Let there be no confusion here: digital welfare is a good thing. It’s a vast improvement on a paper or proxy service.
Countless people struggled with the old system and when I was with Citizens Advice we would spend hours translating lengthy, jargon-filled forms into something that could be understood by the people who had lost their jobs, suffered accidents or failed to be offered any work on their zero-hours contract that week.
Policy detail aside, if all Universal Credit did was get rid of that burden, that would be a huge step forward.
Moving the welfare system online is big change, both for claimants and for the community organisations they often turn to for help. My colleague Alice spoke to a digital hub in Norwich last week who have had to completely change the way they work following the introduction of UC to the area. There was little warning - save that UC was coming - and no support, neither in terms of information nor funding.
They’ve pulled out all the stops and are helping people in the community not only to claim UC but to do other things online as well. Thanks to them, people struggling to get by in Norwich won’t have quite such a tough time this Christmas.
But just because there’s support happening in Norwich doesn't mean it's happening elsewhere - how do we ensure consistent provision across the country and that people in the next roll-out area won’t be left high and dry without a digital hub or another community organisation to pick up the pieces?
A structured, funded programme of support across the country would stop some people falling through the gaps. What’s more, UC offers two key opportunities this government could be making the most of:
1. Reinvent JobCentrePlus and people's full experience of interacting with the welfare system
DWP Digital have done an admirable job of sorting out a deeply complex digital system. But the department has neglected the face to face side of things. JCP should become digital hubs - mini Online Centres with a formal, national referral programme to Online Centres (who last year supported 89,000 jobseekers) who can help people with broader digital skills. This is a challenge for JCP staff - the 11,000 work coaches who are being employed or upskilled need their role re-examining to make sure the difficult dual task of supporter and enforcer works for claimants.
It’s also a chance to replace the terrible Universal Jobmatch system, which most claimants we support approach as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise to get their payments - they find it more useful to look for jobs elsewhere.
And linked to that...
2. Join up DWP’s UC rollout with DCMS's digital skills work and private sector programmes
To make sure that we're not missing an opportunity to get more people online and getting the most out of digital, DWP and DCMS should consider ways to capitalise on the fact that Universal Credit is bringing the web to lots of people who haven’t used it much before. A joined-up approach that links claiming UC, to building digital skills, to getting and staying in employment would benefit people and the economy. The private sector could also have a role to play with programmes like Google Digital Garage taking people beyond basic digital skills.
I shared these ideas with the Rt Hon. David Gauke MP and others at a roundtable hosted by the think tank Reform this morning.