By Tony Collins
“It is working,” said Work and Pensions secretary David Gauke in Manchester yesterday. He was referring to a plan to accelerate the rollout of Universal Credit from this month.
“I can confirm that the rollout will continue, and to the planned timetable,” he added.
But are civil servants giving Gauke – and each other – full and unexpurgated briefings on the state of the Universal Credit programme?
Last year, in a high-level DWP document that government lawyers asked a judge not to release for publication, a DWP director referred to
“a lack of candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit] programme.”
Senior civil servants were not passing bad news on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme even to each other.
The DWP document was dated several years after Iain Duncan-Smith, the original force behind the introduction of Universal Credit, found his internal DWP briefings on the state of the UC programme so inadequate – a “good news” culture prevailed – that he brought in his own external advisers – what he called his “red team”.
In 2013 the National Audit Office, in a report on Universal Credit, said a “good news” mentality within the DWP prevented problems being discussed.
If problems could not be discussed they could not be addressed.
Last year the Institute for Government, in a report on Universal Credit, said IT employees at the DWP’s Warrington offices burst into tears with relief when at last permitted – by external advisers – to talk openly about problems on the programme.
The Work and Pensions Committee has questioned why DWP ministers told MPs all was going well with the programme when it was well behind schedule and beset with problems.
The Public Accounts Committee called the DWP “evasive and selective” when it came to passing on information about the state of the Universal Credit programme.
Is there any reason to believe that the “fortress mentality” that the NAO referred to in its report on Universal Credit in 2013 is no longer present?
When David Gauke announced yesterday that he is continuing the rollout of Universal Credit, was he basing his decision on the full facts – or a “good news” version of it as told to him by the DWP?
David Gauke will have been given the “new minister” treatment when he joined the DWP on 11 June 2017.
“The first thing you’ve got to overcome when you walk through the door is that everybody is being almost far too nice to you,” said one of Gauke’s predecessors, Iain Duncan Smith. He was speaking in 2016 after leaving the DWP.
IDS was much criticised for assuring Parliament all was well with the Universal Credit IT programme when it wasn’t. But maybe he was right to point out that, when he joined the DWP, he found that the “biggest cultural barrier” was getting civil servants to be honest about difficulties.
“The Civil Service, legitimately, see it as their role to deliver on politicians’ policy demands and this can sometimes make them resistant to the idea that they should inform you early of problems,” said IDS.
It was IDS who told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme in December 2013, that Universal Credit was on track.
“It’s on budget. It’s on budget. Some 6.5million people will be on the system by the end of 2017.”
In fact, fewer than 700,000 people are claiming Universal Credit, according to the latest DWP statistics.
DWP’s 30 years of a “good news” culture
In the past 30 years, it has been almost unknown for the DWP’s mandarins to concede that they have had serious problems with any of their major IT-based projects and programmes.
Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that Gauke apparently refuses to listen to critics and continues with the accelerated rollout of Universal Credit.
Would he have any idea that the Citizens Advice Bureau, in a carefully-researched report this year, said that some claimants are on the DWP’s “live service” (managed by large IT suppliers) which is “rarely updated” while other claimants are on a separate “full service” – what the CAB calls a “test and learn” system – which is still being designed?
Would Gauke know of the specific concerns of the all-party Work and Pensions Committee which wrote to the DWP earlier this year about Universal Credit decision makers being “overly reliant on information from [HMRC’s] Real-time information” even when there is “compelling evidence” that this data is incorrect?
Would Gauke have any reason to believe those who refer to regular computer breakdowns and inaccurate and inconsistent data?
In the DWP’s own document that it did not want published, the DWP director said that, internally, “people stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the Programme, even when those comments would be useful as part of something like an MPA [Major Projects Authority] review.”
Many staff believed the official line was ‘everything is fine’. Nobody wanted to be seen to contradict it.
All this suggests that the DWP will carry on much as before, regardless of external criticism. Individual ministers are accountable but they move on. Their jobs are temporary. It’s the permanent civil service that really matters when it comes to the implementation of Universal Credit.
But mandarins are neither elected nor effectively accountable.
NHS IT programme?
There may be some comparisons between Universal Credit and the NHS IT programme, the £10bn NPfIT.
A plethora of independent organisations and individuals expressed concerns about the NPfIT but minister after minister dismissed criticisms and continued the rollout. The NPfIT was dismantled many years later, in 2011. Billions was wasted.
Based on their civil service briefings, NPfIT ministers had no reason to believe the programme’s critics.
Universal Credit has more support than the NPfIT and the IT is generally welcomed, not shunned. But the Universal Credit rollout is clearly not in a position yet to be speeded up.
Whether Gauke will recognise this before his time is up at the DWP is another matter.
Like IDS, Stephen Crabb and Damian Green – all secretaries of state during the rollout of Universal Credit – Gauke will move on and his successor will get the “new minister” treatment.
And the cycle of ministerial “good news” briefings will continue.
Perhaps the DWP’s senior civil servants believe they’re protecting their secretaries of state.
As the civil servant Bernard Woolley said in “Yes Minister”
“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”
Thank you to David Orr, an ardent campaigner for open government, who alerted me to Universal Credit developments that form part of this article.
Pingback: Is Gauke being told the whole truth on Universal Credit’s rollout problems? | Campaign4Change | kickingthecat
Thank you, Tony.
This is so depressing – from history continually repeating itself and the participants perennially determined not to learn, to the deeply disappointing insights of the ministers involved.
I appreciate the comment from Peter above and his first hand, invaluable experiences and insights. Of course the vulnerable will be hardest hit – they are least able to complain and hence endanger the careers of those responsible.
My ghastly experiences were within a government agency where management consultants diagnosed a ‘besieged’ mentality. I only stayed because of promised remedial programmes. I then witnessed all of the remedies being systemically undermined and destroyed.
That those who are basically bureaucrats can put their own well-being and their fictional world views above the basic needs of the vulnerable, tells us much about our society and what will eventually bring it down.
Wishing the good people well.
Thank you Zara. Individually the civil servants, at least the ones I’ve met at the DWP, are not just publicly spirited but are wedded in their jobs to the public weal. But as a group, they act in the interests of the department; and the department’s interest, it seems to me, is tied into convincing itself collectively that it is doing a great job. Challenge and criticism, constructive or not, has no place in this culture. This may be one reason for the DWP’s vehement opposition to suggestions that it publish progress reports on Universal Credit and other big IT-based programmes and projects. The last thing the DWP wants the public to know is what’s going wrong within the department.
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I have worked in the benefits system for nearly 40 years (back to the days of Supplementary Benefit) mostly as a specialist welfare rights adviser. UC policy is built on a number of fallacies.
(1) That the existing means tested (‘legacy’) benefits (MTBs) can simply be cut and pasted back together. Income Support was the single MTB for all claimants (with Housing Benefit / Rate rebate and successors originally using the same means test although administered by local authorities). Successive governments ‘broke up’ IS and provided specific benefits for particular claimants groups – JSA, ESA & Pension Credit. The means test for each was then subject to indivdual changes.
Tax credits replaced previous ‘in work’ benefits with entitlement based on an annual means test (with usually 4 weekly payments) whilst MTBs are based on a weekly entitlement (usually with 2 weekly payment)
UC seeks to stitch these legacy benefits together with monthly entitlement and payment (the ‘assessement period’) with some new rules thrown in for good measure and a completely new administrative (digital) process and IT system.
(2) That all claimants should / can be expected to move (back) into paid work. It may be that as UC is rolled out that the majority of current/new UC claimants will fit these criteria as they are more likely to be unemployed or in low paid work. However this will not be the case as existing legacy benefit claimant groups such as those with long term illness / disability, carers etc are migrated to UC in the longer term.
(3) That UC will always make work pay. Even before Osborne’s cuts to the ‘work allowance’ etc this would not have been the case. There is plenty of independent evidence that the majority of UC claimants, including those in work, will be worse off compared to ‘legacy benefits’. Those with disabiliies will be the hardest hit.
(4) That UC payments should mirror monthly salary payments to prepare claimants for the world of work. Yet approx. 50 % of low paid workers are paid more frequently. The monthly ‘assessement period’ creates particular problems for claimants who are paid (or have other) income paid more frequently than monthly (and for the self employed) and for those with fluctuating income.
(5) That all claimants will be able to cope with the ‘digital’ only ‘one size fits all’ administrative process and requirement to manage their UC claim on-line. The majority may well manage. But in the long run as the most vulnerable claimants are migrated onto UC who is going to support them to manage their claim? Consider many of the clients of the organistaion I work for who have significant mental health or learning difficulties, sensory impairement or an aquired brain injury (to mention but a few) for example. Or those who cannot access (or afford) the technology required for one reason or another.
(6) That DWP staff will have any better understanding of the UC rules than they do of the current system (there are already many horror stories of wrong advice regarding UC from DWP and local authority staff). Work coaches in Jobcentres will have far more discretion than in the current system and will have to deal with and have an understanding of a much wider range of claimants than currently. They will for the first time be dealing with the most vulnerable claimants. Many would argue that DWP’s policy on vulnerable claimants, safeguarding and ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Equality Act are wofully inadiquate.
I could go on ……..
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Thank you for the comment.