Universal Credit has been in the news a lot over the last week - it seems to be vying with Brexit for column inches. Amber Rudd announced this morning that Universal Credit will take a more compassionate approach, and that government will look to learn more about what is working, and what isn't with a pilot before legacy claimants are moved over to Universal Credit.
I would urge her, and the Department for Work and Pensions, to look at the service's digital delivery. I was particularly interested to read this Huffington Post piece last week on the lack of data the Department for Work and Pension holds for people who aren't able to claim Universal Credit online.
I can tell you - there are a lot. (Of people that is! Not data.)
Through working with thousands of community partners in the Online Centres Network - grassroots organisations who support people with digital - we hear all the time that Universal Credit is one of the main reasons people visit them, and one of the most frequent things they are asked to support with. Our Guide to Universal Credit, launched on our Learn My Way learning platform last year, has already had over 4,000 uses. It was developed, with users, based on feedback that people needed help claiming Universal Credit. We know from working on the ground that there is a huge need for much more support for UC, including but not only on the digital side.
Digital is a huge element of why people are looking for support with claiming the benefit, and often the reason they walk through the door of an Online Centre, but those claiming also often have complex lives. So the holistic and person-centred support they receive is crucial to them not just making their claims, but getting the help they need in other areas of their lives.
Digital and social exclusion in the UK
11.3 million people in the UK don't have the essential basic digital skills they need. And these people are most likely to be socially excluded as well - meaning that they're less well off, come from a poorer educational background, are living in council housing, or aren't in secure work. Exactly the kind of people who are likely to be claiming Universal Credit.
Our Online Centre Network tell us that a lack of digital skills and confidence, access to technology and the internet and a whole range of social exclusion issues such as poverty, mental health issues, homelessness and living with physical and learning disabilities create multiple and complex barriers to overcome for many people.
There are currently 1.2 million people receiving Universal Credit, but that number is set to increase, although we heard over the weekend that the roll out will be slowed down. Those with the most complex cases are yet to be moved to Universal Credit in many areas, and these are the people who are likely to need the most support. We are anticipating a constant and growing demand for community digital skills support to help with Universal Credit claims over the coming years.
This community support is crucial. It is these hyper-local organisations that are trusted - they are the places people turn in a crisis. For people who are resistant to formal education, we need to reach them in places they feel comfortable in the community.
Designing with users, not for them
One of the problems many people face with Universal Credit is that the service hasn't been designed with those without basic digital skills in mind, so it presents a number of problems for those who are faced with it for the first time. Even those who have a limited number of basic digital skills can feel daunted by the system. Improvements to this system, taking into account the needs of those with low digital literacy, would be a step towards helping to ensure Universal Credit can really serve all those who need it.
Digital by Default
I am a supporter of 'digital by default' in principle. By encouraging and supporting people to use online systems in the right way, we can give them a positive taste of digital that will mean they are more likely to use it in other areas of their life. Plus, the money saved by delivering a 'digital first' service means that money can be reinvested to support those who will never be able to use online services on their own.
But to do this, it's vital that the government is providing the right support for people to use the service. And to do this, we need to understand the scale of who is affected.
But - a person-centred approach is crucial. We don't just want to help people fill in a form, but to become digitally able, active and equal. And this is done by face-to-face, community based provision, that supports people based on their needs. It is not just about the technology, but about the people too.
While we welcome the measures that have already been put in place - including providing funding of £39 million to Citizens Advice to deliver support - this is really only scratching the surface of the issue.
With the roll out being slowed down, there is a huge opportunity to rethink the way the service is delivered. There is a great opportunity to put in place the support systems that help people claim Universal Credit - and to improve their digital skills at the same time.
Universal Credit could be a huge opportunity for us to engage with digitally and socially excluded people in the right way, helping them to see digital as something that can have a broader benefit on their lives. We know that we need to engage with people where they live, on what matters to them and take the time to build relationships of trust and understanding
To get this right and have a positive impact on people's lives now and in the future, we need a co-ordinated approach, across communities, that really reaches those who are currently being left behind.