Editorial: The big lesson from Universal Credit

Challenge must be encouraged, no matter what the project.

By Joshua.Chambers

11 Sep 2013

The most damning part of the National Audit Office’s (NAO) recent report on the implementation of Universal Credit is the description of a “fortress mentality” within the programme, and a “culture of good news reporting that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge.”

This not only indicates a complete breakdown of good working practices, but also the collapse of the values on which the civil service is based: integrity, impartiality, honesty and objectivity. Worse, the Universal Credit project is not an isolated incident: another recent NAO report into the UK Border Force found that a “culture of fear” is preventing Border Force officers from reporting adverse working conditions.

It is vital that civil servants can alert their managers and ministers to potential flaws in their policies, speak up when implementation is not proving effective and continue to provide feedback when problems occur in delivery. If they are unable to do so, the problems experienced on the Universal Credit project will be replicated elsewhere, namely failure to achieve value for money so far – as highlighted by the NAO – and embarrassing delays to a flagship programme with cross-party support.

Ministers and the leadership of the civil service must create an environment where civil servants feel supported to be open about potential risks, and challenge failing policies – as the Public Administration Select Committee notes in its most recent report (see news). One way of achieving this could be to write this goal into all permanent secretaries’ objectives. There should also be stronger internal channels for whistleblowers, improved internal audits, and a wider range of civil servants appearing in front of select committees, so that middle-managers have to explain to Parliament why they didn’t raise the alarm.

Government should also be alive to the risks created by the latest round of civil service reforms. The creation of Extended Ministerial Offices (EMOs) will provide greater support and expertise for ministers to draw on, but private offices must not be allowed to become isolated from their departments. Further, ministers should be encouraged to use these offices to bring in more experience and diversity. Special advisers largely come from a homogeneous background – predominantly party political headquarters – but ministers must cast their net far wider in both the public and private sector when recruiting for their extended offices.

EMOs will also include civil servants, chosen directly by ministers. Promotion into these offices must not be on the basis of telling a minister what they want to hear. Instead, government must ensure that promotion follows the principles set out in the new competency framework, and should provide detailed guidance for ministers to help them make appointments. Not doing so risks undermining efforts to reward good performers and improve the performance of weak ones.

Government must not allow a “fortress” mentality to emerge in any other key projects. The Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions’ new head of Universal Credit, Howard Shiplee, seems committed to learning from the mistakes that have been made, and putting the programme back on track. But unless government makes a concerted effort to ensure that challenge and debate are supported across all departments, its latest reforms risk insulating ministers and weakening the ability of the civil service to deliver.

Joshua Chambers, Deputy Editor. joshua.chambers@dods.co.uk

See also: Civil servants 'unable to speak truth to power,' say top MPs

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