By Tony Collins
Government Computing reports that the business case for the Universal Credit programme has yet to be signed off.
It appears that the Department for Work and Pensions receives money for the programme only when it needs it.
It is odd that the business case remains to be signed although the programme is more than three years old. The programme was “reset” last year.
At a hearing yesterday of the Public Accounts Committee the four top civil servants who appeared before MPs were reluctant to admit that the business case had not been signed off.
They four were:
– Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary, Cabinet Office;
– Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Home Civil Service and Permanent Secretary, Communities and Local Government;
– Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office and
– Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary, HM Treasury.
Government Computing reports that the four were “reduced to bluster” when the committee’s chair Margaret Hodge questioned them repeatedly on whether the business case for Universal Credit had been signed off by the Treasury.
She said, “There is no argument about the policy. It is entirely an implementation issue. And I cannot understand a centre that fails to intervene when there is such a classic failure at the departmental level on something that the centre says it is interested in, which is IT.
“It’s supposed to be a digitisation exercise in the way we administer benefits so you can integrate the benefits. What we’ve got out there is not a digitisation – it’s an incredibly staff intensive, pathfinder thing. Why is the centre allowing that to happen? Have you signed off the business case yet?”
“Have you assigned off the business case?” she repeated to MacPherson.
After some looks between the four permanent secretaries, Kerslake said, “I think we should stop beating about the bush. It hasn’t been signed off. What we’ve had is a set of conditional assurances about progress and the Treasury has released money accordingly. And that’s one of the key controls they have. “
Defending the role of the centre in the Universal Credit programme, Heywood said, “This is an example of where the centre did intervene very strongly, both the Treasury and the Major Projects Authority (MPA).
“The MPA with the support of the Treasury and with a lot of technical help from the Government Digital Service (GDS) has played a very clear role in bringing to the secretary of state’s attention that the project was way off track. And that was a very important intervention from the centre.
“It then followed up with the next technique that the centre has got, which is to provide support in seconding in the then head of the MPA, David Pitchford, to help re-programme the project, a lot of support from Mike Bracken and his team at GDS to help the digital underpinnings of it and also some help on the commercial renegotiation of some of the contracts from Bill Crothers and his team. So it’s a very good example of the assurance role was followed by a support role and that continues.”
Pressed by Margaret Hodge on whether Universal Credit was now on track, Heywood said, “In its current form, yes, I think it is.”
Among so-called enlightened democracies the UK, perhaps, stands alone. In what other country would the nation’s four most senior civil servants, when asked if the business case for a major project has been signed off, look like children in a playground who are being asked to reveal a secret?
What does it say about open government that the UK’s four most senior civil servants cannot immediately say yes or no to such a basic question?
[One thing it says, perhaps, is that they are all terrified of Iain Duncan Smith who doesn’t like anything being said about Universal Credit that isn’t entirely positive. Worse still, they probably all agree with him.]