Do you believe Iain Duncan Smith?
This is becoming a key question in the progress of the troubled Universal Credit welfare reform programme.
The secretary of state for work and pensions has staked his political reputation on the success of his flagship policy. It has been beset by IT problems, by leaks from disgruntled civil servants fed up with seeing millions of pounds wasted, and accusations from the government’s own auditors that it has failed to deliver value for money.
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But according to Duncan Smith, everything is fine, tickety-boo, nothing to see here, move on.
MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee this week accused him of hubris, obfuscation and using smoke and mirrors in his public pronouncements over Universal Credit. The minister simply refused to accept such claims. “I just don’t agree,” he said.
In December, he told MPs, “There is no debacle on Universal Credit”. This week, he described press claims of disagreements with the Government Digital Service and the Cabinet Office as “ludicrous”, although many people know such claims were correct.
If you say something often enough and confidently enough, does that make it true?
When Universal Credit first hit problems, Duncan Smith was forced to initiate a “reset”, bringing in the Major Projects Authority to review the project, and they gave a scathing report. The National Audit Office did the same. But to Duncan Smith, this was not a sign of problems, but a display of government at its finest.
He described the process as, “Probably the most detailed and forensic impairment review” of any government project.
Look at us, we analyse our problems so much better than anyone else.
You cannot fault the secretary of state for confidence. In the sporting world, it is seen as a sign of a good manager when he backs his players in public, even when privately berating them.
But does a confident manner work even if what you say is clearly gibberish?
Listen to Duncan Smith talk about open source, digital and cloud as an example. Nobody expects a senior politician to be an IT expert. It would be no criticism of the minister if he were to simply say, “I’m not an IT expert, this is what I have been told, but you need to talk to my IT people.”
But no, he talks about open source never having been used at the necessary complexity two years ago; he talks about how it apparently is the most appropriate way to scale up the performance of a system like Universal Credit. What?
These are things that any IT expert would tell you clearly show he doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Nobody would criticise him for not understanding a specialist area such as technology and software development.
But he says this stuff with such utter confidence.
In which case, how can you tell the difference between confidently told truth, confidently told obfuscation, or confidently told untruths about any aspect of Universal Credit?
It is surely politics of the 20th century to bluster through, confident in your ability to make people believe that you know what you’re talking about. Today, in what is meant to be “the most open and transparent” government in the world, honesty and openness is what it takes to win support.
Let’s face it, the £40m written off on Universal Credit IT is chicken feed compared to some of the hundreds of millions – billions even, in the case of NHS IT – that has been wasted in the past on failed Whitehall projects. But it seems a lot more when we have been consistently told that all is well.
The secretary of state’s utter confidence provides the context within which Universal Credit must be assessed.
So, do you believe Iain Duncan Smith?