Former Universal Credit director gives his take on why DWP’s flagship project is flailing

Profile picture for user Sooraj Shah By Sooraj Shah June 20, 2019
Malcolm Whitehouse, previously DWP director for Universal Credit, blames disregard for user feedback and inadequate operations for the project’s issues.

Image of Universal Credit logo

Universal Credit hasn’t worked because of a mixture of operational issues, conflicting priorities and a disregard of user feedback, former Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) director, Malcolm Whitehouse, has told diginomica/government.

Whitehouse had worked at DWP for a number of years prior to Universal Credit being announced, and thereafter, he took up roles as deputy CIO, programme director for Universal Credit and director of DWP.

That means that Whitehouse, who is now CIO at the University of Manchester, is well placed to speak about the many issues that have beset the organisation in rolling out its flagship project. The project aimed to use modern technology to simplify benefits and tax credits, replacing and combining six different systems. However, it has been plagued by delays, rising costs, and most importantly, has failed many people who have required financial support the most.  

Whitehouse suggests that one of the key challenges at DWP is bureaucracy. He says:

The challenge of working in a central government is that stakeholders are more complex as you have politicians and civil servants to contend with.

He likens what has happened with Universal Credit (UC) to Brexit.

With Brexit, you end up with a lot of government partners, each individually doing Brexit planning around different scenarios, and if that doesn’t come together effectively you end up with an outcome such as ‘no deal’, and don’t have a co-ordinated response in terms of what government does as a consequence – it can become very messy.

But it’s not just about a lack of thinking ahead, Whitehouse blames Universal Credit’s problems on a disregard of feedback, scaling issues and confusion around priorities. He adds:

If you go into a rollout at scale, then you have to get the operations of managing at scale right and one of the things they struggled with is to get a real feedback process going which alerts them that something isn’t working and which they then act on before moving on to the next bit. I’m not sure they’ve managed to get the operational side of the journey done in a very effective way, particularly in the last couple of years.

When you look at the council tax, child benefits, child tax credits or pensions credits the issues are partly due to the fact we’ve got conflicting views on what the priorities are. This means you could be going out and saying ‘we’re going to get child tax credits’ and the Treasury says ‘actually at this point we can’t afford to pay that child tax credit’, then you end up with an outcome that is suboptimal.

Reputation comes first

DWP has been adamant that the project has been a success. Last year, it finally published a business case for Universal Credit, and claimed that UC remained “deliverable, affordable and provides value for money, with a net present value (NVP) of £34bn” over 10 years, generating £8bn in economic value. The National Audit Office suggested these figures and statements depended on unproven assumptions.

More recently, it ran £200,000 worth of ads in the Metro newspaper, which claimed that 80 per cent of claimants were satisfied with the new arrangements. But the survey was of only 6,000 people and has been criticised by more than 80 benefit charities for producing ads which were “deliberately misleading”, particularly as they look like a set of news articles.

It is in fact this focus on PR which has been particularly damaging to DWP. Back in 2013, a consultant who worked for DWP and wished to remain anonymous told me, that DWP’s IT strategy was hampered by employees worrying about whether the tabloid press would approve their actions. He said, at the time:

“The first consideration [for employees] is asking what the Daily Mail says if they hear about it. This is the headline issue, everyone is driven by worrying whether the Daily Mail will approve it.

Whitehouse believes that people will always be concerned about their reputation in big projects like this. He said:

I would say that in central government, departments are not debating whether to worry about delivering to citizens or whether or not something appears in the Daily Mail [as the former is what is important]. What they are concerned about is the amount of effort that can be created as a consequence of something really small – so something small can result in hundreds of people having to do something they might not need to do.

Whitehouse’s point being that a story can be blown out of proportion and that this may affect overall productivity within the department. He adds:

If [the story] is about whether something in particular is working well and whether we should fix it then of course we should, because you have to make sure the service is consistently doing the right job when you’re dealing with citizen-facing services, because what you don’t want to do is end up with something in the press that says you’re not doing your job properly.

He adds that his team cares about the University of Manchester’s reputation because part of that is what attracts researchers, academics and students to the university – so reputational impact is very important in any organisation.

Asked whether DWP can still make Universal Credit work effectively, Whitehouse says “yes”, but adds that this can only be accomplished if the operational side of the project is overhauled.

NB: The comments from Malcolm Whitehouse in this article were made during an interview on a separate topic, where he was also asked about DWP and central government departments in general.