Category Archives: Agile

Yet another NHS IT mess?

By Tony Collins

Last week the National Audit Office reported on the failure of the GP Extraction Service. Health officials  had signed off and paid for a contract even though the system was unfit for use.

The officials worked for organisations that have become part of the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

An unapologetic HSCIC issued a statement on its website in response to the Audit Office report. It said, in essence, that the problems with the GP Extraction Service were not the fault of the HSCIC but rather its predecessor organisations (ignoring the fact that many of the officials and contractors from those defunct organisations moved to the HSCIC).

Now it transpires that the HSCIC may have a new IT-related mess on its hands, this time one that is entirely of its own making – the e-Referral Service.

Last month the HSCIC went live with its e-Referral service without testing the system properly. It says it tested for thousands of hours but still the system went live with 9 pages of known problems.

Problems are continuing. Each time in their routine bulletins officials suggest that an upgrade will solve e-Referral’s problems. But each remedial upgrade is followed by another that does not appear to solve the problems.

The system went live on 15 June, replacing Choose and Book which was part of an earlier NHS IT disaster the £10bn National Programme for IT.

Problems more than teething?

Nobody expects a major new IT system to work perfectly first time but regular outages of the NHS e-Referral Service may suggest that it has more than teething problems.

It’s a common factor in IT-based project failures that those responsible have commissioned tests for many hours but with inadequately designed tests that did not always reflect real-world use of the system. They might also have underestimated loads on the available hardware and networks.

This means that after the system goes live it is brought down for regular hardware and software fixes that don’t solve the problems.  End-users lose faith in the system – as many GPs did with the Choose and Book system – and a misplaced optimism takes the place of realism in the thinking of managers who don’t want to admit the system may need a fundamental redesign.

On the day the e-Referral Service launched, a Monday, doctors had difficulties logging in. Software “fixes” that day made little difference. By the next day HSCIC’s optimism has set in. Its website said:

“The NHS e-Referral Service has been used by patients and professionals today to complete bookings and referrals comparable with the number on a typical Tuesday but we were continuing to see on-going performance and stability issues after yesterday’s fixes.

“We suspend access to the system at lunchtime today to implement another fix and this improved performance and stability in the afternoon.”

The “fix” also made little apparent difference. The next day, Wednesday 17 June, the entire system was “unavailable until further notice” said the HSCIC’s website.

By early evening all was apparently well. An HSCIC bulletin said:

“The NHS e-Referrals Service is now available again. We apologise for the disruption caused to users and thank everyone for their patience.”

In fact, by the next day, Thursday 18 June, all was not well. Said another bulletin:

“Yesterday’s outage enabled us to implement a number of improvements and hopefully this is reflected in your user experience today.

“This morning users reported that there were ongoing performance issues so work has now taken place to implement changes to the configuration to the NHS e-Referral Service hardware and we are currently monitoring closely to see if this resolved the issue.”

About 2 weeks later, on 30 June, HSCIC’s officials said there were ongoing problems, because of system performance in provider organisations that were processing referrals.

Was this HSCIC’s way of, again, blaming other organisations – as they did after the NAO report’s on the failure of the GP Extraction Service project? Said a statement on the HSCIC’s website on 30 June 2015:

“Since transition to the NHS e-Referral Service on Monday 15th June, we have unfortunately experienced a number of problems… Although most of the initial problems were related to poor performance of the system, some residual functional and performance issues persist and continue to affect some of our colleagues in their day-to-day working.

“Most of these on-going problems relate to the performance of the system in provider organisations that are processing referrals, though this does of course have a knock-on effect for referrers.

“Please be assured that the team are working to identify root causes and fixes for these issues.”

By last week – 2 July 2015 – HSCIC warned that it will require a “period of planned downtime on the NHS e-Referral Service tonight which is currently scheduled for between 21:00 and 23:00 for some essential maintenance to fix a high priority functional Incident.”

The fix worked – or did it? HSCIC told Government Computing: “An update was applied to the system overnight from Thursday (July 2) into Friday (July 3) which was successful.”

But …

Monday 6 July 2015 4.15pm. HSCIC e-Referral Service bulletin:

“We would like to apologise for the interruption to service between 13:15 and 13:54 today.  This was not a planned outage and we are investigating the root cause.  If any remedial activity is required we will give notice to all users. Once again please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this caused.”

Why was testing inadequate?

Did senior managers go live without testing how the system would work in the real world, or did they select as test end-users only IT enthusiasts?

Perhaps managers avoided challenging the test system too much in case it gave poor results that could force a redesign.

We probably won’t know what has gone wrong unless the National Audit Office investigates. Even then it could be a year or more before a report is published. A further complicating factor is that the HSCIC itself may not know yet what has gone wrong and may be receiving conflicting reports on the cause or causes of the problems.

An IT failure? – change the organisation’s name

What’s certain is that the NHS has a history of national IT project failures which cause organisational embarrassment that’s soon assuaged by changing the name of the organisation, though the officials and contractors just switch from one to the next.

NHS Connecting for Health, which was largely responsible for the NPfIT disaster, was blended into the Department of Health’s informatics function which was then blended into the HSCIC.

Similarly the NHS Information Centre which was largely responsible for the GP Extraction Service disaster was closed in 2013 and its staff and contractors blended into the HSCIC.

Now, with the e-Referral Service, the HSCIC at least has a potential IT project mess that can be legitimately regarded as its own.

When will a centrally-run national NHS IT-based turn out to be a success? … care.data?

New SRO

Meanwhile NHS England is looking for a senior responsible owner for e-Referral Service on a salary of up to £98,453.

Usually in central government, SROs do the job as an adjunct to their normal work. It’s unusual for the NHS to employ a full-time project SRO which the NAO will probably welcome as a positive step.

But the job description is vague. NHS England says that the SRO for NHS e-Referrals programme will help with a switch from paper to digital for 100% of referrals in England by March 2018.

“The SRO … will have responsibility for the strategic and operational development of the digital journey, fulfilment of the patient and clinical process and the performance of the service. Plans to achieve the strategy will be underpinned by the delivery of short to medium term objectives, currently commissioned from HSCIC and other third party suppliers.”

Key aspects of this role will be to:-

– Ensure the strategy is formulated, understood by all stakeholders and is delivered utilising all available resources efficiently and effectively.

– Ensure the development and management of plans.

– Ensure appropriate system and processes are in place to enable the uptake and on-going use of digital referrals by GP’s, hospitals, patients and commissioners.

– Proactively manage the key risks and issues associated with ensuring appropriate actions are taken to mitigate or respond.

– Monitor and establish accountability on the overall progress of the strategy to ensure completion within agreed timescales.

– Manage the budgetary implications of activity.

– Avoid the destabilisation of business as usual.

– Manage and actively promote the relationships with key stakeholders.

The job will be fixed-term until 31/03/2017 and interviews will be held in London on the 20th July 2015.

The big challenge will be to avoid the destabilisation of business as usual – a challenge beyond the ability of one person?

Government Computing. 

Another fine NHS IT mess

Why was e-Referral Service launched with 9 pages of known problems?

National e-Referral Service unavailable until further notice

 

New national e-Referral Service “unavailable until further notice”

By Tony Collins

The NHS e-Referral Service which launched nationally on Monday was “unavailable until further notice”, the Health and Social Care Information Centre said at 9.30am today.

“Due to issues experienced overnight the NHS e-Referral Service is unavailable until further notice while essential maintenance is performed. If you have local business continuity processes available, we recommend that you consider invoking them,” says the HSCIC on its website.

“We are working hard to resolve these issues as quickly as possible and to keep disruption to a minimum… We apologise for the disruption caused to some users and thank everyone for their patience.”

Late yesterday afternoon the Health and Social Care Information Centre warned GPs and other users of its e-Referral Service that technical problems were continuing.

The difficulties have aggravated cynicism in the GP community about the ability of centrally-based officials to implement national IT systems.

Is it too soon to question whether e-Referrals is the first IT disaster of the new government? There is also the question of whether GPs have been used as guinea pigs to test for problems with the new system.

Until the service went down GPs were in any case unable to log in or were experiencing long delays in arranging referrals. Some reverted to sending letters by post – or always did use the post and avoided the NPfIT Choose and Book system which e-Referral is replacing.

Fewer than 60% of GPs used Choose and Book to hospital appointments for patients.

On its website at 17.30 yesterday the HSCIC said:

“PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO COLLEAGUES WHO USE THE NHS e-REFERRAL SERVICE

“The NHS e-Referral Service has been used by patients and professionals today to complete bookings and referrals comparable with the number on a typical Tuesday but we were continuing to see on-going performance and stability issues after yesterday’s fixes.

“We suspend access to the system at lunchtime today to implement another fix and this improved performance and stability in the afternoon.

“We are continuing to monitor the service and will implement further fixes if required. If users notice any further issues they should log them with their local service desk in the usual way…

“We apologise for the disruption caused to some users and thank everyone for their patience.

Update 14.00 17 June

The Health and Social Care Information Centre said the e-Referral Service was still down.

“HSCIC are completing the final stage of testing a number of fixes to the NHS e-Referrals Service. It is hoped that the service will be available again later today. A further update will be issued at 15:00 today.”

Update 18.00 17 June

Said the HSCIC:

“The NHS e-Referrals Service is now available again. We apologise for the disruption caused to users and thank everyone for their patience.

Update 15.00 18 June – ongoing problems

“Yesterday’s outage enabled us to  implement a number of improvements and hopefully this is reflected in your user experience today,” said HSCIC’s website.

“This morning users reported that there were ongoing performance issues so work has now taken place to implement changes to the configuration to the NHS e-Referral Service hardware and we are currently monitoring closely to see if this resolved the issue.”

Why was NHS e-Referral service launched with 9 pages of known problems?

By Tony Collins

Were GPs guinea pigs for live testing of the new national NHS e-Referral Service?

Between 2004 and 2010 the Department of Health marked as confidential its lists of problems with national NPfIT systems, in particular Choose and Book.

So the Health and Social Care Information Centre deserves praise for publishing a list of problems when it launched the national “e-Referrals” system on Monday. But that list was 9 pages long.

The launch brought unsurprised groans from GPs who are used to new national systems going live with dozens of known problems.

The e-Referral Service, built on agile “techniques” and based on open source technology, went live early on Monday to replace “Choose and Book” for referring GP patients to hospitals and to other parts of the NHS.

Some GPs found they could not log on.

“As expected – cannot refer anything electronically this morning. Surprise surprise,” said one GP in a comment to “Pulse” on its article headlined “Patient referrals being delayed as GPs unable to access e-Referrals system on launch day.”

A GP practice manager said: “Cannot access in south London. HSCIC debacle…GPs pick up the pieces. Changing something that wasn’t broken.”

Another GP said: “I was proud never to have used Choose and Book once. Looks like this is even better!”

Other GPs said they avoided using technology to refer patients.

“Why delay referral? Just send a letter. (Some of us never stopped).”

Another commented: “I still send paper referrals – no messing, you know it has gone, no time wasted.”

Dr Faisal Bhutta, a GP partner in Manchester, said his practice regularly used Choose and Book but on Monday morning he couldn’t log in. “You can’t make a referral,” he said.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre has apologised for the disruption. A statement on its website says:

“There are a number of known issues, which are currently being resolved. It is not anticipated that any of these issues will pose a clinical safety risk, cause any detriment to patient care or prevent users from carrying out essential tasks. We have published the list of known issues on our website along with details of how to provide feedback .”

But why did the Centre launch the e-Referral Service with 9 pages of known problems? Was it using GPs as guinea pigs to test the new system?

Comment

The Health and Social Care Information Centre is far more open, less defensive and a better communicator than the Department of Health ever was when its officials were implementing the NPfIT.

But is the HSCIC’s openness a good thing if it’s accompanied by a brazen and arrogant acceptance that IT can be introduced into the NHS without a care whether it works properly or not?

In parts of the NHS, IT works extraordinarily well. Those who design, test, implement and support such systems care deeply about patients. In many hospitals the IT reduces risks and helps to improve the chances of successful outcomes.

But in other parts of the NHS are some technology enthusiasts – at the most senior board level – who seem to believe that all major IT implementations will be flawed and will be improved by user feedback.

The result is that IT that’s inadequately designed, tested and implemented is foisted on doctors and nurses who are expected to get used to “teething” troubles.

This is dangerous thinking and it’s becoming more and more prevalent.

Many poorly-considered implementations of the Cerner Millennium electronic patient record system have gone live in hospitals across England with known problems.

In some cases, poor implementations – rather than any faults with the system itself – have affected the care of patients and might have contributed to unnecessary deaths when records needed urgently were not available, or hospitals lost track of urgent appointments.

A CQC report in March 2015 said IT was a possible factor in the death of a patient because NHS staff were unable to access electronically-held information.

In another incident a coroner criticised a patient administration system for being a factor in the death of three year-old Samuel Starr whose appointment for a vital scan got lost in the system.

Within NHS officialdom is a growing cultural acceptance that somehow a poor IT implementation is different to a faulty x-ray machine that delivers too high a dose of radiation.

NHS officials will always brush off IT problems as teething and irrelevant to the care and safety of patients. Just apologise and say no patient has come to any harm.

So little do IT-related problems matter in the NHS that unaccountable officials at the HSCIC have this week felt sufficiently detached from personal accountability to launch a national system knowing there are dozens of problems with the use of it.

Their attitude seems to be: “We can’t know everything wrong with the system until it’s live. So let’s launch the system and fix the problems as GPs give us their feedback.”

This is a little like the NHS having a template letter of regret to send to relatives and families of patients who die unexpectedly in the care of the NHS. Officials simply fill in the appropriate name and address. The NHS can then fix the problems as and when patients die.

It’s surely time that bad practice in NHS IT was eradicated.  Board members need to question more. When necessary directors must challenge the blind positivism of the chief executive.

Some managers can learn much about the culture of care at the hospitals that implement IT successfully.

Patients, nurses and doctors do not exist to tell hospital managers and IT suppliers when electronic records are wrong, incomplete, not available or are somebody else’s record with a similar name.

And GPs do not exist to be guinea pigs for testing and providing feedback on new national systems such as the e-Referral Service.

e-Referral Service “unavailable until further notice”

Hundreds of patients lost in NPfIT systems

Hospital has long-term NPfIT problems

An NPfIT success at Croydon? – Really?

Physicians’ views on electronic patient records

Patient record systems raise some concerns, says report

Electronic health records and safety concerns

Universal Credit: some highlights of today’s NAO report

By Tony Collins

Excerpts from today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update”

Not complete by 2020 

“Not all legacy benefit claimants will have moved to Universal Credit by the end of 2019.”

 Assumptions are changing massively

“Universal Credit impacts depend on policy assumptions. For example, there was a £30 billion movement between 2011 and 2012 in the Department’s estimate of benefit spending, which went from a £19.7 billion cost to a £10.8 billion saving. The Department changed its methodology over this time but the size of this movement was largely due to changes in benefit entitlement and conditionality.”

Spending on existing UC systems questionable?

“HM Treasury has expressed concerns about the value for money of further investment in live service systems.”

What if the digital system fails?

“ Following the Major Projects Authority’s review, HM Treasury requested, in April 2014, the Department provide it with contingency plans should the digital service be delayed or fail. The Department is due to update HM Treasury at the end of November 2014 on its progress in developing such plans.”

The small print

You can claim Universal Credit if you:

– fall into one of the accepted groups

– do not own or part own your home;

– have a bank or building society account;

– do not live in temporary accommodation;

– are not pregnant or given birth within the last 15 weeks;

– are not a carer;

– are not self-employed;

– are unemployed or have household earnings of less than £330 per month if over 25 or £270 if under 25;

– are not challenging or awaiting a decision on Jobseekers Allowance, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support or tax credits;

– are not staying away from your main home;

– are not responsible for a child or young person who is: adopted, fostered, being looked after, registered blind or have a disability benefit.

UC security

“In June 2012, CESG [the IT security arm of GCHQ) found that security had not been properly considered from the start. The [UC] systems were developed by multiple suppliers without an overarching plan for how it would work as a whole.

“A Red Team review concluded that the programme lacked appropriate detail around the security measures it needed because of: ineffective links between design and security teams; invalid assumptions being made by technical teams about what was acceptable to the business; a lack of balance between usability and security; poor understanding of dependencies between components; and little consideration of the technical implications of business design activities. The Department was unable to address these concerns prior to the reset in February 2013.”

A good approach to agile

“Since the reset (in 2013), the Department has concentrated its use of agile on developing digital service using a co-located, mixed-skill team. In June 2014, consultants commissioned by the programme board reported that a good agile approach is in place, and that a strong agile culture and organisation has been found inside the digital service.

“The consultants also found that a focus on long-term planning and effective communication of progress is required to drive scale and delivery, and that adjustments to the team structure will be required to ensure scalability…

“To remain on track, the Department will have 18 months to increase functionality to create a fully integrated service eventually capable of handling up to 10 million claimants. It will use an agile approach to do this. The Department plans to trial new systems in spring 2015, when it intends to start testing efficiencies and delivery against policy intent. It then plans to test increased capacity from November 2015.”

Not so agile

“…The Department will continue to use traditional approaches for buying and maintaining systems supplied commercially, such as existing Department‑wide systems and cloud hosting…”

Inaccurate payments

In April 2014, a software update [from a major supplier] created new problems for [UC] calculations and inaccuracy increased again. Between April and June 2014, over 10% of payments made to claimants were incorrect. This damaged staff and stakeholder confidence in the system and the Department had to reintroduce 100% manual checking of payments in June 2014 …

“… At present the Department is undertaking 100% checking of all payments before they go out.”

Better leadership

Confidence in the leadership team has improved despite continuing difficulties and the heavy demands on the programme director through 2014 caused by the limited availability of the senior responsible owner. A follow-up survey found a large increase in the number of staff expressing confidence in the actions of senior leadership (from 30% in 2013 to 75% in 2014) and an increase in the number of staff who feel that senior management encourages challenge and welcomes their suggestions (from 30% in 2013 to 70% in 2014).

Do major suppliers have too much control of DWP IT?

“The Department’s management of suppliers has been tested by the problems that emerged following an IT update in April 2014 designed to enhance live service. A supplier made significant changes in addition to the work that had been commissioned by the Department. It did not fully inform the Department of this, therefore the update was not adequately tested before it went live.

“The release caused an increase in payment errors described in Part Three. The supplier agreed to rectify the coding at its own expense. This delayed the next release by 2 weeks because of constraints on departmental and supplier resources, and the need to implement further controls recommended in a review commissioned by the Department after the April release.

“In November 2014, the Department’s internal audit reported that the programme has built technical capability to challenge, monitor and review supplier performance, including challenge of the management information provided.”

Manual interventions

“As planned, many processes in live service and digital service areas currently remain dependent on manual interventions.”

Universal Credit: progress update

Universal Credit full business case “a long way from Treasury approval”

Universal Credit full business case “a long way from Treasury approval”

By Tony Collins

Yesterday in Parliament Iain Duncan Smith gave a statement on Universal Credit – then MPs asked him questions.  Conservative MP Nigel Mills asked IDS a straightforward question:

“Can the secretary of state confirm that the Treasury has now signed off the whole business case and laid to rest that fear that they were not going to do that?”

IDS gave a clear reply: “That is exactly what was being asked before the summer break and the answer is they have …”

But the UC programme has not received Treasury approval for the full business case, nor even the outline business case. Today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update” says that the UC programme received approval in September 2014 for the “strategic outline business case” only.

An NAO official says this is a “long way from Treasury approval” of the full business case.

Until the full business case is approved, UC has no formal funding beyond the current spending review. Meanwhile the Treasury has been funding UC in “small increments” according to the NAO.

The Department of Work and Pensions is due to produce the outline business case next summer, before the next government’s spending review.

The “outline” business case is supposed to set out how the programme is affordable and will be successfully delivered. It summarises the results so far and sets out the case for proceeding to a formal procurement phase.

The “full” business case documents the contractual arrangements,
confirms funding and affordability and sets out the detailed management
arrangements and plans for successful delivery and post evaluation.

The absence of approval for the outline or full business case underlines the uncertainties still in the UC programme. Indeed the latest NAO report says it’s too early to tell whether UC will prove value for money.

But the DWP has reduced risks by extending the roll-out. The programme is now not expected to be completed before 2020. The original completion date was 2017.

The DWP has a twin-track approach to the UC IT programme. It is paying its existing main IT suppliers to support the introduction of UC – the so-called “live” service – while an agile team develops a fully-automated “digital” service that is designed to do all that the “live” service cannot do without manual intervention.

The agile system has yet to be tested – but it has cost only about £8m compared with more than £90m spent on the “live service”.

Porkies?

Labour MP Glenda Jackson, who is a member of the Work and Pensions committee, suggested to IDS yesterday that his promises to MPs on Universal Credit’s roll-out have all been broken and that he has told the House of Commons “porky pies”.

IDS replied that his intention is to ensure that UC is rolled out in a safe and secure way.

Comment:

You’d never know from IDS’s replies to MPs yesterday that the Universal Credit programme doesn’t yet have either outline business case approval or full business case approval.

In other words, the Treasury has yet to be convinced the UC programme is feasible or affordable. It is paying for the programme in increments.

IDS told MPs the programme has business case approval. He did not make it  clear that the programme has the early-stage strategic outline business case approval.

His comments reinforce the need for the National Audit Office to scrutinise the Universal Credit programme. Left to the Department for Work and Pensions, the facts about the programme’s progress, problems and challenges would probably not emerge, not in the House of Commons at least.

Some MPs have said for years that Parliament is the last place to look for the truth.

IDS also said yesterday that the original deadline for completion of UC by 2017 was “artificial” – though he has quoted the 2017 date to MPs on several occasions.

Will UC succeed?

UC as an IT-based programme is not doing too badly, to judge from today’s NAO report.

Indeed it seems that the Department for Work and Pensions, when under intense scrutiny, can start to get things right.

Though existing systems from major suppliers look increasingly unlikely to be able to handle the predicted volumes without a large and expensive amount of manual intervention, the agile digital system, though delayed by 6 months, looks promising, at a fraction of the cost of the conventional “live” system.

Scrutiny

The NAO is scrutinising the programme. The DWP’s own auditors seem to be doing a good job. The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is making useful recommendations. And the programme has an independently-chaired board. [The NAO says the programme board has been hampered by limited information and suggests this is because the DWP gives the board “good news” statements rather than facts.]

All this scrutiny is powering the programme in the right direction, though the uncertainties remain massive. As Campaign4Change predicted, the programme will not be complete before 2020. But who cares, if it works well in the end and losses are minimised?

DWP officials are learning lessons – and UC could end up as a template for big government IT-enabled programmes  The twin-track approach of using existing suppliers to deliver support for major business changes that yield problems and lessons  that then feed into an entirely new agile-based system is not a cheap way to develop government IT –  but it may work.

What DWP officials have yet to learn is how to be open and truthful to Parliament, the media – and even its own programme board.

Universal Credit: progress update

Some highlights of today’s NAO report

NAO warns over costs of further Universal Credit digital delay

Universal Credit: watchdog warns of costs of further delays

Government may have to write off more than £200m invested in IT on Universal Credit

Universal Credit and its IT – an inside track?

By Tony Collins

An excellent BBC Radio 4 “Inside Welfare Reform” Analysis broadcast yesterday evening gave an insider’s view of the IT-based Universal Credit programme from its beginnings to today.

It depicted Iain Duncan Smith as a courageous reformer who’s kept faith with important welfare changes that all parties support. If they work, the reforms will benefit taxpayers and claimants. The broadcast concludes with an apparent endorsement of IDS’s very slow introduction of UC.

“When real lives and real money are at stake, being cautious is not the worst mistake you can make.”

So says the BBC R4 “Analysis” guest presenter Jonathan Portes who worked on welfare spending at the Treasury in the 1980s and became Chief Economist at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002. He left the DWP in 2011 and is now director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The BBC broadcast left me with the impression that UC would today be perceived as meeting expectations if DWP officials and ministers had, in the early days:

– been open and honest about the complexities of IT-related and business change

– outlined the potential problems of implementing UC as set out in internal reports and the minutes of programme team meetings

– explained the likelihood of the UC programme taking more time and money than initially envisaged

– urged the need for extreme caution

– made a decision at the outset to protect – at all costs – those most in genuine need of disability benefits

– not sold UC to a sceptical Treasury on the basis it would save billions in disability claims  – for today thousands of disability claimants are in genuine need of state help, some of whom are desperately sick, and are not receiving money because of delays.

Instead UC is perceived as a disaster, as set out in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary last night.

A £500m write-off on IT?

Other noteworthy parts of the BBC R4 Analysis broadcast:

– The Department for Work and Pensions gave selective responses to the BBC’s questions. Portes: “We did ask the Department for Work and Pensions for an interview for this programme but neither Iain Duncan  Smith nor any minister was available. We sent a detailed list of questions and have had answers to some.”

– Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, gave her view that the next government will have to write off £500m on IT investment on Universal Credit – about £360m more than the Department for Work and Pensions has stated publicly.

Hodge told the BBC: “We are now on our fourth or official in charge of the project and the project has only been going four or five years. Anyone who knows about project management will tell you that consistency of leadership is vital. I don’t think there has been ownership of the project by a senior official within DWP.  I think they and ministers have only wanted to hear the good news. Management of the IT companies has been abysmal.

“I still believe, though I haven’t t got officials to admit to this, that after the general election we will probably be writing off in excess of half a billion  pounds on investment in IT that had failed to deliver… The investment in IT that they are presently saying they can re-use in other ways is not fit for purpose. The system simply cannot cope.”

The BBC asked the DWP for its comment on the scale of the write-offs. “No answer,” said Portes.

Parliament told the truth?

Stephen Brien, who has been dubbed the architect of Universal Credit, gave his first broadcast interview to Analysis. He worked with IDS at the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank set up by IDS in 2004. Brien saw IDS on a nearly daily basis.

Portes asked Brien when IDS first realised things were going off track. “The challenge became very stark in the summer of 2012,” said Brien.

Portes: What was your relationship with IDS?

“My office was across the corridor from his.  I would join him for all the senior meetings about the programme. I would keep him updated as a result of the other meetings I was addressing within the programme team. When it became materially obvious we had to change plans it was over that summer [2012].

Portes: But that was not the public line. In September 2012 this is what IDS said (in the House of Commons):

“We will deliver Universal Credit on time, as it is, on budget, right now.”

IDS appears to have given that assurance while being aware of the change to UC plans.

UC oversold to Treasury?

Portes: “The really big savings were supposed to come from disability benefit. And here trouble was brewing. The problem was the deal IDS had done with the Treasury. The Treasury never liked UC. It thought it was both risky and expensive. And the Treasury, faced with a huge budget deficit, wanted to save not spend.

“With pensions protected disability benefits were really the only place savings could be made.  The previous government had contracted ATOS to administer a new medical test – the Work Capability Assessment – to all 2.5 million people on Incapacity Benefit but only a few pilots had started.

“IDS and the Treasury agreed to press ahead.  Some claimants would be moved to new Employment and Support Allowance but the plan was that several hundred thousand would lose the benefit entirely – saving about £3bn a year.

“Disability living allowance which helps with the extra cost of disability would also be replaced with the new, saving another £2bn…

But …

“By now the new work capability assessment was supposed to have got more than 500,000 people off incapacity benefits. Instead they are stuck in limbo waiting for an assessment.

“By now the new Personal Independence Payment should have replaced disability living allowance saving billions of pounds more. Instead it too has been dogged by delay.

“Just a few days ago the Office for Budget Responsibility said delays in these benefits are costing taxpayers close to £5bn a year. This dwarfs any savings made elsewhere and leaves a potential black hole in the next government budget.”

How many people left stuck in the system?

The BBC asked the Department of Work and Pensions’ press office how many claimants, and for how long, they have been waiting for claims to be resolved. Portes: “They didn’t answer. But their own published statistics suggest it is at least half a million.

“One aim of the reforms was to cut incapacity benefit and the numbers had been on a long slow decline between 2003 and 2012 but now it is rising again. So much for the Treasury saving.”

Who is at fault?

Publicly IDS talks about a lack of professionalism among civil servants and that he has lost faith with their ability to manage the UC-related problems. Rumours in the corridors of Westminster are that behind the scenes IDS has attempted to blame his permanent secretary Robert Devereux.  On this point, again, the DWP refused the BBC’s request for a comment.

Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, who appointed Devereux, told the BBC that tensions between IDS and Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office did not help. “Robert [Devereux] was in a very difficult position. He was in a world where Francis Maude was trying to deliver, efficiently, programmes for government and on the other hand IDS was seeing the centre as interfering and criticising whereas he knew best: it was his project; he was living it every day. There was a lot of tension there. Really what we need to do is get everyone sitting round a table trying to work out how we can deliver outcomes that matter.”

Was Devereux set up to fail?

O’Donnell: “With hindsight one can say this is a project that could not be delivered to time and cost.”

Were DWP officials to blame?

Stephen Brien said: “There was a real desire from the very beginning to get this done. I think there was a desire within DWP to demonstrate that it could again do big programmes. The DWP had not been involved in very large transformation programmes over the previous decade. There was a great enthusiasm to get back in the saddle,  a sense that it [UC] had to get underway and it had to be well entrenched through Parliament.

“These forces – each of them – contributed to a sense of ‘we have got to get this done and therefore we will get this done.’”

Too ambitious?

Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, told the BBC: “If you know what it is you want to do and you understand what is required to get there, then what’s wrong with being ambitious?

“The trouble is that when you get into the detail you find you are bruising people, damaging people, people who genuinely will always need our help. Taxpayers, our constituents, expect us to implement things so that they work, rather than see project after project go wrong and money squandered.

“There may come a point where we say: ‘we have spent so much money on this and achieved so little, is the game worth the candle?’”

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Dispatches documentary. 

After two IT disasters, immigration officials launch £208m agile project

By Tony Collins

In 2001 immigration officials cancelled a £77m system with Siemens for a Casework Application system.

The objective had been to create a “paperless office”, help reduce a backlog of 66,000 asylum cases and provide a “single view” of individuals. But the scope was overambitious and the supplier underestimated the complexities. It proved difficult to automate paper-based processes.

In 2010 immigration officials came up with a similar scheme that also failed to meet expectations.  They developed a business case for a flagship IT programme called Immigration Case Work (ICW).

It was designed to draw together all casework interactions between the business and a person, enabling caseworkers to gain a single accurate view of the person applying. It was expected to replace both the legacy Casework Information Database (CID) and 20 different IT and some paper-based systems by March 2014.

A National Audit Office published today says the ICW programme was closed in
August 2013, having delivered “significantly less than planned for £347m.”

So in the end, while the taxpayer has paid hundreds of millions for caseworking systems for immigration staff, many of the workers are still, says the NAO, relying on paper.  Today’s NAO report says:

“Both directorates [UK Visas and Immigration and Immigration Enforcement, which were formerly the UK Border Agency] rely heavily on paper-based working.

“The Permanent Migration team is 100 per cent paper-based and acknowledge this as a barrier to efficiency.”

Immigration officials use some technology to record personal details of people who pass through the immigration system. But:

• A lack of controls mean staff can leave data fields blank or enter incorrect
information. The NAO found many errors in the database.
• There is a history of systems freezing and being unusable.
• A lack of interfaces with other systems results in manual data transfer or
cross‑referencing.

Agile success?

Now, says the NAO, the Home Office has begun a new agile-based programme, Immigration Platform Technologies  (IPT). It is due to cost £208.7 million by 2016-17.

A tool for online applications for some types of visa has already been rolled-out and is being updated using applicant feedback,” says the NAO.

But support contracts for the existing technology [the legacy Casework Information Database] expire in January 2016, before the scheduled completion of IPT in 2017.

The Home Office is “reviewing options for support contracts to cover this gap”.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, says of the agile project: “Given its poor track record, I have little confidence that the further £209 million it is spending on another IT system will be money well spent.”

Comment

Is it possible for a genuinely agile project to cost £208m? The point about agile is that it is supposed to be incremental, quick and cheap.  It looks as if the Home Office is running a hybrid conventional/agile programme, as the DWP did with Universal Credit. Either a project is agile or its not. Hybrids, it seems, are not usually successful.

There again is the Home Office congenitally capable of running an agile project?  The Agile Manifesto is based on twelve principles, most of which could be said to be alien to the Home Office’s culture:

1.Customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful software
2.Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
3.Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
4.Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
5.Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
6.Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
7.Working software is the principal measure of progress
8.Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
9.Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
10.Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
11.Self-organizing teams
12.Regular adaptation to changing circumstances

So what’s needed?

Big government IT-based change programmes tend to be introspective and secretive. Those working on them don’t always feel able to challenge, to criticise, to propose doing things differently.

What would be innovative would be openness and independent challenge, and tough and well-informed Parliamentary scrutiny. It rarely happens. Ask the Home Office for any of its progress reports on its IT-base change programmes and it’ll tell you exactly what the DWP says when asked a similar question: “That’s not something we generally release.”

The NAO report points to a culture problem. “… Having a transparent culture was rated as red on the UK Visas and Immigration risk trends in April 2014.”

Will the new agile project be any more successful than the other 2 major immigration IT projects? The Home Office will doubtless claim success as it usually does. Even when the patient dies it tells Parliament the operation was a success.  For you can say publicly whatever you like when you keep the facts confidential – as IDS at the DWP knows.

Reforming the UK border and immigration system – National Audit Office report

Treasury refusing to sign off Universal Credit business case?

By Tony Collins

Government Computing reports that the business case for the Universal Credit programme has yet to be signed off.

It appears that the Department for Work and Pensions receives money for the programme only when it needs it.

It is odd that the business case remains to be signed although the programme is more than three years old. The programme was “reset” last year.

At a hearing yesterday of the Public Accounts Committee the four top civil servants who appeared before MPs were reluctant to admit that the business case had not been signed off.

They four were:

– Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary, Cabinet Office;

– Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Home Civil Service and Permanent Secretary, Communities and Local Government;

– Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office and

– Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary, HM Treasury.

Government Computing reports that the four were “reduced to bluster” when the committee’s chair Margaret Hodge  questioned them repeatedly on whether the business case for Universal Credit had been signed off by the Treasury.

She said, “There is no argument about the policy. It is entirely an implementation issue. And I cannot understand a centre that fails to intervene when there is such a classic failure at the departmental level on something that the centre says it is interested in, which is IT.

“It’s supposed to be a digitisation exercise in the way we administer benefits so you can integrate the benefits. What we’ve got out there is not a digitisation – it’s an incredibly staff intensive, pathfinder thing. Why is the centre allowing that to happen? Have you signed off the business case yet?”

“Have you assigned off the business case?” she repeated to  MacPherson.

After some looks between the four permanent secretaries, Kerslake said, “I think we should stop beating about the bush. It hasn’t been signed off. What we’ve had is a set of conditional assurances about progress and the Treasury has released money accordingly. And that’s one of the key controls they have. “

Defending the role of the centre in the Universal Credit programme, Heywood said, “This is an example of where the centre did intervene very strongly, both the Treasury and the Major Projects Authority (MPA).

“The MPA with the support of the Treasury and with a lot of technical help from the Government Digital Service (GDS) has played a very clear role in bringing to the secretary of state’s attention that the project was way off track. And that was a very important intervention from the centre.

“It then followed up with the next technique that the centre has got, which is to provide support in seconding in the then head of the MPA, David Pitchford, to help re-programme the project, a lot of support from Mike Bracken and his team at GDS to help the digital underpinnings of it and also some help on the commercial renegotiation of some of the contracts from Bill Crothers and his team. So it’s a very good example of the assurance role was followed by a support role and that continues.”

Pressed by Margaret Hodge on whether Universal Credit was now on track, Heywood said, “In its current form, yes, I think it is.”

Comment

Among so-called enlightened democracies the UK, perhaps, stands alone. In what other country would the nation’s four most senior civil servants, when asked if the business case for a major project has been signed off, look like children in a playground who are being asked to reveal a secret?

What does it say about open government that the UK’s four most senior civil servants cannot immediately say yes or no to such a basic question?

[One thing it says, perhaps, is that they are all terrified of Iain Duncan Smith who doesn’t like anything being said about Universal Credit that isn’t entirely positive. Worse still, they probably all agree with him.]

Treasury still to fully sign off Universal Credit business case 

Has DWP suppressed a “red” rating on Universal Credit project?

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office’s Major Project Authority gave the Universal Credit programme a “red” rating which IDS and the Department for Work and Pensions campaigned successfully to turn into a neutral “reset” designation, says The Independent.

Universal Credit was “only given a reset rating after furious protests by Iain Duncan Smith and his department,” says the newspaper.

A “reset” rating is unprecedented. All major projects at red will need a reset. That is one of the reasons the Major Projects Authority gives a red rating: to signal to the senior responsible owner that the project needs resetting or cancelling. A “reset” designation is a non-assessment.

The MPA’s official definition of a red rating is:

“Red: Successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable. There are major issues on project definition, schedule, budget, quality and/or benefits delivery, which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable. The project may need re-scoping and/or its overall viability reassessed.”

The suppression of Universal Credit’s red rating may indicate that the project, at the top, is driven by politics – the public and Parliamentary perception of the project being all-important – rather than pragmatics.

It is a project management aphorism that serious problems cannot be tackled until their seriousness is admitted.

Normally the Major Projects Authority will give even newly reconfigured projects traffic light ratings, to indicate its view of the risks of the revised plans.

The Independent calls for the replacement of Iain Duncan Smith as political head of the project.

Comment

The National Audit Office warned last September of the DWP’s fortress mentality and “good news” culture.

The suppression of Universal Credit’s red rating on top of the DWP’s repeated refusals to publish the Universal Credit project assessment report, risk register, issues register and milestone schedule shows that the DWP still avoids telling it like it is. That will make successful delivery of Universal Credit’s complexities impossible.

Well-run IT projects are about problem-solving not problem-denying.

The Independent is right to say that IDS is not the person to be running Universal Credit. He has too much emotional equity to be an objective leader. He sees himself as having too much to lose. The programme needs to be run by an open-minded pragmatist.

In asking the Cabinet Office to agree with a “reset” rating for Universal Credit IDS is acting like a schoolboy who has done something wrong and asks the school not to tell his parents. That’s no way to run something as important as Universal Credit.

IDS and DWP accused of hiding bad news on Universal Credit – The Independent

 

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.