Departing departmental chief claims that programme to reform welfare while driving services online should have ‘had a twin-track strategy from the start’
Picture above, credit: John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images | Picture below left, credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Attempting to implement a policy overhaul as wide-reaching as Universal Credit in tandem with a major drive to move services online “just proved too hard to do simultaneously”, the recently retired Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Sir Robert Devereux has said.
The DWP was under pressure to deliver at great speed the welfare reforms of the Universal Credit programme, in which six out-of-work and in-work benefits are being united into a single payment. Under the original timetable, the rollout should have been completed last year.
The department was also asked to deliver the new benefit as a digital service, using agile design methods that no-one in government had used before.
In the words of Institute for Government fellow Nick Timmins’ account of the Universal Credit saga: “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong”.
Problems included a rapid turnover of senior responsible owners, Treasury scepticism, and clashes with the team from the newly created Government Digital Service who were attempting to impose agile working – without great success.
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Critical reports began to surface almost as soon as work began, but they were not acted on until 2013 when the programme was “reset” after an in-depth review commissioned by then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Some £3m of the £600m initial IT spend was written off and a new “twin-track approach” adopted. This has seen a “live” service rolling out on existing systems while the new, digital version is developed alongside it.
In an interview with PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, Devereux (pictured left) said that the two fundamental elements of the Universal Credit roll-out were undeliverable with the time and resources available, and should not have been attempted at the same time.
“Being online saves me some money, and it’s got all kinds of good properties for further behavioural change and nudges to people – but it’s an additional thing, it’s not the heart of the thing,” he said. “And so, I think what you see in the evolution of Universal Credit is [that] we set off trying to do both a completely different thing [in terms of policy] and, at the same time, trying to put it online and, actually, that just proved to be too hard to do simultaneously.”
Devereux added: “It might have been smarter, with the benefit of hindsight, to say: ‘It’s going to be great to do this digital thing, but that’s going require you to recruit some people, have a completely different way of doing governance, and you’re not in a position to do that yet’. Let’s imagine that took us two years to get ready – which it did – and in the meantime, let’s do this other thing that we know how to do, and we’ll run the two. You could have had a conscious twin-track strategy from the start.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Devereux discussed some of the most notable achievements and challenges of four decades in the civil service, and why retirement might be beneficial for his piano playing.