School of Social and Political Science

Investigating the automation of social security in the UK


University of Edinburgh researchers are to study automated systems in the UK's Universal Credit scheme, to investigate how they affect different users and if they contribute to social inequalities.

The project aims to make recommendations for how the designers of automated welfare systems can incorporate more public input and oversight into the development and deployment of this new technology.

Dr Morgan Currie of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science will lead the two-year project. The research team will work with the Department of Works and Pensions, Citizens Advice Edinburgh and other Scottish and UK charities to understand how claimants interact with automated components of Universal Credit and how automation in social security affects certain populations.

Exploring the emergence of automated welfare

Dr Currie said: “While governments have touted the technological benefits of these systems – their efficiency, budget-friendliness, and precision – critics worry that they propagate social inequalities deeply rooted in the fabric of society.

“Despite the expansion of these tools and the stakes involved for millions of users in the UK, there remains limited public knowledge about Universal Credit’s development and how its digital interfaces affect different socio-economic user groups.”

User design workshops

A series of workshops will give welfare claimants the opportunity to give feedback on the system.

These workshops are also a key output of the project - they will provide a template for how designers of these systems can conduct their own evidence-based consultations with claimants.

The study promises to have wider resonance by driving efforts towards building more democratic oversight of automated systems.

The project is funded by a New Investigators Grant from the UKRI's Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Currie is a lecturer in Data & Society at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. She focuses on open and administrative data, automation in the welfare state, activists’ data practices, digital civil society, data justice and the city, cultural mapping and critical GIS.

SPS’ Dr Jay Wiggan, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, is also working on the project as Co-Investigator.

More about the award

The ESRC New Investigator Grant supports new researchers at the start of their careers, based at research organisations eligible for UKRI funding, to become independent researchers through gaining experience of managing and leading research projects and teams.

Read more about the awards on the UKRI website.

Find out more

Visit Dr Currie’s profile

Visit Dr Wiggan’s profile

Science, Technology and Innovations Studies at the School of Social and Political Science