Universal Credit and the need to think more 'Grow' (and less 'Build')

On Friday, I was quoted by Charlotte Jee in a New Statesman article - Universal Credit: the anatomy of a government failure - about a big government programme to improve the welfare system. Charlotte asked me why I thought the programme has had problems...

I spoke to Mark Foden, an expert in technology-related change in government who has advised a number of Whitehall departments. He explained that “many of the significant problems we have had with large government IT projects – Universal Credit included – stem from the issue that government has not properly grasped the implications of complexity”.

He continued: “In relatively ordered, well-understood situations – building a tunnel, running a sports event or even setting up a large computer network – it is possible to make big, long-term plans and be reasonably certain of achieving them. We generally do a great job of this kind of thing."

“But Universal Credit is not this kind of thing. Where there is complexity, and particularly where outcomes depend on significant change in human behaviour, approaches based on the traditional ‘construction’ mindset work poorly. In these situations it's critical to proceed incrementally. This means, at each step, learning what leads to useful outcomes – in the case of Universal Credit, changes in the behaviour of claimants (and not whether the technology functions) – and then adapting the entire approach to suit. This often leads to doing things that just could not be envisaged at the outset. In traditional programmes with big promises and a fixed end date, it is impossible to work this way."

"The problem is not in plans, people or methods; it’s in mindset. Trying to build things that really need to be grown just won’t work; no matter how you manage them."

If you are a politician or civil servant involved with ordering or managing change like this, do you find yourself talking in terms of Building or of Growing.

More information

Complexity and the art of public policy is an excellent new book on how the ideas of complexity science can be applied to social and economic problems. A must read for policy-makers (particularly those involved with Universal Credit).