Rollout, delivery capability and policy changes

Rollout, delivery capability and policy changes

Originally due for completion in 2017, the timeline for Universal Credit has been revised several times. After several years of development, the initial project failed in 2013 and DWP reset its work, created a new team and adopted an agile development approach.1 Following 2013, the department also started taking a more cautious approach to the rollout, and since 2013 there have been several changes to the policy that have sought to mitigate some of the more damaging aspects of the original political vision for Universal Credit. These changes, and the continued development of the system, have in part been enabled by the digital capability DWP has built up since 2013. An understanding of this story is important in understanding how Universal Credit works today and how it might evolve in the future.

The development of two services

In April 2013, the department started accepting new claims for a narrow set of circumstances (single, unemployed people in areas served by certain jobcentres). However, it was soon clear that there were significant issues with the system and a report by the Major Projects Authority (MPA) gave the project an “amber-red status” and stated Universal Credit was at risk of failure.2 Investigations by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO) later revealed that, as a result of these issues, much of the work to date would need to be abandoned and hundreds of millions of pounds of IT assets written off. The MPA’s report led to a “reset” of the project with the Government Digital Service (GDS) being brought in to help in July 2013. 3 4 5

Late in 2013, a “twin-track approach” was adopted by the government whereby the mostly outsourced “Live Service” (consisting of the remaining IT assets developed prior to the reset) would continue to be rolled out to limited types of claims in an expanding list of Jobcentre districts. At the same time, a new digital “Full Service” would be designed in-house, with more functionality and using agile rather than waterfall development practices.6 7

The “Full Service“ was launched for a small number of users in May 2016. In contrast to the “Live Service” it was able to accept claims from people with any circumstances and, following the initial launch, it followed a similar geographical rollout pattern to the “Live Service” expanding to new jobcentres over time. 8 The two services coexisted in different areas until the “Live Service” stopped accepting claims in January 2018. By December 2018 the “Full Service” was available everywhere in Great Britain.9 10 DWP has continued to develop the “Full Service” in-house and a detailed description of the system follows in part two of this report.

A machine for delivering policy

One of the results of the reset was that DWP built up a highly credible agile delivery capability. The GDS service assessment from 17th September 2017 (published in response to an FOI request for this report) states that11:

The team is one of the largest service teams in government, mainly co-located at DWPs London hub formed of small multi disciplinary units which enable effective agile working with additional benefit of co-design with operational management and multiple other internal stakeholders including Policy.

Similarly, in one of its investigations into Universal Credit12, the NAO noted that the delivery team “works well together and mainly follows good practice” and that by adopting an agile approach it has “allowed the Department to adjust its plans based on what it learns about what does and does not work”.

This team brings together policy, prototyping, data science, user research and evaluation into a unified approach, it contains an “embedded data team”, and policy professionals are engaged in the design and development process. The GDS assessment concluded that:

The data culture has evolved from ‘tell us what’s happening’ to a position where features have success measures, and data is used for prioritisation. The data team also has the opportunity to ‘do the data science’ and explore the data for further insights that can drive new features.

New versions of the software are deployed every two weeks, with each release assigned a reference number. 13 14 Each change to the service goes through 4 stages: policy development, (user experience) design, development (where changes to the software are made) and a ‘live’ evaluation phase. Presumably, these all happen on a two-week cycle in the same way as releases. (Pages 16 and 17 of the NAO report Rolling out Universal Credit illustrate the design and development process DWP has developed).15

An agile approach to changes in legislation was also adopted, with civil servants, and parliamentary counsel working together on secondary legislation.16

According to the NAO and the Institute for Government, the approach and capability that DWP developed was critical to the turnaround of the programme and its ability to adapt to policy changes.17 18

Policy changes and delivery

This ability to respond to change is important because the policy landscape of Universal Credit has not stood still. While Universal Credit has often had wide support in principle (certainly in relation to the perceived simplification of the system) there have been many criticisms of the policy in practice as its impact has emerged. Many of these relate to the assumptions behind the original vision for Universal Credit, including the monthly payment cycle, ending the direct payment of rent to landlords and the digital first approach. There have been widespread and well-documented concerns that these have pushed people into poverty and debt.

Many of the policy changes since 2017 appear to have been attempts at mitigating these issues. For example, the 2017 budget included announcements that the 7 day waiting period added to the beginning of the first monthly assessment period (the so-called “waiting days”) would be removed. Advance payments of up to one month’s payment would also be made within five days of the initial claim. And it would be made easier for claimants to have a portion of their benefit payments paid directly to their landlord. 19 Separately, the Scottish government has used devolved powers to request changes that allow for Scottish claimants to explicitly request direct payments to their landlord and to switch to a two-week payment cycle.20 And in January 2019, Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced the development of a “Landlord Portal” to better facilitate direct rent payments to landlords and amended the two-child rule so it would only apply to children born after the introduction of the policy.

DWP’s approach to the rollout has continued to adapt too. The final stage of rollout, where people on legacy benefits will be moved over to Universal Credit (so-called “managed migration”), has proceeded in a more gradual and iterative way than originally planned.21 22

DWP’s ability to implement these changes is in part due to the delivery capability it built up since 2013. DWP continues to develop the system today and is also spending considerable amounts of money on automating manual processes across its IT estate.23 Part two of this report will examine how these systems function, along with some elements of the wider service.

  1. “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”, 

  2. Patrick Wintour, “Universal Credit in danger of failing, official Whitehall review says”, The Guardian, 24th May 2013,, retrieved 11th October 2019 

  3. Derek du Preez, “DWP finally admits Universal Credit IT not up to scratch - calling in GDS”, Computerworld, 10th July 2013,—calling-in-gds.html, retrieved 16th August 2019 

  4. “Discussion: Universal Credit project is officially “reset” / changing direction / will start again almost from scratch / technology scrapped - Rightsnet”, Rightsnet, 22nd July 2013,, retrieved 10th October 2019 

  5. Tentacle Sixteen, “Anonymous source: Universal Credit IT “reset”, started again (with tweets) · latentexistence”, Storify, 19th July 2013,, retrieved 10th October 2019 

  6. National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit”, p14,15, 11th June 2018,, retrieved 4th October 2019 

  7. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith), “Universal Credit Work and Pensions written statement”, HC Deb, 5th December 2013, c65WS, 

  8. National Audit Office, “Universal Credit: progress update”, p18, 26th November 2014,, retrieved 4th October 2019 

  9. Department for Work and Pensions, “Universal Credit: full service and live service”, GOV.UK, 12th December 2018,, retrieved 24th October 2019 

  10. Department for Work and Pensions, “Universal Credit: full service and live service”, GOV.UK, 12th December 2018,, retrieved 24th October 2019 

  11. Government Digital Service, “Universal Credit Full Service, beta to live review”, Universal Credit Full Service, beta to live review, GOV.UK, 25th October 2019,, retrieved 25th October 2019 

  12. National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit”, 15th June 2018,, retrieved 4th October 2019 

  13. FOI response from DWP, 23rd September 2019,, retrieved 11th October 2019 

  14. From video of UC interface 

  15. National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit”, p16-17, 11th June 2018,, retrieved 4th October 2019 

  16. Nicolette Sanders, “Making law in a digital world: the Universal Credit experience”, Civil Service Quarterly, 10th September 2015,, retrieved 24th October 2019 

  17. National Audit Office, “Rolling out Universal Credit”, 11th June 2018,, retrieved 4th October 2019 

  18. Institute for Government, “Universal Credit From disaster to recovery?”, September 2016, 

  19. HM Treasury, “Autumn Budget 2017”, GOV.UK, 22nd November 2017, Section 7.3,, retrieved 30 September 2019 

  20. Scottish Government, “Universal Credit: new choices for people living in Scotland”,, 31st January 2018, 


  22. “Universal Credit: take aways from DWP’s managed migration webinar, March 2019”, Policy in Practice, 5th Apr 2019 at 12:00, 

  23. Robert Booth, “Benefits system automation could plunge claimants deeper into poverty”, The Guardian, 14th October 2019,, retrieved 1st December 2019