DWP throws money at keeping Universal Credit reports secret

By Tony Collins

However much the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude talks about open government he cannot change a DWP culture rooted in introspection, defensiveness and a resentment of outsiders who want to know how it conducts itself.

“We are determined to turn the rhetoric of transparency into practical effect,” said Maude in a speech. “We know transparency helps root out corruption, exposes inefficiency, and highlights incompetence.”

The message has had little or no effect on the Department for Work and Pensions which is continuing to pour public money into the legal costs of keeping reports on Universal Credit secret.

This week Andrew Robertson, for the Treasury Solicitor, has written to the Information Tribunal to request permission to appeal a Tribunal’s ruling that four reports on the Universal Credit project be published.

The four reports are:

- A Project Assessment Review of Universal Credit by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. The Review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.

- A Risk Register of Universal Credit. It included a description of the risk, the possible impact should it occur, the probability of its occurring, a risk score, a traffic light [Red/Green Amber] status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialises, and a summary of the risk mitigation.

- An Issues Register for Universal Credit. It contained a short list of problems, the dates when they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.

- A High Level Milestone Schedule for Universal Credit. It is described in the tribunal’s ruling as a “graphic record of progress, measured in milestones, some completed, some missed and others targeted in the future”.

In 2012, under the FOI Act, I had requested the UC Project Assessment Review. At around the same time John Slater, who has 25 years experience working in IT and programme and project management, had requested the UC Issues Register, Milestone Schedule and Risk Register.

The Information Commissioner ruled that the DWP could keep secret the Risk Register but should publish the other three reports.

Slater then appealed the ruling that the Risk Register not be disclosed – and won. The DWP appealed the Information Commissioner’s ruling that the other three should be published – and lost.

The “first-tier” Tribunal ruled last month that all four reports should be published.

Now the DWP has sought permission to appeal the Tribunal’s ruling.  As part of its first appeal the DWP’s spent two days in Leicester at an Information Tribunal hearing. The DWP’s legal costs are unknown. It appears unlikely that the DWP has set any limit on the costs of its legal fight to keep the UC reports from being disclosed.

John Slater says in an email to me that the DWP and secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith will do anything within the law to avoid publishing the information he and I have requested. Slater said he would not be surprised if IDS uses the ministerial veto to try and prevent publication.

If the Information Tribunal grants the DWP’s request, its appeal will then go to what is called the Upper Tribunal.

Comment:

Like an electronic birthday card that speaks the same message every time it is opened, the DWP says the same thing every time the Information Commissioner or the Information Tribunal rules that DWP reports on major IT-based projects and programmes should be published.

It doesn’t matter how many times the Commissioner dismisses the DWP’s arguments, the DWP will still argue that civil servants will not be completely candid in their reports if they know that their assessments of risks and problems will be disclosed.

It is unlikely that the DWP looks closely at the reports it is asked to disclose under FOI. More likely it decides to refuse the FOI request and then asks its lawyers to send the usual legal arguments to the requestor.

Clearly the DWP’s senior civil servants have a rigid mindset when defending the need for confidentiality – and it will probably always be so. They argue that the reports, if taken out of context by the media, will give the wrong impression.

The same civil servants don’t realise – or don’t care – that the same arguments were used by Parliamentarians centuries ago to stop the reporting of proceedings of the House of Commons.

Francis Maude has spent nearly four years trying to persuade the DWP and the rest of central government to be open and transparent. But perhaps he needs to have a word with the DWP minister for Universal Credit Lord Freud who has signed off refusals of FOI requests for UC reports.

As Maude says, openness and transparency expose inefficiency, waste and incompetence. Is this, subconsciously, why the DWP is so set against openness and transparency?

Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports be published

 

 

A welcome boost for agile in government

By Tony Collins

David Wilks, Digital Performance Manager at Government Digital Service, which is part of the Cabinet Office, says there has been “incredible” interest in clarified guidance that makes it easier for departments to obtain funding for agile projects.

The guidance applies to major projects.

Wilks says on the GDS blog that the guidance will “cut bureaucracy and encourage innovation, making digital transformation easier across government”.

It means that, in most cases, government organisations can spend up to £750,000 on the first two phases of a government agile project, discovery and alpha, on the basis of Cabinet Office spending controls – without needing an HM Treasury business case.

The guidance means:

  • more use of “light-touch” Programme Business Cases
  • using agile discovery to replace the Strategic Outline Case in most cases
  • avoiding the need for a separate Full Business Case stage where procurement uses a pre-competed arrangement such as the Digital Services Framework

“For agile and finance teams in government departments, this guidance clarification has produced incredible interest,” says Wilks.

Comment

It seems fashionable to criticise the use of agile in government, perhaps because agile requires a mindset and culture that may be alien in parts of the civil service. But done well agile could help to modernise and reform central government administration.  It’s not a cure for all the problems of bloated government IT and it has risks, among them:

-  Zeno’s paradox where a project is perpetually on the point of delivering successfully but never actually does, as with the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative.

-  A so-called agile project that combines waterfall and agile approaches. It’s either waterfall or agile. It’s difficult to see how a project can be both. Those projects where there has been a hybrid agile-waterfall approach have not been successful: Universal Credit, the BBC’s DMI and an Oracle IT-related project disaster in Oregon.

That said, investigators of the “Cover Oregon” failure seem now to advocate a purer form of agile as one solution. A highly critical official report into the failure has some positive comments on agile:

“Since September 2013, CO [Cover Oregon] has been utilizing a home grown development process which is based upon agile methodologies. There are seven functional areas within the process, referred to as tables, with each table having a dedicated table lead (a mini project manager) and a dedicated business analyst. This process appears to be well orchestrated.

“Each morning there are daily “scrum” meetings for the different functional areas. While not rigidly adhering to the formal agile scrum format, these meetings serve a valuable purpose in providing a regular opportunity for various parties from a functional area to provide the latest updates on the progress across the outstanding major defects/issues …”

 

With some reservations the Cabinet Office’s initiative to cut bureaucracy and make it easier for departments to adopt agile is welcome.

 

Does RTI go-slow have implications for Universal Credit?

By Tony Collins

HM Revenue and Customs’ “Real Time Information” project appears to work fairly well much of the time but delays and problems over the last few days have created extra work and angered some payroll specialists.

One payroll specialist said the problems have been “a nightmare” and another said: “I could cry”.

Submissions under RTI are generating, on occasions, hundreds of unexpected emails, clogging corporate inboxes. Payroll specialists have been left unsure if PAYE submissions have been validated or not.

In February HMRC stood accused of acting on inaccurate information in harassing some employers, and issuing misleading guidance on RTI.

Employers and their payroll specialists have until the 22nd of each month to submit their end of month PAYE submissions and cleared electronic payments. This month’s submissions may put an extra burden on HMRC’s systems because they will usually include end-of-year declarations for the 2013/14 year.

ruth owenOne angry payroll specialist emailed Ruth Owen, Director General Personal Tax at HM Revenue and Customs. Owen replied:

“As you say, this is being worked on by the IT team. And let me apologise again for the frustration caused by our delays. We are trying to get it sorted as quickly as we can.

“In answer to your question about the deadline, we will obviously not be applying penalties if customers have missed the deadline due to technical problems in our systems but hopefully we can resolve the problems well in advance of the deadline.”

A separate HMRC statement to software developers said: “

“We are aware that some customers making submissions to the live Government Gateway are experiencing delays before receiving a validation response advising whether or not the submission passed full validation. This is currently being investigated by our IT partners and your customers should not attempt to re-submit their returns until the result of the original submission is known.”

Comment

RTI generally works well but the year-end is always a big test for HMRC’s systems. If RTI is already struggling to cope – while there is only a trickle of Universal Credit claims – will it cope when millions are claiming UC?

It’s yet another uncertainty for UC, and another good reason for the Department for Work and Pensions to publish its UC risk and progress reports. Some chance.

 

G4S is off the naughty step

By Tony Collins

The BBC says that G4S is again being considered for government business after being barred from bidding for new contracts in a row about overcharging.

In 2012 the Cabinet Office issued a notice to all departments, agencies and other public organisations saying that they should take into account a bidder’s past performance when considering a new contract.

The notice said that officials should satisfy themselves:

- that the principal contracts of those who would provide the goods and/or services have been satisfactorily performed in accordance with their terms

- where there is evidence that this has not occurred in any case, that the reasons for any such failure will not recur if that bidder were to be awarded the relevant contract.

If the Departmental Body remains unsatisfied that the principal contracts of those who would provide the goods and/or services have been satisfactorily performed, it should “exclude that bidder on the grounds that it has failed to meet the minimum standards of reliability set”, said the notice.

It appears that G4S was excluded from bidding on these grounds.

But the company agreed to repay £109m after an audit found it charged too much for providing electronic prisoner tags. The Serious Fraud Office is examining G4S and Serco over the contracts.

The firm has not bid for any government work since the Ministry of Justice started an investigation a year ago into its supply of electronic monitoring tags for prisoners in England and Wales since 2005.

After an audit by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, it emerged that G4S – which insisted it had asked for the review itself – and Serco had overcharged the government by “tens of millions of pounds”.

Now the Cabinet Office has nothing but good to say about G4S. The CO’s statement says that the payments made by G4S to reimburse the taxpayer are a “positive step”.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude says:

“Following the material concerns that emerged last year, relating to overcharging on Ministry of Justice electronic monitoring contracts, G4S has engaged constructively with the government…

“Throughout, the government has engaged closely with G4S to understand their plans for corporate renewal. These discussions have been constructive; and following scrutiny by officials, review by the Oversight Group and reports from our independent advisors (Grant Thornton), the government has now accepted that the corporate renewal plan represents the right direction of travel to meet our expectations as a customer.

“This does not affect any consideration by the Serious Fraud Office, which acts independently of government, in relation to the material concerns previously identified. However, we are reassured that G4S is committed to act swiftly should any new information emerge from ongoing investigations.

“The changes G4S has already made and its commitment to go further over coming months are positive steps that the government welcomes. However, corporate renewal is an ongoing process and the government places a strong emphasis on their full and timely implementation of the agreed corporate renewal plan.

“The Crown Representative together with Grant Thornton will continue to monitor progress as their plan is implemented, reporting to government on a regular basis. I hope this will enable our confidence to grow.”

Comment:

A company has to do something very serious to be excluded from bidding – and it may be thought that G4S has come off the naughty step too quickly. On the other hand the notice on barring poor suppliers from bidding has a requirement that bidders provide a list of their main customers in the previous three years.  Certificates of satisfaction should be obtained from the customers. If necessary suppliers should obtain the certificates.

This is a useful incentive to suppliers to keep their customers happy.  But will departments implement what would be, in essence, a blacklist?

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to G4S developments.

Survive a Public Accounts Committee hearing – a lesson for ministers and top civil servants?

By Tony Collins

Mark_ThompsonMark Thompson was Director General of the BBC for eight years from 2004 to 2012. He was one of the highest paid in the public sector, earning more than £800,000.  He’s now CEO of the New York Times Company.

When he went before the Public Accounts Committee in February 2014 he faced accusations he had mislead MPs over the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative which was cancelled in 2013. The BBC wrote off £98.4m on the project.

Thompson has emerged from the affair unscathed although he had presided over the project.  Indeed he seems to have impressed the committee’s MPs who are notoriously hard to please.

In today’s PAC report on the failure of DMI, MPs appear to have preferred Thompson’s evidence over that of other witnesses. So how is it possible to come to a PAC to answer accusations of misleading Parliament and end up winning over your accusers?

Today’s PAC report on DMI criticises the BBC for:

-  complacency in taking a “very high-risk” project in-house from Siemens

-  spending years working on a system that did not meet users’ needs

-  not knowing enough about progress which led to Parliament being   misinformed that all was well when it wasn’t

- ending up with a system that costs £3m a year to run, compared to £780,000 a year for the 40 year-old “Infax” system it was designed to replace. And Infax works 10 times faster.

In February 2014 Committee chairman Margaret Hodge began her questioning of Thompson over DMI by pointing out that, three years earlier, in 2011, he had assured the PAC that all was well with the project when it wasn’t.

Thompson told Hodge in February 2011 that DMI was “out in the business” and “there are many programmes that are already being made with DMI”. In reality, the DMI had been used to make only one programme, called ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ – and problems on the project at that time were deepening but, as in many public sector IT-based projects that go wrong, such as Universal Credit, bad news from the project team was not being escalated to top management (or the BBC Trust).

How Thompson won over PAC MPs

At the PAC hearing in February 2014 Hodge asked Thompson if he had misled the Committee when he spoke positively about DMI in 2011.

Thompson’s reply was so free of reserve that it appears to have taken the wind out of Hodge.

Thompson replied: “I don’t believe that I have misled you on any other matter, and I do not believe that I knowingly misled you on this one.

“I will answer your question directly, but can I just make one broad point about DMI before then? In my time at the BBC, we had very many successful technology projects—very large projects, some of them much larger than DMI. I believe that the team, including John Linwood [then the BBC’s Chief Technology Officer], who were in the middle of DMI, had many successes—for example, digital switchover, West One, Salford and BBC iPlayer.

“I just wanted to say … everything I have heard and seen makes me feel that DMI was not a success. It failed as a project. It failed in a way that also meant the loss of a lot of public money. As the director-general who was at the helm when DMI was created and developed and who, in the end, oversaw much of the governance system that, as we will no doubt discuss, did not perform perfectly in this project, I just want to say sorry.

“I want to apologise to you and to the public for the failure of this project. That is the broad point.”

Hodge (who would normally, at a point such as this, launch her main offensive) said simply:

“Thank you.”

Usually civil servants will deny that a big IT-based project has actually failed. Many times the archetypal civil servant Sir David Nicholson, when Chief Executive of the NHS, defended the failed NPfIT at PAC hearings.

But Thompson told PAC MPs:  “Here we are in the beginning of 2014—I am not going to debate with you whether or not this project [DMI] failed. I am sure we can talk about how, why, where and so forth, but it definitely failed.

“When I came to see you in February 2011, I believed that the project was in very good shape indeed. Why did I believe that? I had seen a number of programmes myself—I had been and seen parts of DMI working on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’; I knew that ‘The One Show’ had started to use elements of DMI a few weeks earlier; and I knew that a kind of prototype version of the technology had been used in the very, very successful ‘Frozen Planet’ natural history series.

“I have gone back and asked the BBC to look at all the briefing materials—I had a voluminous amount of briefing from the BBC—and there is a real consistency between the briefing I got – .”

Richard Bacon: Sorry, a real inconsistency?

Thompson: No, a real consistency between the briefing I got and the evidence that I gave. To be honest, some of this is going to go very much to the point Mr Bacon was making earlier on (about what is or is not a deployment).

Stephen Barclay: Just a second…So it was consistent, but consistently wrong, wasn’t it, because just the following month, after the consistent briefing, you were then aware that it was going to miss the key milestone? From March 2011 you knew it [DMI] was not going to hit the deadline.

Thompson: If I may say so, what I am trying to focus on at the moment is the question—I understand, given subsequent events, the perfectly reasonable question—about whether the testimony I gave in February 2011 misled you or not… My belief is that my testimony gave a faithful and accurate account of my understanding of the project at this point.

Hodge: But were you misled, then?

Thompson: Let me give you just a sense of my briefing. To be honest, there were echoes of this in John Linwood’s testimony a few minutes ago, and Mr Bacon has helped me to understand this by putting his finger on the use of one word in particular, which is ‘deployment’. This is the timeline …”

Thompson then did something civil servants rarely do, if ever, when they appear before the committee. He read from the internal briefings he had received on the project in 2010 and 2011 . Those briefings indicated all was well.

He was not even shown a draft Accenture report in December 2010 that said the elements of the DMI examined (by Accenture) were not robust enough for programme-making and that significant remedial work was required.

Thompson said that the day before he gave evidence to the PAC in February 2011 he was given an internal note which said:

“Our next release [of DMI], Enhanced Production Tools, entered into user acceptance testing this week. This release builds on the production tool we previously delivered in 2010, Fabric Workspace, and desktop editing and logging.

“We will deploy its release to pilot users in Bristol, the ‘Blue Peter’ production team, ‘The One Show’ current affairs team, ‘Bang Goes the theory’ — again — ‘Generation Earth’, weather and ‘Pavlopetri’ inside London Factual.”

Thompson had the firm impression that DMI was challenging but that the BBC was starting to deliver the system and users had been positive about the elements delivered.

Thompson said in February 2014, “Mr Bacon is right about the very bullish use of the world “deployed”, meaning, perhaps, elements that have been loaded on to a desktop but not really extensively used: that was the background to the remarks I made to you in February 2011. I am absolutely clear that at the time that was what I knew and believed about the project.”

Hodge: So you were misled?

Thompson replied, in essence, that the BBC’s business users tried to make DMI work but most of them gave up. There were tensions between the project team who were enthusiastic about DMI and the business users who, mostly, weren’t.

These were complicated, difficult issues, said Thompson. “There was a pronounced and, it would appear, growing difference of opinion between the team making DMI and the business users on how effective and how real the technology was.

“You will understand that I have been involved in a lot of projects at the BBC and in other organisations, and I can smell business obstinacy. I can smell when a business is unready, is not prepared to play ball or is constantly moving the goalposts.

“I absolutely understand John Linwood’s particular perspective, given what he was doing. He was a very passionate advocate of the project, and I understand all of that.

“In my time, which ended when I left in September 2012, I saw great efforts being made by the business—in other words, by colleagues inside BBC Vision, BBC North and elsewhere—to get DMI to work. Although there were tensions, I do not believe that those tensions, which frankly were more or less inevitable, were themselves a central and critical part of the project’s failure.”

Richard Bacon: … It sounds to me as if the people getting the business case through the main governance processes were technology and finance people. I want to be clear on what you are saying. It sounds to me as if the technology people were very gung-ho and the experience of the business people on the ground was that it was not necessarily working as well as they had been led to believe, so they probably lost faith in it. Is that a fair summary?

Thompson: “I believe that that was definitely what started to happen, certainly by the end of 2011 and through 2012. It happened for understandable reasons. This has been a troubled project…

“I thought great efforts were made in BBC Vision and in BBC North both by senior people and by some front-line programme makers to help us to get the thing to work.

“Where my perspective perhaps differs from John’s perspective – it is very easy for me to sit here and say that this project failed because some difficult programme makers refused to use it, although there may have been an element of that somewhere – is that I thought that, overall, this was a project on which there was a lot of work and effort to try to get it to work on the business side…”

Hodge asked again if Thompson had been misled when he assured the PAC in February 2011 that DMI was being used at the BBC.

Thompson: I believed it.

Hodge: You believed it?

Thompson: Yes.

Hodge:  You believed it, but were you being misled?

Thompson: “I think that the language that the team was using, combined to some extent with the fact that I had seen what looked like a very positive demonstration of it … I had heard that “The One Show” had also started using it, and I saw a list of other programmes that were also using it. That combined with the language in the briefing led me to believe that it was being more extensively used.”

PAC conclusion

The PAC could have concluded in its report today that the BBC had misled Parliament in February 2011. But MPs used the word “misinformed” instead.

“Neither the [BBC’s] Executive Board nor the [BBC] Trust knew enough about the DMI’s progress, which led to Parliament being misinformed. While [Thompson] assures us that he gave a faithful and accurate account of his understanding of the project at that point in early 2011, he was mistaken and there was confusion within the BBC about what had actually been deployed and used.

“In its reporting on major projects, the BBC needs to use clear milestones that give the Executive and the Trust an unambiguous and accurate account of progress and any problems.”

Comment

The PAC had every right to be angry.  So credible were the BBC’s assurances about DMI in February 2011 that the Committee published a report in April 2011 that reflected those assurances. It was wrong.

But there is a positive element in the failure of DMI – and that is the completely open and honest testimony of Mark Thompson.

MPs on the PAC are used to be being misled – usually by the sin of omission – when civil servants and ministers come before them. But when Thompson read from his internal briefings it was easy to see how he came to the view that DMI in February 2011 was showing signs of a success.

It was clear to MPs that Thompson had not set out to mislead.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that you can go far with honesty and openness. That’s not an easy lesson for the ministers and civil servants who have to appear before the PAC, but it has certainly served Thompson well.

BBC Digital Media Initiative – Public Accounts Committee report

 

MPs question whether Universal Credit IT will work

By Tony Collins

Worrying uncertainty about the Universal Credit IT system remains, says the Work and Pensions Committee in a report published today.

Dame Anne Begg MP, Committee Chair, said:

“Only 4,280 people were claiming Universal Credit by December 2013 and the majority of these claims were of the simplest nature.  By comparison, in the same month, 1.22 million people were claiming Jobseekers Allowance. This demonstrates the scale of the challenge still facing the Government in trying to implement UC by 2017.

“Whilst it is right to ensure that the system works properly before extending it, there is a difference between cautious progress and a snail’s pace.  Given the excruciatingly slow pace of roll-out to date, it is hard to see how the most recent implementation timetable can be met.”

The Department for Work and Pensions has a “twin-track” approach to the IT. One project allows existing “Pathfinder” projects to go ahead but is limited in what it can do. At the same time the DWP is working on an entirely new web-based “end-state solution” which is based on open standards.

The Committee says it is unclear how much the IT will cost and whether it will work at scale. The end-state solution has yet to be tested on the first 100 claimants says the committee.

MPs want the government to “provide more detail on what the end-state solution means in practical terms, including how much it will cost, when it will be ready to test on the first claimants, how it will be extended, and when it is expected to be fully implemented”.

Anne Begg said:

“The money wasted on Universal Credit so far – £40 million on IT software that now has no use and £90 million on software with a useful life of only 5 years – is a matter of deep regret.  It is vital that DWP learns the lessons of past mistakes.

“At the same time as developing the “end-state solution” the government intends to spend £37-£58 million on further developing the existing IT system.  Given the small number of people currently claiming UC, the Government should consider whether it would be a better use of taxpayers’ money to abandon further development of the existing system and focus solely on the end-state solution.

Scrutiny  

MPs say the government has hampered the committee’s scrutiny of UC implementation by “not providing accurate, timely and detailed information”.

The report makes important points about the DWP’s lack of openness.

“It is not acceptable for the Government only to provide information about major policy changes when forced to do so by the imminent prospect of being held to account in a public evidence session.

“DWP should set out how it will improve the frankness, accuracy and timeliness of the information it provides to the Committee on UC implementation.

Effective select committee scrutiny depends on the provision of accurate, timely and detailed information by government departments. DWP has not always provided this to the Committee in the case of Universal Credit.

“The serious problems with UC came as news to us when the National Audit Office published its highly critical report last September, because the Government had not told us about its own concerns about UC, and the actions it had taken to address them, during 2012 and early 2013.

“On two occasions, the Government has made public the details about major changes to the timetable for UC implementation only when forced to do so by the prospect of oral evidence in front of the Committee. This lack of openness and transparency is not acceptable.

“We do not, as the Secretary of State suggested, want to run his Department.  We do, however, expect to have access to the information we need to scrutinise it effectively.”

Universal Credit Implementation – Monitoring DWP’s performance in 2012/13

 

Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports should be published

By Tony Collins

A freedom of information tribunal has ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions should disclose four internal documents on the Universal Credit programme.

The documents give an insight into some of the risks, problems and challenges faced by DWP directors and teams working on UC.

They could also provide evidence on whether the DWP misled Parliament and the public in announcements and press releases issued between 2011 and late 2013.

The DWP and ministers, including the secretary of  state Iain Duncan Smith, declared repeatedly that the UC scheme was on time and on budget at a time when independent internal reports – which the DWP has refused to publish – were highly critical of elements of management of the programme.

Some detail from the internal reports was revealed by the National Audit Office in its Universal Credit: early progress in September 2013.

The FOI tribunal, under judge David Farrer QC, said in a ruling on Monday that in weighing the interest in disclosure of the reports “we attach great importance not only to the undisputed significance of the UC programme as a truly fundamental reform but to the criticism and controversy it was attracting by the time of FOI requests for the reports in March and April 2012″.

It added:

“We are struck by the sharp contrast [of independent criticisms of elements of the UC programme]  with 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 during the relevant period.”

A measure of the importance of the tribunal hearing to the DWP was its choice of Sarah Cox to argue against disclosure.

Cox is now the DWP’s Director, Universal Credit, Programme Co-ordination.

She led business planning and programme management for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Despite Cox’s arguments Judge Farrer’s tribunal decided that the DWP should publish:

- A Project Assessment Review of Universal Credit by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. The Review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.

- A Risk Register of Universal Credit. It included a description of the risk, the possible impact should it occur, the probability of its occurring, a risk score, a traffic light [Red/Green Amber] status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialises, and a summary of the risk mitigation.

- An Issues Register for Universal Credit. It contained a short list of problems, the dates when they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.

- A High Level Milestone Schedule for Universal Credit. It is described in the tribunal’s ruling as a “graphic record of progress, measured in milestones, some completed, some missed and others targeted in the future”.

Campaign for openness

Campaigners have tried unsuccessfully for decades to persuade Whitehall officials to publish their independent reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled projects and programmes.

So long as the reports remain confidential, ministers and officials may say what they like in public about the success of the programme without fear of authoritative contradiction.

This may be the case with the Universal Credit. The tribunal pointed out that media coverage of the problems with the scheme was at odds with what the DWP and ministers were saying.

The ruling said:

 “Where, in the context of a major reform, government announcements are so markedly at odds with current opinion in the relatively informed and serious media, there is a particularly strong public interest in up-to-date information as to the details of what is happening within the [Universal Credit] programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well-founded.”

The tribunal quoted a DWP spokesperson in 2012 as refuting criticism from the shadow secretary of state. The spokesperson said:

Liam Byrne is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on            budget. To suggest anything else is wrong.”

 Sarah Cox implied that the DWP might have regarded a programme as on schedule, even if milestones were not achieved on time, provided that punctual fulfillment of the whole project was still contemplated. In reply to this, the Tribunal said:

 “If that was, or indeed is, the departmental stance, then the public should have been made aware of it, because prompt completion following missed interim targets is not a common experience.”

DWP abuse of the FOI Act?

Under the FOI Act ministers and officials are supposed to regard each request on its own merits, and not have a blanket ban on, say, disclosure of all internal reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes.

The tribunal in this case questioned whether the DWP had even read closely the Project Assessment Review in question. The tribunal had such doubts because the DWP, some time after the tribunal’s hearing, found that it had mistakenly given the tribunal a draft of the Project Assessment Review instead of the final report.

The tribunal said:

“…the DWP discovered that the version of the Project Assessment Review supplied to the Tribunal was not the final version which had been requested. It was evidently a draft. How the mistake occurred is not entirely clear to us.

“ Whilst the differences related almost entirely to the format, it did raise questions as to how far the DWP had scrutinised the particular Project Assessment Review requested, as distinct from forming a generic judgement as to whether PARs should be disclosed.”

DWP’s case for non-disclosure

The DWP argued that disclosure would discourage candour, imagination [which is sometimes called creative or imaginative pessimism] and innovation – known together as the “chilling effect”.

It also said that release of the documents in question could divert key staff from their normal tasks to answering media stories based on a misconception, willful or not. These distractions would seriously impede progress and threaten scheduled fulfillment of the UC programme.

Disclosure could embarrass suppliers that participated in the programme, damage the DWP’s relationship with them, and cause certain risks to come closer to being realised. The DWP gave the tribunal further unpublished – closed – evidence about why it did not want the Project Assessment Review released.

My case for disclosure

In support of my FOI request – in 2012 – for the UC Project Assessment Review, I wrote papers to the tribunal giving public interest reasons for disclosure. Some of the points I made:

- the DWP made no acknowledgement of the serious problems faced by the UC programme until the National Audit Office published its report in September 2013: Universal Credit: early progress.

- Large government IT-enabled projects have too often lacked timely, independent scrutiny and challenge to improve performance. Publication of the November 2011 Project Assessment Review would have been a valuable insight into what was happening.

- The NAO report referred to the DWP’s fortress mentality” and a “good news culture” which underlined the public interest in early publication of the Project Assessment Review.

Part of John Slater’s case for disclosure

At the same time as dealing with my FOI request for the PAR, the tribunal dealt with FOI requests made by John Slater who asked for the UC Issues Register, Risk Register and High Level Milestone Schedule.

In his submission to the tribunal Slater said that ministerial statements and DWP press releases, which continued from 2011 to late 2013, to the effect that the Universal Credit Programme was on course and on schedule, demanded publication of the documents in question as a check on what the public was being told.

Information Commissioner’s case for disclosure

The Information Commissioner’s legal representative Robin Hopkins made the point that publishing the Project Assessment Review would have helped the public assess the effectiveness of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority as a monitor of the UC programme.

A chilling effect?

The tribunal found that there is no evidence to support the “chilling effect” –  the claim that civil servants will not be candid or imaginatively pessimistic in identifying problems and risks if they know their comments will be published.

If a chilling effect exists, said the tribunal, “then government departments have been in the best position over the last ten years to note, record and present the evidence to prove it.

“Presumably, a simple comparison of documents before and after disclosure demonstrating the change, would be quite easy to assemble and exhibit,” said the tribunal’s ruling.

In her evidence to the tribunal Ms Cox did not suggest that the revelation by a third party of the “Starting Gate Review” [which was published in full on Campaign4Change's website] had inhibited frank discussion within the UC programme, the tribunal said.

The tribunal also pointed out that the public is entitled to expect that senior officials will be, when helping with internal reports, courageous, frank and independent in their advice and assessments of risk.

“We are not persuaded that disclosure would have the chilling effect in relation to the documents before us,” said the tribunal. It also found that the DWP would not need to divert key people on UC to answering media queries arising from publication of the reports. The DWP needed only to brief PR people.

On whether the Issues Register should be published the tribunal said:

“The problems outlined in the Issues Register are of a predictable kind and “unlikely to provoke any public shock, let alone hostility, perhaps not even significant media attention. On the other hand, the public may legitimately ask whether other problems might be expected to appear in the register.”

On the chilling effect of publishing the Risk Register the tribunal said that any failure of a civil servant to speak plainly about a risk and hence to conceal it from the UC team would be more damaging to UC than any blunt declaration that a certain risk could threaten the programme.

“We acknowledge that disclosure of the requested information may not be a painless process for the DWP,” said the tribunal. ““There may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP, though not, we believe, of the order that it claims.

“We have no doubt, however, that the public interest requires disclosure, given the nature of UC programme, its history and the other factors that we have reviewed,” said the Tribunal.

The DWP may appeal the ruling which could delay a final outcome by a year or more.

Comment

The freedom of information tribunal’s ruling is, in effect, independent corroboration that Parliament can sometimes be given a PR line rather than the unvarnished truth when it comes to big IT-based programmes.

Indeed it’s understandable why ministers and officials don’t want the reports in question published.  The reports could provide concrete evidence of the misleading of Parliament. They could refer to serious problems, inadequacies in plans and failures to reach milestones, at a time when the DWP’s ministers were making public announcements that all was well.

Those in power don’t always mind media speculation and criticism. What they fear is authoritative contradiction of their public statements and announcements. Which is what the reports could provide. So it’s highly likely the DWP will continue to withhold them, even though taxpayers will have to meet the rising legal costs of yet another DWP appeal.

One irony is that the DWP’s ministers, officials, managers, technologists and staff probably have little or no idea what’s in the reports the department is so anxious to keep confidential.  On one of my FOI requests it took the DWP several weeks to find the report I was seeking – after officials initially denied any knowledge of the report’s existence.

This is a department that would have us believe it needs a safe space for the effective conduct of public affairs. Perhaps the opposite is the case, and it will continue to conduct some of its public affairs ineffectively until it benefits from far more Parliamentary scrutiny, fewer safe spaces and much more openness.

FOI Decision Notice Universal Credit March 2014

George Osborne gives mixed messages over UC deadline

Universal Credit now at 10 job centres – 730 to go. 

DWP finds UC reports after FOI request

UC – new claimant figures

Should Liverpool Council smile now it’s ending BT joint venture?

By Tony Collins

Liverpool Direct Ltd describes itself as the largest public/private partnership of its kind in the UK. BT and Liverpool City Council formed the joint venture in 2001. At one point it employed more than 1,300 people.

Last year the joint venture had a visit from  Prince Edward who met its apprentices and trainees.

Now Liverpool City Council is taking full ownership of the joint venture. BT is handing back its 60% share in Liverpool Direct to the council. But the way the dissolution is being handled is like a theatre compere smiling exaggeratedly at the audience while he pushes off stage a performer who has overstayed his welcome.

Indeed the council’s report on why BT is being pushed out has an oversized grin on every page. Too much self-conscious praise for BT, perhaps. Which may show how political outsourcing deals have become.

This is the first sentence of the council’s report on why the joint venture with BT is ending:

“BT and Liverpool City Council have enjoyed a long and successful partnership through the joint venture company Liverpool Direct Limited.”

And then:

“The ethos of the Partnership was to place the ‘customer at the heart’ of the organisation through the development of innovative new ways of working building on BT’s global brand and reputation.”

There’s much more praise for BT. From the council’s report:

Groundbreaking achievements have included:

  • Establishment of the first ever 24x7x365 local government contact centre including a call centre which is top quartile
  • The only ‘Benefits Plus’ service in the UK.
  • A comprehensive and integrated network of One Stop Shops serving 350,000 visitors each year.
  • First class ICT infrastructure.
  • Creation of 300 new jobs supporting 3nd party business won by LDL.

But there’s a give-away line in one of the sets of bullet points on some of the benefits of the partnership. In 2011 came a refresh of the 10 year-old deal. The benefits of the refresh:

  • Further price reduction of £22.5m.
  • Increased share of third party business. Potential investment of £17m.
  • Continued sponsorship of ( e.g. BT Convention Centre 2012-2017)
  • The ‘write off’ by both parties of potential legal claims against Liverpool City Council estimated by BT of approximately £56m.
  • Increased ownership level from 20% to 40% in favour of the council.

Spot the anomaly – a write-of legal claims against each other of £56m? So the partnership wasn’t quite so wonderful. But that was 2011. Why is the council now pushing out BT from the Liverpool Direct joint venture – what the council calls officially “The Way Forward”?

Amid all the praise for BT it is not easy to see at first glance why Liverpool Direct is being taken into the council’s full ownership. It turns out that austerity is the reason. The council needs to make more cuts than BT is willing to make, and it recognises that BT needs to make a profit. Which raises the question of whether the council was willing to pay BT a decent profit during bountiful times until cuts began to bite.

From Liverpool Council’s report:

“In the early Autumn of 2013, both parties were in active discussions in an effort to resolve the serious financial savings Liverpool City Council needed to make between 2014 and 2017.

“As a result of these discussions and negotiations, BT agreed a further price reduction of £5m contribution to the budget process for 2014/15 together with a further £5m for the following financial year.

“Whilst the Council really appreciated BT’s continued commitment to the city, the current budget deficit would require a far more substantive financial contribution from the Contract both for 2014/15 and for future years.

“Unfortunately BT feels unable to commit to any further price reduction within the Contract as they need to sustain their own financial position. Moreover, the City Council is now well placed, as a result of the long collaboration with BT and the learning gained from the Partnership, to continue to drive forward business transformation and run the services with consequent cost savings to the city.”

The result is that negotiations will continue with a view to transferring BT’s 60% share in Liverpool Direct to the council by 31 March 2014; and the good news doesn’t stop there.

“The City Council and BT both believe that the transfer will enable additional savings to flow to the council including all income from third party contracts.

“BT remains committed to serving residents and businesses in Liverpool and its long and successful relationship with Liverpool City Council will carry on with BT continuing to provide a range of services to the council. During negotiations in late 2013 BT announced it plans to recruit a further 240 staff in Liverpool to support the growth of high-speed broadband services and has recently committed to being a major sponsor of the 2014 International Festival of Business.”

A dark side?

Behind the smiles Liverpool City Council has, it seems, an unusually secretive side.   Richard Kemp CBE has been a member of Liverpool City Council for 30 years having held major portfolios in both control and opposition. He is leader of the Liberal Democrats on the Council. He was Vice Chair of the Local Government Richard KempAssociation of England & Wales for more than 6 years.

He says on his blog that has “taken the very unusual step of asking for two independent enquiries into activities of Liverpool City Council”. He adds: “The cases are related and refer to the tangled web of relationships which surround the Liverpool/Liverpool Direct Ltd/Lancashire/One Call Ltd/BT activities.

“In the first instance I have asked that the Lancashire Police extend their Lancashire investigation into Liverpool. In the second I have asked the Information Commissioner to look at the appalling record of the council in responding to freedom of information requests about any matter relating to Liverpool Direct Ltd.”

He says the council has an excellent record of responding to FOI requests – except when it comes to LDL. “When I raised this with the Mayor at the Mayoral Select Committee I didn’t get any answers …”

He also says:

“I find it amazing that I have been told that no contract exists between Liverpool, Lancashire and BT only to find that there is a legal agreement! As a layman I am unclear as to what the difference is between these two positions.

“We now need external scrutiny and investigation to examine these tangled relationships and work out not only who agreed what and when but also whether Liverpool and Lancashire tax payers are getting value for money for this deal.

“In a system where there is no internal scrutiny, Liverpool Labour members have to ask permission to raise issues in the scrutiny process, I feel that I have no alternative but to ask for help in looking at these affairs outside the council.

“In my career I have not only been a councillor for a long time but also asked to work in other councils which were in severe difficulties with their governance structures. Liverpool feels as bad as any council that I have worked in. There is no clear definition of Member and Officer roles.

“ No effective challenges exist within the system and a centralised almost Stalinist decision-making process pertains … I hope that these external investigations will take place and then that they force change in this secretive and opaque council.”

Infighting

A local paper, the Liverpool Echo, has also been investigating the council and its deal with BT.

It says the deal “has been dogged by accusations of infighting between BT and the Council, after top QCs were brought in to settle disputes over how much work would be awarded to LDL under the terms of its contract”.

An internal council report obtained by the Echo before agreement for the contract refresh in 2011 “showed the it took place amid the threat of costly legal claims by BT if city bosses pulled the plug and did not stay in partnership with them until 2017”.

Private/public deals too secretive – MPs today

A report by the Public Accounts Committee published today Private Contractors and Public Spending says private and public partnerships are too secretive – and they lie largely outside the FOI Act. Indeed a BBC File on 4 investigation into the growing influence of accountancy companies such as Capita in public life reached similar conclusions. File on 4 suggested that even if the contract between Service Birmingham, Capita and Birmingham City Council were published in full it could prove impenetrably complicated.

Margaret Hodge MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Commitee, said today:

 “There is a lack of transparency and openness around Government’s contracts with private providers, with ‘commercial confidentiality’ frequently invoked as an excuse to withhold information.

“It is vital that Parliament and the public are able to follow the taxpayers’ pound to ensure value for money. So, today we are calling for three basic transparency measures:

- the extension of Freedom of Information to public contracts with private providers;

- access rights for the National Audit Office; and

- a requirement for contractors to open their books up to scrutiny by officials.

Comment:

It’s remarkable how council outsourcing deals are becoming more cabalistic despite many initiatives toward more open government.

It’s a pity that things have reached a point where Richard Kemp, a Liverpool councillor of 30 years, ends up reporting his authority to the police and the Information Commissioner.

Meanwhile Liverpool City Council, which is one of the most self-image-protecting authorities in the UK, ends a long-standing joint venture with BT by giving the supplier nothing but praise – in public.

Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally, either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Clearly that’s not happening properly in Liverpool – or  some other parts of local government.

Reasons I have asked police and Information Commissioner to come in 

BT ad Capita  -  outsourcing joint ventures under pressure in Liverpool and Birmingham 

Private contractors and public spending – Public Accounts Committee report published today

Another DWP leader quits – is Universal Credit IT really working?

By Tony Collins

As the head of the Universal Credit programme, Howard Shiplee, returns to work after being off sick with bronchitis, news emerges that the DWP is to lose its IT head Andy Nelson whose responsibilities include Universal Credit.

The highly regarded Nelson is to leave this summer after little more than a year as the DWP’s CIO.

The DWP’s press office – which for more than a year had a brief to tell journalists that Universal Credit was on time and to budget – is saying that Nelson’s brief was the whole of the DWP’s IT. The implication is that Nelson had little to do with Universal Credit.

But Nelson’s brief specifically included Universal Credit. At the weekend IDS told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that the IT for Universal Credit is working. If that were so, wouldn’t Nelson want to be associated with such a high-profile success?

The FT, in an article in February on Shiplee’s sick leave, pointed out that Terry Moran, the civil servant in charge of universal credit at its inception, retired from the department last year after an extended period of sick leave.

Hilary Reynolds, a department civil servant who was appointed programme director in November 2012, moved to another role four months later. She in turn had taken over from Malcolm Whitehouse, who had stepped down from the programme around the same time as Moran.

Departures of top DWP people may be one of the few outward signs of the true state of UC IT until the next government reviews the programme and perhaps announces the results.

Open?

On the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme on 9 March 2014 IDS suggested he is being entirely open about the Universal Credit programme - he invited the media and come and see where it is being rolled out. But the DWP keeps hidden its internal reports on the actual state of the programme.  The Information Tribunal is currently weighing up whether the DWP should be ordered to publish one of its internal reports on the Universal Credit project.

IDS on BBC’s Sunday Politics

Below is a partial transcript of IDS’s interview with presenter Andrew Neil on the Universal Credit project. IDS refers incorrectly to write-offs of £28bn on IT programmes by the last government,  and he gives some seemingly contradictory answers.  If the government needs a spokesman to argue that day is night and night is day, IDS is probably the man.

Andrew Neil (presenter) Why has so much been written off on UC although it has barely been introduced?

IDS: “It’s a £2bn project and in the private sector IT programmes write off 30%-40% regularly because that’s the nature. The point I want to make here is that UC is already rolling out. The IT is working. We are improving as we go along. You keep your eye on the bits that don’t work and you make sure they don’t create a problem for the programme.

“The £40m that was written off was to do with security IT. I took the decision over a year and half ago. That is the standard write down – the amortisation of costs over a period. The existing legacy systems were written down in cost terms years ago in the accounts but they continue to work right now.

“We are doing pathfinders and learning a lot about it but I am not going this again like the last government did which is big bang launches and then you have problems like they had with the health IT and it crashes. You do it phase by phase, you learn what you have to do and you make the changes, then you continue to get the rest of it out.

“The key point is that it is rolling out and I invite anybody from the media etc to come and look at where it is being rolled out …”

Neil: You say it [Universal Credit] is being rolled out but nobody notices. You were predicting that one million people would be on universal credit by April and now it’s March and there are only 3,200 are on it.

IDS: “I am not bandying figures around but it is 6,000 and rising. I changed the way we were rolling out over a year ago. Under the advice I brought in from outside – he said: you are better off Pathfinding this out, making sure you learn the lessons, roll it out slower and you gain momentum later on.

“On the timetables for the roll-out we are pretty clear. It is going to rollout in the timescales originally set [completion by October 2017] but the scale of that rollout … so what we are going to do is roll it out in the North West,  recognise how it works properly, and then you roll it out region by region.

“There are lot of variations and variables in this process but if you do it that way you won’t end up with the kind of debacle the last government had in the health service and many others where they wrote off something in the order of £28 billion pounds of IT programmes. We won’t be doing that. There is £38bn of net benefits so it is worth getting it right.”

Neil: When will UC be universal – when will it cover the whole country?

IDS: “By 2016 everybody who is claiming a benefit will be claiming universal credit.

Neil: But not everybody will be getting it by then.

IDS: “Because there are some who are on sickness benefits and they will take longer to bring on because it is a little more problematic, and a bit more difficult because many of them have no work expectations. For those who are on tax credits and job seekers allowance they will be making claims on universal credit and many are already doing that now. There are over already 200,000 people around the country who are on parts of universal credit now.”

Neil: When will everybody be on UC?

IDS: “We said they would be on UC by 2018.”

Are you on track for that?

“Yes we are. 2016 is when everybody claiming this benefit will be on. Then you have to bring on those who have been on a long time on other benefits. UC is a big and important reform. It is not an IT reform. IT is only the automation. The important point is that it will be a massive cultural change.   The change is dramatic. You can get a jobseeker to take a small part-time job immediately while they are looking for work. That improves their likelihood of getting longer work and it means flexibility for business.”

Comment

The DWP says it needs a “safe space” to discuss the progress of its projects without the glare of publicity. That’s one reason it refuses to publish any of the reviews it has commissioned on UC. But the hiding of these reports, which have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, means that IDS can go on TV and say almost whatever he likes about progress on the Universal Credit project, without fear of authoritative contradiction.

Why does the Cabinet Office allow the DWP and other departments to keep secret their internal reports on the progress or otherwise of their IT-based projects and programmes? Probably because the Cabinet Office’s minister Francis Maude doesn’t want to be too intrusive.

So we’ll be left guessing on the state of big IT-enabled programmes until the scheme’s defects are too great to be hidden or the NAO publishes a report. Will the former that be the fate of Universal Credit IT?

Andy Nelson quits as DWP CIO

Coroner criticises hospital’s new IT after boy’s death

By Tony Collins

Avon coroner Maria Voisin said yesterday that a new booking system at the Royal United Bath was responsible for three year-old Samuel Starr not being seen and given timely treatment.

It’s rare for a coroner to criticise a hospital’s new IT in direct terms. It is also rare for evidence to emerge of a link between the introduction of new hospital IT and harm to a patient.

Since patient administration systems began to be installed as part of the National Programme for IT in 2005, the disruption arising from go-lives has led to thousands of patient appointments being delayed at a number of trusts. Usually  trusts contend that no patients have suffered serious harm as a result.

Yesterday at the coroners court near Bristol, the coroner Voisin said: “Due to the failure of the hospital outpatients booking system, there was a five-month delay in Samuel being seen and receiving treatment. Samuel’s heart was disadvantaged and he died following urgent surgery.”

Catherine Holley, Samuel’s mother, said her first warning of Cerner implementation problems came in June 2012, about three months before her son’s death, when the RUH cardiologist’s post clinic letter said:

“I apologised to the parents that I should have seen him in January of this year, but I am afraid a few patients have fallen foul of the Millennium changeover and I suspect this is the case here”.

The RUH installed the Cerner Millennium system at the end of July 2011. After the go-live the trust’s board reports, and a post-implementation review of the system by Pwc in February 2012, raised no serious concerns.

One of Pwc’s main criticisms of the system was the lack of clinical engagement – a common problem with NPfIT deployments.

Some excerpts from Pwc’s report:

“Given the issues and delays there is a still a good deal of uncertainty about whether the planned benefits can be realised. It is therefore important that there is a concerted effort to focus on driving out these benefits, early in 2012.”

“The go live itself did have some issues, but most of those interviewed felt that, relative to other Cerner Millennium implementations, it had gone well. Since the go-live the Trust has been working hard to address the issues, and to help users use the system more effectively…”

“There are a number of issues which arose during the audit which, although not directly covered within the audit objectives, are important in ensuring that the trust realises all the potential benefits from the Cerner Millennium implementation. These are as follows:

“There is a need for greater clinical engagement to ensure that clinicians are using the system in the most effective way – the Trust operates a Clinical Engagement Group which meets on a monthly basis.

“However feedback from a number of interviewees is that this meeting isn’t as productive as it might be and that the Trust needs to think of other ways to improve clinical engagement.”

Pwc said that the trust needed a clinical lead for Cerner Millennium who would focus on key clinical priorities and “sell” the benefits of Millennium to other clinicians. The trust also needed a CIO who would be responsible for IM&T, the Business Intelligence Unit, the Care Records Service team, Records Management, and managing the end of a [local service provider] contract with BT in 2015.

Pwc said the risks included:

  • The end of the contract with BT in 2015
  • Recent issues with BT delivery, with several significant outages of service
  • The issues with clinical engagement.

None of the trust reports – or Pwc’s review -  mentioned any adverse impact of the new system’s implementation on patients.

In 2011, several months after the go-live, the RUH’s “Insight” magazine quoted the Chief Executive James Scott as suggesting the go-live had been a success.

“Thanks to everyone for their hard work and patience during the switchover period,” Scott is quoted as saying. “It has been a major project for the RUH (and our partners BT and Cerner are describing it as the smoothest deployment yet), but we now have the foundation in place to meet the future needs of the Trust and the NHS.”

Care plan?

Catherine Holley expected Samuel to go onto a care plan after he had successful heart surgery at the age of nine months, in 2010. But it proved difficult to arrange an appointment for a scan on the new Cerner Millennium system installed at Royal United Hospital, Bath.

When the scan was eventually carried out Samuel’s heart had deteriorated and he died in September 2012 after an operation that was more complicated than expected.

This week’s three-day inquest at Flax Bourton Coroners Court heard that although Samuel’s medical records had been created on Millennium, no appointments were transferred across.

Speaking after the inquest, Samuel’s parents said they believe the system at Bath failed their son and that mistakes were made.

“It was devastating to hear evidence that an improperly implemented computer appointments system and a series of human errors resulted in the death of our son,”said Paul Starr’s Samuel’s father.

“We accept that mistakes happen but we believe that leaving a child unmonitored for as long as Samuel was, with so many opportunities to attend to him, goes beyond a simple error.

“Our three year old son had a complex cardiac condition and had been scheduled for regular cardiac reviews. In fact he was not properly assessed or nearly 21 months because of further delays.”

A Freedom of Information request revealed that there were 63 missed paediatric cardiac appointments as a result of problems arising from the Cerner implementation – some of which took nearly two years to discover.

Comment

It’s unlikely to have been the Cerner system itself at fault but an  implementation that involved several organisations including the Southern Programme for IT, a branch of the dismantled National Programme for IT.  As such nobody is likely to held responsible for what the coroner called a “failure” of the IT system.

Then again blaming an individual would be pointless.  Learning lessons – the right ones, and not just technical ones – is the objective. It may make a world of difference if those in charge of major go-lives in hospitals acknowledged that delayed appointments, or difficulties arranging them, and a disrupted administration, can harm patients – or worse.

IT in the NHS is seen as an integral part of hospital care when the technology, clinicians, nurses, administrators and other users are working in alignment. But when the IT is not working well, it is seen as something techie which has little or nothing to do with patient care and treatment.

Samuel Starr’s inquest draws attention to the fact that the difference between a good and bad IT implementation in a large hospital can be the difference between life and death.

But hospital deployments of patient administration systems have been going wrong with remarkable regularity for many years.  Isn’t it time to learn the right lessons?