By Tony Collins
The Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed that the executive director of the Major Projects Authority, David Pitchford, is to take interim charge of the delivery of Universal Credit, starting this week, says Government Computing.
Pitchford will stay initially for a three-month stint until a permanent replacement is appointed. He joins DWP’s CIO Andy Nelson, who was previously at the Ministry of Justice, in helping to oversee the Universal Credit project.
Pitchford and Nelson are jointly taking the place of Philip Langsdale, DWP’s highly respected CIO, who passed away just before Christmas last year.
The Daily Telegraph and Independent have portrayed Pitchford’s appointment as a sign that Universal Credit is in trouble. The Telegraph’s headline on Monday was
Welfare reforms in doubt as troubleshooter takes over
And the Independent reported that:
“Ministers have been forced to draft in one of the Government’s most experienced trouble-shooters to take charge of the troubled Universal Credit programme – amid fears the complex new system could backfire.”
But DWP officials say Pitchford’s appointment is not a sign Universal Credit is behind schedule.
A DWP spokesperson said, “David Pitchford will be temporarily leading Universal Credit following the death of Philip Langsdale at Christmas. This move will help ensure the continued smooth preparation for the early rollout of Universal Credit in Manchester and Cheshire in April. A recruitment exercise for a permanent replacement will be starting shortly.”
In Pitchford’s absence, the day-to-day running of the Major Projects Authority will be handled by Juliet Mountford and Stephen Mitchell, with oversight from government chief operating officer Stephen Kelly. Pitchford will retain overall responsibility for the MPA’s activities, says Government Computing.
On the face of it Pitchford’s appointment is a clever move: the Cabinet Office now has a senior insider at the DWP who can report back on the state of the Universal Credit project.
Francis Maude, who is the Cabinet Office minister in change of efficiency and is trying to distance the government from from Labour’s IT disasters, is almost openly worried about the smell that could come from a failure of the Universal Credit project.
DWP secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith keeps reassuring his ministerial colleagues that critics are ill-formed and all is well with the project. But it is not clear whether he has an overly positive interpretation of the facts or understands the complexities of the project and all that could go wrong.
Even officials at HMRC are having difficulty understanding some of the detailed technical lessons from the work so far on RTI – Real-time information. Although RTI does not need Universal Credit to succeed, Universal Credit is dependent on RTI.
With much conflicting information within government over the state of the Universal Credit project – which is compounded by DWP’s refusal under FOI to publish several consultancy reports it has commissioned on the scheme – it is useful for the Cabinet Office to have the highly experienced and much respected Australian David Pitchford run Universal Credit.
Pitchford is a much-valued civil servant in part because he is straight-talking. He said in 2011 that government projects failed because of:
– Political pressure
– No business case
Since he made this speech, and it was reported, Pitchford has become a little more guarded about what he says in public. The longer he stays in the innately secretive UK civil service, the more guarded he seems to become but he is still one the best assets the Cabinet Office has. His main advantage is his independence from government departments.
Potential for a conflict of interest?
The Major Projects Authority exists to provide independent oversight of big projects that could otherwise fail. Regularly it is in polite conflict with departments over the future direction of questionable projects and indeed whether they should come under the scrutiny of the MPA at all.
Pitchford’s taking over of Universal Credit, even on an interim basis, raises questions about whether he can ever be seen in future as an independent scrutineer of the project. According to The Independent, Pitchford will report directly to Iain Duncan Smith – bypassing the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux.
Once his secondment to the DWP ends Pitchford may wish to criticise aspects of the project. Can he do so with the armour of independence having run the project? Would he have the authority to delay Universal Credit’s introduction?
Pitchford is now an integral part of Universal Credit. He is in the position of the local government ombudsman who is seconded to a local authority, or an auditor at the National Audit Office who sits on the board of a government department. If a big project at the department goes wrong, the permanent secretary can say to the NAO: “Well you had a representative on our board. Are you in a position to criticise us?”
The MPA does a good job largely because it is independent of departments. There are signs that it is intervening to stop failing projects or put them on a more secure footing. Can the MPA remain independent of departments if its head has been seconded to a department?
On the other hand Francis Maude is likely to receive an account of how Universal Credit is going. And the Universal Credit project will have the benefit of an external, independent scrutineer as its head.
But if the MPA and Universal Credit are inextricably linked how can the MPA do its job of being an independent regulator of big IT projects including Universal Credit?