Wednesday 12 September 2012

Universal credit, national apathy

Writing in Monday's Guardian, The universal credit programme is on course for disaster, Frank Field concludes that:
It was brave of IDS [Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State at the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP)] to insist on occupying the command on the bridge, but it was the prime minister's wish to avert a catastrophe that drove him to try to move his work and pensions secretary so that the government could quietly shut down the whole reform. His failure to act leaves the disaster on course.
Mr Field believes that means-testing systems like UC, universal credit, create dependency and rot the souls of their parishioners. As the acknowledged authority on welfare, called upon by both the coalition government and their predecessors, his opinion is worth considering.

The idea behind UC was to "sweep together the main means-tested benefits and tax credits into one 'universal' benefit", Mr Field says, but DWP have given up on that.

In the unlikely event that UC is deployed, it won't do what it was meant to do and it will rot people's souls. That's what Mr Field says, and he says that the Prime Minister believes it, too – UC is on course for disaster.

They are not alone, Messrs Field and Cameron.

Intellect, the trade body of the UK IT industry, investigated UC and reported to DWP that the timescales for the project are unlikely to be met and that the promise that no-one will be worse off under UC is unlikely to be deliverable.

So that's Mr Field, Mr Cameron and Intellect. And the Local Government Association (LGA), who describe DWP's insistence on using so-called "agile" systems development methods for UC and on UC being online only – no old-fashioned paper forms to fill in – as:
... not grounded in reality.
The LGA isn't alone, either. It is one of no less than 70 organisations that have criticised UC.

70 organisations, and Liam "there's no money left" Byrne, who says:
Universal Credit is overdue and over budget and now everyone from the chancellor to charities, the CBI to local councils is warning this is a car-crash about to happen.

We've been warning of this for months and we're summoning Iain Duncan Smith to the Commons for a full scale debate.
DWP's response is that there's nothing to worry about:
Liam Byrne is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is incorrect.
But that's not their only response. DWP also commissioned reports on UC by IBM and McKinsey. Can we see these reports, please, Tony Collins, the campaigning journalist, asked and was told by DWP:
Disclosure would ... give the general public an unbalanced understanding of the Programme and potentially undermine policy outcomes, cause inappropriate concern (which in turn would need to be managed) and damage progress to the detriment of the Government’s key welfare reform and the wider UK economy.
Ministers may to some extent devise policy but it is officials who implement it, as the BBC's Nick Robinson was told in no uncertain terms by Rachel Lomax, the former mandarin. "To suggest anything else is incorrect". It is officials and not IDS:
  • who decided that they couldn't "sweep together the main means-tested benefits and tax credits into one 'universal' benefit" ...
  • and who decided that waving the magic word "agile" around would keep UC "on track and on budget" ...
  • and who decided that UC should be available online only.
How will DWP identify people online? As we now know, DWP hope that it will be through the Cabinet Office's Identity Assurance programme, currently being spearheaded for them by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills's midata initiative. According to midata, everyone will have a PDI, a personal data inventory, and so UC will work. Maybe. But not in this world, it's just "not grounded in reality".

It seems likely that, as we all sit around with our rotting souls and our "unbalanced understanding", ruminating on our summer holidays, the Olympics and the Paralympics, billions of our pounds are once again being incinerated by Whitehall. We can't hear the crackling or see the smoke. All in good time. The National Audit Office report will be published in five years time. Plenty of time to worry about it then.

And while they survey the olympically apathetic British public – no sign of concern at all, not even "inappropriate concern" – what are Whitehall thinking about?


Peter Thomas is Director – Whitehall Transformation at the Institute for Government. He was previously Director then Interim Head at the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit in the Cabinet Office, Non-executive Director at the Improvement and Development Agency, Director of Performance Development at the Audit Commission, Associate Director then interim Director of the Public Services Research Directorate at the Audit Commission, Director of Policy and Regeneration at Westminster City Council and Head of Strategy and Support at Westminster City Council.

And meditating on a number of permanent secretaries jumping ship, Mr Thomas soliloquises as follows, although it's hard to see why:
Senior civil servants are people, not just bloodless lightning conductors, punchbags or beasts of burden for downsizing and cuts. They need to feel engaged, supported and valued at a time when more is being asked of them than ever – and their number is being reduced by as much as a third in some departments ...

We should watch the ranks of director, director general and permanent secretary to judge whether the Civil Service is beginning to see an exodus of too many of its best and brightest to somewhere they feel more valued and better supported to perform – somewhere that allows them to restore their dwindling sense of personal accomplishment.

Such an exodus would be bad for ministers, advisers, parliament and the country.


Poor Bloody Infantry said...

That Peter Thomas quote made me cry. And there I was imagining that senior civil servants are people doing a job like anyone else, and getting very well paid for it while enjoying an extraordinary level of job security, and with nothing but honours and enormous pensions to look forward to!

I find the prospect of these wildly talented, lavishly gifted, extraordinarily creative Stakhanovite paragons having to move to the private sector in order to "restore their dwindling sense of personal accomplishment" almost unbearably poignant. We tax payers - whose money these wonderful people have been squandering on unbelievably stupid, ill-thought-out, ineptly-costed white elephant projects for decades instantly move to the top of the UK's rapidly burgeoning list of deserving victim groups.

Shall we have a whip-round?

David Moss said...

Can you imagine the job interview?

Lord Sugar: Why do you want to join this company, Sir Humphrey?

Sir Humphrey: I need to work somewhere where I am valued, engaged and supported to perform, somewhere where my sense of personal accomplishment will stop dwindling.

David Moss said...

Whitehall disposes of an income of about £700 billion a year, bigger than the biggest private sector corporations.

Mr Thomas’s directors, directors general and permanent secretaries have staffs of tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands.

They are permanent, unlike Ministers, they are part of the country’s “permanent government”, as Sir Patrick Sheehy called it years ago. They have onerous, generational, national responsibilities.

The Chairmen of decent-sized Plcs are said to look forward 25 years and more, CEOs and COOs maybe 10 years. They have a vision of where they want the company to be then and they plan how to get there. That’s the kind of people only more so that the directors, directors general and permanent secretaries of Whitehall must be.

The kind of people who will have noticed that the national debt is rising and so is the budget deficit and the banking system nearly collapsed and there’s a recession. They will have noticed it and formed plans accordingly. It cannot have come as a surprise to them that the headcount needs to be cut.

These aren’t event-driven people, one hopes, to whom each instruction comes as a surprise, a commandment from out of the blue that would never have occurred to them. More likely, the better ones will themselves have suggested cutting the headcount, simultaneously putting their plan how to do it on the desk.

The resignation of the Chairman of a Plc standing up in front of the Board and saying with Mr Thomas that he or she is off to somewhere where they are valued, engaged and supported to perform, somewhere where their sense of personal accomplishment will stop dwindling, would be gratefully accepted and a new Chairman with the right permanent secretary-like qualities appointed in his or her place.

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