The incoming 2010 UK government handed its benefits department such a vast caseload of policies and reforms that “it would have literally been impossible for it all to have gone well,” the department’s retiring chief has told Global Government Forum in an extensive interview.
Sir Robert Devereux, who has just retired after seven years as permanent secretary of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), told Global Government Forum that after every change of administration, newly-appointed ministers “don’t know about government or the civil service or accumulated risk – why would they? And they arrive in front of a permanent civil service which has for the past 10, 15 years been serving the other lot.”
The danger is that ministers create an unrealistic set of policy goals and deadlines, he argued – pointing out that DWP’s non-executive directors, business leaders recruited under the Coalition in a bid to strengthen departmental governance, tried to persuade ministers to slow down delivery.
“We’ve had successively the ex-head of the London Stock Exchange, the head of Kingfisher, and we’ve now got the ex-head of Argos,” he said. “And pretty much each of them, within about a month of arriving, said to the then-secretary of state: ‘We’ve never tried to do this much change at once. So if you want our advice, make the programme smaller.’ To which, generally, each secretary of state smiled and says: ‘Well that’s fine, but I’m afraid we’re on it already’.”
In the interview, Devereux explains in detail the troubled history of the vast Universal Credit benefits reform programme – arguing that tensions between ministers inadvertently prevented senior leaders learning about emerging problems with the IT build. Officials may be wary of highlighting risks, he suggests, when “some of the subliminal messages – and the not-so-subliminal messages – coming right from the top of the system downwards are: ‘Actually, look, let’s manage this ourselves’.”
The former permanent secretary also gives his views on the risks and merits of interventions in departments’ work by the centre of government, and on other key programmes – including the Work Programme and the Personal Independence Payments scheme.