Is Universal Credit on the right track?

The publication of the PASC report on Civil Service Reform, “Truth to Power” , a day after the  the NAO report on the problems with the Universal Credit Programme, is most timely. Read the PASC report before the NAO report and you will then begin to understand how officials and their contractors turned what Ministers thought were clear objectives and an ambitious but practical timetable, (with pathway pilots, innovation teams and incremental implementation) into “a programme without a plan”. More-ever, to save time, “they” used a traditional “delayed big bang methodology” which paid lip-service to “agile” and “incremental” but was really “classic waterfall, but rushed”, delaying practical experience with real claimants until towards the end.

“Officials” and “industry experts”, (hoping for jobs with a future government), are now blaming Ministers for lack of pre-planning, while the Ministers are blaming them for not doing what was requested. The reality was the mutual incomprehension (that the ministers meant what they said and that officials knew what they were doing) was compounded by the traditional mandarin approach of “tell those above what they want to hear” and an average length of stay of three months among programme managers. The consequent waste in time and money is comparatively light, compared to that with previous DWP programmes. The destruction of enthusiasm and morale is far more serious.   

The good news is that the “train crash waiting to happen” is not longer inevitable. The Secretary of State has stopped the train. The bad news is that he may believe that, having once again said what he wanted, that will be enough to ensure that it happens. Instead of claiming that the problems were sorted and teh train was on track, I believe he should have reprised Churchill’s speach on “the end of the beginning” . It is also worth remembering what Montgomery did before the battle of El Alamein. He put the campaign on “hold” while he pulled all units back, in rotation, to be retrained.  He had fully appreciated, which Churchill had not, that his army was a mix of those who were beaten and demoralised  and those who were untrained and inexperience. It was not fit for battle. Neither are the DWP teams. They need training and remotivating in order to succeed in delivering what is politically agreed.

The Secretary of State was telling the truth when he said that the NAO report contained little that was new. He was, unfortunately, probably not correct when he said that the necessary corrective action had been taken and all was now on track. He had indeed done (back in 2011) all that a Secretary of State can do. But the speed with which the department reverted to its original strategy of “denial” after the death of Philip Langdale (getting rid of the “temps” brought in to map the dependencies and tasks that had been ignored and to introduce professional programme management while he rebuilt an in-house team) illustrates the scale of the challenge facing Howard Shiplee. I do recommend you read Shiplee’s speach on his first hundred days particularly the refrence to dependancies outside DWP. The “fortress mentality” (referred to by the NAO) is not confined to DWP. The success of the Universal Credit depends on cross-departmenal co-operation: with UK Borders Agency  with regard to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants claiming benefits ;DCLG, Local Government and Home Office regarding the Bermuda Triangle of tenancy, housing benefits and other benefits and (also) mortgage frauds  and so on.

It is too soon to say that the culture of not telling the minister the bad news has been overcome. It is also too soon to say that the culture of seeking to blame the minister for decisions  taken. or more commonly not taken, further down the food chain, havs been overcome. It is too soon to be certain that the train is now on the right track.

What can be said, is that the Secretary of State has made a serious start by appointing another heavyweight programme manager. I wait to hear what the Permanent Secretary has to say when he next appears before the PAC. I note that he was not present to speak to the DWP track record at the last  DWP Select Committee hearing. Given what he said before the PAC when the problems first came to light, I doubt he would do better than the DCMS Permanent Secretary, whose officials had made a similar horlicks with regard to delivering what their Secretary of State wanted with regard to Broadband and who took the precaution of ensuring that his programme manager was not available to be questioned by the Public Accounts Committee.

We need to remember that the problems within DWP go back to before original “operation strategy” devised by the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen before they were before they were banned from new government business by Mrs Thatcher for lying to ministers, particularly over the de Lorean affair. When Labour reversed that ban in 1997 it re-opened the flood gates for what followed. I remember doing a note for use at a ministerial away-day, nearly a decade ago, explaining why they would face opposition to any “reform” akin to that which destroyed underlying econmic of the original Pathway (renamed Horizon) programme when the pilot, at 400 Post Offices, led to a 10% drop in claims and those running the programme estimated that the next stage, cleansing the main files, would lead to a further 10% drop. Those running that pilot were fairly certain that they had good data on the scale of systemic fraud. Others said they had merely “displaced it”. others wanted their success to be measured on the benefits they paid out, regardless to whom. Others did not like the concept of a “benefits card”. Now, after several rounds of pass the parcel with regard to central government ID policy, the world may be about to turn full circle with the DWP ID contracts finally awarded and a programme manager who will enforce the cross-boundary co-operation and inter-operability that is implicit in the related contracts, performance measure and incentives.

I very much hope, however, that the Cabinet, not just the Secretary of State at DMCS, appreciate that they need to give Shiplee that same kind of backing that they gave him for the Oympics: once they realised that tim e was running out and personal reputation and departmental, (let alone supplier), self-interest would have to sacrificed in favour of genuine co-operation to meet shared objectives. I also hope that they will appreciate that way forward involves reskilling and remotivating the permanent Civil Service. Contracting out that which will not benefit from “entrepreneurial attititudes” or “profit motives” is not a good way of improving those public services which cannot realistically be devolved as recommended by Policy Exchange.  

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