Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Iain Duncan Smith has failed on Universal Credit


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The Independent Online


It is a sad truth that, for many years, British governments of all persuasions have been inept at spending our money efficiently. From buying warships and missiles, to private-finance initiatives for schools and hospitals, to new computer networks and the ill-fated Millennium Dome, the list of failings is long and expensive. Part of the problem has been a culture that sees managing and implementing big projects as a sort of second-class career. The best civil servants tend to go and work with ministers devising policies – leaving the less able with the grunt job of delivering them.

This Government has tried to address the problem. Three years ago, it set up a body to oversee and monitor the 200-odd major projects being run at a cost of £400bn. Civil servants are now sent on courses at Oxford University, learning how to manage projects, while the brightest and the best are being encouraged to implement, as well as make, policy. Ministers are also publishing an annual progress report detailing how major projects are going.

But in the Government’s latest report – slipped out on the day of the local election results – one major project was missing. Universal credit did not get a rating of green, red or amber – after a protest by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. It got a Yes Minister-style rating all of its own: “Reset”.

Such a lack of transparency typifies the “head in the sand” mentality that has typified previous Whitehall project failures. At the last reshuffle, David Cameron came close to bringing in a new Secretary of State with better administration skills. He should do so now. It would show that this Government believes ideas are only as good as their implementation.