The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that only 60 people a day process an online claim for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefits, three years after the pilot digital system was launched. The digital applications process had been due to be scaled up spring 2021.
Tom Pursglove, Minister of State for DWP, recently revealed the sluggish growth of the system when he answered questions from MPs. Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms asked the minister to confirm who was taking part in the “small-scale test of the digital PIP service” and whether organisations supporting disabled people could contribute to it. This was a follow-up question from the May 15 when he asked Pursglove about DWP’s plans to make PIP applications an online service.
Only 60 applicants are selected per day to apply for PIP online
PIP is a welfare benefit in the UK that is intended to help working-age adults with the extra costs of living with a health condition or disability. As of January, 2.9 million claimants are entitled to PIP
In an earlier answer, Pursglove said that the ‘Health Transformation Programme‘, which has been contracted to Capgemini, would transform the entire PIP service, including the introduction of a digital PIP service. This would allow claimants to make a new application online, compared to the current system where you can apply for a form by telephone or in writing.
Pursglove said that the department was operating a small-scale test of the service, “taking a small number of claims to begin with” and then gradually increasing intake over time.
“We have already introduced a digital version of the PIP2 health questionnaire, which is now offered to the majority of those making a claim,” he said in his answer to Timms. “The full online application service will offer claimants the option to claim PIP online, including the ability to save and resume and to upload medical evidence.”
But when he was probed further by Timms, the minister had to admit that the digital service was only offered to 60 claimants a day: “Only those claimants who are able to apply online, and feel comfortable doing so, are offered a digital application,” he added.
Call agents offer the digital service as a voluntary option, meaning claimants still have to telephone the PIP new claims line. It also excluded anyone applying in an official capacity (such as an appointee), anyone with a Welsh or Northern Irish postcode or anyone with a previous or existing PIP or DLA claim.
“As we gradually expand the service, we will incrementally bring more user groups in scope,” Pursglove said. “This approach is allowing us to build, develop and design the service safely.” He went on to say that the department was committed to working with stakeholder organisations to develop the new online service for PIP.
‘PIP Apply’ has been in the works for nearly a decade
However, the government pilot for the digital service has been active since 2020 while, according to DWP Digital’s blog, the PIP digital service has been in the works since 2015. In a post on the blog, DWP invited volunteers to test out the digital service – all they had to do was email in.
“The testing will be anonymous – we won’t ask you for any of your personal details,” the blog says. “You’ll be able to save your claim as you go along and you won’t have to do it all in one go.” The digital service couldn’t be used to make an actual claim for PIP.
Looking further back into the DWP archives, PIP Apply has actually been in the works since 2012, when the department launched its Digital Strategy. The whole idea of the plan was to make DWP “digital by default” with one of the action points showing that there would be a collaboration with Government Digital Service (GDS).
“In developing exemplar services such as Universal Credit and [PIP], policymakers and delivery experts are working in an integrated way to design a service built around user needs rather than policy in isolation,” the strategy says. “We will embed this approach in future changes and ensure that policymakers have the digital skills necessary to understand how new services are developed. As well as ensuring an intuitive user experience, this will also allow us to make sure that the policy aims can be delivered effectively in practice.”
Speaking in 2021, then DWP minister Justin Tomlinson said the department hoped to scale the service by “spring 2021”, but this has yet to happen.
A DWP spokesperson told Tech Monitor: “We are still testing the online PIP service to ensure it suitably meets user needs and it is only right we fully assess the system and ensure it is ready before rolling it out to the wider public.”
DWP do not understand how to be digitally native
Conflict between DWP and the Cabinet Office, which oversees GDS, has hindered the roll-out of digital systems says Rob Anderson research director, public sector, at GlobalData and a former Cabinet Office official.
“DWP were very reluctant at the beginning of GDS to let anybody from the department in to help them,” Anderson says, adding that the Cabinet Office effectively forced its way in to help to help DWP get the Universal Credit welfare service up and running. “Only then did they take on a truly digital way of [developing the service],” Anderson explains. “I think it proved there was a lack of user-centricity.”
DWP’s approach and culture seemingly hasn’t changed, with Anderson adding that government departments don’t have good “corporate memory” and do not learn from the lessons of the past.
When asked how long he believes the creation and deployment of PIP Apply should have taken, Anderson said that GDS guidance on migrating from legacy systems is four years.
“If you have people from digital working together with the policy team, it takes no more than two years to understand the process, building on that should take no more than another two years and you need another year for testing and rolling it out,” he says.