By Tony Collins
A leaked survey of staff at the Department of Work and Pensions who are working on Universal Credit programme found dishonesty, secrecy, poor communications, inadequate leadership and low morale.
So has the department’s culture changed little over 35 years?
One respondent to the latest UC staff survey wrote: “After 29 years of service this has been the most soul destroying work I have done. There is too much dishonesty and no one ever admits to making a mistake.”
Another comment: “I have never worked somewhere where decision-making was so apparently poor at senior levels…and communications from that level was totally nonexistent.”
Another: “There is a divisive culture of secrecy around current programme developments and very little in the way of meaningful messages for staff or stakeholders explaining what will happen and when.”
Another: “This is the third review in 16 months, no rollout plans, no confidence in going forward and stakeholders losing confidence in our ability to deliver.”
One respondent to the survey complained that stress was damaging people’s health.
The Government Digital Service is helping with UC but one employee in the survey says this has not been well received, according to Computer Weekly. “The involvement of GDS and the apparent secrecy around what they’re doing is bad for morale”.
Some of the interim results of the staff survey were in an email to UC programme staff on 23 July from the DWP’s business change director, a civil servant. The email said there was “much room for improvement”.
A DWP spokesman implied that the concerns were not ones that reflected a decades-old culture within the department . He said: “A new management team with clear strategic leadership is in place led by Howard Shiplee, one of the UK’s leading experts in delivering major projects including the Olympic Park. As a part of this, we are working with staff to understand the issues they were facing, just as any responsible employer would.”
DWP’s history of deceiving itself and the public
In 1982, the DWP (then the DHSS) abandoned “Camelot” – its attempt at the computerisation of welfare benefits. Around £6m was written off. Camelot stood for computerisation and mechanisation of local office tasks. While it was failing senior managers were assuring their bosses that all was going well.
Camelot’s having been abandoned because it was too complex and ambitious, the government launched, in 1984, a much more ambitious programme to unify benefits systems. It was called Operational Strategy. It was several times the size of Camelot; and it too proved a financial disaster.
When an MP Eric Deakins asked a senior Whitehall official whether the projected costs of Operational Strategy – then put at £713m – were likely to rise in real terms, the official replied: “No, they are unlikely to rise in real terms the equipment costs if anything are going to come down.”
A £1.9bn cost increase
Ten years later, on 5 May 1994, the then benefits minister Nicholas Scott confirmed to the House of Commons that the costs of Operational Strategy had risen by £1.9bn – from £713m to £2.6bn, which included £315m for consultancy.
Yet at the time, in the 1980s, ministers were portraying Operational Strategy as a success, as Iain Duncan Smith today writes and speaks about the Universal Credit project.
In the 1980s the then welfare benefits minister John Moore said that Operational Strategy “has arrived ahead of schedule, within budget” – exactly what Duncan Smith has been saying about Universal Credit.
But Operational Strategy proved to be not just a financial failure. [At one point the project occupied more than 360 consultants who were staying in the finest hotels on a more or less permanent basis, some of them claiming the sort of expenses parodied in Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”. ]
The technical hopes for the system went unrealised. Moore had said that at “the touch of a button” benefits staff would be able to “call up the information they require”. A claimant would be treated as a “whole person” – staff would be able to view a claimant’s welfare entitlements on one system without, say, logging off income support to go into the separate pension system.
Even today, 30 years on, welfare benefit systems remain largely separate – which is one reason for Universal Credit which is supposed to merge six systems into one.
UC trials too small to prove anything?
Duncan Smith can claim UC is a success because existing welfare claimants are being kept off the new technology. Even when the UC systems are due to start going live nationally in October 2013 the numbers of claimants will be so small their claims could be calculated by hand or using a spreadsheet.
If the UC system remains inadequately tested until after the general election in 2015 – which looks likely – and then proves unfit for purpose, will ministers and senior officials have any responsibility or accountability for problems that first arose in a previous administration?
It seems likely that Universal Credit’s £300m IT systems will be redesigned. There are some signs the IT is already in the process of being “reset”. But secrecy on the project ensures that the public, Parliament and particularly the opposition will not have the full facts on which to judge the project’s success or otherwise.
If IT work has been aborted what is the cost and have major suppliers been paid regardless?
Universal Credit could end up like Camelot and the Operational Strategy which failed to meet expectations – unless, perhaps, ministers and officials break with tradition and change the DWP’s age-old culture.
Dishonesty, secrecy, poor communications, inadequate leadership and low morale have characterised the welfare benefits administration for decades. Will a new project leader make much difference? Howard Shiplee who becomes the fourth person to run UC in six months may be world’s most inspirational and talented project leader.
But in trying to change the DWP’s secretive culture he stands without climbing gear at the foot a mountain that’s as wide and high as the eye can see.
David Cameron and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude could force a change of culture at the DWP – at least make it publish its consultancy reports on the progress or otherwise of UC – but they would need the support of Duncan Smith who seems as stuck in the old departmental culture as Moore was in the 1980s.
Replace Duncan Smith?
It would probably help if Cameron replaced Duncan Smith with an outsider who could see the organisation’s faults. But Duncan Smith will probably not go until the general election. Maybe then UC could start to make genuine progress, though the DWP’s culture may always put its management of big projects at a disadvantage.
An authoritative account of how and why Operational Strategy did not meet expectations is given by Helen Margetts in Information Technology in Government – Britain and America.
A further account of Operational Strategy is here.
“Crash”, which was written by David Bicknell and me, has a chapter on a series of IT failures at the DWP.