Is DWP stance on Universal Credit reports mocking FOI?

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions, which has remained as secretive over the progress or otherwise of its IT-based projects as before the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, has, as expected, rejected our FOI request for reports on the state of the Universal Credit project.

We have appealed and the DWP has, as is customary, delayed its response. It appears that the Department works on the principle that the longer it delays FOI responses the more out of date will be its reports when the Information Commissioner eventually rules they must be published.

In its reply to us, the DWP gave reasons for hiding a report it has already put in the public domain: a “Starting Gate Review” of Universal Credit.

Hiding reports under its jumper

The review was carried out in February 2011. That the DWP is keeping under its jumper a public report suggests that its responses to the FOI Act owe more to instinct than proper consideration.

The DWP also refused to publish, under the FOI Act, a Universal Credit “Project Assessment Review in November 2011″ by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

These are the reasons Ethna Harnett, Universal Credit Division, DWP,  gave for refusing our FOI request for Universal Credit project progress reports:

- “Further reviews, by the Major Project Authority and by the National Audit Office are planned.”

- “Elements of the information you requested is being withheld as it falls under the exemption in Section 36 (2) (b) and (c) of the Freedom of Information Act. This exemption requires the public interest for and against disclosure to be balanced.”

- “The information you have requested includes details of a sensitive nature whose publication would prejudice effective conduct of public affairs. There is a strong public interest in the Department maintaining an efficient and effective risk management and assurance process and in ensuring that this process is not undermined by premature disclosure particularly where risks are not yet fully mitigated.”

- “There is also a strong public interest in the Department being able to carry out and use frank assessments, including unrestrained and candid contributions from business areas. “

- “The assurance reports produced by the Major Project Authority are not shared beyond the Senior Responsible Owner and interested parties within Government.”

- “DWP Ministers have, however, committed to update Parliament on the Universal Credit programme through written ministerial statements. These statements are available on the Parliamentary website – www.parliament.uk.”

- “The Major Projects Authority will publish information on the progress of the Government’s high-risk and high-value projects, referred to collectively as the government major projects portfolio, alongside the first annual report at the end of this financial year.”

Comment:

The DWP has never met any of our FOI requests and has, in every case, delayed its responses to our requests for internal appeals. The result of the appeals is always the same – the upholding of the original decision. We are in awe of the DWP’s ability to detach its IT operations from the FOI Act.

The DWP considers it is acting in the public interest: that assessments of its IT-based projects such as Universal Credit would not be candid if they were put in the public domain.

But if the DWP had got this right and that its assurance reports would be less effective if published, we’d expect to see successes with major DWP IT-based projects. We don’t see the evidence.

Indeed the signs are that Universal Credit, the DWP’s biggest project, is in trouble; and after 20 years the Department is still having trouble combining its various benefit systems.

The National Audit Office has qualified the DWP’s accounts every year for the last 23 years, largely because of the level of official error and fraud.

Is this a department that is getting IT right?  There is no evidence it is; and some evidence suggests it isn’t.

The DWP needs to change. It needs to see openness as an opportunity not a threat. Openness would show that officials are prepared to be measured publicly against the findings of their assessment reports. That needs self-confidence.

On the other hand secrecy permits an uneasy introspection, allows weaknesses to take hold, and gives officials comfort in not changing.

Somerset Maugham put it well in his excellent book Of human Bondage. He said: “Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one’s mind.”

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