By Matt.Ross

10 Mar 2010

Sir Leigh Lewis, permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, is not a noisy or aggressive individual. Nonetheless, he tells Matt Ross, he’s at the forefront of a revolution underway in the civil service

“This sign is almost 100 years old,” says Leigh Lewis (pictured above). “It’s from a Jobcentre – a Labour Exchange, of course, in those days – that was being torn down in Birmingham a few years ago.” Gesturing at the ageing panel displayed behind his desk, Lewis is making a point about the heritage of what is now the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP). The department’s scale and workload may have been transformed by the post-war welfare state but, says Lewis, when he joined the then-Department of Employment in 1973 its core objectives had remained basically unchanged for many decades – and they have changed little since.

“What you can see is: ‘Employers requiring workpeople and workpeople desiring employment should apply at the above address; no fees’,” Lewis reads. “It’s wonderfully non-sexist language for something that old. But in some senses one part of the department’s job hasn’t changed: the department is seeking to help people who aren’t working and who want to work to get into jobs, and to sustain those jobs.

“Of course, how we do it has changed enormously over that period,” Lewis continues. He speaks quietly, gently – but quickly and, sometimes, with sudden passion. Lewis has an unassuming and kindly demeanour, but it would be foolish to mistake this for softness: he played a key role in the recent union negotiations over redundancy compensation (CSW, p3, 24 February) and, while he’s proud of the DWP’s consistent objectives, much of our conversation revolves around reform and change. The DWP, Lewis argues, is in many ways at the forefront of the civil service’s development and evolution.

On outsourcing and outcomes
Perhaps most obviously, the department has evolved what Lewis calls a “hybrid” delivery model: a “mixed economy” blending “very substantial direct delivery” with the use of “major providers from both the private and third sectors”. In the DWP’s case, many of these external providers offer jobsearch support and training – but the use of contracting out is likely to grow across government in the years ahead. What has the department learned about effective outsourcing?

“We’ve learned that it takes time to establish a market and to ensure that there are a good number of really good players in that market,” Lewis replies. “We’ve learned that you need to be clear about your objectives and what it is that you’re seeking to achieve; and you need both to have a genuine partnership with those providers, and to be pretty clear about what you’re expecting of them – and to what standards.”

The DWP is also ahead of the curve in moving from paying contractors for work done to paying them for objectives realised; in the jargon, from ‘outputs’ to ‘outcomes’. What has Lewis learned about shifting to payment by results? “Again, you have to be very clear what it is you’re seeking to achieve, and what outcomes you want,” he says. “And then you need a reward system and an incentivisation mechanism which makes it more likely that those outcomes will be delivered.”

But didn’t the DWP get the gearing of its payment-by-results system wrong? After all, when the recession arrived many of its contractors rebelled at the prospect of contractual objectives that now looked a lot harder to achieve; the DWP was forced to rebalance payments back towards output-based measures. “Another thing you learn is that you have to be flexible,” comments Lewis. “I don’t think that we should be at all apologetic that when unemployment started to rise sharply we looked at our contracting formulae and made some changes. The world around us had changed, and for a period it was going to be harder for our providers to get people into work.”

In fact, Lewis argues, criticisms of the DWP would only have been justified if it had “stuck rigidly to a model which had been introduced in better economic times. Actually, a number of our providers were rather pleased with the speed and flexibility with which we looked again at that model against the changing economic background.”

Sideways looks
Another field in which, Lewis argues, the DWP is “at the forefront of Whitehall” is in interdepartmental working. “In the past, to some degree at least, the permanent secretary was the baron of their department, seeking to ward off all comers as they defended their narrow departmental interests,” he says candidly. “But I think there has been a quiet revolution under way – and actually that revolution has been slightly too quiet, and people haven’t seen it.”

During Lewis’s eight years at the permanent secretaries’ table, he continues, this quiet revolution “has changed the way that permanent secretaries operate as a group”. Under the cabinet secretary’s leadership, “We are forever looking at how we operate better collectively and together to deliver ministers’ objectives and better service at better value to the citizen. I won’t pretend that there’s never any instance in which departments put their own interests above that of the collective, but the degree to which it’s changed in recent years is not really appreciated out there. I think there has been a pretty fundamental change – and I’m really pleased about that.”

This shift towards interdepartmental working, Lewis believes, will be crucial in enabling civil servants to offer high-quality public services in straitened times. “By working better across departmental boundaries, we can improve services and deliver greater efficiency,” he says. “And we’ve done a lot on this cross-governmental agenda. For example, the DWP is now providing shared services to two other government departments. We’ve led for the whole of government on the national roll-out of the Tell Us Once programme (see box, previous page). And we’ve led on a number of other things – like the Government Connect roll-out, which has provided secure electronic communications between central government and every local authority.”

The regenerating cake
Some of the DWP’s strongest cross-departmental working, says Lewis, has been with the only other government department with similar numbers of staff: HM Revenue & Customs. “The way we work together is light years ahead of where we were even a few years ago,” he says enthusiastically. Chairing a joint steering group with HMRC chief Leslie Strathie, Lewis has pushed forward coordinated action on debt recovery, on this year’s state pension changes, and on benefits.

Lewis is particularly proud of DWP and HMRC’s reforms on benefit notifications. Traditionally, he says, someone who lost their job would have to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance from the DWP, seek housing benefit from their local authority, and tell HMRC that their entitlement to tax credits had changed. “Those organisations used to pass information from one to another, but very often they didn’t then do much with it, because they hadn’t collected it themselves according to their particular requirements and standards,” he says.

Nowadays, Lewis continues, Jobcentre Plus collects and distributes all the details required by all three organisations – and each agency trusts and accepts the information. “This results in much better customer service,” Lewis says. “Costs are substantially down, and customers think it’s vastly better. It’s a great example of how working together means you can deliver much better service for both the taxpayer and the customer: if you’re clever and do it well, you can have your cake and eat it.”

The slackers catch up
This all sounds very positive – but Jobcentre Plus does not, at a local level, have a great reputation for flexibility and keen partnership working. Again, says Lewis, things have changed:

“I think there has probably been quite a profound change in this area over the last few years, and I’m not sure if that change has completely registered,” he argues – though he does concede that “there’s always going to be some tension between administering a national policy which ministers want to be the same in locations A, B and C, and then being able to flex your policies sufficiently to be able to meet the individual demands of locations A, B and C.”

Jobcentre Plus offices, Lewis argues, are now “part of every local strategic partnership that exists, very often with their district manager leading the strand on worklessness”. The DWP’s own Disadvantaged Areas Fund, he points out, has now been subsumed into the locally based – and dual-key – Working Neighbourhoods Fund. At the latest annual meeting of permanent secretaries and council chief executives, says Lewis, “There was a real view in the room that the DWP is inside the tent now; it may, some years ago, have been a bit hesitant as to whether it was inside the tent or not.”

Defending the operation of Jobcentre Plus as a single, nationally-directed organisation, Lewis cites its response to the recession. Some 17,000 staff were recruited, he says, and “it’s very hard to imagine that it could have been as effective if it had been a totally fragmented organisation – but on the other hand, you can see numerous examples of where Jobcentre Plus now flexes its services”. On the topic of recruitment, given the lower-than-expected unemployment levels, is the agency now overstaffed? No, Lewis replies; it has “about what we need to deal with the volumes that are there at the moment”. With an organisation the size of Jobcentre Plus, he says, it’s “hard to land a jet on a postage stamp – but we haven’t overshot”.

“None of us can know for certain where the labour market will go now, but I think we’re in a position to respond fairly flexibly,” he concludes.

Leading – but not from the front
We move on to the topic of putting services online. The DWP has the lead on this agenda – responsibility rests with DWP minister Jim Knight – but here Lewis gets a little coy. “Having said some of the areas where I think the DWP has really been at the forefront, I genuinely think that there are some others in government who are probably more advanced down this road than DWP,” he says, pointing – inevitably – at the DVLA’s car tax renewal system and HMRC’s online tax self-assessment site.

Still, Lewis is quick to defend the DWP’s IT systems against the suggestion that they may not offer the best platform for a shift to online services. “Our IT has been tested like never before over the last year,” he says. “If it had been crashing every day, then it wouldn’t only be your readers who’d know about it; we’d have found ourselves on the front pages of many other newspapers as well.” In fact, he continues, “most of our systems have run at virtually 100 per cent availability, and that’s a great tribute not only for us but for our suppliers – EDS, Hewlett Packard, BT”. Even during the busiest periods, Lewis adds, call waiting times have been kept down because all DWP’s call centres have been linked together for maximum efficiency: “It’s the biggest single integrated call centre network in this country, and one of the biggest in Europe,” he says with pride.

Meanwhile, Lewis continues, the DWP has been putting its services online. The new online Jobseeker’s Allowance system has handled 100,000 applications already; the benefits adviser service has had 1.5 million hits in a year; and “we’re hoping to bring state pension online next month, for the very first time”. For the foreseeable future, he insists, the department has the money to continue investing in these areas: “We have got the investment funding we need to go on expanding our online services.”

It’s a people business
In the end, though, Leigh Lewis prefers to focus on people than on technologies. “You shouldn’t really get grumpy and irritable as a permanent secretary; it’s bad for the soul,” he says. “But one of the things that occasionally does make me a bit grumpy is when I read accounts of ‘pen-pushing bureaucrats’. I don’t employ pen-pushing bureaucrats; that’s a cheap way of looking at it. We employ some really hard-working, dedicated people who do a remarkable job for this country, for their fellow citizens.”

Cheering up, Lewis recalls a “lovely story that took this department by surprise”. The Times had carried an article in which “somebody compared their experience of talking to the Pension Service online with their experience of talking to others online – including private sector organisations. They said the Pension Service was an absolute joy to work with.” The permanent secretary is clearly thrilled by the coverage. After all, civil servants are more used to hearing public complaints than praise; yet, says Lewis, “One of our strategic objectives is to be an exemplar of effective customer service – and we don’t say an exemplar in the public sector; we want to be as good as anyone.”

“I hope, looking ahead, that we’ll never lose our heart as an organisation – even if our head is taking us to different places as the world changes,” Lewis says. “The world is going to go on changing; our services will be online in future – but in the end this is a people business. We deal with 20 million customers every working day; almost everyone in the country is a customer of ours at some point. They deserve not just to get the products and services they need, but to be treated with real care and concern.”

The methods may change, Lewis believes, but the principles and ethos of the DWP – those of the Department of Employment 40 years ago, and of the Labour Exchange a century back – remain broadly unchanged. “Every person we deal with out of those 20 million is a human being in their own right,” concludes Lewis. “I don’t ever want the DWP to lose its belief that it’s there to serve the people.”

Sir Leigh tells us about Tell Us Once
In December’s Smarter Government white paper, Gordon Brown announced that the DWP’s Tell Us Once pilot would be rolled out nationally. “Imagine that you have to report a bereavement – again and again, to a myriad of different bodies,” explains Lewis, with feeling. “And every time, though individually people are very nice to you, each wants to ask you exactly the same questions; everyone wants to see a copy of the death certificate. Not only is that putting people under enormous stress at a terribly difficult time in their lives, but it’s obvious that this is a classic example of where you can really improve customer service and reduce costs at the same time. Those objectives are not opposites at all – and that’s what we’ve shown in our pilots.”

The DWP’s latest task is to ensure that all relevant departments and agencies share that data, and Lewis concedes there are obvious barriers: “IT systems that don’t talk to each other; concerns over data security”. Nonetheless, he says, there’s one crucial enabling factor that’s making the programme work: “A very clear resolve amongst a group of key colleagues with the authority and the positions to make it happen.”

It is also, Lewis says, important to have a clear objective – “and the objective couldn’t be clearer. The three words ‘Tell Us Once’ encapsulate it exactly; you could stop anyone in the street and explain it in 30 seconds.” Given that, all the technical, legal and cultural barriers can be overcome if senior officials get behind a project. “The lesson here for many of the most profound improvements is that what you need is a real will and drive to make it happen,” Lewis concludes. “Once you’ve got that, it’s remarkable how you can cut through the difficulties and get over the obstacles. This is a really encouraging, breakthrough project; it’s genuine transformational government at work.”

CV highlights
1973 Graduates in Hispanic Studies at Liverpool University, and joins the Department of Employment (DoE) as an administrative trainee
1986 Made director of operations for the Unemployment Benefit Service
1991 Returns to DoE as director of the international division, then finance director
1997 Appointed chief executive of the Employment Service, then of Jobcentre Plus
2003 Moves to Home Office as permanent secretary for crime, policing, counter-terrorism and delivery
2005 Returns to DWP as permanent secretary


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