By Tony Collins
In his comment on the article “Is Univeral Credit really on track – the DWP hides the facts” Nik Silver asks in essence: why shouldn’t progress reports by IBM and McKinsey on Universal Credit be kept between the parties and not made public?
He says that criticism is usually helpful if the two parties can speak frankly without external interference.
It’s a reasonable point – if you are judging the public sector by the private sector’s standards. A private company would not make public consultancy reports it has commissioned on the progress or otherwise of a particularly costly project. Why should it?
Private v public sector approaches on big projects
But if the project goes wrong the private sector board will be accountable for the loss of money, or opportunity, or both. A private company’s board cares about a failed project because it cares about the bottom line. If there is cogent criticism in a consultancy report, it will ignore that criticism at its peril.
Those standards don’t always apply in the public sector. There is no bottom line to worry about, no individual responsibility. What matters is reputation. We have seen too many public sector failed projects where the desire to maintain face, politically and internally, distorts the truth on projects.
Several ministers were proclaiming the £11bn NHS IT plan, the NPfIT, to be a success while it was going disastrously wrong. On the Rural Payment Agency’s IT-based Single Payment Scheme Parliament discovered that bad news was covered up. Ministers Lord Bach and Lord Whitty said they were misled by their officials.
When the truth financially came out it was too late to turn around the project cheaply and easily. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that if such a failure had happened at a major plc, the board would have faced dismissal.
Cover up when a project goes wrong also happens in the private sector. But case studies indicate that when a private sector board finds out it has been lied to, it does its utmost to put things right. The bottom line is the motivation.
In the public sector it sometimes happens that nothing is done to put serious problems right because there is no acceptance there are any serious problems. Nobody is allowed to accept internally that things are going wrong. A state of unreality exists. Some know the project is doomed. Some at the top think it’s on track. The truth in the consultancy reports remains hidden, even internally. [The DWP couldn’t find the IBM and McKinsey reports when we first asked for them.]
Like Nik Silver, we would like Universal Credit to succeed. We are not sure it will, because the truth is not coming out. Unless serious problems are admitted they cannot be tackled.
In the public sector a disaster does not usually become apparent until things are so bad the seriousness of the problems cannot be denied. It may be that Universal Credit will be a success if it is delayed or changed substantially in scope. That won’t be possible without reports such as IBM’s and McKinsey’s being published. In the meantime Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will continue to be given papers showing that all is well. If the IBM and McKinsey reports are published now, and they contain some serious high-level criticisms, perhaps impinging on policy and excessive complexity, the ills may be cured or at least tackled. If these and other progress reports are made public now the corrigible criticisms could create a political climate to address those ills.
At present Universal Credit looks like so many IT-based change programmes of the past. One side says the project is becoming a disaster and the other side says all is well. The truth I am sure is that some things look good and some things bad. The bad probably won’t be addressed unless Parliament, together with all those who have a professional interest in the project – and the public – know about it.
The way of the past is to keep everything hushed up until it’s too late. Now there’s a chance to do things differently.