DWP gives out “selective” information on welfare reform even to its auditors

By Tony Collins

If the National Audit Office cannot obtain reliable and comprehensive information from the DWP, who can?

The NAO is the department’s auditor. Its head Amyas Morse signs off (or rather qualifies) the DWP’s accounts. His staff also produce regular “value for money” reports on the DWP’s projects and performance.

But an NAO report published today on welfare reform gives more than a hint of the problems its auditors face when trying to verify the information the DWP gives them.

The report “Welfare reform – lessons learned says the DWP failed twice to answer the NAO’s questions. Then, when the NAO gave the department its draft report, the DWP provided some information – which the NAO describes as “selective”. It is worth quoting the NAO’s comment in full:

“We have relied largely on our past audit reports to understand the implementation of welfare reform. Past work provides a sufficiently strong and comparable evidence base to identify different approaches and what works well and less well.

“We requested audit evidence from the Department for Work & Pensions (the Department) in August and November 2014.

“This would have allowed us to validate or comment on the Department’s performance more broadly and how they have subsequently addressed issues identified in previous reports. However, the Department failed to send the evidence despite requests.

“Following receipt of a draft report in April 2015, the Department provided some evidence on how it has tried to address issues identified in previous reports and how other welfare reforms have considered these themes.

“In the Department’s view it has made progress across programmes since the time of our initial reports. This includes addressing concerns about programme management on Universal Credit and reducing the time taken to process Personal Independence Payment claims.

“Given the selective nature of the evidence provided and the limited time to review a wide range of programmes, we were unable to audit the evidence or consider the additional information in detail…”

Separately, the DWP is in a protracted legal case to prevent the publication under FOI of four old – 2012 – reports on the Universal Credit programme.  A one-day hearing will be held in London on 15 July 2015.


The DWP is astonishingly thin-skinned. Its officials are probably not hiding anything – they just don’t want anybody knowing how well, or how badly, they are managing projects and programmes such as Universal Credit.

Since Universal Credit went live press officers have been allowed to give out only selective information on Universal Credit. It has  been difficult to establish from them that the programme has had 6 programme directors and 6 senior responsible owners since 2010.

The NAO’s latest report says the DWP needs to “recognise openly” when it has not met expectations. It needs greater internal challenge, says the NAO.

But the DWP seems unable to change its culture of defensiveness and the selective release of information to Parliament, the public and even its own auditors.

Why is it spending so much public money on trying to stop the release of the four UC reports?

Better than anyone else the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham has summed up the need for openness:

“… Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.

“The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions.

“It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated.

“Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice.

“Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public. Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant.

“Where abuses are exposed, they can be remedied. Even where abuses have already been remedied, the public may be entitled to know that they occurred.” R v Shayler(2002) UKHL 11, (2003)1 AC 247.

Thank you to John Slater for providing Lord Bingham’s quote.

Welfare reform – lessons learned

DWP wastes money on another Universal Credit FOI appeal

After billions spent on NHS IT, a carrier bag to transfer x-ray images

By Tony Collins

After fracturing my angle (slipping on a slope while mowing the lawn) I’ve been surprised how well parts of the NHS work – but not when it comes to the electronic transfer of records and PACS x-ray images from one trust area to another.

The minor injuries unit at one trust wasn’t able to send its PACS images to another trust’s orthopaedic department because it used a different PACS.  [The NHS has spent more than £700m on PACS ]

“Can’t we email the images?” said a senior nurse at the minor injuries unit. In reply the clinician looking at my x-rays gave a look that suggested emailing x-rays was impossible,  perhaps for security and cost reasons. [PACS images are sometimes tens of MBs.]

In the end the minor injuries unit (which within its own sections shared data electronically) had to download my x-rays onto CD for me to take the other trust’s orthopaedic department.  The CD went into a carrier bag.

The next day, at a hospital with an orthopaedic department, after 4-5 hours of waiting in a very busy A&E, I gave a doctor the CD. “I don’t think we can read that,” he said. “We don’t have any computers which take CDs.”

After a long search around a large general hospital the tired doctor eventually found a PC with a CD player. Fortunately the minor injuries unit had downloaded onto the disc a self-executing program to load the x-rays. Success. He gave his view of the fracture.

Even then he didn’t have my notes from the minor injuries unit.


My care was superb. What was surprising was seeing how things work – or don’t – after the NHS has spent more than £20bn on IT over the past 20 years.

The media is bombarded with press releases about IT innovations in the NHS. From these it’s easy to believe the NHS has the most up-to-date IT in the world. Some trusts do have impressive IT – within that trust.

It’s when records and x-rays need to be transferred outside the trust’s area that the NHS comes unstuck.

As a nurse at my GP’s practice said, “Parts of the NHS are third-world.”

Since 2004 billions has been spent on systems to create shareable electronic patient records.  But it’s not happening.

Within those billions spent on IT in the NHS, couldn’t a little bit of money be set aside for transferring x-rays and patient notes by secure email? That’s the real innovation the NHS needs, at least for the sake of patients.

In the meantime the safest way for x-rays and notes to be transferred from one trust to another is within the patient’s carrier bag.

The best reason to remember the coalition government?

By Tony Collins

A day before people go to the polls to elect a new government is, perhaps, a good time to remember a momentous achievement of the old one.

It’s rare in any government for politicians to override the settled wishes and views of senior public officials.

In “Yes Minister” Sir Humphrey usually gets his way over his minister – which many politicians say reflects reality.

liam foxBut in 2011 the defence secretary Liam Fox did something remarkable: he went against the fervent wishes of an officialdom that had, since 1996, persuaded prime ministers and successive defence ministers that two pilots, beyond any doubt, had caused the deaths of 25 top intelligence and security officers who were on board a Chinook helicopter, ZD576, that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994.

All 29 were killed in the crash including two pilots Flight Lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper and senior crewmen, Malm Graham Forbes, and Sgt Kevin Hardie.

It was under a Conservative government that two RAF air marshals found that Cook and Tapper caused the crash and were grossly negligent. The defence secretary at the time, Malcolm Rifkind, agreed with the decision to blame the pilots.

Later he changed his mind and said officials had given him incomplete information. He was unaware of the history of problems with a new “Fadec” fuel-control system fitted to the Chinook Mark 2 – the helicopter type that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre.

The safety-critical Fadec [full authority digital engine control] system was controlled entirely by error-ridden software that controlled the flow of fuel to the Chinook’s two jet engines.

The system was so unreliable that a day before the crash, test pilots had stopped flying Chinooks fitted with the new Fadec.  The system caused engines to behave unpredictably – at times surging or running down without leaving a trace of any fault.

At the time of the crash there were internal disagreements within the RAF over the seriousness of the Fadec-related problems.  A senior RAF software engineering specialist wrote in 1993 that the Fadec had an undocumented feature in the processor that was “positively dangerous”.

When Chinook ZD576 crashed there were no black boxes, no eyewitnesses, and no survivors to say what happened in the last minutes and seconds.  It is not known for certain whether the pilots were in control.

One of the air marshals who found the pilots grossly negligent drew his conclusions, in part, from data obtained from the crashed Chinook by the manufacturer of an RNS252 navigation system. The air marshal described the RNS252 as a “black box”.

RNS 252 chinookData obtained from the RNS252 was not independently verified; it’s unusual in any civil air accident investigation to draw conclusions on the cause of a crash from a system that has not been independently proven to be accurate.

None of this was known to the Conservative government when it announced to Parliament in 1994 that the gross negligence of the two pilots caused the crash.

The then prime minister John Major later changed his mind about the pilots being to blame. He wrote in The Times in May 2004:

“We may never know what truly caused this tragedy. It follows, therefore, that there is no justification for blaming pilot error… We owe justice to the dead. I am not persuaded that they have had it.”

RAF rules at the time of the crash were that dead pilots could not be found grossly negligent unless there was “absolutely no doubt whatsoever” about the cause of an accident.

The doubts of Major, Rifkind and James Arbuthnot , a Conservative defence minister, deepened as the years went by and more evidence of the Chinook Mark 2’s technical problems  came to light.

Arbuthnot, in particular, campaigned vigorously for the pilots’ names to be cleared, as did many other MPs and peers.

But nobody could persuade a succession of Labour defence ministers that the pilots might not have been to blame. Tony Blair, when prime minister, wrote twice to the families of the dead pilots repeating the MoD and RAF line that there was no new evidence to justify a reopening of the inquiry into the crash.  Defence secretaries John Reid, Geoff Hoon, George Robertson, Bob Ainsworth, John Hutton and Des Browne took the same position.

The MoD even set up a small team to answer many questions from MPs and peers – and the families of the pilots – about the crash investigation, the Fadec system, and other technical shortcomings that raised questions about the airworthiness of the Chinook Mark 2.  The team’s official retort was that there was no new evidence to justify a new inquiry.

But it was the MoD, RAF and their ministers who were judge and jury on what represented new evidence – and they dismissed as irrelevant every leaked internal RAF software engineering memo on the poor state of the Chinook Mark 2.

In opposition some conservatives said they would hold a new inquiry into the crash if they came to power. Cameron was among them. Liberal-Democrats wanted also wanted a new inquiry, particularly the ardent campaigner Menzies Campbell.

Labour MPs and peers also campaigned for a new inquiry particularly the peer Martin O’Neill. Crossbench peer Lord Chalfont led a Parliamentary group that campaigned on behalf of the Cook and Tapper families.

Families of some of the VIPs who died in the crash supported the campaign.

When the coalition was formed, Cameron and Clegg did what they’d promised and set up a new inquiry, led by a retired judge Lord Philip

His report recommended that the finding of gross negligence be set aside; and he and his privy counsellors had strong criticisms, not of the air marshals who had made their finding in good faith, but of officialdom. Lord Philip’s report said:

 “Since 1995 the Ministry of Defence has continued resolutely to defend the finding of gross negligence and to rebuff all public and private representations that the finding should be reconsidered even when the representations included cogent arguments based on a sound understanding of the effect of the relevant Regulations.

“We find it extremely regrettable that the Department [MoD] should have taken such an intransigent stance on the basis of an inadequate understanding of the RAF’s own Regulations in a matter which involved the reputation of men who died on active service.”

The Philips report did not, and could not, set aside the finding of the air marshals. Whether right or wrong, the finding had a firm legal status. There was no right of appeal.  How could the finding be set aside?

Then came the coalition’s arguably most important machinery-of-government decision:  Liam Fox convened a special meeting of the Defence Council.  Chaired by the defence secretary, the Defence Council provides the formal legal basis for the conduct of defence in the UK through a range of powers.

It comprises the chief of defence staff and senior service officers and senior officials who head the armed services and the MoD’s major corporate functions.

How the Defence Council came to its vote to set aside the finding of the air marshals is not known. There are rumours one or two of its members were replaced before the vote.

John Cook, the father of Rick, did not live to see his son’s reputation restored. John Cook died in 2005. A former British Airways Concorde pilot, he had been concerned about the lack of black boxes on the crashed Chinook. He was also concerned about the air marshals’ partial reliance, in drawing their conclusions, on the manufacturer’s data derived from the RNS252.   On John Cook’s death, the campaign for justice was taken up by his other son Chris.

Mike Tapper, the father of Jonathan, began the campaign to his the pilots’ names a few days after the crash  when it appeared that some officials were suggesting to the media that the likely cause was pilot error.

chinookcrashIn fact the cause – or causes – of the crash will never be known. Much of the helicopter was destroyed in the fire that followed impact.  It might have been caused by pilot error. It might have been the result of technical malfunctions, or combination of human and technical factors. What’s certain is that there is doubt over the cause.

Liam Fox and his coalition colleagues have proved that when public officials are wrong – and even when, in their misconceptions, they have persuaded two prime ministers and successive defence secretaries to adopt their arguments – that those misconceptions can be overturned if the political will is strong enough.

Many political decisions of the coalition government will soon be forgotten. But correcting a grievous and long-standing miscarriage of justice against two Special Forces pilots who could not speak for themselves will never be forgotten.

It will never be forgotten by the campaigners who are too numerous to mention; and it will never not be forgotten by the children of the two pilots.

A model council outsourcing report?

By Tony Collins

Cornwall Council signed a questionable outsourcing deal in 2013 but it deserves praise for the candour of the report it published on 8 April 2015 on the performance of BT.

It’s rare for any council to report in detail on what percentage of key performance indicators have been met by the outsourcing supplier, or on the contractual commitments met and not met.

The council has a tradition of being run by groups of independent councillors. It’s currently run by an independent/Liberal Democrat coalition.

Is the report published on its outsourcing contract with BT Cornwall the sort of document all councils with major outsourcing deals should publish?

Cornwall’s report

BT tries to rescue Cornwall outsourcing deal

BT tries to rescue its faltering IT outsourcing deal in Cornwall

bt cornwall logoBy Tony Collins

Cornwall council logoBT has appointed a new senior management team in Cornwall to help rescue a faltering IT-based outsourcing deal there.

Two years into the 10-year contract, BT has not met commitments and guarantees it gave when setting up BT Cornwall to take over the running of ICT, human resources, document management and other services for Cornwall Council,  Peninsula Community Health and Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

BT has made improvements in the past two months. If these are not sustained the council says that it will consider its options including early termination.

A BT spokesperson told Campaign4Change this week “We are working closely with our partners in this project to ensure we deliver on all aspects of the contract.”

A table in an officers’ report to the council this month puts the situation bluntly. The only commitment that is met 100% is for baseline savings – which are deducted at source.

Overview of BT Cornwall’s performance against commitments and guarantees

KPI measures Achieved (185/289) – 64%

PI measures Achieved (266/402) – 66%

Service Transformation (percentage of plans completed) – 38%

Financial contractual baseline savings (10% & 11.6%) – 100%

Trading gain share received (est £17.4m over 10 years) – £0

Guaranteed new jobs in Cornwall (yrs 1 & 2 111 new jobs target / 35.1 created) – 32%

Committed new jobs in Cornwall (yrs 1 & 2) – 0

Cornwall Council rushed into signing a contract with BT, before local elections in May 2013. This appears to be acknowledged in the report to the council. It says that, in the timescales available, due diligence and analysis before the contract signing was not at an ideal level.

BT made contractual commitments over new jobs, service transformation, key performance indicators, and performance indicators. The council’s report says that some contractual commitments have not been met.

The report also says the council “might be paying twice for replacement assets”.

There were delays in securing contract novations with suppliers which meant, as an interim measure, the council “had to pay suppliers and reclaim the monies from BT Cornwall”.

As part of their bid submission, BT estimated trading gain share to the public sector partners of £17m over the 10 years of the contract. “To date, no gain share has been received from trading. It is recognised, however, that this is not a contractual commitment,” says the report.

BT Cornwall made a contractual commitment to deliver a minimum of 197 additional jobs to Cornwall over the life of the contract with 111 of these being delivered in the first two years. “Of these, 35 have been delivered so far.”

There was also a commitment to try and deliver a further 240 jobs in the first two years and none of these has been delivered.

The Service Desk has failed to cope with or process the number of incidents being reported. Users have abandoned calls after “lengthy and fruitless waits for assistance”. The report adds: “The latest KPIs demonstrate that there is still some way to go in terms of Service Desk performance.”

There have been concerns among some councillors about reports of job losses within BT Cornwall, and the loss of expertise that had been transferred to BT Cornwall from the council.

A problematic upgrade to Windows 7  left users on Windows XP and in some cases unable to access their desktop or laptop. The report says:

“Despite being discussed extensively throughout the dialogue stages of the contract, it was noted that the delivery of Windows 7 had been under-resourced and the deployment methodology inefficient.

“Fortunately, because the government had negotiated the extension of support to Windows XP, the Council had not suffered the very serious consequences the delay would otherwise have caused.

“It is fair to say that the council is not entirely blameless for the long delay to the upgrade process as many officers failed to attend for their upgrade appointment. That said, had BT Cornwall adopted a more user-friendly method of upgrade, the ‘no-shows’ would not have been such a problem.

“There has also been an issue around the number of software applications which have required Windows 7 compatibility but, again, this was an issue which BT were aware of during the dialogue leading up to the Contract and knowing the challenging timescale, it was their responsibility to design a methodology and/or to commit the resources required to ensure the complexities were addressed and the process completed by the due date.

“Members have asked for an estimate of the time lost and financial cost to the council caused by the overall delay and the operational downtime as a result of issues with upgrades which have prevented use of laptops/PC’s and meant teams/individuals have been unable to work effectively or at all for periods of time.

“It is not possible to calculate this accurately any more than the time lost through unjustified ‘no-shows’ or late notification to BT Cornwall of software applications can be estimated. It is also difficult to estimate the downtime due to the failings of the upgrade process when compared with the problems inevitably caused by the large organisational transition to a new operating system.”

Andrew Wallis cornwall

Andrew Wallis, an independent councillor in Cornwall and cabinet member, says on his blog that is concerned that BT Cornwall has had two years to deliver on the contract and has failed.

“There is only so many second-chances you can give. For me, if by summer BT Cornwall do not deliver their commitments, than I am afraid we must be in the area of looking to terminate the contract …”

 The council’s report highlights:

–  A lack of challenge to requests for replacement equipment.

 – ICT support much reduced

– Performance under the Service Level Agreement down.

– Projects taking longer to be initiated.

 – Peninsula Community Health and Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust unhappy with the responses they had received from BT Cornwall in respect of the delivery of their ICT services.

New management

bt logo

The new management at BT Cornwall includes an interim chief executive, Gavin Finlayson, an interim chief technical officer, Phil Healy, and an interim project delivery director, Chris Swann.

Ian Dalton, President of BT,  Global Government and Health, who is head of the public sector for BT in the UK, has written to Cornwall Council this month to restate BT’s commitment to the 10-year service delivery agreement.


Campaign4Change warned in 2013 that the signing of a deal was being rushed – Council approves BT deal after hurried talks.

We also said that if the promises, commitments and guarantees came to nothing, nobody in the public sector – officer or councillor – would be held accountable. And nobody has.

How is it that councils – whose officers are supposed to be professionals – can continue to sign outsourcing deals that are clearly at the outset no more than superficially attractive and which put public money and service to users at obvious risk?

Services at Cornwall seem to have worsened since the deal was signed. So why were councillors given rosy reports on the future of services, jobs and IT support in the period running up to contract’s signing?

Better surely if councillors had received neutral reports on the pros and cons of outsourcing. Too often naive councillors are in awe of beautiful marketing brochures – sometimes commissioned by the council itself -that eulogize the benefits of outsourcing and put the risks in the appendices.

The word “guarantee” means little before an outsourcing deal is signed. Indeed in 2003 we suggested the “G” word be banned from the outsourcing lexicon.

BT’s corporate management, having realised how bad things were in Cornwall, appears to be doing all it can to rescue the deal. But can it afford to employ people it doesn’t really need, to meet a contractual commitment?

It’s extraordinary that the BT Cornwall outsourcing deal went through the full council with hardly a word of opposition.

There again, councillors believe their officers are the professionals who would not sign an ill-considered outsourcing deal. Or would they?

Isn’t it time that the elected representatives of the public became more professional themselves before putting services to users and so much public money at risk?

Public sector outsourcing failures – European Services Strategy Unit reports

Cornwall Council approves BT deal after hurried talks – 2013

BT Cornwall is not working for Cornwall Council as it should – councillor Andrew Wallis’s blog

Cornwall Council report

DWP will fight to stop publication of Universal Credit reports whoever wins in May

By Tony Collins

dwpOn 7 July 2004 the Work and Pensions Committee called on the DWP to be “significantly more open about its IT projects”.

Today – 11 years later – the DWP is fighting to stop publication of four reports that would throw light on early problems with the IT work on Universal Credit.

And the DWP has continued to keep secret millions of pounds worth of reports on the progress or otherwise of its big projects, including those that have a major IT element,  Universal Credit in particular.

The Department is preparing for a new one-day hearing as part of its legal efforts – which have lasted two years so far – to stop the four reports on Universal Credit being published under the FOI Act.

A first-tier tribunal judge in March 2014 ordered the DWP to publish the reports. The following month the same judge refused the DWP leave to appeal, but the DWP’s external lawyers appealed to an upper tribunal for leave to appeal.

Now a judge has ordered a new one-day hearing in London, at a date yet to be set.

While the appeals continue the DWP does not have to publish the reports. In the light of this, DWP officials plan to continue their legal fight to stop publication of the reports, irrespective of who wins the election next month.

Indeed the case could go on for years. That legal costs for taxpayers are mounting seems no deterrent to the Department’s officials.

The four reports are already dated – they go back to 2012. The reports are the risks register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review. All are about the Universal Credit programme.

John Slater, a programme and project management professional, requested three of the reports under FOI. I requested the project assessment review. 


Little has changed – the DWP has remained defensive and secretive – since 2004 when the Work and Pensions Committee said in its weighty report “Department for Work and Pensions Management of Information Technology Projects: Making IT deliver for DWP Customers”:

“The record on IT by DWP and its predecessor the Department of Social Security, has been lamentable …”

The report referred to the DWP’s habit of setting “unrealistic deadlines” on big projects, a problem that years later hit Universal Credit.

The Committee in 2004 added that the DWP was keeping reports secret to avoid embarrassment:

“We felt that on occasions the secretive approach adopted by the Department and the Government … had little to do with commercial confidentiality and more to do with departments using it as an excuse to withhold information that rightly belonged in the public domain, but which might embarrass the Department if released publicly.

“In our view the lack of Parliamentary accountability is part of the reason for the relatively high number of defective IT projects.”

The secrecy is not the fault of the DWP’s major suppliers -who include IBM, HP, Accenture, BT and Fujitsu. The Work and Pensions Committee said:

“During our enquiry, we were struck by how open IT suppliers seemed prepared to be in contrast with the tendency of officials to invoke commercial confidentiality.”

universal creditIn an echo of the Work and Pensions Committee’s 2004 report, the Public Accounts Committee said in February 2015, in its report: Universal Credit: progress update:

“… a lack of openness remains within the Department, as does an unwillingness to face up to past failings.

“The Department refused to accept the extent of previous failings, despite the overwhelming evidence we heard last year that the programme’s management had been extraordinarily poor prior to the reset, and the small numbers claiming Universal Credit.

“Furthermore, since early 2012, the Department has been fighting a protracted legal case to prevent the publication of documents relating to the management of Universal Credit…”

Ministers powerless?

Ministers have so far been unable to persuade civil servants to publish contemporaneous reports on the government’s big IT-enabled projects and programmes.

Francis Maude came to power in 2010 expecting to publish “Gateway” reviews on IT schemes but senior civil servants refused, arguing in part that publication would have a “chilling effect” on those writing and researching the reports.

Maude gave up on trying to get the reports published but gained reluctant agreement from permanent secretaries to publishing the traffic light status of large projects – but only after these assessments have lost their topicality in the form of a six-month time lag.

FOI campaigners say there are several reasons senior civil servants do not want reports on big IT-based projects, including Universal Credit, published.

The main reason, they say, is tradition: departments have always kept secret their internal independent reports on the progress or otherwise of major schemes.

Another reason is that officials do not always implement the reports’ recommendations. If nobody outside a department’s inner circle knows what a report’s recommendations or findings are, will it matter if they go unimplemented?

A further reason is that disclosure of the reports may cause embarrassment by confirming that a department’s ministers and officials have been economical with the truth – giving Parliament and the media the wrong impression about a project’s successful progress.


Another reason for keeping the reports secret may be that it enables civil servants and consultants who write the reports to be kind – perhaps even deferential – to their Whitehall colleagues by producing positive reports on projects that may later go awry.

Writing and researching the reports can be lucrative work. They are sometimes worth £1,000 a day to some consultants. A positive report with comfortable conclusions is more likely to bring further commissions than a generally negative one.

Indeed an upper tribunal judge Edward Jacobs, in a ruling on the case of the four reports, hinted that they were so positive even a hostile press would be pressed to find things to criticise.

Jacobs said that if he grants a rehearing of the case it is possible that the new tribunal “will need to consider that some of the contents (of the four reports) could hardly be presented badly even in the most hostile media coverage”.

Why disclosure is important

Officials working on Universal Credit have repeated mistakes of the past: setting unrealistic deadlines, underestimating complexity and not being open about project problems – even internally: their minister, Iain Duncan Smith, to get the unvarnished truth, had to set up his own “red team” reviews to bypass civil servants who had been giving him information.

As John Slater has pointed out, the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham made an important statement on the need for openness:

“… Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.

“The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions. It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated.

“Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice. Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public.

Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant. Where abuses are exposed, they can be remedied. Even where abuses have already been remedied, the public may be entitled to know that they occurred.


The DWP’s culture of secrecy seems to overwhelm all new ministers who go along with it because they cannot run such a huge and complex department without the full support of their officials.

That’s perhaps why officials, on the matter of openness on IT projects, need never take seriously criticisms by the Information Commissioner, the Public Accounts Committee or the Work and Pensions Committee.

If officials have taken little notice of MPs for more than a decade, why should they start behaving differently under a new government?

The taxpayer suffers in the end. The DWP’s lamentable record on running major IT-based projects will probably continue, with huge financial losses and without accountability, while money continues to be poured into fighting pointless FOI legal battles.

It seems unlikely – and indeed would set a precedent – but perhaps a new set of ministers at the DWP will dare to try and change the culture.



Has 8 years of IT-based outsourcing really come to this?

By Tony Collins

In public, in the past, Taunton Deane Borough Council’s IT-based outsourcing deal has always been a success. Two years ago council officers and an executive at IBM were particularly upbeat about the success of their partnership.

“Service delivery … viewed in the round, is broadly on track. The majority of services perform well or extremely well…”

Now that the 10-year contract is 2 years away from expiry, which encourages officers to consider what happens then,  more of the truth is emerging.

A council report this month reveals that:

Savings are less than half those first envisaged – £3m against £10m projected. The £3m is an “identified” rather than actual saving.  The projected savings are “now out of alignment with our new financial circumstances and savings requirements”.

– Costs of exiting the contract with the IBM-run Southwest One partnership will be “significant”.

– Unravelling a shared services contract and reallocating work to the 50 council staff seconded to Southwest One will be “complex”. Says the report: “Any disaggregation from the shared service model will be complex and resource intensive and will also be challenging for SWO [Southwest One] as it attempts to satisfy the requirements of three partners whilst protecting and maximising its own financial position”.

– Use of lawyers will be intensive and already consultants have been engaged to advise on the implications of the contract’s ending. Funding this work will mean dipping into the council’s financial reserves.

– the joint venture with IBM has “not attracted new partner authorities” as first envisaged.

– IBM’s global strategy has changed, as has the council’s. Says Taunton Deane’s report of 10 March 2015: “Whilst central government once heralded large scale, multi agency and multi service partnerships with the private sector as the future, their advice now appears to be changing (in favour of) sustained competition, disaggregated services, small short contracts, transparency and diverse supply.”

– Technology strategies have changed. “Computer data centres are being replaced by cloud solutions and mobile technologies have become the norm in many business environments”.

It also emerges that the council is deeply unhappy with its SAP-based transformation, which was directed and implemented by IBM.  The SAP system is “costly”, “complex”, “not responsive to TDBC requirements”, and “resource intensive”.

The SAP system is also a “barrier to sharing services with other district councils”, and “does not support the customer access agenda in respect of channel shift as the SAP Citizen Portal (website) is inadequate”.

The “system is overly complex and users find the processes inefficient”.

Ending the contract means considering in depth:
– staffing implications
– premises and accommodation
– asset & third-party contract transfers
– communications
– logistics, technical infrastructure and system security and access
– intellectual property and authority data
– work in progress transfer
– service transition and knowledge transfer
– company dissolution

The council will also need to consider its service delivery options, which will involve:
– costed business case and recommendations
– understanding risks
– contractual implications and legal advice
– financial implications
– exploratory negotiations with SWO and discussions with the public
– a detailed review to identify the options and costs for potential
replacement systems for the SAP system

Says the council report:

“Preparing for and implementing contract end and potentially exit from SWO [Southwest One] will require a significant amount of time and effort from the authorities due to the volume of work required, some of which is contractual and cannot be avoided.

“Contract end will require robust project governance and the appointment of an authority exit management team including work-streams around: exit management, HR, legal/contract representation, commercial, project management, communications, finance, technology and procurement.

“The resource requirement will be similar whichever future delivery option is selected.”


Councils that are considering large IT-based outsourcing deals could learn much from Taunton Deane’s experiences. At the start of such deals clients and suppliers find it easy to talk about what they’ll deliver – they need prove nothing by actions at this stage.

Taunton Deane and Somerset County Council, its lead partner in Southwest One, blew the trumpet in advance of their deal with IBM. Big savings were promised, and a transformation programme that would be led by a world-class supplier.

Barnet Council’s leading councillors  and officers also published numerous upbeat reports and gave zestful speeches in praise their forthcoming outsourcing deal with Capita.

At Taunton Deane, over time, expensive actions replaced cheap words. Partners did not join the partnership so economies of scale did not materialise. The transformation proved more complex than first envisaged. Reality overwhelmed aspirations.

Nobody could escape from the fact that the council was passing across to IBM a host of conflicting realities and expectations. Beyond the rosy Disney world of pre-contract euphoria was a harsh landscape.

Officers and councillors were actually passing across costs that were unlikely to decrease, and savings requirements that were likely to become more demanding. On top of this the supplier had to make a profit.

How can big savings and costly IT-led transformations not be in conflict with the inbuilt demands of suppliers whose share price is sensitive to the exacting expectations of investors who require ever increasing returns?

Councils will continue to outsource because their officers and lead councillors are unlikely to be in place in the later stages of a contract when they could otherwise be accountable for an administrative, financial and technological mess. In the early stages nobody need be held accountable for anything.  Words are sufficient. Promises cannot be tested yet.  Guarantees sound impressive.

It’s only actions that are hard to achieve.

Perhaps the answer is for auditors to become more proactive. The National Audit Office has this week published well considered guidelines for local authority auditors which calls for “professional scepticism”.  Auditors can stop councils making mistakes. They can see through promises and so-called guarantees.  It’s actions that matter.

At the start of a contract when the supplier’s executives, council officers and lead councillors are all in love they’ll say anything to reassure to each other. But everyone knows that when expectations are at their peak there is only one way to go – Taunton Deane has discovered to its cost.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for providing the information on which this blog is based. 

TDBC SW1 contract exit planning Item 10 March 2015 (2)

DWP tells Universal Credit trainees: just keep rebooting

By Tony Collins

IDS says Universal Credit IT is working – but C4 Dispatches asks: is it?

In a documentary broadcast yesterday [9 March 2015] undercover reporter Karl Eriksson got a job working for the Department for Work and Pensions, training as a Universal Credit call centre adviser.

While filming secretly for several weeks he heard several loudspeaker announcements about parts of the main IT systems going down – on one occasion for a whole day. An example:

“The only thing we can suggest at the moment is keep rebooting and try again. There is nothing official out there at all.”

The Dispatches documentary contrasted the statements by Iain Duncan Smith that the IT is working with the reality in a DWP office.

The programme raises the question of whether a national broadcaster should have to film undercover to establish whether UC systems are working well.

When Channel 4 put it to the DWP that its IT is struggling to cope with 35,000 claimants let alone the 2 million the systems are supposed to be handling by now, the spokesman said:

“None of the examples of IT issues [in the Dispatches broadcast] related specifically to Universal Credit and on the rare occasion a problem occurs it is fixed as a matter of urgency.”

Does it matter, though, which systems are failing if the DWP’s IT infrastructure cannot cope with even a low level of Universal Credit claims?

Everyone expects teething problems with a new system, especially as Universal Credit has the enormous challenge of rolling six benefits into one.

But Dispatches raises the question of whether UC will ever be able to handle 7 million claimants which ultimately it will need to do – for such numbers cannot be managed with the amount of manual intervention that is currently needed, according to a National Audit Office report.

More importantly the Dispatches programmme raises a question of how open government can survive when a major government department says, with impunity, one thing  – that its IT is working well – while staff and claimants are apparently experiencing the opposite.

These are some of the announcements and staff comments the uncover reporter recorded while working at the DWP:

– Loudspeaker: “This is an IT announcement. We are currently aware of issues with all FMO icons that go through your published desktop via the cloud. There seem to be issues all down the country about it. The only thing we can suggest at the moment is keep rebooting and try again. There is nothing official out there at all. So if you can just try that and if it doesn’t work we’ll take it further. Thank you.”

– Staff comment: “Sometimes the Universal Credit portal just blocks, stops running… it is clogging up for some reason. So somebody centrally now has to try and unclog it all…It can happen when you’re on the phone. You have to tell the customer to phone you back if that happens.” [It can cost up to 40p a minute to dial the UC 0345 helpline and one claimant told C4 he’d spent £25 that month alone on ringing the helpline.]

– Loudspeaker: “This is an IT announcement. Just to let you that there is a major incident out at the moment with Universal Jobmatch and with access issues and it is affecting the Benefits Directorate and the Local Services Directorate. The current update at the moment is that it is affecting the telephony agents and other staff who use UJ at the moment.”

– Staff comment: “I will have to load my screen again. It has crashed again.”

– Loudspeaker: “Attention please. Attention please. Camlite is being taken offline so the system can be rebooted. This will take approximately 50 minutes. Please can all users log out of Camlite and stay out until further notice.” Trainee: “How do you take a call then?” Answer: “You can’t. You have to say phone back in 50 minutes on that one.”

[CAMLite is an enquiry and work management system for Universal Credit which pulls information from other DWP computer systems.]

– Staff comment to a claimant who has received a DWP letter wrongly stopping a Universal Credit claim: “It’s a letter that has been sent out because it has been closed down wrongly and the system has done it. Sometimes they do shut themselves down and we have to rebuild it. In the meantime it is done manually.”

The undercover reporter witnessed 9 separate system failures. Dispatches quoted a PCS union survey which said that 9 out of 10 members questioned had said the IT was not up to the job. The DWP’s reply was that only 13% of the 2,700 people working on UC responded to the union survey.

The DWP spokesman said:

“At the beginning of February 2015 we deployed a planned upgrade which impacted the service for 3 days and has since had no issues. This upgrade resulted in an improved performance, up to 37 times faster.

“None of the examples of IT issues related specifically to UC and on the rare occasion a problem occurs it is fixed as a matter of urgency. We have robust checks in place to ensure payments are made correctly and on time.”

Channel 4 Dispatches

Universal Credit staff say IT systems inadequate



Universal Credit pays couple 1p for month of February

By Tony Collins

What will the DWP’s IT suppliers be paid for processing 1p payment?

A couple received a penny in Universal Credit benefits for the month of February, according to the Bolton News.

It indicates that Universal Credit, even while it is handling small numbers of claimants, and it cannot make some payments without manual calculations, still has some way to go before anomalies are ironed out.

The payment of 1p might have been correct once the system calculated the money due to the couple against repayments due to the DWP. But it’s unclear why the system failed to flag up a possible anomaly before initiating a bank processing transaction of 1p for a month’s benefits.

It may be that the DWP’s IT suppliers will receive considerably more than 1p for processing and managing the transaction.

Food bank

Emma Young and her partner Christian Boyce say they have had to go to a food bank for the first time and face eviction from their home.

Young works part-time in Asda. She told the Bolton News that the problem began in January, when she received a bumper wage packet for working extra hours over Christmas.

Her February pay check came four weeks later — within a month of when calculations for universal credit are made. This meant that she was logged as having received two months wages in a month.

Applying Universal Credit rules, the DWP cut the amount of benefit she received in February.

Young, aged 31, said she supports the household as her partner cannot work because of mental health issues, and the couple have debt from existing rent arrears and payday loans repayments.

She told the Bolton News: “I was due to be paid on February 13, looked at my bank account expecting to see some money and there was just one penny been put in.

“It’s left us crazy for this month. I can’t pay my rent, and now the car is gone – it’s horrendous.  There’s nothing I can do, I’ve just got to suck it. I’ve had to go to a food bank, which is awful.

She contacted the JobCentre but said staff there kept “fobbing us off.”

A DWP spokesman described the 1p payment as “very little’ and said it was because Ms Young received two wages in one monthly period.

She had also received an advance, and a repayment of that Universal Credit payment meant the benefits she was given was reduced, the spokeman said, adding that benefit advances are available for those who need them.

“Claimants should inform their landlord if they face difficulties paying their rent, while landlords can inform us directly if there is a problem.”

Halliwell couple get just one penny in benefits for February – Bolton News


It is probably just as well Universal Credit is handling fewer than 1% (about 35,000) of the 7-8 million claimants it is ultimately due to handle.

The 1p payment to Emma Young and Christian Boyce vindicates IDS’s slow and cautious approach to rolling out UC – but the slow roll-out could also mask the inadequacies of IT that may never be able to handle millions of claimants.

Will the IT ever work properly? The DWP is keeping  its reports on the IT secret.

MPs criticise DWP’s refusal to publish Universal Credit reports

By Tony Collins

As the Department for Work and Pensions continues its long and costly legal battle to stop four Universal Credit reports being published, the all-party Public Accounts Committee says a lack of openness “remains within the Department”.

The PAC says in a report published today “Universal Credit: progress update

“… a lack of openness remains within the Department, as does an unwillingness to face up to past failings.

“The Department refused to accept the extent of previous failings, despite the overwhelming evidence we heard last year that the programme’s management had been extraordinarily poor prior to the reset, and the small numbers claiming Universal Credit.

“Furthermore, since early 2012, the Department has been fighting a protracted legal case to prevent the publication of documents relating to the management of Universal Credit…”

The DWP is refusing to release  four Universal Credit reports requested under FOI.

Three of the reports from 2012 – the risks register, issues register and milestone schedule – were requested by programme and project management professional John Slater. I requested a project assessment review of the Universal Credit programme, as carried out by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

When questioned by Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, Robert Devereux, the DWP’s Permanent Secretary, suggested that his officials did not publish the reports because similar reports in other departments were also unpublished.

Meanwhile the DWP is pouring public money into various legal appeals related to its refusal to publish the reports. The DWP’s lawyers argue that publishing the four reports would have a “chilling effect”. They say officials need continued confidentiality to be candid about risks and problems.

A counter argument – though not yet one made in any of the legal hearings so far – is that civil servants and consultants writing the reports are writing them for other civil servants and consultants and are more deferential in their findings than they would be if the reports were open to public and Parliamentary scrutiny.

The PAC’s latest report on Universal Credit highlights the many uncertainties that surround the programme’s delivery.

After a total spend of about £700m on the Universal Credit programme so far the Committee questions what has really been gained. It says:

“The Department must set out clearly what it has really gained from its spending so far, including from the piloting of the programme, and from the investment in live service IT systems.”

Fewer than one per cent of the potential claimants are currently claiming Universal Credit although the programme has been in live operation since April 2013.

The DWP says it is going slowly and cautiously but the PAC’s report raises questions about whether the programme, as it is being delivered by the DWP’s major suppliers, will ever be affordable or technically feasible given the amount of manual intervention required.

A separate, far cheaper “digital” solution, which is being built on agile principles,  is being trialled in Sutton, South London. It may offer more hope of successful, affordable delivery than the existing “live service” currently being rolled out. The live service from the DWP’s major suppliers mixes new coding, legacy systems and manual calculations. It has cost £344m so far. The digital solution has cost less than £5m so far.


Who has the final say on whether the four Universal Credit reports are published – the Department for Work and Pensions or the all-party Public Accounts Committee? Clearly it’s the DWP’s civil servants.

MPs are powerless to force publication of the reports.

What does this say about the ability of MPs to make the most senior civil servants more open than they want to be?

Universal Credit: progress update report

Very little progress on Universal Credit say MPs

DWP wastes money on another Universal Credit FOI appeal