IDS and the anatomy of incompetence

Iain Duncan Smith’s reaction to the NAO’s criticism of Universal Credit has been to blame someone else.  Perhaps it’s the fault of the IT people.  He told the BBC (also reported in The Telegraph):  “The problem was that those charged with actually putting together the detail of the IT – I’m not a technologist and nor are you, we rely on people telling us that that is actually correct – did not make the correct decisions but we intervened to change that. ”  That’s odd, because on the Today programme he explained he had actively intervened as early as 2011, and a year ago he explained that he was personally supervising choices and decisions about IT:   

“For what it is worth, I take absolute, direct and close interest in every single part of the IT development.  I hold meetings every week and a full meeting every two weeks, and every weekend a full summary of the IT developments and everything to do with policy work is in my box and I am reading it. I take full responsibility and I believe we are taking the right approach.” 

Nearly a year ago, too, an inside source was cited by the Independent saying this:  “IDS, like other ministers before him, has been hypnotised by promises of what an online system can deliver. Warnings were given to him more than a year ago. They were ignored.”

Maybe it’s the fault of the civil servants, who from IDS’s BBC interview do not seem to have taken on board his repeated explanations.  The Telegraph, leaping to IDS’s defence, comments that “The Universal Credit debacle is the fault of the Civil Service, not Iain Duncan Smith.” IDS has said he has ‘lost faith’ in his civil servants, who were “just wanting to be able to say it was going well.”  That problem was also being reported a year ago. 

The basic problem, however, is the problem of the Universal Credit scheme itself: a badly misjudged project that is flawed in concept, aims, design and implementation. The prime responsibility for that, of course, rests with IDS, its leading proponent, who is also charged with delivering it. There is a wonderful article on incompetence by Kruger and Dunning (J Kruger, D Dunning, 1999, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 77 no 6 pp 1121-1134). They explain why people who are incompetent generally don’t realise it; the same skills and knowledge which would lead them to be self-critical are precisely the skills and knowledge they don’t have.

“We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

If Iain Duncan Smith had had the resources and knowledge to understand what was wrong with his policy and approach, he probably wouldn’t have done it. If there is a criticism to make of his civil servants, it’s that no-one seems to have been prepared to tell him, as Sir Humphrey once said to Jim Hacker: “If you are going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.”

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