Monday, 24 October 2011

Digital first, Benefit claimants last

In 2013 the Government will introduce a new benefit called Universal Credit which will replace a long list of existing benefits and tax credits in an attempt to simplify the benefits system. The amount of Universal Credit a person receives will depend on the size of their family, the cost of their rent, how disabled they are, and how much they are earning. As a part of introducing this new credit the government is creating a massive IT project to join together the computer systems of the DWP and the HMRC. The idea is that this new system will be able to automatically update the amount of benefit a person receives from the DWP as their earnings increase or decrease as seen by the HMRC. Large scale government IT projects don’t have the best record but this one appears to be on time and on budget at this stage.

The problem with this IT project only really appears when you look at how the public are supposed to interact with it. Benefit claimants are supposed to check their online accounts to see how their UC has been calculated and why it has changed from the previous months amount. Extending this “digital first” principle the DWP is exploring how smart phones can be used by claimants. In theory this sounds like a really good system and if the government’s prediction that 80% of claimants accessed benefit online were true, it would be. However at the moment only 17% of claimants apply online and they mostly don’t use smart phones.

Although the government says that “we do not underestimate the challenge of changing customer behaviour to use new channels,“ they seem to be missing the point or greatly overestimating their ability. Benefit claimants are the one of the least likely groups to have internet access and in the general population only 73% of households have internet access. This makes it extremely unlikely that 80% of benefit claimants will access benefits online. Job seekers allowance claimants are the most likely to have internet access and only 60% of them have home access. For claimants who don’t have home access their main point of access for free internet is through public libraries which are closing across the country due to cuts.

Unsurprisingly research has shown that there is a strong link between a person’s social disadvantage and their access and use of digital services. Long term unemployed and disabled claimants can have multiple barriers to accessing the internet including poor literacy and English language skills, often with health problems that limit their mobility. These claimants lack the type of computer literacy which is needed to use the internet navigate complex websites and in some cases are illiterate, (one in six people in the UK struggle with literacy) which rules out internet usage entirely. It is unrealistic to expect these vulnerable claimants to be accessing their benefits online. According to the DWP’s own report a number of Jobcentre plus staff lacked familiarity with the Internet and were unaware of the government’s online services. The idea that in two years the government will have: trained its staff in using the internet and its online services; then trained them to teach others; then ensured that benefit claimants are literate enough to use the website; then trained them to use a computer and the internet; and finally provided free access to the internet whilst simultaneously closing the main free public internet access points; is a little bit optimistic.

Considering all these difficulties it seems odd that the government have not fully outlined their offline strategy for benefit applications and keeping benefit claimants informed about their benefit. They have suggested that the majority of offline claimants can use automated telephone services (which is extremely difficult for users for whom English is a not their first language) and a small minority “who really need it” will have face to face contact.