The Universal Credit fiasco

4635240754_eb76ddc5e5_mWhen the history of this Coalition government is written a substantial chapter will no doubt be devoted to contrasting the vaulting ambitions of IDS’s welfare reform agenda with the incompetence and inhumanity of its implementation. Like some sort of inverted alchemist IDS has the ability to turn golden prospects into practices of base metal.

In his Times column on Friday Philip Collins offered a magisterial overview of welfare reform under the title Beware the march of IDS and his gothic folly. Collins likens Universal Credit (UC) – the centrepiece of IDS’s grand scheme – to the perma-delayed Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The completion date for the Church of the Holy Family has now been revised to 2028, having been started in 1883. The intricacies and expense of its construction continue to defeat successive generations. Whether UC will arrive any sooner than 2028 is by no means an idle question.

The proximate cause for this new outbreak of commentary on the manifold deficiencies of IDS and his reform agenda was the publication of the NAO’s second report on the progress of the UC project following the high profile, and unprecedented, project reset in 2013. [Read more…]

Developments in the ongoing Bedroom Tax saga

8610361700_dea8d85350_zYou have to admire Andrew George. Or at least I do. Commentators are busying themselves accusing the Liberal Democrats of inconstancy or hypocrisy in supporting his Private Members’ Bill to reform the Bedroom Tax. But we should remember that George has ploughed a rather lonely furrow in consistent opposition to the policy from the start, even as the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party repeatedly lined up behind the Tories to support it.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the George’s Affordable Homes Bill, if it were to be successful, would bring housing benefit policy closer to current Liberal Democrat party policy. In that respect the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of hypocrisy. The more problematic issue is why the Libdem leadership supported a policy of such obvious boneheadedness in the first place.

Nor is it hypocritical to change position on a policy as new evidence comes to light. That is entirely reasonable and sensible. The more problematic issue is that the evidence that is said to have triggered the Liberal Democrat leadership change of position is not, really, very new. It largely confirms what people who understand the housing sector have been saying about the policy’s likely consequences since before the policy was implemented.

But there is some very clear hypocrisy and obfuscation in the Liberal Democrat messaging around yesterday’s events. [Read more…]

Are Mandarins the problem?

The relationship between politicians and civil servants is back in the spotlight. Janan Ganesh in the FT, for example, has argued that civil servants need to be brought to heel more effectively by their political masters. Cries of ‘politicisation’, whenever the prized independence of the civil service is threatened, should be recognized for what they are – an attempt by civil servants to maintain their capacity to undermine democracy by frustrating the will of elected governments.

Giles Wilkes, in contrast, argues that the machinations of a Mandarinate intent on frustrating the will of the people are much less of an issue than this suggests. There are many reasons why Ministers’ pet ideas do not translate into policy. He argues that the independent testing of the feasibility and desirability of proposals delivers better policy. It is rushed policy, that civil servants fail to question or refine sufficiently, that often provides the most egregious examples of policy failure:

… ministers and their advisers frequently do not understand the implications of their policy spasms. Such spasms often stem from a pitifully thin evidence base, and are only subject to scrutiny from a generally tame bunch of close commentator-friends, who will naturally be told, and repeat back to their readers, that the policy idea is sheer, radical genius.

No it isn’t.

I find myself with greater sympathy for the view Giles sets out. [Read more…]

Learning implementation lessons

mistakes in setting goalsChris Dillow draws our attention to the issue of policy implementation. He rightly argues that implementation is vitally important, but does not play well in the media. Unless, that is, something goes spectacularly wrong. The media tends to be more interested in the political “soap opera” or in new policy initiatives.

Chris argues that there are reasons for thinking that implementation will be sub-optimal. These include that:

There’s a fetish of “leadership” and “boldness” which encourages a neglect of the unglamorous gruntwork of proper management: tracking progress, achieving small partial targets and overcoming problems. This neglect will be magnified by cognitive biases such as overconfidence and groupthink … Perhaps the most grievous problem, though, is a lack of information.

Chris draws our attention to something very important here. Politicians are mostly, at best, decision makers; they are more rarely doers or managers. In that respect at least the simple division between politics and administration continues to be relevant. In a system that is increasingly populated by professional politicians who have taken the think tank, SpAd, MP route few members of the political classes have much first-hand experience of managing large-scale organisations or delivering successful organisational change before entering politics. [Read more…]

Policy Unpacked #3 – Welfare reform and social housing

Policy Unpacked logoThe Coalition government has embarked on a wide-ranging and far-reaching programme of change to the UK welfare system. Several components of the agenda  have already been implemented. Some are still to come.  The Coalition is pursuing policies on welfare benefits, rents and social housing development that have potentially significant implications both for household poverty and the future of housing providers. [Read more…]

The dangers of weak policy foundations

Broken RoadToday we witnessed a number of important developments, if you happen to be a policy geek. These developments have a substantially different character, and provide students of the policy process with much to chew on.

This morning we received news that Chris Grayling has decided to drop his proposals to introduce price competitive tendering for legal aid. This follows an earlier relatively low-key announcement that the proposal to remove defendants’ choice of representative was to be dropped.

Instead of the model of tendering proposed in Transforming Legal Aid the Ministry of Justice is working with professional bodies to come up with something new.

I’ve already had words about the TLA proposals, which are deeply problematic. And I, alongside many thousands of others, submitted a response to the consultation. As far as I can tell, almost all of those responses were pointing out the folly of the proposed approach. No one is against saving money. But almost no one thought that the TLA proposals represented a plausible means of doing so. It was a pretty friendless policy.

So this change of heart has got to be good news. [Read more…]

Universal Credit – some observations on policy and politics

Yesterday I scooted over to Newport to the Office of National Statistics to give a presentation as part of a lunchtime seminar on Universal Credit.

The text accompanying my presentation is available on my page at You can access it below the fold. [Read more…]

Housing the homeless in the private rented sector

The publication of Statutory Instruments is not, if I’m absolutely honest, the sort of thing to which I pay much attention. However, this week The Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 was published. It comes into effect early next month. And it is going to be of considerable significance.

Following the Localism Act local authorities are now allowed, for the first time, to discharge their homelessness duty into the private rented sector without the applicant’s consent. This change brought the Government under pressure to lay down some conditions regarding the nature of the accommodation that can be used for this purpose. And that’s what the SI does. [Read more…]

Policy, information and transparency

The Information Tribunal delivered its decision last week on the release of the risk registers associated with the Health & Social Care Bill. The Information Tribunal concluded that the Information Commissioner was correct in the initial decision that the release of the transitional risk register (TRR) – but not the strategic risk register – was in the public interest. And the Government was wrong to refuse to release it. I’m surprised that this decision did not attract more attention. Perhaps there’s a sense that the battle has already been lost. I understand the Department of Health is considering whether there are any legal grounds for challenging the Tribunal’s decision.

The IT’s report is not perhaps the most engaging of documents, but there is quite a bit of interest in it, beyond the fact that the Tribunal found against the Government. [Read more…]

Has Coalition 2.0 bitten the dust?

It would appear that Coalition 2.0 is heading for the scrapheap. At least that is what Matt Chorley reported in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday. Last year the Coalition partners were talking about needing a mid-term document to set out a further joint agenda for the second half of this Parliament. They were expecting to have dealt with all the measures in the original coalition agreement. They anticipated being at a bit of a loose end during 2013-15. It looks like that will no longer be necessary. [Read more…]