MPs and public spending watchdog the National Audit Office need to take a better-informed and more constructive approach to scrutinising welfare reform because they fail to understand the magnitude of the task, civil servants have complained.
Their concerns were aired at a recent roundtable event hosted by the Institute for Government and the Social Security Advisory Committee that sought lessons from the ongoing implementation of Universal Credit and other major changes.
Details of the event were published just days after Universal Credit architect the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the NAO’s latest report on the working-age benefits system was “a shoddy piece of work”.
The IfG and SSAC round table was conducted under Chatham House rules and did not identify participants, who were described as “a range of former ministers, civil servants, parliamentarians and other advisers”.
However, the write-up was credited to IfG fellow – and former Financial Times journalist – Nick Timmins and current SSAC chair Paul Gray, a former second permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions.
The event took place before the June 15 NAO report that Duncan Smith chastised had been published. But one of its findings was a criticism on the part of officials that MPs and public-sector auditors took an unconstructive approach to welfare reform and needed “a better understanding” of policy.
“In particular, the civil servants at the roundtable, but also some politicians, felt that the adversarial approach of the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee could inhibit the department’s ability to be open about the challenges it was facing, as missed deadlines turned into bad headlines,” Timmins and Gray said.
“The aggressive approach adopted by the PAC made it hard to admit problems and members seemed to be focused on catching witnesses out.”
While the report suggested that other select committees had been “a little better” it said roundtable participants believed that watchdog MPs would be helped by getting backchannel briefings that improved their understanding but minimised the potential for grandstanding.
“Parliamentarians generally – and select committees in particular – would benefit from the availability of ‘trusted channels’ for confidential briefings from the department to enable them to be better informed about the challenges,” Timmins and Gray said.
“That has, on occasion, happened, but relatively rarely. Rapid turnover of ministers can be a barrier to those relationships developing. Public understanding of the welfare budget was also poor, which hampered the quality of public debate.”
Despite the lack of understanding on the part of MPs, DWP was also accused of hampering its own progress by presiding over an unconstructive turnover of top staff in relation to Universal Credit, which was originally due to have been rolled out by 2015, a date now pushed back to 2023.
“Lack of continuity of ministers and senior officials was a big issue,” Timmins and Gray observed in their commentary. “On UC there had been six senior responsible owners and six project managers in six years – although, on the civil service side, there has been more stability recently.”
More positively event participants praised the test-and-learn approach now being used for the Universal Credit roll-out as a good way to mitigate the risks of one-off policy design and roundtable participants felt it was a strategy that could be adopted in other areas. They also suggested that future welfare reforms should have greater input from front-line staff and service clients.
Elsewhere, the roundtable event observed that while DWP is a data-driven department with more than 600 analysts, it had “a limited view of useful evidence” and was much stronger on quantitative than qualitative data. Participants also complained that the department was also “sceptical” about research it had not commissioned itself.
The June 15 NAO report that Iain Duncan Smith was harshly critical about in parliament last Thursday warned that Universal Credit may never represent value for money and was only currently used by around 10% of its target recipients. The former work and pensions secretary accused the NAO of getting its sums wrong.
“They failed to take account of a whole series of issues, not least of which were the Treasury’s signed-off figures about savings about £8bn recurring a year, and the changes made last November/December actually made a huge difference to people’s lives,” he said.
“The Public Accounts Committee need to ask the question ‘who really does police the policeman?’ because this piece of work really does them no credit at all.”
The report was the latest in a long line of highly-critical NAO probes into Universal Credit. A particularly damning 2013 report said the programme suffered from “weak management, innefective control and poor governance”.
It has subsequently emerged that a lack of in-house IT capability also crippled DWP's ability to create and deliver the project to its original timescales.