By T0ny Collins
Today’s report of the all-party Public Accounts Committee “Universal Credit: early progress” goes beyond criticisms of the scheme in a National Audit Office report of the same name on 5 September 2013.
Public Accounts MPs say the Department for Work and Pensions gave “misleading interviews to the press regarding progress after it became aware of difficulties with the programme”.
And as recently as July 2013 the “Department denied that there were problems with the programme’s IT when it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee”.
These criticisms are against a background of the DWP’s refusal to publish any of the many internal and external reports the department has commissioned on the project’s progress, problems and challenges since 2011.
The Times today says that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and members of his parliamentary team are “understood to have approached at least three Tory MPs on the cross-party [Public Accounts] committee to ask them to ensure that Robert Devereux, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, was singled out for censure”. In the end there was only limited criticism in the PAC report of Devereux – under his formal title of “Accounting Officer”.
If the DWP has been misleading the press, giving incorrect evidence to Parliament, and keeping secret its reports on the problems and challenges facing one of the government’s most important IT-based programmes – all of which seem to be the case – is it an institution that regards itself as uniquely outside the democratic process?
On big IT projects, officials are not motivated by money and concern for their jobs as are private sector boards of directors. When a private company gets it wrong and loses tens of millions on a project, the share price may fall, individual bonuses may be hit, and jobs, including the CEO’s, may be at risk.
In the public sector getting it wrong rarely has any implications for officials. They have only the threat of departmental embarrassment as a deterrent to getting it wrong. But they need not fear even embarrassment if they can mislead the press and Parliament and keep secret all their internal and external reports.
If a lack of transparency, culture of denial, and the misleading of Parliament continue to characterize big risky IT-based ventures in central government, one has to ask whether Whitehall is congenitally ill-suited to running such programmes.
The Public Accounts Committee warned in a report in 1984 about the risks of large public sector computer programmes. That report came after a series of project disasters.
So what has been learned in the last 30 years – other than that central departments are poorly equipped managerially – or democratically – to handle big IT-based programmes and projects?
These are some of the Public Accounts Committee’s findings:
MPs try to be positive
“We believe that meeting any specific timetable is less important than delivering the programme successfully. There is still the potential for Universal Credit to deliver significant benefits, but there is no clarity yet on the amount of savings it will achieve.”
Culture of denial
“The programme had also developed a flawed culture of reporting good news and denying that problems had emerged. This culture resulted from the desire of senior staff within the programme to show publically that they were able to push the programme forward, at the expense of ensuring that adequate controls were in place or listening to concerns raised about its delivery.
“Although the Department has tried to tackle this culture, it gave misleading interviews to the press regarding progress after it became aware of difficulties with the programme, and as recently as July 2013 the Department denied that there were problems with the programme’s IT when it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee.”
Shocking absence of control over suppliers
“There has been a shocking absence of control over suppliers with the Department neglecting to implement basic procedures for monitoring and authorising expenditure…
“The Department recognises its supplier management has been weak, risking value for money. Four main suppliers – Accenture, IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom - have provided IT systems for Universal Credit, and by March 2013 the Department had paid them £265m out of the £303m spent with suppliers on IT systems.
“In February 2013 the Major Projects Authority found no evidence of the Department actively managing its supplier contracts, resulting in suppliers being out of control and financial controls not being in place. The Department has yet to provide a comprehensive assessment of how much of this expenditure has proved nugatory, although the Major Projects Authority believes it will be a substantial figure running into hundreds of millions of pounds.”
Lack of oversight
The lack of oversight allowed the Department’s Universal Credit team to become isolated and defensive, undermining its ability to recognise the size of the problems the programme faced and to be candid when reporting progress…
“Oversight has been characterised by a failure to understand properly the nature and enormity of the task, a failure to monitor and challenge progress regularly, and a failure to intervene promptly when problems arose.
“Senior managers only became aware of problems through ad hoc reviews, mostly conducted by external reviewers, as inadequate management information and reporting arrangements had not alerted them that things were amiss.
“Given its huge importance to the Department, the Accounting Officer [Robert Devereux] and his team should have been more alert to identifying and acting on early warning signs that things were going wrong with the programme
Blinkered culture remains?
“Risk was not well managed and the divergence between planned and actual progress could and should have been spotted and acted upon earlier. The Department only reported good news and denied the problems that had emerged. The risk of a similarly blinkered culture remains as the Department will be working to tight timescales to get the programme back on track.”
“It is extremely disappointing that the litany of problems in the Universal Credit Programme were often hidden by a culture prevalent in the Department which promoted only the telling of ‘good news’.
“For example, officials were aware that a critical report highlighting many of these issues had been discussed internally for months. Indeed, there are real doubts over when officials became aware of these problems and it is difficult to conceive, based on the evidence we were presented with, that officials within the Department did not know of them before July 2012.”
Shocking absence of financial and other controls
“There has been a shocking absence of financial and other internal controls and we are not yet convinced that the Department has robust plans to overcome the problems that have impeded progress.”
Did the DWP do anything well?
“The Department initially adopted a piecemeal approach to delivering the programme.
“In 2011 it identified over a hundred different types of users for Universal Credit, and initially sought to design IT solutions for each set of circumstances individually. It was only in early 2012 that the Department decided to stand back and try to establish a clearer picture of what the programme’s overall shape might look like.
“During the summer of 2012 the Department became aware of the problems that Universal Credit faced. It was first alerted by concerns raised in a supplier-led review, commissioned by the Secretary of State, which reported in July.
“The Department subsequently established that the programme’s progress was stalling because there were a number of unresolved issues which had become intractable, particularly relating to the level of security needed for identity assurance and protection against fraud and error and cyber-attack.
“The Department had been previously unaware of the programme’s difficulties because its internal lines of monitoring, intervention and defence, intended to identify and mitigate such problems, were not working properly. Governance arrangements were not remotely adequate, and the Accounting Officer [Robert Devereux] discussed progress with the head of the Universal Credit programme only every two or three weeks.
“The Department had inadequate performance information to scrutinise and challenge the programme’s reports of its progress, so internal reporting arrangements did not flag up that things were amiss. The Department’s corporate finance undertook insufficient work to ensure there was an appropriate control environment in place, and the Department’s process for ministers to sign-off higher-value contracts was weak.
“The Department’s senior management had relied on ad hoc reviews, mostly conducted by external reviewers, which only provided an occasional snapshot of the programme, instead of ensuring effective internal systems were in place to monitor and challenge progress. However, during 2012 the problems surfaced more clearly as the Universal Credit team became unable to respond to recommendations made by such reviews.”
Will Universal Credit ever work?
“The Department remains uncertain about key details of its final plans. It does not know how much can be delivered online, when this will be available, and what activities will continue to require face-to-face meetings.
“ The Department also does not know what the final cost of the IT will be, or the savings the programme is expected to deliver. Nor does it know when it will close down the other benefits that Universal Credit will replace.”
The Department has a target of enrolling 184,000 claimants on Universal Credit by April 2014 and has launched limited pilot schemes.”
Says the PAC report: “The current rate of progress is significantly below target, however. Only around 2,500 claimants were registered at the time of our hearing in September, and the Department was unwilling to speculate what number will be enrolled by next April.”
In a steady state Universal Credit is expected to deal with 10 million people in about 7.5 million households, making 1.6 million changes in circumstances each month.
Security versus usability
“The Department is aware that the system must include suitable security arrangements if Universal Credit is to operate effectively and deliver its intended benefits. However, the Department has not yet finalised such a solution, and was unable to say when two key components – those countering fraud and error and confirming claimants’ identity- would be completed.
“The Department has found it particularly hard to establish the right balance between security and usability. The development of an effective security system has been hindered by security not being integral to the design of IT components from the outset, but instead being retro-fitted into systems, and suppliers working on different assumptions and to different standards. To address this, the Department told us it has now brought security issues together in one place, with one senior official responsible for overseeing this part of the programme.”
DWP response to PAC report
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson told the BBC
“This report doesn’t take into account our new leadership team, or our progress on delivery,” it said. “We have already taken comprehensive action including strengthening governance, supplier management and financial controls.”
The DWP said it did not accept “the write-off figure quoted by the committee” and expected it to be substantially less”.
A spokesman for Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that he had “every confidence” in the team now running the programme, including Mr Devereux – whose position some newspapers have suggested is under threat.
“Both the National Audit Office and the public accounts committee acknowledged a fortress mentality within the Universal Credit programme,” he said.
“Iain was clear back in the summer about how he and the permanent secretary took action to fix those problems.”