OK, get yourselves a cup of coffee before starting. We may be here some time.
The classic BBC TV sitcom Yes Minister postulated that the civil service would wait for a tipping point in the lifetime of any government minister which was the point at which they went native.
Or in other words, the point at which they stop pushing their own agenda and start becoming an extension of the civil service.
I'm afraid I couldn’t help but be reminded of this theory when watching the performance of Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as he faced down the latest public grilling into the state of Universal Credit’s shambolic IT underpinnings.
Universal Credit is the UK government’s flagship program to simplify a complicated morass of social security benefits into a single payment. The total spend for the scheme is officially pitched at £2.4 billion up to April 2023.
According to its most recent official figures, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has spent £425 million up to April 2013 with £303 million has been on contracts for designing and developing IT systems. To date, £40.1 million worth of IT assets have been written off.
Meanwhile the program is being redirected towards a digital solution which will be delivered in-house by a team of digital experts who have yet to be recruited.
Oh and there’s a general election looming next year in which the state of Universal Credit will be a major electoral factor.
Under the carpet or on it?
So all told, there’s a whole world of pressure bearing down on the DWP and Duncan Smith - which may explain in part the ill-tempered nature of the minister’s reaction to being quizzed again by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee.
The minister was recalled before the committee because at its last meeting with him in December, the DWP’s Annual Report and Accounts were not published until the day after the hearing which meant, complained Committee Chair Dame Anne Begg, there was no time to read the report until after Duncan Smith had been and gone.
This, suggested Dame Anne, might lead some to be suspicious that the DWP was trying to sweep things under the carpet.
Not at all, replied the minister:
“If it was a carpet, it was a pretty public carpet, and we were all under it in that case.”
Actually he was firmly on the carpet rather than under it, as he was soon to find out as the Committee members demanded to know why he hadn’t told them about a major internal review that had been undertaken on the program by the DWP.
(At this point, I should say that there’s another Yes Minister maxim that comes into play here. The words ‘with respect’ mean exactly the opposite. Bear that in mind from here on in.)
Duncan Smith responded:
“With respect, I do not have to tell the Committee everything that is happening in the Department until we have reached a conclusion about what is actually happening. I will take those decisions myself and account for the decisions that were taken, and I have done that.”
In other words, it’s none of your business, dragging me here and trying to tell me how to run the biggest single IT program underway in the UK public sector at present.
Or as the Secretary of State put it bluntly (and with those killer words again):
“With respect, Chairman, I do not think this Committee can run the Department.”
Battling with Glenda
Two ‘with respects’ and the session had hardly begun. The gloves were coming off this time.
Take the repeated clashes between Duncan Smith and Glenda Jackson, the former actress and now Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn who is emphatically not a lady ready to take any nonsense from anyone.
As Duncan Smith told the Committee that Universal Credit was never going to be rolled out overnight and that he had in fact never said that all new benefits claimants would be live on it by April, Jackson snapped:
“Oh, I think you did.”
That was just the opening blow. Consider the following exchange for a flavor of the mounting tension:
Jackson: "You cannot publish data until you have the data, and surely the data are dependent upon the number of people who are claiming Universal Credit."
Duncan Smith: "I have no idea what you are asking. I am sorry; you lost me about five minutes ago."
Jackson: "You have to try harder."
Or try this one, definitely not designed to amuse the Honorable Member for Hampstead and Kilburn:
Jackson: "You keep arguing that the savings have already been made because of the savings that will come in via Universal Credit. The point I am making is that the roll-out of Universal Credit has been delayed."
Duncan Smith: "With respect, Chairman, the hon. Lady has to understand what accounts actually tell you. Accounts make a valuation about prospective savings and the value of the equipment in use. Every company I have ever been in does exactly that."
Hmm, not remotely patronising there.
Digital or end-state solution?
But it was once attention shifted to the new digital direction of the programme that the Yes Minister ‘gone native’ memories began to stir.
Asked to define what a digital solution is, Duncan Smith’s response was text-book civil service speak:
“It uses what we call shared memory, crowd-source memory, which is much quicker. It means, therefore, that the processes themselves are simpler in the way the benefit is resolved and paid, and the way that the claims work.
"It becomes a much more digital process, a very fast one and a much cheaper process to run. It also has a major impact in due course, because of its speed and efficiency, on the internal resources that are necessary for running your back-to-work processes.
"The reality is that, as an end-state solution, it becomes the best process, but in the meantime we continue to use and develop the existing or legacy process that we have talked about earlier on.”
Er, yes Minister. But just in case you’re still not entirely sure what an end-state solution is, Duncan Smith’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux was on hand to add his support:
“I will use my view of how you translate to the digital world. If you think of greater automation, you are getting closer to what in practice is going to happen here. Quite a lot of the work on this is trying to work out what it is about the nature of the rules that exist in the system, and the way in which we process, that could be changed with some lateral thought to enable you to do this—straight‑through processing that does not require any human intervention.
“That is quite tricky stuff, because a lot of the things have built up, as this Committee knows, over many decades, with lots and lots of small detail all the way through. Some of what is going on in thinking about this is less to do with the IT and more to do with a state of mind. It is saying: ‘Can I sweep some of that away? Can I make it a lot more straightforward? Do I really have to do contributory benefits in exactly the same way I have always done?’.”
Whatever all that means, the important thing now apparently is that we’re not calling it digital! Or as Duncan Smith put it:
“We are doing what you call digital, what we call the end‑state solution.”
This point of utter obfuscation met with the entirely deserved retort from Committee member Sheila Gilmore:
“I did not call it the digital solution, with respect, Secretary of State. You called it that when you came here in December.”
And he so did.
Damned facts getting in the way
Despite this new-found preference for end-state solutions, Devereux went on to address the pressing need for digital skills and admitted that when it comes to building up the necessary digital team internally, to date:
“they are in the tens end of the market, not hundreds, and this programme might have to grow a lot before it completes. We are making a start on that, but they will have to be in house and we have to make sure that we can afford them within the constraints that we are used to.”
Translated: the Derek du Preez Computerworld UK story was right and there’s hardly anyone in-house who’s got the skills we need now.
Facts, facts and damned facts - they do so get in the way, don’t they?
But what about those media reports - first broken here at diginomica - of the in-fighting between DWP and the Government Digital Service, drafted in to help sort out the mess and then sent on its way by the DWP?
According to Duncan Smith:
“They are ludicrous, because this is a constant rolling process. We are constantly in touch with each other. I have seen a couple of the reports and, quite frankly, we discuss everything on a weekly if not sometimes daily basis, and make alterations and changes. The Cabinet Office has been strongly in support and continues to be in support. They continue to be on the team as well.”
But when asked the direct question of whether the Cabinet Office wanted to scrap the IT developed to date and just have a single solution rather than trying to run it and a new digital solution alongside one another, which is the DWP’s preference, Duncan Smith chose to avoid the crudity of a simple yes or no in favour of:
“The Cabinet Office are not involved in that side of it. They are involved in the digital or end-state solution that we discussed.”
That sounds to me Minister like that’s exactly what the Cabinet Office told your team to do!
All that’s missing at this point is the usual ‘lessons to be learned and we’ve learned them’ spiel. But hold on, here it comes from Duncan Smith:
“What are the lessons to learn?
"We need to be very close to a programme like this. We need to be certain all the time that what is being assured to us is correct, the internal checks and balances are right, and the leadership is right in that programme.
"All of those things are the lessons to learn.
"These are clear lessons, and on those, obviously, we need to be as good as we possibly can be.”
An utterly shameful and shameless performance.
It’s difficult to disagrees with Committee member Debbie Abrahams assessment that there were smoke and mirrors in abundance and a singularly grumpy Minister on parade:
“Secretary of State, I cannot express adequately with the strongest feeling my concern about the hubris that you have demonstrated in your tone to this Committee.”
Or as Bryan Glick puts it over at Computer Weekly, the question that matters on Universal Credit is rapidly becoming whether or not you believe Iain Duncan Smith.
I’ll leave the final word (for now) to veteran public sector IT campaigner Tony Collins who contends that the hearing demonstrates how ministers and officials justify the hiding of reports on costly IT-enabled projects that are going wrong, noting that Duncan Smith didn’t even tell MPs in July 2013 that the Major Projects Authority had four months earlier recommended an immediate pause in the program.
It’s time for public accounts and work and pensions MPs to insist on seeing Major Projects Authority reviews, and other reports, on the progress or otherwise of big government IT-enabled program such as [Universal Credit]. MPs should not have to wait for an NAO report to get the truth.
Governments, whatever their hue, will always refuse to publish these reports contemporaneously, such is the will of departmental heads. They have been refusing to publish the reports for more than 20 years.
But if MPs keep insisting with an unbreakable tenacity on their publication – and for publication before they are out of date – it may eventually happen, and gone will be the power of ministers and officials to mislead MPs on the state of big IT-enabled programmes.
Until publication happens, is there much point in MPs questioning IDS or his officials on the UC IT programme? They will get only the public relations version of the truth.
Excellent idea - with respect!