Universal credit is having a bumpy ride: but whose fault is it? Yesterday’s Commons urgent question on the National Audit Office report turned into a bit of a blame game, with Iain Duncan Smith saying rather bitterly that he had expected his department to meet the challenge of delivering this big reform. His response to Bernard Jenkin on the importance of a good civil service was one of the most telling of the whole session:

Bernard Jenkin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Public Administration Committee will produce an important report tomorrow about civil service reform? It comes as no surprise that the Comptroller and Auditor General has said that his programme lacked “an appropriate management approach”, adding:

“Instead, the programme suffered from weak management, ineffective control and poor governance.”

These are problems that afflict all Departments, and have done so for many years under the last Government as well as this one. Will my right hon. Friend support the civil service reform so determinedly championed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), to ensure that we secure the change in Whitehall that we need?

Duncan Smith: First, let me say that I am a complete supporter of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General on the civil service reform plan, and I have been from day one. The truth is that if the Opposition were in thinking mode they would have agreed with that as well. The reality is that today’s NAO report shows there were problems in the running of this programme. I intervened when I discovered that and changed it, but I never expected to have to do that. When I arrived, I expected the professionalism to be able to do this properly. So my view is that I have intervened in the right way. All the other programmes of IT change are working and are well run—and they are well run by the Department. This one was not. We have made the changes necessary.

I have some sympathy with IDS’ disappointment with his department, and explain why Universal Credit’s difficult genesis makes the case for serious reform of the civil service in my Telegraph column today. But we’re not quite finished with Bernard Jenkin yet. His question reminded the Work and Pensions Secretary about a report produced by the select committee that Jenkin chairs, on Public Administration. That report was published this morning, and suggests that a joint committee of both houses should form a cross-party commission on civil service reform. The committee wants a commission by the end of the year, with a report before the 2015 election, so that whoever is in government can put in place a ‘comprehensive change programme’

It argues that the current Civil Service Reform Plan is ‘not comprehensive’ and that there are serious tensions and skills gaps in Whitehall that need addressing:

‘One example of the skills gap was revealed in the collapse of the tendering process for the West Coast Main Line in October 2012. This followed a review of the franchise decision conducted by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, at the request of the Prime Minister, which failed to identify fundamental flaws in the assessment of the franchise bid. The collapse of this decision provoked an outbreak of blame and recrimination, and the failure was publicly blamed on the key civil servants conducting the process. The subsequent review of the collapse, conducted by Sam Laidlaw, the lead non- executive director at the Department for Transport, and the Secretary of State for Transport, attributed it to “completely unacceptable mistakes” by Department for Transport officials working on the franchise process. In this specific example, former Transport Minister, Lord Adonis, referred to the retirement, after the 2010 general election, of a key senior civil servant with experience running a train company, which he said left the Department for Transport “essentially flying blind in dealing with the West Coast Mainline”. Many took this episode to be symptomatic of a wider malaise in the Civil Service.’

Perhaps Sir Humphrey will be happy with the idea that there should be another commission. Indeed, Whitehall sources are pointing to the fact that Sir Gus O’Donnell likes it as a sign that it’s probably not a good idea. One says the report is ‘all over the place’ and dismisses it as ‘sensational’ and ‘journalistic’.

But one of the problems with civil service reform is that it often requires a party to come into government expecting a Rolls Royce, discover that the machine is a bit more battered, feel anguished about this for a few months and only then to draw up a plan for reform. The PASC report argues that this reform needs to be prepared now so that whoever is in power from 2015 can get on with reforming, rather than dither for a few years and watch reforms struggle. If ministers and shadow ministers don’t like that, then they need to make sure their respective party leaderships are drawing up their own priority plans to overhaul Whitehall for 2015. If they don’t, the National Audit Office needn’t worry about running out of projects to criticise just yet.

P.S. There is some pretty aggressive briefing against Robert Devereux from various quarters in my column. He is up before the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday afternoon, which will give him the opportunity to respond to the criticisms levelled at him over universal credit. It may also give us an idea of just how much trouble the DWP perm sec is in.

Tags: Civil Service, UK politics, Universal credit