The Universal Credit debacle- Robert Devereux- United Kingdom Permanent Secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions
Robert Devereux is the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions. A government organisation with 100,000 staff, operating from nearly 1000 sites, with some 22 million customers, and an annual budget – in terms of money spent on pensions and other benefits – of £160 billion. He believes there are four crucial qualities in public servants namely, Confidence, Openness, Resilience and Leadership.
The Con/Dem Coalition Government decided upon a radical reform of the UK’s welfare system, aiming to reduce worklessness, and make work pay, and at the same time improving the support available for both disabled people and pensioners. Delivering these reforms, would be an enormous leadership challenge.
There’s history here. The Labour government led by Tony Blair & Gordon Brown wasted many millions of taxpayers money presiding over the introduction of the, “tax credit” system. Blame for the disastrous out of control project had been placed with the, “civil service” . One government minister likened, “Whitehall” to the set of a disaster movie.
With the foregoing in mind one wonders what, “bright spark” ever thought the department could successfully introduce a fundamental change in the benefits system titled, “Universal Credit”. Well we have his name, “Ian Duncan Smith”. Having assessed the tools to hand, namely Robert Devereux and his management team Ian was persuaded the project, whilst complex could be implemented within the timescales and other parameters outlined. So off they went, with a potload of taxpayers money, (anyone minded of the 7 dwarfs at this point). Well a couple of years later, way beyond the completion date, with nothing in the pipeline the National Audit Office, (NAO) decided to have a wee gander, just to guide Westminster that satisfactory progress was being made and financial expenditure was within prescribed limits.
“Shock and Horror”. The adverse report on, “Universal Credit” made for difficult reading with a focus more on the day-to-day operations of the department than on the decision-making at the top. It described a “fortress” mentality within the team and a “good news” culture, where officials avoided telling ministers about problems. It said the department used unfamiliar methods to implement the reform, and that there was a “lack of a detailed plan”.
All fingers pointed to Robert Devereux, the Department’s Permanent Secretary, as the bad tool. A government minister said, “You have a permanent secretary who seemed not to know what he was doing and was not willing to admit it and appallingly badly negotiated contracts with suppliers, which you would not expect”.
The project was halted so that the NAO, Ian Duncan Smith and the project team would be able to take stock before deciding the way forward, if indeed the project could be salvaged. After a deal of discussion, and appointment of a team of highly paid external experts. It was decided the project would be RESET and started again.(RESET: write off all before and start again). Reset costs projected at £2.5billion but not yet confirmed. Could be much higher.
Poor Ian Duncan Smith. He had to report the fiasco back to the commons. In his statement he suggested that he had lost faith in the ability of civil servants to deliver the behemoth project adding bitterly, “When I arrived, I expected [to find] the professionalism to be able to do the job properly.”