
Should I? What do I get a reduction for? How much is the reduction? How do I apply? If I don’t, will my Universal Credit payment be affected?
These are just two of dozens of potential benefits and entitlements people might be eligible for depending on their circumstances. They’d need to apply for them to different organisations and through different processes. The DWP / JobCentre already administering some and local authorities administering others. We’ve also got the new Social Security Agency being created to manage newly devolved benefits to Scotland. So, there’s another organisation or process people will need to consider in the future.
With all this complexity, it’s no wonder that Scottish Government statistics show uptake of key benefits ranges from 50% to 86%. This results in tens or hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland missing out on benefits they are entitled to.
I found the thought of finding myself needing to navigate all this myself terrifying; and I’ve worked with the public sector for over 15 years. It made me thankful for the wonderful staff and volunteers that help people with these issues daily, particularly those in Citizens Advice Bureaux and local third sector organisations.
Are (digital) public services accessible?
Many of us (myself included) talk about the need to build digital public services around the needs of our users and get excited about the progress being made through the adoption of Digital Service Standards. Ultimately though, ‘government’ still delivers services which suit its structures – whether organisational, departmental or geographical.
We can talk about agile methodology, user experience, iteration and getting the right language and fonts. These things are important aspects of developing a good digital service. However, we need to be careful not to equate a good digital public service with a service and system that works effectively for people in need of support.