By Tony Collins
The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has told MPs his department is launching a “major exercise” tomorrow to inform the media about Universal Credit, including progress with the IT project.
The public relations push will include a demonstration to journalists of the Univeral Credit front-end, and an explanation of the ability of “agile” to rectify problems as you go along. Duncan Smith said there is a lot of ignorance in the media, and suppositions, that need tackling head on.
His full statement on the PR campaign is at the foot of this article.
Iain Duncan Smith’s remarks to MPs sound remarkably like the statements that were made in the early part of the National Programme for IT in the NHS, when DH ministers and senior officials were anxious to correct ignorance and suppositions in the media – and to show journalists the front end of new electronic patient record systems.
Several times journalists were invited to Richmond house in Whitehall, the HQ of the DH, to hear how well the NPfIT was going. So anxious were the minister and leading officials to give a good impression of the programme that, on one occasion, trade journalists who had an insight into the NPfIT’s progress and could ask some awkward questions in front of the general media were barred from attending.
I would like Universal Credit to succeed. In concept it simplifies the excessively complex and costly benefit system. The worrying thing about the scheme, apart from the DWP’s overly sensitive reactions to scepticism in the media, is the way UC seems to be following the path which led to NPfIT’s downfall.
The Secretary of State attacks the media while trying to show UC in a glowing light and at the same time keeps secret all the DWP’s interview reviews and reports on actual progress. Duncan Smith says that the DWP wants to be open on UC but his department is turning down FOI requests.
There is no doubt that Duncan Smith has a conviction that the programme is on course, on budget, and will deliver successfully. But there still a morass of uncertainty for the DWP to contend with, and lessons to be learnt from pilots, some of which could be important enough to require a fundamental re-think. That’s to say nothing of HMRC’s Real-Time Information project which is part of UC.
Duncan Smith says the UC project is not due to be complete until 2017 which gives the DWP ample time to get it right. But ministers and officials in the last administration gave the NPfIT 10 years to complete; and today, nine years later, the scheme is being officially dismantled.
Did NPfIT ministers really know or understand the extent of the project’s true complexities and uncertainties? Did they fully grasp the limited ability of suppliers to deliver, or the willingness of the NHS to change? But they were impressed with the patient record front-end system and they organised several Parliamentary events to demonstrate it to MPs.
The NPfIT public relations exercises – which included DH-sponsored DVDs and a board game to market the NPfIT – were all in the end pointless.
Should Duncan Smith be running Universal Credit?
This is another concern. Duncan Smith is much respected and admired in Parliament but he appears too close to UC to be an objective leader. At a hearing of the Work and Pensions this week Duncan Smith took mild criticism of UC as if it were a verbal attack on his child.
It is doubtful anyone working for Duncan Smith would dare give him bad news on UC , though he attends lots of departmental meetings. Doubtless he listens to all those who agree with him, those who are walking press releases on the progress of the UC programme. He’d be a good marketing/PR man on UC. But surely not its leader. Not the one making the most important decisions. For that you would need somebody who’s free from the politics, who is independently minded, and who welcomes informed criticism.
Is there any point in a demo of front-end systems?
Seeing a front-end system means little or nothing. The question is will it work in practice when it is scaled up, when exceptions come to light, and when large numbers of people try to contact the helpdesks because they cannot get to grips with the technology and the interfaces, or have particular difficulties with their claim.
What will a media campaign achieve?
If the NPfIT experiences are anything to go by, journalists who criticise the UC project will be made to feel stupid or uninformed.
In a totalitarian regime the media could be forced to publish what the government wants people to believe. Will the DWP’s PR campaign be designed to achieve the same end without the slightest attempt at coercion?
Duncan Smith’s comments to MPs
Below is some of what Iain Duncan Smith told Work and Pensions Committee MPs this week. He had been asked by a Committee MP to have a dialogue with the media to ensure that people believe that Universal Credit is a good thing.
“On Thursday we are carrying out a major exercise in informing the median about what we are doing, looking at the system front-end, about budgets and all the elements the committee has been inquiring into.
“We will take them through that, show them that. We are going to open up much more. It is such an important system that I want people to learn what it is all about. There is a lot of ignorance in the media and suppositions made; things that are important to tackle head on. Everyone says you mustn’t have a big bang; you are not going to be ready in time. The time we deliver this is 2017 when it is complete. That is over four years…”