By Tony Collins
Yesterday, while the national media was broadcasting and publishing criticisms of the Universal Credit project by the Public Accounts Committee, tweets by the press office at the Department for Work and Pensions were not exactly contrite.
Some DWP tweets amid the criticisms yesterday afternoon:
In October the National Audit Office said in its report Universal Credit: early progress:
“Major Projects Authority and supplier-led reviews in mid-2012 identified a ‘fortress’ mentality within the programme team and a ‘good news’ reporting culture.”
The Public Accounts Committee said in its report yesterday:
“The Department only reported good news and denied the problems that had emerged.”
The DWP’s tweets yesterday are not the fault of individual press officers who are, no doubt, accurately reflecting the views of senior officials that the Universal Credit IT project is going well, subject to some realignment which is to be expected on a complex and innovative programme.
This is one reason the DWP has had so many big IT-based project failures going back to the “Camelot” benefit computerisation scheme in the 1980s. The department’s perception of itself is that it is uniquely complex and misunderstood by those on the outside: the media, Parliament, the National Audit Office and, in more recent years, the Cabinet Office and the Major Projects Authority.
In some ways the DWP is like a soldier who emerges from a dense European forest in 1965 and is amazed to discover that the Second World War ended two decades before.
If the DWP’s press officers feel a need to keep up the pretence that all is well with the Universal Credit IT project, it probably means the pressure will be on the project director Howard Shiplee to keep up that pretence as well at least until, perhaps, he and Iain Duncan Smith disappear from the department after the general election in 2015.
Until the culture of denial and good news reporting at the DWP gives way to a culture of contrition, intense internal challenge, much greater openness, and an acceptance that some criticisms by Parliament and the National Audit Office may be justified – and an acceptance that the democratic process may be good for the department – Universal Credit seems doomed to follow the path of the last major benefits system change project in the 1990s: Operational Strategy, as it was called, took ten years (much longer than expected), went over budget by more than 300% and did not achieve the estimated savings.
Needless to say Whitehall officials – and the supplier – regarded the project a success.