Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” Post Office IT? What now?

By Tony Collins

post office logoThe BBC’s “PM” programme returned to the topic last week of subpostmasters who were stripped of their post office contracts and bankrupted because of theft, fraud and false accounting. Some went to jail.

“Is it possible they were innocent and that a computer system was to blame instead?” asked Eddie Mair, the programme’s presenter.

The BBC has seen a leaked copy of an independent report the Post Office commissioned into its “Horizon” branch office accounting system. An interim version of the report by consultancy Second Sight was released last year.

The leaked report says the system was unfit for purpose in some branches, says to the BBC. When Post Office investigators checked out shortfalls they did not look for the root cause of the errors – and instead accused the sub-postmasters of theft or false accounting, says the BBC, quoting from the report.

£1bn Horizon system

More than 11,000 post offices use Fujitsu’s £1bn Horizon system for branch accounting and rarely have problems. At the close of each day, the system balances money coming in from customers and money going out, to banks, energy companies, for tax disc sales and for lottery tickets.

If the system showed there was a shortfall, subpostmasters had few options: make up the deficit themselves, sign off the accounts as correct, or refuse to sign off – which might have meant closing the post office (and upsetting customers) while a financial audit took place.

The BBC PM programme last week re-broadcast its interview in June 2012 with a gently-spoken Welshman, Noel Thomas, who worked for the Post Office for 42 years before he had problems with the Horizon branch accounting system at Gaerwen. When he went to balance the accounts the system kept telling him there was a deficit – a shortfall in the daily takings.

post-office-signPrison

After speaking to the Post Office helpline several times he believed the matter would be sorted out in time. He signed off the accounts – and the Post Office took him to court for false accounting. He pleaded guilty and went to prison; and he went bankrupt.

In his interview with Eddie Mair, Thomas came across as a man of guileless integrity.

“I had a very busy post office,” said Thomas. “I am not ashamed to tell you I had a very good income of between £20,000 and £30,000 a year. I worked very hard for it: I looked after my customers.”

Mair: What was the first sign of trouble?

“I did have trouble over about 12 months actually. The last six months it went worse. You just couldn’t balance. It was going in the end (into deficit) at the rate of £2,000-£3,000 a week.”

Mair: This wasn’t your own personal books – you weren’t filling in a ledger – this was the computer system?

“This was the computer system. In the end I was convicted on the basis that I false accounted for over £50,000.”

Mair: They thought you’d stolen it?

“Yes. But when it came to the court case they dropped the theft [charge] very very quickly and just went for false accounting.”

Mair: You went to jail?

“Yes… I was lucky. I only had eight days. Time went very very quickly.”

Mair: But I am guessing for you that was not really the problem, the passing of time. You’d been branded a criminal?

“Yes. That’s what got me you see.”

Mair: The Post Office still says it is confident about this computer system. It is still happy with it.

“It would say [that], wouldn’t it?”

Mair: As for you, are you confident you didn’t make a lot of mistakes?

“Yes. I can say I didn’t make mistakes. I can say with my hand on my heart I didn’t take the money.”

Mair: What effect has this had on you?

“A big effect, because I was declared bankrupt. The Post Office are paying my pension but they took my private pensions away.”

Mair: What would you like to happen?

“Not for me myself but for (other subpostmasters and mistresses). It has ruined their lives hasn’t it? If you pilfer off the Royal Mail you need to be punished –”

Mair: But Noel if you are correct – and obviously the Post Office has a different view of this – if you are right then you have been made bankrupt, you have lost almost everything -

“Yes.”

You have been to jail -

“Yes.”

Over a computer mistake -

“Yes.”

Mair: What do you want from them?

“That we can get justice for everybody.”

post officeCriminals or faulty systems?

Thomas had given up trying to prove his innocence when he received a phone call from retired senior probation officer Roch Garrard who said the same thing had happened to his local postmistress in Hampshire.

In time Thomas found that dozens of middle-aged, middle-class subpostmasters and mistresses who had never put a foot wrong were being branded criminals.

“It didn’t make sense to me so I started to contact some of them and said to them ‘this is what happened to our postmistress, what happened to you’ and the stories were all so similar that I thought there must be something wrong,” he said.

Now, more than 150 sub-postmasters say they were wrongly prosecuted, or made to repay money, because of the system. The Post Office remains defensive. Its public statements express little sympathy. It is, though, in secret talks with the subpostmasters over possible compensation. But can money ever put right injustices that have ruined lives?

New Second Sight report

BBC reporter Dan Johnson said the latest report explains exactly was going on with the Post Office computer system. “The thrust of this report is that it was faults in that computer system as well as communication problems, and issues around training that led to these mistakes. It wasn’t dishonesty,” said Johnson.

The report said training was not good enough for those without IT skills and power failures and communication issues made things worse. Helpline staff gave conflicting advice or said problems would sort themselves out.

Second Sight found in its research on Horizon that bugs were  not unknown. It said in its interim report that “some combinations of events can trigger situations where problems occur”.

A tearful Sarah Burgess Boyd, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne told the BBC she lost her life savings in repaying an incorrect shortfall. She said of the Post Office, “I just don’t know of another business that would conduct themselves in such a callous and inhumane manner.”

The Post Office said the leaking of the report was “unhelpful”. In a statement, the Post Office told the BBC:

“Although we will not comment on the contents of any confidential documents, after two years of investigation it remains the case that there is absolutely no evidence of any systemic issues with the computer system which is used by over 78,000 people across our 11,500 branches and which successfully processes over six million transactions every day.”

The Post Office is in mediation with some of the affected subpostmasters, in part because of campaigning for justice by MPs, particularly North East Hampshire MP James Arbuthnot.

Also leading the campaign is the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which was set up to “raise awareness of the problems around the Post Office Horizon system which for many years Post Office Limited has denied exist”.

Despite the mediation, the relationship between the accused subpostmasters and the Post Office remains strained. Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster in Wales who founded the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, continues to submit FOI requests to the Post Office, the latest being August 2014. The Post Office tends to refuse his requests or gives him unsympathetic replies.

In one of his FOI appeals, Bates tells the Post Office that the concern is not about the millions of successful weekly and monthly financial reconciliations that take place but the “numerous unsuccessful reconciliations that take place that Post Office refuses to even consider may occur”. Post Office management “seems blind to such possibilities”.

He told BBC Wales in 2012:

“One of the big problems with Horizon is the inability to fully examine all the data you have put in the system. You were not allowed to interrogate it. They restricted the access. I refused to be held liable for a system that I and my staff were unable to access to check.”

Under the FOI Act, Bates asked the Post Office last month for the total amount in value and number of all “transaction correction” invoices and credit notes issued to post offices in the latest accounts period; and he asked in April 2014

“Has Post Office ever been made aware of faults within the software of their Horizon System that would have impacted in any way on the accuracy of the accounts of any post office?”

The Post Office did not say. Its reply was that the question was not specific enough.

Ministers have been unsympathetic to the accused subpostmasters –  although the campaign to clear the names of the accused has come mostly from Conservative MPs. Minister Jo Swinson told the House of Commons last year that the number of subpostmasters who’d complained about the Horizon system was “tiny, tiny”.

The National Federation of SubPostmasters has also been unsympathetic and has backed the Post Office. The Federation said: “We continue to have complete confidence in the Horizon system, which carries out hundreds of millions of transactions every week at 11,500 Post Office outlets across the country.

“The NFSP has seen no evidence to suggest that Horizon has been at fault and we believe it to be robust.”

Contract Law

Bhavisha Parekh, a case handler at Contact Law, was approached in 2009 by a sub-postmaster whose accounts had been audited that morning – and they’d found a loss of £7,000.

Parekh writes on the Contract Law website:

“The client had found this loss when doing her daily accounts a week earlier and asked the Post Office auditors to assist her and investigate the matter to locate the loss and rectify the accounts.

“Post Office accounts consist of cash, stamps, and postal orders as well as anything else they trade in; everything is given a financial value. The client’s loss was not of cash and all her transactions were showing to be completed correctly.

“However, upon the auditor’s confirmation of the loss she was charged with theft from the Post Office and given notice of being given a statutory demand for the £7,000.

“The client was in tears over the phone as she felt she had been wrongly charged; the client had run the Post Office for many years without fault and had become a pillar of the community.

“She felt victimised, as when trying to resolve this problem with the Post Office she had asked them to audit her branch and now she was being charged with theft.

“That day I gave the client details of a firm local to her (solicitors) to assist her with this matter. A few weeks later when calling the client to get feedback on the outcome of her case, she explained that she had had been investigated by the Post Office but they had not found anything to show she had taken the money.

“When auditing her branch the final accounts showed a loss; however, the auditors were unable to trace where this loss occurred. After further investigation and having a forensic accountant look into the matter, there were still no answers as to where this loss had occurred.

“This seemed pretty strange; the client in the meantime was told she could not work in the Post Office or even enter the building so she was left without an income and fear of being criminally prosecuted.

“However, after a month or so the Post Office wrote to her to state they had dropped the charges. She would however not be able to commence work as a sub-postmaster, and no explanation of the matter was given.

“Since speaking to this client I was approached by two more former sub-postmasters with the same case. However, they have not been as ‘lucky’ as my initial client – one was dismissed as a sub-postmaster and asked to repay this ‘lost’ amount, and the other was charged with theft and imprisoned for 18 months as well as ordered to pay a sum of £75,000.

“In all three cases the Post Office and their trained auditors have been unable to locate what this loss is; further they have not been able to trace any money into the postmasters’ accounts. Apart from there actually being a loss, there has been no evidence of any theft ever taking place.

“I have only spoken to three sub-postmasters; however this is happening at an increasing scale all over England. Computer experts are now stating that the ‘Horizon’ software the Postmasters use is flawed and so showing these losses.

“Potentially, due to this computer error, many sub-postmasters have lost their jobs, been imprisoned, and left traumatised by the Post Office’s actions.”

Comment

The Post Office deserves credit for investigating some of the complaints (after years of pressure from MPs) and it is said to have settled some of the less serious cases. But five years since the accumulation of problems came to light the convictions against subpostmasters remain. Computer Weekly highlighted the plight of subpostmasters in 2009.

Second Sight’s latest report will add to concern that lives were ruined because unexplained deficits on the Post Office’s Horizon system were not thoroughly investigated – and the root cause established – before the Post Office ticked the legal box to prosecute.

There is scope for systems to go wrong when there are multiple interfaces, occasional power failures and faults in networks and communications equipment. The Post Office’s Horizon system has multiple interfaces; and in any case no IT system is perfect. That Horizon works well for tens of thousands of subpostmasters is no guarantee it will work well for all.

Telling the family of someone struck by lightning that millions of people are not struck by lightning every year is extraordinarily insensitive. What’s the point of the Post Office’s continuing to insist that most subpostmasters have no problem with Horizon? Clearly there are no system-wide issues but nobody is saying there are – and why would those sent to prison, made bankrupt or deprived of their livelihoods care if IT issues were systemic or not? They say it happened to them.

Nobody in the general population would believe that 150 or more subpostmasters were dishonest.

Who would put the integrity of a computer system above the integrity of 150 subpostmasters?

The Post Office, as the prosecuting authority, could argue it is only doing its job in protecting its money and the investments of its shareholders. But in doing their jobs Post Office managers seem to be behaving more like machines than humans. They prosecuted for false accounting because they could.

They could, because sub-postmasters, when confronted by a deficit they didn’t understand, signed off accounts after being told by the IT helpdesk that the problems would probably clear in time. Strictly speaking, signing off accounts as correct when they are  known to be incorrect is false accounting. But was it something the Post Office should have prosecuted, given the mounting complaints about the accuracy of the system’s deficit figures?

Still the Post Office is refusing to answer subpostmaster’s questions. Its managers know they have the legal and contractual upper hand; and as owners of the system they possess the facts. What they do not have is the moral upper ground: they lost any claim to neutrality when they took subpostmasters to be dishonest before properly investigating the potential for shortcomings of the system.

It will be damaging to justice and the reputations of the subpostmasters if the Post Office continues to conform to the stereotype of a large organisation that, once it has denied liability for anything, refuses repeatedly to alter its position, whatever the facts.

As individuals, Post Office managers are probably understanding. As an institution the Post Office appears hostile to those whose lives have been ruined. It seems content to allow the cry for justice to stretch out for years, while it remains defensive and unsympathetic.

Shadow business minister Ian Murray asked in the House of Commons last year:

What processes will be put in place to compensate sub-postmasters and former sub-postmasters who have been disadvantaged, fined, lost their businesses, homes or even jailed, as a result of the problems with the Horizon system?

Wronged subpostmasters deserve far more in compensation than the sums originally in dispute. Is the Post Office institutionally capable of righting egregious wrongs?

Are disaffected subpostmasters having to sign gagging orders?

Second Sight interim report

Subpostmasters tell their story

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

 

DWP appoints 180k DG Technology

By Tony Collins

Mayank Prakash is the new Director General for Technology at the Department for Work and Pensions. He’ll be responsible for the DWP’s IT services and ensuring that its technology supports current and new digital services. He is the permanent replacement for DWP Chief Information Officer Andy Nelson who was in the role less than a year.

Prakash was previously Managing Director of Wealth and Asset Management Technology delivery centres at Morgan Stanley. Before that he led IT, security and digital business transformation at Sage UK.

He said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to simplify welfare by transforming one of the UK’s largest IT estates to deliver easy to use digital services. It is a professional privilege to improve how the government delivers services to 22 million citizens.”

He’ll start in November.

His early career was in leading technology and eBusiness teams for Lucent and then Avaya where he was the International IT Director. He has an MBA from Manchester Business School.

He will be partly responsible for Universal Credit.

DWP’s advert for a £180k IT head – what it doesn’t say

IDS not quite as bullish on Universal Credit programme?

By Tony Collins

Iain Duncan Smith told the House of Commons in January 2013:

“Universal Credit is on track and on budget. The systems are not new or complex. After all, more than 60% of the total developed system is based on reusing existing IT. New developments will use tried and tested technology.

“The key difference between how this Government are doing things and how they were done before is that we have adopted commercial “agile” design principles to build the IT service for universal credit in four stages, each four months long.”

No longer does IDS say the Universal Credit programme is on time or on budget. Indeed in the House of Commons yesterday he was asked by Labour if the Treasury has approved the full business case for Universal Credit. His replies to MPs were not quite as bullish as they sometimes have been.

He spoke about the programme almost entirely in the future tense, and when he mentioned the present state of the programme he quoted someone else –  John Manzoni, the chief executive of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

Labour’s Nicholas Brown asked IDS when he expects the business case for Universal Credit to be fully signed off.

IDS: “I announced in December that Her Majesty’s Treasury has approved funding for the universal credit programme in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The final stage in Treasury approvals is sign-off of the full business case, which covers the full lifetime of the programme. We expect to agree that very shortly.”

Brown: The answer to a similar question two months ago was “very shortly”, but it is taking rather longer than the Secretary of State intended. What are the major outstanding issues between his Department and the Treasury, and where does universal credit now stand in the Cabinet Office’s traffic light system?

IDS: “… the reality is that we have agreed all the spending that is relevant to the plan that we set out at the end of last year. The final point relates to the full lifetime of that programme, which will take it all the way through, probably beyond all the years that anybody present will be in government. [MPs: 'Certainly you!'] …  That is now being agreed and the reality is that it has to be done very carefully. I genuinely believe, from my discussions, that it will be signed off very shortly. The result will be that the programme will be seen for what it is: a programme that will deliver hugely to those who have the toughest lives and need the most support and help.”

Labour’s Andrew Gwynne asked when the government is going to get a grip on a “chaotic shambles”.

IDS: “It is always nice to live in the past, but the reality is that if the hon. Gentleman waits he will see that this programme is running well and will be delivering, that this programme of universal credit will benefit everybody who needs the support they most need, and all the nonsense he is talking about will all go away.

Chris Bryant, Labour, said that IDS keeps telling MPs that the UC business case will be approved very shortly.  “What has gone wrong?” he asked IDS.

IDS: “There are no sticking points, but these matters need to be agreed carefully. This test-first-and-then-implement process is the way all future programmes will be implemented.

“I just want to quote Mr Manzoni, the new chief executive of the Major Projects Authority, who made it clear to the Public Accounts Committee in June that universal credit is stable and on track with the reset plan.”

Comment

The National Audit Office is re-investigating the UC programme and is expected to publish its second “progress” report on the state of the programme by December.

If IDS says anything unjustifiably positive about the programme now, MPs and the media will compare his comments today with what the NAO says in its new report. Is that why he refers to the programme only in the future tense? And who can say with certainty what will or will not happen in the future?

It may be worth mentioning that ministers and officials, some years into the NPfIT, referred to the state of the programme almost entirely in the future tense.

DWP wastes money on another Universal Credit FOI appeal

By Tony Collins

Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions are to pay external lawyers to attend another FOI hearing as part of the department’s efforts to stop four old reports on the Universal Credit programme being published.

A hearing will take place in London on 3 December for the DWP to put its case for a third time that it should be allowed to appeal a ruling of the first tier information tribunal that the four reports be published.

Although the DWP’s lawyers have lost every tribunal decision they have contested in the case, there is no sign the department’s officials will restrict the amount of public money they allocate to stopping publication of the reports.

If lawyers for the DWP continue to lose every judicial decision, officials will always have the option of a ministerial veto.

The DWP’s multiple appeals are arguably a pointless plundering of the public purse for legal costs, because officials have known from the initial FOI requests in 2012 that they would never publish the reports in question.

Despite the efforts of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to introduce open government, no central department has agreed to issue reports on the progress or otherwise of its big IT-dependent projects and programmes.

This is the chronology so far in the DWP’s attempts to stop the four Universal Credit reports being published:

March 2012 – I make a freedom of information request for a Project Assessment Review of the Universal Credit programme, as carried out by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.  The PAR would have given early indications of the problems the IT teams faced while the DWP’s ministers and press office were issuing public statements that the programme was on time and on budget.

April 2012 - John Slater, a programme and project management professional, makes an FOI request for the Universal Credit programme Risk Register, which gives a traffic light status of the risks most likely to occur and who should take ownership of them. He also requests an Issues Register which details the problems and failures that have occurred and why, how they can be managed, and how their effect on the programme can be minimised or eliminated. The Milestone Schedule he requests would show whether milestones have been met or changed.

May 2012 – DWP minister Lord Freud personally signs refusals to release any of the four reports. John Slater and I request internal reviews of the refusals. The DWP rejects our appeals so we complain to the Information Commissioner.

June 2013 – The Information Commissioner orders that the DWP publish three of the reports but not the Risk Register. The DWP appeals the ruling.  John Slater appeals the Commissioner’s decision to keep the Risk Register confidential.

Jan 2014 – A two-day appeal hearing is held in Leicester, before the First-Tier Information Tribunal. Slater appears at the hearing, as do representatives of the Information Commissioner and the DWP.

March 2014 –  Judge David Farrer and his First-Tier tribunal members rule that the DWP publish all four reports.  The DWP discovers that the version of the PAR [Project Assessment Review] it supplied to the Tribunal is not the final version that has been requested. It is evidently a draft. “How the mistake occurred is not entirely clear to us,” says Judge Farrer. He suggests that the DWP might not have read the PAR closely and has refused to publish it on principle. Under the FOI every request is supposed to be considered on its merits.

“Whilst the differences [between the draft and final versions] related almost entirely to the format, it did raise questions as to how far the DWP had scrutinised the particular PAR requested, as distinct from forming a generic judgement as to whether PARs should be disclosed,” says the judge.

He also comes close to saying the DWP had not been telling the truth about the state of Universal Credit programme. He and his tribunal members have read the four reports in question. He says the Tribunal had been “struck by the sharp contrast” between “the unfailing confidence and optimism of a series of press releases by the DWP or ministerial statements as to the progress of the Universal Credit programme” and some of the criticisms and controversy the programme was attracting at the time of the public statements.

April 2014 – The DWP seeks Judge’s Farrer’s permission to appeal his ruling. Unexpectedly the judge refuses the DWP permission.  The DWP’s lawyers had argued that the Tribunal had “wholly misunderstood the nature and/or manifestation of any chilling effect”. [The chilling effect suggests that public servants will not tell the whole truth in project reviews if they know the reports will be published.] The DWP said the Tribunal’s misunderstanding about the chilling effect “amounted to an error in law” and was “perverse”. Judge Farrer said he had not misunderstood the DWP’s claims of a chilling effect.

May 2014 –  The DWP’s lawyers ask the Upper Tribunal for permission to appeal the ruling of the First Tier Tribunal that the four reports be published. The DWP’s arguments are long and complex – but they are, arguably, useful only to the bank account of lawyers because the DWP will not publish the four reports whatever the outcome of its appeals.

June 2014 – The judge of the Upper Tribunal (Nicholas Wikeley)  refuses to give the DWP permission to appeal the ruling of the First-Tier Tribunal.  On the DWP’s claim that the First-Tier Tribunal has misunderstood the chilling effect, the Upper Tribunal’s ruling says,

“This [the chilling effect] is a well known concept, and I can see no support for the argument that the Tribunal misunderstood its meaning …”

Having lost the case, the DWP requests permission from the Upper Tribunal for another appeal hearing so it can put its arguments in person, not just in writing. The Tribunal agrees.

August 2014 – The Upper Tribunal sets a date of 3 December 2014 in London for a hearing to decide whether the DWP can appeal the First-Tier Tribunal’s ruling that the four reports be published. The DWP’s lawyers have had the case open now for more than a year.

Comment

If the DWP’s ministers and officials were spending their own money on legal costs, doubtless the four reports would have been published within days of our FOI requests; and their publication would have made no difference except to make officials a little less confident that they could, in future, cover up serious problems on their big IT-dependent projects and programmes.

The irony of the whole case is that the DWP argues that it needs to keep the reports confidential because candid assessments of a programme’s problems are essential tools for good project management. But the DWP has presided over a succession of failed IT-dependent programmes.

Clearly the routine suppression of reports on its problems has not helped the DWP’s project management. The National Audit Office’s report on Universal Credit could hardly have been more negative about the DWP’s management of the Universal Credit programme.

Isn’t it time the DWP did things differently and published reports on the progress or otherwise of its biggest programmes? With improved public scrutiny the department may then start to have a succession of successes. What a surprise that would be, to the department’s officials at least.

 

Whitehall has taken on 100 technology experts over past year

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office says that government departments have taken on more than  100 IT experts over the past year.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) led the recruitment as part of a plan to raise technology-related skills in the civil service.

One appointment is of former Credit Suisse CIO Magnus Falk as the Government’s new Deputy Chief Technology Officer, reporting to Government CTO Liam Maxwell. Other recent technology recruits include:

  • MOJ Chief Technology Officer Ian Sayer, who was Global Chief Information Officer at Electrolux; and
  • Government Chief Technical Architect Kevin Humphries, former Chief Technical Architect at Qatarlyst.

Chief Digital Officer appointments include:

  • HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer Mark Dearnley, formerly CIO of Vodafone;
  • MOJ CDO Paul Shelter, who previously co-founded two start-ups and was CTO for banking at Oracle;
  • ONS’s Laura Dewis, Deputy Director Digital Publishing, who was Head of Online Commissioning at The Open University;
  • Jacqueline Steed, former Managing Director and CIO for BT Wholesale, who starts as CDO at the Student Loan Company next week; and
  • DWP CDO Kevin Cunnington, who was previously Global Head of Online at Vodafone.

Comment

It’s encouraging that the Cabinet Office, through the GDS, is overseeing the recruitment of IT leaders in government departments. It means the recruits will see their roles as cross-governmental. In the past the civil service culture has required that CIOs show an almost filial respect for their departmental seniors.

It’s a good idea that GDS tries to change age-old behaviours from within by recruiting technology experts with a wide range of experience from the private sector. But how long will they last?

Their challenge will be converting the words “transformation”, “innovation” and “fundamental change” from board papers, press releases, strategy documents, and conference speeches, into actions.

New deputy CTO role in central government – Government Computing

 

 

Cover-up of Universal Credit problems?

By Tony Collins

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee say the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the Universal Credit project is “an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny”.

Says the Committee in a report published this week:

 “Despite welcome progress in extending the range of information published, the data [in the Major Projects Authority' 2nd annual report]  is infrequent and out-of-date, and too much is still withheld. The MPA’s second annual report was a significant improvement on the first, with 30% less data withheld and more analysis provided.

“However, too much data is still missing. We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the Universal Credit project was an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny.

“The Government’s transparency policy is too restrictive as it prevents useful data sets, such as the amount spent so far, from being published and stipulates that major project data can only be published once a year.

“This is too infrequent and means that the data available on high-profile, high-cost projects can be significantly out-of-date.”

The Major Projects Authority, at the request of “ministers” – which is taken to mean Iain Duncan Smith –  gave UC programme a “reset” designation instead of a red/amber/green traffic light.

All credit to the all-party committee for seeing the reset for what it is. The DWP tried to argue the UC programme was reset because the implementation had changed.

Before UC the Major Projects Authority had never given any project a “reset” designation  Even new projects considered risky are usually given a traffic light status.

Without a reset designation the MPA might have given the UC programme a red, or red/amber rating, which would have generated more bad publicity.

Comment

It’s extraordinary in an era of so-called open government that Major Project Authority reports on the progress or otherwise of big and risky government projects such as UC are not published.

It’s also extraordinary that the Cabinet Office minister and civil service reformer Francis Maude has been unable to get the reports published. He has agreed to keep them confidential in return for departmental ministers and permanent secretaries accepting publication of the MPA annual reports which have summaries of projects’ progress.

Even then Maude had little choice but to allow the summaries to be written by the department’s civil servants (not quoting the MPA reports). He has also accepted that the traffic light status’ will be at least six months old when published – in other words out-of-date.

Governments for more than a decade have been unable to publish progress reports on big IT-based projects. Civil servants will not let them be published.  Indeed the DWP is going through a series of appeals to stop UC reports from 2011 and 2012 being published – and these reports have nothing to do with the MPA.

If nothing else the MPA’s obsolescent second annual report – and the continued non-publication of progress reports on major projects – will contribute to the widely-held belief that it is the permanent civil service that is really in charge, not ephemeral ministers.

DWP’s advert for a £180k IT head – what it doesn’t say

By Tony Collins

Soon the Department for Work and Pensions will choose a Director General, Technology.  Interviewing has finished and an offer is due to go out to the chosen candidate any day now.

The appointee will not replace Howard Shiplee who runs Universal Credit but has been ill for some months. The DWP is looking for Shiplee’s successor as a separate exercise to the recruitment of the DG Technology.

In its job advert for a DG Technology the DWP seeks a “commercial CIO/CTO to become one of the most senior change agents in the UK government”.

The size of the salary – around £180k plus “attractive pension” – suggests that the DWP is looking for a powerful, inspiring and reforming figure. The DWP’s IT makes 730 million payments to a value of 166bn a year.

In practice it is not clear how much power and influence the DG will have, given that there will be a separate head of Universal Credit (Shiplee’s successor) and there is already in place a Director General for Digital Transformation Kevin Cunnington.

What’s a DG Technology to do then?

The job advert suggests the job is about bringing about “unprecedented” change.  It says:

“The department is undergoing major business change, which has at its heart a technology and digital transformation of the services it provides, which will radically improve how it interacts with citizens.”

The role, says the advert, involves:

  • “Designing, developing and delivering the technology strategy that will enable unprecedented business change.”
  • “… Reducing the time to taken to develop new services and cutting the cost of delivery.”

The chosen person needs “a clear record of success in enabling the delivery of service driven, user focused, digital business transformation,” says the advert.

What the DWP doesn’t say

If DWP officials took a truth pill when interviewing candidates they might have said:

  • “No department talks more about change than we do. We regularly commission reports on the need for transformation and how to achieve it. We issue press releases and give briefings on our plans for change.  We write  ministerial speeches on it. We employ talented people to whom innovation and productive change comes naturally. The only thing we don’t do is actually change. It remains an aspiration.
  • “We remain one of the biggest VME sites in the world (VME being a Fujitsu – formerly ICL – operating system that dates back to the 1970s). VME skills are in ever shorter supply and it’s increasingly costly to employ VME specialists but changing our core software is too risky; and there is no commercial imperative to change: it’s not private money we’re spending.  We’ve a £1bn a year IT budget – one of the biggest of any government department in the world.
  • DWP core VME systems run an old supplier-specific form of COBOL used on VME, not an industry standard form.
  • We’ve identified ways of moving away from VME: we have shown that VME-based IDMSX databases can be transitioned to commodity database systems, and that the COBOL code can be converted to Java and then run on open source application servers. Still we can’t move away from VME, not within the foreseeable future. Too risky.
  • We’d love the new DG Technology to work on change, transformation and innovation but he/she will be required for fire-fighting.
  • It’s a particularly difficult time for the DWP. We are alleged to have given what the Public Accounts Committee calls an unacceptable service to the disabled, the terminally ill and many others who have submitted claims for personal independence payments. We are also struggling to cope with Employment and Support Allowance claims. One claimant has told the BBC the DWP is “not fit for purpose”.
  •  The National Audit Office will publish an unhelpful report on Universal Credit this Autumn. We’ll regard the report as out-of-date, as we do all negative NAO reports. We will say publicly that we have already implemented its recommendations and we’ll pick out the one or two positive sentences in the report to summarise it. But nobody will believe our story, least of all us.
  • If we could, we’d appoint a representative of our major suppliers to be the head of IT.  HP, Fujitsu, Accenture, IBM and BT have a knowledge of how to run the DWP’s systems that goes back decades. The suppliers are happily entrenched, indispensable. That they know more about our IT than we do puts into context talk of SMEs taking over from the big players.
  • One reason we avoid major change is that we are not good at it: Universal Credit (known internally as Universal Challenge), the £2.6bn Operational Strategy benefit scheme that Parliament was told would cost no more than £713m, the £141m  (aborted) Benefit Processing Replacement Programme, Camelot which was the (aborted) Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks,  and the (aborted)) Debt Accounting and Management System. Not to mention the (aborted) £25m Analytical Services Statistical Information System.
  • They’re the failures we know about. We don’t have to account to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of our big projects, and we’re particularly secretive internally, so there may be project failures not even senior management know about.
  • We require cultural alignment of all the DWP’s most senior civil servants. This means the chosen candidate must – and without exception – defend the department against all poorly-informed critics who may include our own ministers.
  • The Cabinet Office has some well-meaning reformers we want nothing to do with. That said, our policy is to agree to change and then absorb the required actions, like the acoustic baffles on the walls of a soundproofed studio.

 

 

Secrecy is one reason gov’t IT-based projects fail says MP

By Tony Collins

The BBC, in an article on its website about Fujitsu’s legal dispute with the Department of Health, quotes Richard Bacon MP who, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, has asked countless civil servants about why their department’s IT-based change projects have not met expectations.

Bacon is co-author of a book on government failures, Conundrum, which has a chapter on the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] in the NHS.

In the BBC article Bacon is quoted as saying that the culture of secrecy surrounding IT-based projects is one of the main reasons they keep going so badly – and expensively – wrong.

He says it has been obvious to experts from an early stage that the NPfIT, which was launched by Tony Blair’s government, would be a “train wreck” because the contracts were signed “in an enormous hurry” and contained confidentiality clauses preventing contractors from speaking to the press.

He says the urge to cover things up means that “we never learn from our mistakes because there is learning curve, but when things go wrong with IT the response is to keep it quiet”.

Citing the example of air accident investigations, which are normally conducted in a spirit of openness so lessons can be learned, he says “It is the complete opposite in IT projects, where everyone keeps their heads down and goes hugger-mugger.”

Fujitsu versus Department of Health

Fujitsu sued the Department of Health for £700m after the company was ejected six years early [2008] from a 10-year £896m NPfIT contract signed in January 2004.  The case went to arbitration – and is still in arbitration, largely over the amount the government may be ordered to pay Fujitsu.  Bacon says the amount of the settlement will have to be disclosed.

“I don’t know how the government can honestly keep this number quiet. It simply cannot do it. It is not possible or sensible to keep it quiet when you are spending this much money,” says Bacon.

The BBC article quotes excerpts from a Campaign4Change blog

Government ‘loses £700m NHS IT dispute with Fujitsu’ – BBC News

 

Has Fujitsu won £700m NHS legal dispute?

By Tony Collins

The Telegraph reports unconfirmed rumours that Fujitsu has thrown a party at the Savoy to celebrate the successful end of its long-running dispute with the NHS over a failed £896m NPfIT contract.

Government officials are being coy about the settlement which implies that Fujitsu has indeed won its legal dispute with the Department of Health, at a potential cost to taxpayers of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Fujitsu sued the DH for £700m after it was ejected from its NPfIT contract to deliver the Cerner Millennium system to NHS trusts in the south of England.

At one point a former ambassador to Japan was said to have been involved in trying to broker an out-of-court settlement with Fujitsu at UK and global level.

But the final cost of the settlement is much higher than any figure agreed, for the Department of Health paid tens, possibly hundreds of millions of pounds, more than market prices for BT to take over from Fujitsu support for NHS trusts in the south of England. The DH paid BT £546m to take over from Fujitsu which triggered a minor Parliamentary inquiry.

A case that couldn’t go to court?

The FT reported in 2011 that Fujitsu and the Department of Health had been unable to resolve their dispute in arbitration and a court case was “almost inevitable”.

But the FT article did not take account of the fact that major government departments do not take large IT suppliers to an open courtroom. Though there have been many legal disputes between IT suppliers and Whitehall they have only once reached an open courtroom [HP versus National Air Traffic Services] – and the case collapsed hours before a senior civil servant was due to take the witness stand.

Nightmare for taxpayers

Now the Telegraph says:

“Unconfirmed reports circulating in the industry suggest that a long-running dispute over the Japan-based Fujitsu’s claim against the NHS for the cancellation of an £896 million contract has finally been settled – in favour of Fujitsu.”

It adds:

“Both Fujitsu and the Cabinet Office, which took over negotiations on the contract from the Department of Health, are refusing to comment. The case went to arbitration after the two sides failed to reach agreement on Fujitsu’s claim for £700 million compensation. Such a pay-out would be the biggest in the 60-year history of the NHS – and a nightmare for taxpayers.”

The government’s legal costs alone were £31.45m by the end of 2012 in the Fujitsu case.

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, is likely to be aware that his officials will face Parliamentary criticisms for keeping quiet about the settlement. The Cabinet Office is supposed to be the home of open government.

Earlier this week the National Audit Office reported that Capgemini and Fujitsu are due to collect a combined profit of about £1.2bn from the “Aspire” outsourcing contract with HM Revenue and Customs.

Richard Bacon, a Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee is quoted in the Telegraph as saying the settlement with Fujitsu has implications across the public sector. “It should be plain to anyone that we are witnessing systemic failure in the government’s ability to contract.”

What went wrong?

The Department of Health and Fujitsu signed a deal in January 2004 in good faith, but before either side had a clear idea of how difficult it would be to install arguably over-specified systems in hospitals where staff had little time to meet the demands of new technology.

Both sides later tried to renegotiate the contract but talks failed.

In 2008 Fujitsu Services withdrew from the talks because the terms set down by the health service were unaffordable, a director disclosed to MPs.

Fujitsu’s withdrawal prompted the Department of Health to terminate the company’s contract under the NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

Fujitsu’s direct losses on the contract at that time – which was in part for the supply and installation of the Cerner “Millennium” system – were understood to be about £340m.

At a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee into the NPfIT,  Peter Hutchinson, Fujitsu’s then group director for UK public services, said that his company had been willing to continue with its original NPfIT contract – even when talks over the contract “re-set” had failed.

“We withdrew from the re-set negotiations. We were still perfectly willing and able to deliver to the original contract,” he said.

Asked by committee MP Richard Bacon why Fujitsu had withdrawn Hutchinson said, “We had tried for a very long period of time to re-set the contract to match what everybody agreed was what the NHS really needed in terms of the contractual format.

“In the end the terms the NHS were willing to agree to we could not have afforded. Whilst we have been very committed to this programme and have put a lot of our time, energy and money behind it we have other stakeholders we have to worry about including our shareholders, our pension funds, our pensioners and the staff who work in the company. There was a limit beyond which we could not go.”

The termination of Fujitsu’s contract left the NHS with a “gaping hole,” said the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Edward Leigh.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Telegraph article.

Comment 

In an era on open government it is probably not right for officials and ministers at the Cabinet Office and the Department of Heath to be allowed to secretly plunge their hands into public coffers to pay Fujitsu for a massive failure that officialdom is too embarrassed to talk about.

Why did the DH in 2008 end Fujitsu’s contract rather than renegotiate its own unrealistic gold-plated contract specifications? Should those who ended the contract be held accountable today for the settlement?

The answer is nobody is accountable in part because the terms of the dispute aren’t known. Nobody knows each side’s arguments. Nobody even knows for certain who has won and who has lost. Possibly the government has paid out hundreds of millions of pounds to Fujitsu on the quiet, for no benefit to taxpayers.

Is this in the spirit of government of the people, by the people, for the people?

Capgemini and Fujitsu pocket “incredible” £1.2bn profits from HMRC

By Tony Collins

In an outsourcing deal of then unprecedented size Inland Revenue contracted out about 2000 IT staff and services to EDS – now HP – in 1994.

The deal was worth about £1bn over 10 years. Later Inland Revenue joined with Customs & Excise and became HM Revenue and Customs. As part of the merger HP took over Customs’ IT which was largely run by Fujitsu. The £1bn outsourcing contract with HP turned into a £2bn deal.

In 2004 the merged contracts were called “Aspire” and Capgemini took over staff and IT services from HP in a 10-year deal expected to be worth between £3bn and £5bn.  The contract was later extended by 3 years to 2017.

Today a National Audit Office report Managing and replacing the Aspire contract says the deal is worth £10.4bn to Capgemini and Fujitsu.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, says of the NAO report on the Aspire contract:

“HMRC’s management of Aspire, its most important contract which provides 650 IT systems to help HMRC to collect tax, has been unacceptably poor.

“While it may have secured a good level of IT service in the end, by the time the contract ends in 2017 HMRC will have spent £10.4 billion – more than double what it initially expected to spend.

“What’s worse, it has spent £5 billion of this total without first checking whether other providers could deliver a better deal, even though it had evidence that it was paying above market prices.

“It is deeply depressing that once again a government contract has proved better value for the private companies involved than for the taxpayer, with Capgemini and Fujitsu pocketing an incredible £1.2 billion in combined profits – more than twice the profit HMRC expected.

“Its own lack of capability meant HMRC was over-reliant on providers’ technical expertise, undermining its ability to act as an intelligent customer on behalf of the taxpayer.

“HMRC is planning to replace the Aspire contract in 2017, but its new project is still half-baked, with no business case and no idea of the skills or resources needed to make it work. All of this gives me little confidence that HMRC’s senior team has the capability to manage large and complex contracts.”

“More changes than normal”

The NAO found that in more than 80% of projects, HMRC and Capgemini changed the agreed scope, time or budget. Says the NAO report:

“One feature of the cooperative approach between HMRC and Capgemini has been a willingness on both sides to make changes once the extensive planning is complete and budget, scope and timing has been agreed commercially.

“These changes are made through formal governance processes and usually help to educe risk. Some change is to be expected as part of good project management.

“However, we consider that HMRC and Capgemini made more changes than normal on projects after the point at which budgets, scope and timing had been commercially agreed. The degree of change makes it very difficult to hold the Aspire suppliers to account for their performance across the portfolio of projects.”

Managing and replacing the Aspire contract – NAO report

Good summary of NAO report at Computerworlduk