If Iain Duncan Smith led a large commercial organisation he would now be looking for another job. How long can this inept, discredited leader survive as head of the so-called Universal Benefits project? A supposedly sensible rationalisation of the welfare system started three years ago has constantly run into the sand in numerous and messy ways. Successive watchdogs have criticised Duncan Smith’s department for failing to come clean about the problems it has hit with the technology for implementing the changes. Given this is a flagship of the department it is surely amazing the leader in charge remains in place. As the political head IDS cannot escape accountability for what by any standards is shoddy implementation that shows no sign of transforming the benefits system in the foreseeable future. The latest review of the situation is so astounding that sheer incredulity can be the only sensible reaction. In its latest annual assessment of the implementation of nearly 200 major infrastructure projects, the Major Projects Authority (MPA) has listed universal credit as the only one to be “reset”. Nice word “reset.” Sounds anodyne, almost mechanistic and possibly harmless doesn’t it? In fact, what it actually means is this dreadful piece of ineffective leadership has led to the project being listed as “going back to the drawing board.” Worse, this is the second time this has happened, the first occurring in May 2013. Superficially the failure is down to constant IT design faults–in practice this is spin. When a project of this size keeps running into the sand it must eventually come back to an accountable leader—one consistently failing in the role. Under IDS’s leadership taxpayers have suffered a huge waste of public resources. Even worse, this has been linked to a failure to admit what is happening until forced to do so through external audits. IDS himself has hardly been the most open and transparent leader. He has consistently claimed the project is on track. Even now, despite the recent “reset”, his department continues to present a cosy picture of steady success. In 2013 Iain Duncan Smith publically rejected claims his flagship welfare policy was holed below the waterline and a “debacle”. He was being questioned by MPs amid fears, later fully justified, the Universal Credit system would miss key targets with concerns over the IT system being used. IDS blandly admitted some £40.1m had been written off on software and computing costs in implementing the new system. Perhaps as much as £300 million may eventually have to be regarded as down the drain. Back in 2013, this failed leader insisted the project would deliver £38bn of long-term economic benefits. He said the project was “on track” and the “vast majority” would be claiming the benefit by 2017. In fact the project was never going to deliver this kind of gain and had to be “reset” even then. Since then the situation has shuddered from terrible to catastrophic. Yet IDS sails on. In normal circumstances commercial stakeholders would long ago have abandoned him and insisted he go. This is not about technology. It is about management and the failure of the leader to deliver. Almost every aspect of the new benefits regime has been attacked, from what happens to free school meals to the wildly optimistic IT database. Blaming Accenture and others suppliers or the civil servants for technical screw-ups just won’t do. For example back in 2013 a damning report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee said management supervision of universal credit had been “alarmingly weak”. It’s time IDS behaved as an ethical leader, accepted that under his watch he has presided over a publicly-funded disaster. When the leaders of BP and the BBC messed up in the glare of publicity both were gone within weeks or months. How long will IDS be allowed to stagger on?
“With a £2 billion a year price tag for the implementation of the new benefit system, Universal Credit won’t even save any money. The entire shambles is being ram-raided into existence simply because no-one in this Government is brave enough to point out that Iain Duncan Smith isn’t actually very bright.” Universal Credit – The Great Unravelling Begins, September 16, 2012, J.Void |
Ethical leadership is not just about leaders who do bad things deliberately in search of quick financial gains. It is also about leaders who consistently mislead, and allow public resources to be wasted despite plenty of credible warnings.  See for example Simplifying the welfare system and making sure work pays, May 21st 2014:  R. Cellan-Jones, Universal credit – an IT fiasco? , December 2013, BBC News Technology