By Tony Collins
A report of the Public Accounts Committee published today says that the Universal Department for Work and Pensions continues to have a culture of denial over problems with implementing Universal Credit.
Labour MP Meg Hillier who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, said in an interview on LBC this morning (26 October 2018) that the Department for Work and Pensions regards any comment or feedback on the Universal Credit programme as criticism and a political attack.
Her committee’s report said that local DWP offices are helpful and listen to criticism of the Universal Credit implementation programme but not DWP corporately.
DWP officials have criticised even the National Audit Office. The report says,
“Following the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which raised concerns over the implementation of Universal Credit, the Department repeatedly denied the substance of his findings both in the media and in Parliament and maintained that Universal Credit was working well.
” The Comptroller & Auditor General wrote an open letter to the Secretary of State to ‘clarify the facts’ and to confirm that the report had been fully agreed with senior officials in the Department. On 4 July 2018 the Secretary of State had to apologise for misleading Parliament regarding the content of the report. Such defensiveness was also evident throughout the evidence session.”
As a credit to the IT professionals and civil servants who have been involved in developing the Universal Credit systems, the Public Accounts Committee report is largely about the programme’s effects on claimants rather than the technology.
DWP’s mandarins are likely to be comforted by criticisms of the Universal Credit implementation programme in today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee.
They remain convinced that Universal Credit is working well and that criticisms are policy-related. To some extent they are right. In the past year, criticism of the programme has gradually moved away from the performance of the IT.
Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee is about the intricacies of the Universal Credit implementation programme but hardly mentions the IT. This is much to the credit of those developing the systems. Universal Credit replaces six systems that are each of labyrinthine complexity: housing benefit, employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credit, working tax credit and income support.
Many Universal Credit payments are wrong and late but these criticisms are not in the mainstream, eclipsed perhaps by legitimate criticisms of how Universal Credit works rather than whether it works.
Of concern, though, is the fact that the Universal Credit programme is years from being fully rolled out. The DWP claims that just over on million people are claiming it, which is a seventh of the total numbers expected to claim.
Whether the IT will work well at scale is not known. The DWP routinely keeps secret independent evaluations of the Universal Credit systems.
It is this culture of secrecy that makes the Department of Work and Pensions an organisation ill-suited to spending large sums of public money on IT-enabled programmes. Universal Credit IT is, to some extent, working well in spite of the corporate culture. But we don’t know how well it will work when put under much more pressure.
Could the DWP’s defensive, dismissive and secretive culture end up sinking the Universal Credit programme when the number of claimants rise substantially?
What is worrying is that the DWP will probably not recognise that the boat is sinking until it is too late for rescue.
In its report published today, the Public Accounts Committee describes the Department of Work and Pensions as a “department disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support”.
The PAC report adds that the DWP is in denial and cannot learn from its mistakes (which is a criticism of a departmental culture that goes back decades).
The DWP hierarchy may be pleased at this criticism because the more outsiders and particularly MPs criticise Universal Credit, the more some senior Whitehall officials seem to have a settled belief that they are on the right track.
The only thing that deeply upsets DWP officialdom is a leak of authoritative information to outsiders in the media or to MPs.
Leaks have led in the past to internal inquiries led by the security services. Even a leak to the media of the results of an internal survey of staff morale on the Universal Credit programme prompted a top-level investigation.
This is what the PAC said,
“The Department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme.”
“The Committee has regularly commented on the Department’s blinkered approach to risks and problems with Universal Credit’s implementation.”
“We are disappointed that this culture of denial remains firmly in place. Local organisations have found the Department unresponsive to issues they have raised, and told us that the Department is not learning lessons and applying them to the programme. In addition, when the Comptroller and Auditor General raised concerns over the implementation of the programme in his report, the Department repeatedly questioned the substance of the report both in the media and in Parliament.”
“The Department’s defensive approach was further evident in the way it responded to criticism during our evidence session, refusing to accept that Universal Credit causes hardship for many claimants, and believing that issues raised were reflecting the policy not the implementation.
“But unless the Department learns to listen, it will not be able to adapt the programme to make it a success.”
Perhaps the only solution is a secretary of state who would be willing to criticise the DWP. It has not happened yet except briefly when Stephen Crabb took over the role from Iain Duncan Smith for few months in 2016.
Esther McVey the current secretary of state is what DWP mandarins would call a “safe pair of hands”.
For the DWP, the culture of denial, defensiveness and unresponsiveness will remain unconfronted. All of which bodes ill for the Universal Credit implementation programme when it is put under the pressure of having millions of claimants.
Thank you to campaigner David Orr for the Universal Credit links