As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK back in March 2020, most of DWP services were impacted. The pandemic and associated national lockdown changed the way in which citizens accessed government welfare support.
New Style Employment and Support Allowance (NS ESA) is a benefit for citizens who are unable to work due to a health condition. Prior to COVID-19, people could access this support via a telephone call, and then a face-to-face appointment at their local jobcentre.
It was a resource intensive process, and my team were already working towards the launch of a new Apply Online option, which was targeted for public beta in late summer - an already a challenging target.
As part of DWPs response to COVID-19 I was asked to accelerate our plans so that we could deliver quickly. I worked with my team and key stakeholders to explore the feasibility of redesigning our service in response to the situation. We did this in a phased approach and successfully launched the service on GOV.UK in just four weeks.
Our analytics show that in the first 6 months we averaged a 96% digital take up rate, and managed over 135,000 claims. During the first 6 months of the service going live, we learnt a lot about the work we carried out and our team. We wanted to share some of the key things we picked up that we felt could be useful for other people to consider.
1. We can deliver at speed
As we had been trialling the Apply Online service in Private Beta in very limited numbers, we weren’t coming from a standing start. However, we had to make significant changes to the service in order to make it work for all users in the current situation. Collaboration across boundaries was key.
Working with decision makers and experts in Policy and Service Delivery enabled us to update content at pace and ensure it reflected the new process and COVID-19 regulations. As a COVID-response project, we were allocated additional resources which enabled us to manage different work streams in parallel, thus maximising productivity.
The nature of the work and the social situation we found ourselves in created a strong team spirit and work ethos - we worked long hours, over consecutive weekends to launch the service on GOV.UK.
2. Be prepared to fail, but don’t be disheartened
The service needed GDS approval prior to launching on GOV.UK. However, due to the unprecedented situation the usual GDS governance process was not feasible.
In the days leading up to launching the service we attended a GDS Peer Review session where the service was reviewed against the public beta service standards. The outcome of the Peer Review gave permission for the service to be hosted on GOV.UK but with the caveat that we returned for a full GDS Public Beta Assessment four weeks later.
This was a huge and pressurised challenge for the team. We knew that we’d had significant limitations in research and data analytics and insufficient time to conduct some of the technical recommendations which came out of the Peer Review, so it was unsurprising that we got a ‘Not Met’ rating.
Whilst we recognised that the rating was right it still felt disheartening. After the Assessment we regrouped and developed a robust and realistic plan to address the recommendations. We worked proactively and remained positive to ensure we moved forwards. In October the service was reassessed and achieved a ‘Met’ rating.
3. User research and feedback is essential
In response to the pandemic we had to fundamentally change the original service based on policy and business needs – but we could not test them with our users as the lockdown blocked all of our usual opportunities for research. This was a significant risk as we didn’t know whether the service would meet everyone’s needs.
Once the service went live, users began to submit online feedback which we reviewed and categorised to help us understand positive and negative experiences. Before COVID-19 new designs would have been tested with users before implementation, but as we only had in-service feedback we were initially iterating retrospectively.
That changed when we added a link to an online survey where we asked users to participate in telephone based research. This new opportunity to research was invaluable in enabling the team to really understand our users. We also implemented Google Analytics which enabled us to see how users interacted with our service. The team continue to build on this insight to ensure the service continues to meet user needs.
One example of how user research has helped to improve the service came when we identified a key pattern from a high number of users unsure if their claim had been sent. In response to this we implemented an automated text message to confirm receipt of a claim and advise on processing timescales. We saw feedback drastically reduce in this category and operational colleagues reported a reduction in duplicate claims and progress chasing calls.
4. Seek out other teams and talk!
The combination of remote working and the pace of the challenge created an environment where we almost worked in isolation, just being consumed by all things NS ESA. However, it soon became obvious that we were not alone in the challenges we faced. I reached out to other Product Managers in similar situations, both in terms of service context and GDS journeys, and it’s been really valuable to share experiences and ensure we learn from each other’s successes and also mistakes.
We shared design patterns with our colleagues in the New Style Jobseeker’s Allowance team, and we also worked closely with Service Strategy to feed into critical work on orientation to ensure our service was included in COVID-19 government support signposting on GOV.UK.
5. Use the ‘new normal’ to your benefit
There were plenty of elements of this project that were new to all of us. We weren’t used to sustained remote working, or working with team members we’d never met or even seen before! We had to adapt, and adapt quickly. We rapidly became resilient and learned how to be more effective. Working from home has removed some barriers that often restrict office hours, so we were able to work in different ways to get things done.
It’s also important that we recognise the changes in internal governance routes that helped to increase pace. Getting to speak to the right people quickly enabled us to get information and approvals in place at pace, and it’s vital that we learn from these new ways of working and harness them where possible for the future.
From a personal perspective, this project was my first experience as a product manager, my first project using agile methodologies and my first during a pandemic, so it’s been a really challenging but massively rewarding experience.