By Suzannah Brecknell

20 Feb 2018

As he leaves the civil service after 40 years, Sir Robert Devereux, outgoing permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, reflects on complicated projects, how to lead large organisations and facing select committees

Photos: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

If you happen to meet Sir Robert Devereux on a public board or chairing a commission, do ask him how he’s getting on with the Mendelssohn. The former permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions was given a score of the composer’s work shortly before his retirement last month by a friend who remains nameless. “It’s impossible to play,” Devereux says when CSW spots the music on the coffee table in his DWP office, “but the woman who gave it to me said, in the nicest possible way: ‘You’re going to have a lot of time on your hands’.”

Alongside practising his Mendelssohn, what will Devereux be doing with all that time now that he’s stepped down from running one of government’s largest departments, leading around 75,000 staff and responsible for not just an operating budget of around £6.5bn but also the distribution of more than £170bn in welfare payments each year? Catching up on sleep, he says, and enjoying having whole evenings to relax in, rather than practising the skill he has developed over the years of “learning to relax in shorter and shorter periods of time”.

Despite the long hours and short evenings, Devereux is quick to describe his time leading DWP as the best job he’s held since he joined the civil service in 1978. He took up the post in 2011, after four years as permanent secretary at the transport department. At that time, he told CSW that:  “What makes being [at DWP] exciting is the scale of what the government’s embarked upon – everything you can see in the landscape here is changing.” And indeed over the last six years he has managed an ambitious and often controversial policy agenda while also making significant operational savings, reducing headcount by 50,000, and shifting to new ways of developing and delivering services.


Unsurprisingly, delivering this vast agenda has not all been smooth sailing. “The things that have carried me through,” Devereux says, “are the profound belief that reforming the welfare state and changing millions of people’s lives is a worthwhile thing, hard as it is, and that

the civil service is an extraordinary institution that deserves to be nurtured and looked after. Those two things together have produced a dynamic inside me which means, however bad the bad days, you think OK, it’s just another bad day,” he says.

And there have been some really bad days, especially in the early years of his tenure as Universal Credit – the department’s flagship reform and mission of his then-secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith – floundered. This resulted in not only intense political pressure on Duncan Smith, but personal pressure on Devereux and a series of critical briefings against him emanating from unnamed ministers as well as indirect criticisms from IDS himself.

The benefit of hindsight

Most commentators agree that the underlying aim of the reform – to rationalise six out-of-work and in-work benefits into one, removing disincentives for taking on work – is sound. Making the change, however, has required – and still requires, since it is not due to complete its roll-out until 2022 – a huge administrative and cultural shift. The department was under pressure to deliver these reforms at great speed: under the original timetable, Universal Credit roll-out should have been completed last year. It was also being asked to deliver the new benefit as a digital service, using agile design methods that noone in government had used before.

In the words of Institute for Government fellow Nick Timmins’ gripping 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.

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 Duncan Smith. Three million pounds 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.

One criticism levelled at the department in 2013, by the National Audit Office, was that it had a “fortress mentality”, with bad news swept under the carpet thanks to the pressure to deliver results. Looking back, Devereux says “some of those observations are borne of the reality of the politics”.

“It’s not a state secret that the views of my ministers and the views of other ministers about this project were different.”

In this environment, he says, people’s desire for candour can be affected by “high-level politics”, suggesting that people kept challenging discussions in closed spaces to keep the project going.

“I still believe to this day that most of the labour market benefits that we’re already seeing in UC come from the first bit, [which was] a rational design,” says Devereux. “People haven’t got to worry about taking a job: they can be confident they’re going to be better off.”

With the clarity of rearward vision that only a former perm sec can offer, Devereux now accepts 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. And so, I think what you see in the evolution of universal credit is – 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.”

 “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.”

Complicated things

 In reality, how easy is it for an official to say: “Minister, you have all these priorities – which one first?”

Devereux suggests that the more realistic message might be to warn ministers that an ambitious programme of projects is bound to result in complications, and he says it isn’t only perm secs who can make this point – non-execs already do, and select committees could make it more.

“All of the non-execs we’ve ever had, having been here for five minutes turn round to the secretary of state and say, ‘we would never do as much change as you’re doing’ and typically the answer they get is, ‘yeah but we’re government’,” he says. Looking back to 2011, he continues, the long list of things that were on his agenda have “been done for all practical purposes” but it would have been a surprise if “all that went swimmingly well”.

“So what ministers are effectively doing in trying to do too much – potentially trying to do too much – is risking that something may not go right,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a major project on this earth that doesn’t at some point in its life go through being red. Complicated things are complicated.”

At his final session with the Public Accounts Committee, in late November last year, Devereux told MPs: “The system of accountability that you preside over works better than you might imagine… having the most senior civil servant in a government department personally accountable to parliament for all the public spending really does keep everyone on the straight and narrow.”

But, he suggested the committee might want to consider one thing about the way it conducts scrutiny. “All of the 30 hearings that I have done have typically been about one particular thing – project X, policy Y or contract Z,” he said. “Very rarely do you ask me about the totality of the many things I am doing, and you have never inquired about the consequence of what that totality does for [individual projects].”

Devereux tells CSW: “If all I had to do was any one of the things I’ve ever focused on, it would be a walk in the park. But none of them exist in isolation.”

He tried to get this message across to every secretary of state he worked with. He adds: “I’d say look, if your understanding of a major project is somebody downstairs has got a Gantt chart [a type of bar chart illustrating a project schedule] and they come in in the morning and just tick off the next thing… that’s not what a major project feels like. Every project feels like: On Monday, ‘Oh gosh this is a problem, what are we going to do?’ By Friday, you’ve fixed it. Next Monday, it starts again. If your attitude to this is, ‘It’s going to be like that, let’s stay calm, let’s not make a drama out of it,’ then good stuff happens.”

By the time he left DWP, Devereux had worked with 10 secretaries of state, though CSW can’t confirm if he gave the “Gantt chart” chat to Esther McVey, who became his final secretary of state just a week before he retired.

The trick to working with so many secretaries of state, he says, is to be “a different person for each one”. And if things get tough – as they did for example in 2013 when besieged Duncan Smith said publicly that he had “lost faith in his civil servants to manage [Universal Credit]” – then support can come from an unusual place.

“Certainly when I’ve found myself thinking ‘some support would be nice’, I get calls from ex-perm secs saying ‘Look this happened to me way back in 1850, or whatever, and actually what I found was this...’ ,” he says.

“The people who have sat in these extraordinary roles are, I’ve found, very, very generous with their time in supporting the next generation.”

On facing select committees

“I do them the courtesy of making sure I know everything that’s going on [in the department] and I’ve learnt to be prepared to tell them the bigger story. So, to take the example of ESA or PIP appeals. If somebody asks me about the appeal rates, there’s no point my arguing that the number isn’t what it is. But that’s not quite the whole picture, so [my advice is] don’t just answer the question in front of you, give the context. (see previous page for more on appeal rates) There is sometimes – certainly in previous Public Accounts Committees –  a sense of ‘we’re going to try and trick you’ or imply something without asking a question. A lot of the exchanges I used to have with some of the chairs were when they would be implying something but not asking a question about it and I’d address that, because it was often the wrong supposition.”

Alongside those big policy reforms, Devereux has overseen massive organisational change at DWP, including absorbing staff and responsibilities from the Jobcentre Plus agency, which was closed in 2011, and reducing headcount by some 40% (although this happened largely through natural turnover). Yet engagement scores have risen steadily and impressively during his tenure – from 44% in 2011 to 60% in 2017. Asked how he has managed to achieve the latter despite those changes, Devereux challenges the premise of the question.

“Be really clear, it’s only because the engagement has risen we’ve been able to do this change,” he says. “Quite often, in dialogue about leadership, it’s almost viewed as a sort of ‘nice to have’ but I regard it as an essential. If you do regard it that way round you will put in the hours and hours and hours of effort it requires to do all this stuff.”

Those hours and hours include the weekly trips around the country, themselves a reflection of the value Devereux places on face-to-face communication and visible leadership. Given the size of DWP, he has had to think carefully about how to “do leadership at scale.”

“If all I had to do was any one of the things I’ve ever focused on, it would be a walk in the park. But none of them exist in isolation”

At the Department for Transport, he says it was possible to walk around the four floors of the main London office and speak to all his staff. Arriving at DWP, however, he inherited a staff of 125,000 people spread across the country, and that sort of leadership became, practically, much harder.

His epiphany on leading at scale came, he says, on a visit to 120 staff spread over three floors in a “perfectly nice” jobcentre in Chippenham. On each floor was an HEO – all women, he recalls – managing 40 staff.  “It dawned on me that although I had a great visit and a lovely time with them, with a thousand offices [in DWP] the chances of my returning to Chippenham were quite low. So, how would the 40 people on the second floor in Chippenham be doing the things I wanted unless the woman at the end of the floor was on the same wavelength as me? So, we just did some maths.”

Devereux identified roughly 6,000 people like those women in Chippenham – the managers on each floor of each building. He then tasked his 50 senior directors with helping him to ensure those managers are on his wavelength. “We’ve established a rhythm of the most senior managers talking to the critical managers on a term-by-term basis, and that has been probably the single biggest thing that has driven the change in engagement in the organisation,” he says.

“If you ever see engagement in a hierarchical organisation charted by grade then typically the most senior people are the most engaged, and the most junior people are not most engaged. In our organisation [that chart has] got a kink in it,” he continues, drawing a chart in the air with his finger. “It comes down like this, and at that [HEO] level – those critical people –  it goes back up again, and because they have got higher engagement they brought with them all the people that work underneath them. Recognising how to do that was the critical thing I had to learn here.”

That focus on leadership has paid off – DWP’s People Survey scores for leadership and managing change soared from 22% in 2011 to 48% in 2017 – and the regular visits also have the benefit of helping to ensure that senior staff who join the department from other parts of government or the private sector quickly feel part a wider leadership endeavour.

Devereux names the move to bring external expertise into key government functions as one of the most important reforms of recent years – “I’ve got a nationwide top estates person on hand, previously that would not have been the case” – but the flip side to it is that “most of the people you bring in don’t then understand government”.

Requiring senior leaders to take part in the regular leadership visits, he suggests, means they must learn the whole context in which the department is operating. When they go out to visit those 6,000 managers they need to talk about policy, ministerial priorities and the bits of the business which they do not directly lead.

Pay deals and hard truths

Another facet of being a good leader, he suggests, is that you have to like people. “I’m aware I’m setting the bar low,” he quips before elaborating that this means making decisions with people, not just budgets and organisational objectives, in mind.

“There are ways and ways of making decisions,” he says. “You can make them in a ‘well it’s my right to make a choice’ kind of way, or you can make them in a way which is rather more sympathetic. We’ve consistently made choices both in favour of the business and in favour of the people that work for us.” He points to estates strategy – they are in process of implementing a strategy that aims to reduce estate space by 20% by 2020. Devereux explains that rather than moving to “five big sheds” across the country, which would have been “quite efficient as an estates strategy”, the department is instead rationalised within towns and localities so that staff and claimants won’t have too far to travel to their nearest office. “I’m still making the savings, but we’ve done it in a way which is respecting other people that I’m working for and with,” he says.

“I have given 40 years of my life to run public services and I will not have people say of us that we’re pen pushers”

He also points to the 2016 changes to pay and contracts for most junior staff in DWP – which mean that some staff will see their pay rise by 20% over four years in return for changing their work hours to enable DWP to operate from 8-8 (and on Saturdays) rather than 9-5. Securing the deal involved careful considerations both with the Treasury and with unions to consider what the contract changes would mean for people with caring responsibilities, for example, or part-time workers. “There were choices that we made all the way through that [contract negotiation] that were designed to bring people with us,” says Devereux.

That pay deal contributed to a spike in satisfaction with pay at the organisation. In the 2016 People Survey this score stood at 40%, compared with a civil service average of 31%. One Whitehall watcher CSW spoke to said they had been surprised Devereux managed to land the deal with both the Treasury and the unions, an observation which prompts the perm sec to say, with a Cheshire cat smile: “Clever, eh?”

“I spent 10 years in the Treasury so I’ve got a lot of understanding about why my Treasury colleagues need to control public sector pay – it’s one third of public-sector spending, it matters. And they worry a lot about precedent,” he says.

But, he continues, the Treasury is receptive to reforms that make public services more efficient, and he made the case that the contract reforms would make his department more efficient to run, and contribute to the savings he needed to make.

“The Treasury is a rational place and all I said was: If you want this benefit then the quid pro quo for it is [to address the fact that] at the moment all of my junior staff are paid less than nearly every other junior staff in the entire civil service,” he explains. “We spotted the right arguments to play at the right time,”.

Though he talks about the rationale and the timing, it’s also clear this was something into which Devereux invested great personal capital and effort. “I know the people in the Treasury well; this was very much my deal,” he says, adding that many staff have thanked him personally for the difference it has made.

This sort of work, he believes, earns leaders the right to tell staff difficult things. For example, telling those who are already on the maximum of a pay scale that the deal won’t benefit them because they are already, when you consider pensions, relatively well paid.

And what about senior staff, who do not benefit from the pay deal – what message does he have for them? He sidesteps the SCS – whose pay is managed centrally as a cadre across Whitehall – but acknowledges that there is still a challenge around the group from HEO to SCS who are not covered by his new deal.

“What I’ve been saying to them is: this only comes around once every Spending Review [so] in the next [round] we need to work out the right way to address your concerns, but that may well affect hours and so on,” he explains.

He continues that he gets the sense that “the Treasury is signalling if there is going to be any more money beyond 1% [for pay rises] it will be because it buys something. So the question is: what do we want to buy? What’s the quid pro quo?”

'The country’s bloody lucky they’re here at all'

Devereux is evidently proud of the people he works with and the work that they do, talking repeatedly about the changes that they effect in the lives of their customers. Is he hurt, then, by criticism that he is distant from frontline staff and welfare recipients, uncaring and un-informed? How did he feel, for example, when Labour MP Paul Flynn harangued him in a select committee hearing because he had not seen the film I, Daniel Blake?

“I have learnt a long time ago not to define myself by what dull things I read in the newspapers to be honest,” he responds. “You would be very welcome to read any of the dozens of emails I’ve had from people who I don’t know, who are recording that I am incredibly visible and my understanding of how the system works is, with the greatest of respect, a lot better than any filmmaker.”

He broadens his response to defend not just himself but the other public servants he works with: “I have given 40 years of my life to run public services and I will not have people say of us that we’re pen pushers; It’s just not true. This place only works because of the extraordinary discretionary effort that tens of thousands of people give their entire lives to.

“It makes me really cross when people say we’re just mucking about and don’t know what we’re doing. This is a hard thing to do and the people in this organisation are extraordinary. The country’s bloody lucky they’re here at all.”

He observes that public accountability is asymmetric, referring to the way in which the department might win a correction to an inaccurate report in one paper but not in the other programmes and publications which have reproduced it. But it also reflects the sort of asymmetry which saw Devereux briefed against by both his secretary of state and other cabinet ministers in 2013, with no way to publicly defend himself. Under pressure to resign, Devereux stuck his heels in, says another Whitehall watcher, because he believed in the work he was doing. The same asymmetry sees public servants branded “pen pushers” with little recognition of their success and efforts. Devereux suggests his role has been to act as an advocate and coach for his colleagues in the face of this asymmetry. “Life is like that,” he tells them, “don’t be surprised if it’s like that. You know, and I know, that we’re changing people’s lives, so let’s crack on.”

On ESA and PIP appeals

Another area for which the DWP has faced criticism is the rising rate of successful appeals against decisions about Employment Support Allowance and Personal Independence Payments – from July to September 2017, 67% of appeals against ESA decisions and 68% of appeals against PIP decisions were upheld. But in response to these criticisms, Devereux points out that in upholding an appeal, judges are not necessarily saying that DWP staff made the wrong decision because judges will assess a case based on the most up-to-date information, which may include information not given to benefits staff. “I don’t think you should read the levels of appeal success as being necessarily some indication of the competence of what we’re doing,” he says.

“This is a tricky process – I would love it to be the case that everybody had all the right information to start with and if we have not made it easy for people to [provide information] then we need to improve.”

He adds that although the percentage of successful appeals may be high, the number of cases going to appeal is small compared to the “millions and millions” of decisions his staff make everyday.  “That there is a system of redress which, with new information sometimes changes [decisions], well that’s right – how else would you like it to be?”

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