By Andy Tyack, deputy director for delivery, Universal Credit
Delivering life-changing digital services
DWP Digital is part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and, with around 20 million customers and claimants, it operates at a huge scale. DWP pays out £191 billion every year. We have over 600 job centres and 96,000 staff responsible for welfare, pensions and child maintenance policies.
Transformation at scale
Most of our services are developed and managed in-house by multidisciplinary teams. Universal Credit is one of our flagship programs, which enables millions of people to access the financial support they need.
Our aim with Universal Credit is to streamline and simplify our users’ experience by replacing six legacy benefits underpinned by different services that weren’t joined up.
We started building Universal Credit in-house, in 2014, as part of government plans to introduce internal resource. The service currently supports nearly 6 million households across the country. Our job is to provide a secure and scalable service that people can rely on.
Every so often, an organisation can find their demands have evolved beyond what their current technology stack can support, and they need to make a significant shift in that tech to remain sustainable.
With Universal Credit, we recognised the need for significant change due to its increasing scale and complexity.
The case for change
The challenge in adapting to increasing demand is in arguing the case for change to your organisation. The work has to be visible, and getting buy-in from your leaders and stakeholders is essential.
But, as government service designers, we always put the user first. That’s where our engineering strategy comes in.
The engineering strategy is a bold, clear statement of intent – a top-level view from which you can plan collaboratively, with enough flexibility to adapt to internal and external change.
It’s based on these principles:
• Ownership. A single team owns an entire problem, and the technical solution
• Reduce complexity and automate for efficiency
• Teams have autonomy, mastery and purpose
Giving teams ownership
Our strategy is based on total ownership: a single team owns an entire problem, end to end. And they own the technical solution end to end. This allows them to work quickly and independently in order to focus on features and release value early.
Total ownership needs teams to be in control of their own problem space. They need control of their own code base, their own routes, production, and the tools that allow them to support their services and production.
Reducing complexity, automating for efficiency
Reducing system complexity and introducing automation allows engineers to focus on solving business problems, and brings alignment between us and the technical strategy of the department.
Things like security and vulnerability scanning can be automated and built into the pipeline as code is pushed towards production. This makes teams leaner and less reliant on other teams, and it makes processes less complex.
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose
Autonomy – being allowed to work in your own way – is integral to how we work. We believe in intrinsic motivation, which is the idea that good people will have the drive to do good work if they have autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is based on trust. Leaders have to trust in their teams that they want to contribute – they do it because they want things to be right.
People gain mastery – a high level of understanding of their profession – through the opportunities and experience they gain. Again, trust is central to this. You have to trust that your team members will grow from facing challenges.
People develop purpose – their own personal sense of determination – through individual tasks being closely aligned to the objectives in the strategy. That gives the work context, and it helps teams recognise its impact.
For us, that means focusing on the core reason for Universal Credit, which is to keep people out of extreme poverty. So we actively question anything that doesn’t link directly to that strategy.
A strategy that serves the team
Every time you have to push a decision outside of the team and up the management chain, you’re introducing a delay, along with a perception of disempowerment. This can lead to demotivation. You can’t empower the team in every situation, but where you can you should.
The strategy is there to serve us, by clearly laying out these principles for our teams. It helps us support the needs of millions of vulnerable people in a reliable, secure, easy to understand way. It enables us to operate efficiently across all our digital operations, and meet our responsibilities to public money.
And it means all our engineers and teams can go home at the end of the day knowing that we’ve made a difference.
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