By Tony Collins
“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.