By Tony Collins
IT-related projects are about solving problems – and if you cannot own up to the most serious of them, how can they be solved? For those working on Universal Credit it may be stressful, perhaps even hazardous to health, if they cannot discuss serious project problems openly.
Could it be that the DWP’s unnatural grip on information – what the National Audit Office called a good news reporting culture that “stifled open discussion and challenge” – is a major factor in the delays, rising costs and lack of success in the Universal Credit programme?
Could it also explain why the programme has had so many leaders – who perhaps found that speaking their minds was culturally unacceptable?
I had a taste of the DWP’s grip on information when I asked a department press officer last week about Howard Shiplee, Director General of Universal Credit who went off sick with bronchitis. Was he back at work? He may no longer be working full time, suggests Computer Weekly.
The DWP appointed Shiplee in May 2013 and he went off sick in December 2013. He took over the UC programme from David Pitchford who quit to return to his native Australia. Terry Moran who ran the universal credit programme at its inception retired from the DWP last year after an extended period of sick leave.
Philip Langsdale, a highly respected IT expert with public and private sector experience, took over responsibility for the UC programme in September 2012 but died four months later.
Another short-serving incumbent was Hilary Reynolds, a departmental civil servant who was appointed programme director in November 2012 but moved to another role four months later. She replaced Malcolm Whitehouse, who had stepped down as UC programme director.
Andy Nelson, Chief Information Officer at the DWP who had partial control of UC, has resigned after little more than a year in the job.
Government press officers and other public-facing officials usually like to be helpful, open and truthful. But they also reflect an organisation’s culture, whether it is open or closed, or liable to dissemble. The DWP press officer I spoke to last week seemed unable to depart from her pre-agreed script. Clearly she was allowed to say that Shiplee was “at work and fully engaged in delivering Universal Credit” – but no more about him.
“Howard Shiplee is at work,” she said.
Is it accurate to say he is “at work” when it’s for one day a week only?
“He is at work and fully engaged in delivering Universal Credit.”
Isn’t it misleading for the DWP to imply that Howard Shiplee is working full time on Universal Credit when he is only working one day a week?
“He is fully engaged in delivering Universal Credit.”
So he is working full-time on Universal Credit?
“He is at work. And we have announced the next steps in the Universal Programme …”
That started a different line of questioning on whether the DWP was being misleading in its announcement that the “full” Universal Credit benefit will be rolled out in the north-west of England in June.
I asked what “full” meant, when the reality is that new UC claimants must be single, without children, newly claiming a benefit, fit for work, not claiming disability benefits, not have caring responsibilities, not be homeless or in temporary accommodation, and have a valid bank account and National Insurance number. Specifically excluded from UC “pathfinder” claims – although the original plan was include them – are income support, housing benefits, working tax credits, child tax credits and difficult cases.
The DWP’s latest announcement on the next steps in the UC programme refers four times to the “full” UC benefit:
From the DWP’s May 2014 UC announcement:
“The expansion of the full [my emphasis] Universal Credit benefit to the rest of the North-West of England will start in June, it was announced today. On top of that claimants in 10 parts of the country are also benefiting from the better work incentives of the full benefit.”
“In total 90 jobcentres, or one in eight jobcentres in Britain, will offer the full Universal Credit once the North-West expansion is completed.”
“During the summer the new benefit will also be made available for new claims from couples in a number of jobcentres that already deliver the full Universal Credit, expanding to all the current live sites over time.”
The DWP press officer did not answer my question directly. She said couples will soon be able to claim UC in parts of the country. It appears she was not allowed to lie. But was she also forbidden from telling the truth?
For nearly 2 years the press office’s script was that the UC programme was “on time and on budget”. As the Guardian reported in April last year:
“The DWP has repeatedly claimed that the development is on schedule and on budget.”
But after the National Audit Office reported in depth in September 2013 that the UC programme was in a mess and that tens of millions had been written off the press office changed its script. Now press officers are instructed to say, if asked if the programme is on time and to budget, that it is “on track”, whatever that means.
The Work and Pensions Committee has criticised the DWP’s lack of openness and transparency on the Universal Credit programme. It said:
“On two occasions, the Government has made public the details about major changes to the timetable for UC implementation only when forced to do so by the prospect of oral evidence in front of the Committee. This lack of openness and transparency is not acceptable.”
The National Audit Office identified a ‘fortress’ mentality within the programme team; and the Public Accounts Committee said that the DWP’s UC team became
“isolated and defensive, undermining its ability to recognise the size of the problems the programme faced and to be candid when reporting progress”.
Now the DWP may be looking for Shiplee’s replacement. If so, how long will the appointee stay in post – a few months at best? Can any good UC project leader survive the DWP’s closed and dissembling culture?
As competent and talented UC leaders come and go it’s becoming easier to see why turnover is so high. The DWP and Accenture successfully built the enhanced National Insurance Recording System (NIRS2), in part by having daily round-table discussions about project problems. I sat in on one of them. The meetings were marked by the openness of the exchanges.
For that reason IDS may unwittingly be the worst sort of person to be boss of a big IT-based programme. Can the UC’s programme leaders take their workplace problems to IDS without their suffering stress or worse?
The DWP was becoming innately secretive, not open to internal or external challenge, even before IDS was appointed. Since he took over in 2010 the department has become more defensive, introspective, closed, and excessively sensitive to its public image and reputation.
Can anyone run a big IT-based government programme amid a good news culture that permeates all levels of the hierarchy and IT teams at the DWP? It especially infects the DWP’s entrenched US-based major IT suppliers.
IDS has the advantage of understanding the UC programme and he is right to slow down its introduction, but if he stood down as UC’s political leader, the programme’s leaders could find their lives becoming less stressful, less hazardous perhaps.
[A more suitable political leader of the UC programme would, perhaps, be a pragmatist who is a good listener and is not preoccupied with self-image and looking strong – perhaps Frank Field (Labour), Norman Lamb (Liberal) or Richard Bacon (Conservative). ]
Privately the DWP’s ministers would probably argue that being open would give ammunition to the opposition which exploits for party political reasons every supposed UC problem. But openness could have pre-empted that.
If the DWP would publish the UC reports it has so far repeatedly refused to publish it could show in detail how it is tackling the problems in a measured and open way.
Nothing will change its culture. All we can hope for is that scrutiny will be intensified. The Work and Pensions committee is doing a good job, as is the NAO, the Public Accounts Committee, the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal but the scrutiny is spasmodic, not month to month or week to week, let alone day to day.
So where is the UC programme heading?
It seems that the Universal Credit programme will remain inherently flawed until after the general election when a new administration may own up to the depth of the problems and a new long-term rollout will be announced, perhaps extending beyond 2020.
You won’t hear that from the DWP, and particularly not its press officers. But if they’re not allowed to tell the truth spare a thought for those working on the programme. Some of them are highly paid. But what’s money when your health is at stake?