Thursday, 5 September 2013

What went wrong with Universal Credit?

Universal credit. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Where does one start? The Government's flagship welfare programme, designed to roll six benefits into one, has come in for a withering assessment from the National Audit Office today. The NAO charged the project with being (among many other things) overly ambitious, badly managed, poor value for money, chaotically administered, and just not very well thought through.

No-one likes crowing. But what did 'Public Policy and the Past' say about Universal Credit, all the way back in February 2011? Let's remind ourselves of our pithy judgement at the time: 'quite likely to crash and burn'. Any why? Because it was and is a good example of 'hierarchical thinking', top-down decision-making that starts from a set of principles and then won't adjust them when they smash into reality.

It's a sad outcome in many ways, actually, because some of the concepts involved are worth fighting for. Simplicity, for one thing - merging lots of payments into one. And helping the Government send very clear signals that work will pay by disassembling some of the complexity that inevitably adheres to all systems left in place for any length of time.

But the detail... Well, it's been a cavalcade of laughable Keystone Cops-style adventures, really, and they've done no-one any good, and brought no-one any credit. Let's have a look at some of the public policy clangers that have been dropped.

Believing that you can't be wrong. Iain Duncan Smith (above), the Secretary of State in charge, is a strong-minded, principled and absolutely committed Minister. He's in a powerful position in his party. He spent years in the political wilderness building up the Centre for Social Justice, and he's now putting the ideas he incubated there into effect. Unfortunately, they won't work. But he can't now turn aside without a complete (and perhaps resignation-inducing) loss of face. So we're stuck with Universal Credit until at least election time, after which Prime Minister Cameron can move him on.

Going for the 'big bang'. Everyone always knew that Universal Credit could never be made to run at once, everywhere. But the Coalition thought that it could be up and running next month. Next month! Either there's some seriously powerful drugs in the water at the Department of Work and Pensions, or this was always a fantasy plan, just sketched in the diary to keep Ministers and backbenchers happy. The Heath Government's negative income tax plans in the early 1970s - a similarly ill-fated McGuffin that drained comparable levels of energy - was also supposed to happen in one Parliament. It didn't. It died on the drawing board, though with slightly less bleeding than Universal Credit. The switchover is now supposed to be complete by 2017. Here's a quick prediction: it'll probably never happen.

Refusing to admit your errors. We all know it's hard to admit when you've dropped a brick. You lose confidence in yourself. Other people laugh at you. You have to go back over your workings. But Ministers have just blamed civil servants for the failure of Universal Credit - a trick Duncan Smith used today, but which just doesn't wash. He's in charge. He's insisted on ramming it all through - in the face of leak after leak from among top mandarins who know that he's just digging himself in deeper and deeper.

Believing in the promise of Information Technology. Minister after Minister has fallen into this trap, from the time of Tony Benn's tenure at the Ministry of Technology in the early 1960s. Just trust this hardware, the consultants say; just look at these glossy keyboards and screens; simply push a button. Er, no, that's not how life works, actually. Especially when you're dealing with low-income and often-vulnerable adults who are supposed to be 'lobster potted' through all this, never to be allowed to return to offline benefits. Horrendous story after horrendous story is now emerging of staff employed only to sit and work all the technicalities through with claimants. It's humiliating. And it's a waste of staff time.

There you go, then. Too much political commitment. Too much speed. Not enough humility. And too much confidence in what computers can do for you. That's a pretty long list, really. And if you're reading this in the UK, it's costing you your hard-earned cash, right now.

We'd all be better off going out and throwing some banknotes down in the road, because at least someone would then pick them up. And that'd make everyone smile a bit. At the moment we're just standing around a bonfire of our own money. And fuming.