Housing Benefit COVID 19 - Digital Transformation Journey

The Housing Executive’s Housing Benefit department is at the forefront of Welfare Reform in NI making a real difference to the lives of vulnerable customers.

In 2019/2020 the team paid out £559m in Housing Benefit support to 126,819 customers.  A further £2.435m in Rate Relief was also paid to Housing Executive and Housing Association tenants in 2019/2020. At the heart of the work of the department is managing the transition from Housing Benefit to Universal Credit and providing support to our most vulnerable customers.

COVID 19 has presented challenges for the department in common with many public sector organisations.  However, our Housing Benefit team were quick to identify that challenges and risks also present great opportunities.  It was in that spirit the team embarked on a journey of Digital Transformation which we will share with you in this article.

Putting the customer first

The Housing Benefit department prides itself on being customer centric.  With this in mind it was no surprise that the starting point for our Digital Innovation journey was our customers.  Collectively we involved our staff at all levels in considering what digital innovations we could introduce that would make a big difference to our customers lives. We balanced ideas generated against resource constraints, people and budget, amplified by COVID 19.

We were quick to recognise that many of our customers were fearful of leaving their homes to travel to our offices due to COVID. The following digital innovations which relatively technically simple have made a huge difference to the lives of our customers.  This for us proves that digital transformation does not always have to be big to make a big difference. 

Use of Digital Smart Forms

  • An online evidence gathering form was quickly developed, tested and rolled out at scale to become an online Change in Circumstances evidence form.  The end benefit to our customer being they did not have to leave their home during lockdown. The streamlined processing of this data by staff was also quickly realised as a benefit.


  • The Minister for Communities announced enhancements to the Discretionary Housing Payment Scheme which provided additional financial assistance to those claimants. An online Discretionary Housing Benefit payment smart form for our customers was also developed, tested and rolled out at scale.  As a result an additional £83k has been awarded in Discretionary Housing Payments to 223 customers. 


  • With our software partners we designed and developed an online Self-employed form which went live in October 2020.  An online email capture form was also developed by us allowing our customers to receive their HB notifications by email.

Making Life Easier for Our Staff & Process Re-Design

We recognised that COVID 19 has brought increased stress for our staff as well. We approached this as an opportunity to accelerate our use of digital innovation to reduce pressure while simultaneously empowering our staff to go further for our customers.  We achieved reduced stress for staff by capitalising on the efficiency benefits from the following:

  • We expanded Housing Benefit staff capability to work from home. Before COVID 19 restrictions there were only 11 laptops being used by staff. This has been increased in a few short months, with collaboration with our IT colleagues, to around 165 devices that can be used by Housing Benefit staff at home.


  • At the initial stages of the COVID 19 restrictions it was necessary for us to design a new operational process to facilitate staff working both at home and in the office. This was done at scale in collaboration with staff. It necessitated a new workflow process that enabled staff be allocated work remotely including access to all related documentation.


  • We have also been working on implementing the Enterprise Document Management System which is embedded within the Housing Benefit system and will reduce the manual activities of filing and paperwork distributed around offices and staff.


  • Prior to COVID 19 our Housing Benefit Systems team worked in the Housing Centre delivering an essential service by supporting iWorld (the Housing Benefit system). When lockdown happened this team of staff quickly adapted to delivering a full Housing Benefit support service while working remotely.


What is next in our journey?


  • Following the introduction of Enterprise Document Management System we plan to introduce a central printing facility for all staff. This will reduce workload for staff while also reducing the costs of postage as these letters will be posted along with system generated letters (which already attract a significant lower postage charges).


  • Building on the success of or online smart forms and customer feedback we plan to develop further online forms to assist with more workflow processes.


Where can I find out more about this for my own organisation?


For further information please contact Andrew Barbour, Assistant Director of Housing Benefit.   Email:  Andrew.Barbour@nihe.gov.uk

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