MPs urge DWP to focus on service users as £1bn digitisation programme hits ‘critical juncture’

Members of the Public Accounts Committee have warned that the department’s Health Transformation Programme is in danger of focusing solely on digitising services – without also delivering positive change for users

The Department for Work and Pensions’ £1bn programme to digitise the process for applying for disability benefits faces “significant risks” including failing to deliver transformational change for service users, MPs have warned.

Members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee expressed concerns that the Health Transformation Programme – which is intended to enable online applications, improve case management, and triage claims – may not have enough public input in its design. MPs also warn that DWP’s approach to working with contractors as part of the programme could leave the taxpayer vulnerable to contractual disputes, higher costs and delays, which are common problems for integrating digital systems.

They said contractors could use difficulties in the development and rollout of a new system as justification for not providing the services expected, or performing to the standards agreed as part of the contract.

PAC said around 3.9 million working-age people receive at least one of the principal disability benefits, which include Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments.

DWP uses functional health assessments for assessing whether people are eligible for disability benefits and has contracts with three providers to undertake them.

The new health-assessment service that the HTP will deliver the bedrock IT for is due to be rolled out by 2029. Ahead of that, DWP plans to build its own case-management IT system, develop the new service and trial what works to improve the claimant experience.

MPs said the department needs to have identified exactly what its new health assessment service will look like by 2027 to either invite the private sector to bid for new contracts or prepare to bring the service in-house.

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PAC members said they believed the greatest risk to the programme, which launched in 2018 but was delayed by the Covid pandemic, was that DWP focused “exclusively” on the delivery of a new digitised service without achieving transformational change for claimants.

According to DWP, the programme will deliver benefits with a value of £2.6bn by improving the speed and accuracy of decisions, better supporting claimants, and improving trust in the quality of decision making.

But the PAC report noted that half of the anticipated benefits relate to increased engagement in the labour market and higher employment levels among disability benefit claimants.

“These wider benefits rely extensively on the programme transforming claimants’ experience and improving claimants’ trust, which may be more challenging to achieve than the process improvements,” the report said. “Without these wider benefits, the programme would be far less likely to be value for money.”

PAC deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said witnesses had demonstrated that the implementation of HTP so far has been thorough and well thought through but added that the government’s record on introducing large IT programmes was not good.

“These reforms are at a critical juncture now that they are soon to be at the test stage, a point at which our committee has seen other major government projects come off the rails,” he said. “The DWP must expand its focus to genuinely put claimants right at the heart of this work if it is to achieve the wider benefits of this programme, and we hope the recommendations in our report serve as a helpful guide in this regard.”

Among their recommendations, MPs are calling on DWP to produce annual reports detailing how well the evaluation of the new service is progressing and assessing whether it is on track to achieve its targeted benefits for claimants and taxpayers.

DWP is also asked to set out how it will incentivise contractors operating under standard service contracts to cooperate with the expansion of test-and-learn activities to the necessary levels without incurring “excessive” costs and delays.

MPs also want the department to explain how it will fully involve claimants in the design and implementation of the changes to the benefits system.

A DWP spokesperson said the HTP would create a better, more efficient service for claimants, improving journey times and trust in decisions. “It is just part of our plans to help improve the system for disabled people and long-term sick as we announced our £2.5bn welfare reforms last week to join up health and employment support and break down barriers to work for millions,” they said. “We are now carefully considering the committee’s report and will respond to its recommendations in due course.”

Jim Dunton

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