Why electronic forms (eforms) are unsafe:
A key feature of the DWP’s ambitious digitisation initiative is to shift all responsibility for entering data onto the claimant. Eforms are the DWP’s method of choice.
Take e.g. Universal Credit which is designed to be claimed online. Under Universal-Credit claimants have no choice but to claim through eforms.
However, there are several reasons why eforms are unsafe and inappropriate.
Eforms limit the reality that they’re trying to capture to what the eform designer was able to think of and allowed to include. And eforms are usually just questionnaires with closed questions. However, reality and people’s circumstances are usually more complex. Eforms will generate an inaccurate and misconstrued representation of reality.
Storage of Context:
A related issue with eforms is, that the way the collected information is stored and presented in the system, can be different from the context in which the information was given. This context is not accessible to the person submitting information (submitter). And the submitter cannot check or correct the appropriateness of the context with which the information is stored.
On the other hand, when somebody submits a free text statement (i.e. when they’re able to write or type whatever they want in response to the question), that statement would usually have to be retained as a whole and would preserve the context.
Unlike e.g. with email, with eforms the submitter usually does not get any proof of content or context of what was ultimately submitted.
Information that is inaccurate (at input, due to input-limitations) or that is stored out-of-context is likely to lead to a serious misrepresentation of the circumstances of the person submitting the information. With eforms such a misrepresentation would remain unbeknown to the submitter, who would not be given an opportunity to do anything about this.
Some eforms time-out too soon. Most eforms time-out after a set number of minutes and possibly while the submitter is still looking for the requested information or is double-checking data.
Some eforms cannot be safely exited at all until they are complete.
One-Way Navigation (and Saving Changes):
Most eforms are spread over several separate pages that the submitter must save or submit separately; and it is impossible to progress to the next page without saving or even submitting the current page.
This can become very problematic and confusing when similar questions are being repeated over separate pages with a different emphasis or slant to them. It will often be the case that the submitter did save a generic reply to the earlier questions that they now realise would be misleading in respect of the emphasis; because what may have been appropriate in general terms may be completely out-of-line with the emphasis of what the questions were interested in.
Compounding these problems, many eforms are one-way, and even where there is a safe and exit function –which allows a submitter to login and continue at some later time– they don’t allow the submitter to go back and change/amend previously saved entries.
The person submitting the data is not an expert and not trained or familiar with the way the data is being processed and used. Therefore they normally won’t and can’t know about the context in which what they submitted is being used, and may provide irrelevant information or information that is misleading in the used context (as opposed to the context in which it was given), or (possibly worse:) they may fail to point out things that are relevant.
When a submitter is being confronted with a question, they have no opportunity to get advice on how to answer it, except if they can safe and exit the eform at any point in time and if they are allowed to make changes to each and every entry that they have saved already.
However, if the eform uses one-way navigation, and it is impossible to go back, the submitter must save and exit multiple times and seek advice multiple times.
Given that advice agencies are already stretched, this is unlikely to be practical, and the submitter will be likely to be left without all the advice that would be appropriate.
Pitfalls of a Lack of Advice when Completing DWP Forms:
Information that is provided without sufficient advice, will lead to claimants being required to do more than would be appropriate under their circumstances (e.g. workfare that is increasing the likelihood of being sanctioned), and will lead to claimants being denied access to money that they are entitled to.
We recommend that all of the above points should be urgently addressed, and that for claimants who prefer to make their claim or enquiry in person, face-to-face with a JobCentre-Advisor/Coach, this should still be possible –especially e.g. if they feel their situation is too complex to fit into the options given by the eform, or if they have a question about how to interpret the claim form, or if they feel uncomfortable with the eform.