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Making law in a digital world: the Universal Credit experience

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From several textbooks worth of legislation to just over 100 pages, Nicolette Sanders, from the Government Legal Department, explains how Government lawyers have simplified Universal Credit legislation using Agile service development principles.

Government lawyers have simplified Universal Credit legislation using Agile service development principles
Government lawyers have simplified Universal Credit legislation, from several textbooks worth to just over 100 pages

The Government’s digital agenda may not seem to have much to do with legislation. But many of the areas in which Government interacts with its citizens have their foundations in legislation, from the moment a child’s birth is registered and for the rest of their lives as citizens. The law – particularly Acts of Parliament and statutory instruments – might be thought of as a barrier to digital delivery. It evokes images of reams of ancient fusty paper, containing out of date, hard to understand technical language.

The Government is working to change that, with the Good Law Project run by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, modernising the law to make it more usable and accessible to people in the 21st century and driving digitisation of the statute book by the National Archives. Part of this is about making the language that law uses simpler. But it is also about ensuring that law enables fast and easy digital delivery of the services provided by Government. Lawyers in the Government Legal Department advising the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had to consider this recently, when they came to draft the legislation to implement a major welfare reform, Universal Credit (UC).

...this is about making the language that law uses simpler. But it is also about ensuring that law enables fast and easy digital delivery of the services provided by Government.

The task

UC is a key transformational welfare reform for DWP – within this new system, six separate benefits and tax credits are removed, merging disconnected in and out of work systems into one integrated system for working age people to reduce the barriers to work. The new service will ultimately be delivered primarily through digital channels, enabling users of the technology to access and manage UC via mobile devices and multiple digital channels and enabling DWP to take innovative approaches to helping claimants into work.

The benefits system is created by legislation. Hundreds of pages of primary and secondary legislation set out in detail what current claimants are entitled to get through benefits. Much of the legislation was drafted many years ago and is now difficult to follow and to understand. It can be hard to make sense of even if you are a benefits specialist!

In a digital world, benefits legislation still needs to respond to complex and rapidly changing personal circumstances that can impact on a claimant’s benefit amount, but in a way which is simple and clear. Delivering UC via digital channels also offers the prospect of higher levels of automated processing which was not anticipated in older legislation. As Bridget Hornibrook, the main drafting lawyer at DWP Legal Advisers on the UC secondary legislation, says, “expectations were high for UC and it was clear that, as drafters, we had to deliver something different”.

How we went about it

The starting point for lawyers was to ask their policy and operational colleagues who were designing and implementing UC what they liked about the law – and what they disliked. The outcome was interesting. They liked practical provisions, such as formulae and also provisions containing tables and steps that help the user navigate the legislation. And they disliked cross-references to other legislation, which required the user to go off and search for that legislation, and they particularly disliked language such as “subject to” and “for the purposes of”. In short, the demand from those implementing and those drafting was for plain language.

Taking those principles as their guiding light, lawyers set about reducing the hundreds of pages of existing legislation to something more manageable. The structure of the law was carefully designed to make it easy to read – for all readers. The main secondary legislation was given “signposts” with a clear explanation of what each part of the legislation does, so as to aid the user. That user could be a systems designer working on implementation or a lay person wondering how UC works. Even such apparently simple steps were not without controversy - surprisingly perhaps to the non-lawyer, that kind of thing is unusual in the law and it was the subject of further discussion between lawyers in and outside Government.

Aside from clarity, the other issue for the legislation to address was the need to reconcile the legislation with the needs of a primarily digital service. In a modern and digitally integrated service such as UC, many of the interactions between claimants and the service will be undertaken digitally and, therefore, remotely rather than face to face in a benefit office. Lawyers drafting the legislation needed to reconcile that kind of functionality with the need for a legal framework which:

  • is fair to claimants;
  • permits DWP staff to intervene in decisions where necessary; and
  • provides an appropriate audit trail for the correction of error and the prosecution of fraud.

After several months of drafting, the legislation was laid before Parliament. DWP lawyers achieved their goal of simplifying and shortening the key piece of secondary legislation, to just over a hundred pages (compared to several textbooks’ worth in the case of existing benefits).

The cultural challenge

The need to collaboratively design the legislation required lawyers – not traditionally considered to be the most innovative or imaginative of people – to work side by side with software designers and coders. Lawyers visiting the development centre of the UC digital service were faced with new and different ways of working and needed to adapt quickly. They had to learn about Agile software development (which breaks down the delivery of the product or service into small bite-sized chunks) and get on top of the language that the developers and coders spoke – and quickly. In doing so, they also realised that in fact the drafters of legislation and the designers of IT programmes are not operating in such different spheres as they might first seem. Both want to get the internal logic of a system right. Both wanted to embrace agile methodology. The team drafting the regulations worked collaboratively in an “agile” way with the rest of the team, implementing UC by getting stuck into discussions and challenge sessions and actively involving themselves in each development “sprint”. The success of this approach has led lawyers working in DWP Legal Advisers to adopt such a methodology in other projects going forwards.

What about the future?

DWP Legal Advisers are also working with the Department on a number of digital delivery projects and are reaping the fruits of the experience on UC and lessons learned from that project. Digital service development is now the standard and, looking forward, the creation of the Government Legal Department, bringing together many of the legal divisions across Government, will also mean that it is easier to spread good practice on making law fit for purpose in the digital age.

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  1. Comment by Tim Blackwell posted on

    Since these regulations were drafted almost three years ago, we've had several hundred pages of transitional provisions and commencement orders, some of which make even the ESA migration regulations look sane and welcoming by comparison.

    Do you have plans to develop an agile tool for these? One envisages an application which straightforwardly presents the state of the universal credit regulations (and relevant parts of WRA2012 etc) as applying to a selected date and locale.

  2. Comment by Gareth Morgan posted on

    "... they particularly disliked language such as “subject to” and “for the purposes of”."

    The Universal Credit regulations have 56 ‘Subject to’s and 96 ‘for the purposes of’s.