Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports should be published

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

It added:

“We are struck by the sharp contrast [of independent criticisms of elements of the UC programme]  with the unfailing confidence and optimism of a series of press releases by the DWP or ministerial statements as to the progress of the Universal Credit programme during the relevant period.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign for openness

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

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

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

The ruling said:

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

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

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

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

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

DWP abuse of the FOI Act?

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

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

The tribunal said:

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

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

DWP’s case for non-disclosure

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

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

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

My case for disclosure

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

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

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

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

Part of John Slater’s case for disclosure

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

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

Information Commissioner’s case for disclosure

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

A chilling effect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

FOI Decision Notice Universal Credit March 2014

George Osborne gives mixed messages over UC deadline

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

DWP finds UC reports after FOI request

UC – new claimant figures

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then:

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

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

Groundbreaking achievements have included:

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

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

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

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

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

From Liverpool Council’s report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dark side?

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

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

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

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

He also says:

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

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

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

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

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

Infighting

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

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

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

Private/public deals too secretive – MPs today

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

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

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

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

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

- access rights for the National Audit Office; and

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

Comment:

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

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

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

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

Reasons I have asked police and Information Commissioner to come in 

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

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

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open?

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

IDS on BBC’s Sunday Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil: When will everybody be on UC?

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

Are you on track for that?

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

Comment

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

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

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

Andy Nelson quits as DWP CIO

A tragic outcome for Cerner Millennium implementation at Bath?

By Tony Collins

samuel starrThree year-old Samuel Starr died in the arms of his parents as his they read him his favourite stories at the local hospital. 

At an inquest this week his parents, and specialists, raised questions about whether long delays in arranging appointments on a new Cerner Millennium system at Bath’s Royal United Hospital, which replaced an old “TDS” patient administration system, was a factor in his death.

Ben Peregrine, the speciality manager for paediatrics at the RUH in Bath,  told the inquest:

“Samuel’s appointment request must have fallen through the cracks between the old and new system.”

After successful heart surgery at 9 months, Samuel should have had regular scans to see if his condition had worsened. But he didn’t have any scans for 20 months, in part because of difficulties in organising the appropriate appointments on Bath’s new Millennium systems.

Though there is no certainty, Samuel may be alive today if he’d had the scans.

In a review of Samuel’s death, which took place in November 2012, the details of which have only just been made public, Bristol Children’s Hospital concluded that appointment delays might have played a part.

It said: “Death was felt to be possibly modifiable if [there had been] earlier surgery before cardiac function deteriorated.”

Samuel had his first surgical procedure, open heart surgery at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, on 3 March 2010. He was discharged six days later, and referred to the Paediatric Cardiac Clinic at the Royal United Hospital in Bath for check-ups.

This week’s inquest heard that the first check-up took place in Bristol in October 2010, when an echocardiogram, also known as an ‘echo’, was carried out. Samuel’s parents, Paul Starr and Catherine Holley, expected a follow-up appointment in January 2012 but by March they’d not received one.

Their community nurse rang the hospital five times in as many months for a follow-up appointment but could not arrange one. When another echo was eventually taken in June 2012 – 20 months after the first – it was found that Samuel needed urgent surgery which proved more complicated than expected. He died on 6 September 2012.

Paul Starr told the BBC that during the long delays in obtaining an appointment for a further scan Samuel’s heart function went from good to bad. He said: “It is not like he had bad care in that time. He had no care at all.”

Ben Peregrine, the speciality manager for paediatrics at the hospital, told the inquest:

“The new system is now up and running as best as it can be, but as long as there is still humans entering the information there will always be room for error.”

The BBC reported that the delay in Samuel’s treatment “came after a new computerised appointment booking system was introduced at the RUH in 2011. It was only after an appointment had been set that doctors discovered the three-year-old, from Frome in Somerset, needed open heart surgery.”

BBC West’s Inside Out obtained a hospital document “Issues for discussion including any action or learning to be taken as a result of the child’s death. Issues that require broader multi-agency discussion” that has as its first bullet point:

“Failure of the RUH Millennium computer software to organise appointments at the designated time leading to a delay of three months before Samuel was seen by (redacted) in Bath.

“Parents have since told me that Samuel had not had an ECHO for 20 months prior to June 2012. At his previous cardiac appointment (April 2011) [redacted] failed to carry out an ECHO because he was not expecting to see Samuel despite Samuel’s parents being sent an appointment for this day.”

It appears that events at Bath after the Cerner go-live have, in the main, followed a pattern at a dozen or so other trusts that have installed the Millennium system.

The pattern was outlined in a Campaign4change post in December 2012:

- go-live

- chaos

- a trust admission that potential problems, costs and risks were underestimated

- a public apology to patients

- a trust promise that the problems have been fixed

- trust board papers that show the problems haven’t been fixed or new ones have arisen

- ongoing difficulties producing statutory and regulatory reports

- provision in trust accounts for unforeseen costs

- continuing questions about the impact of the new system on patients

- a drying-up of information from the trust on the full consequences of the EPR implementation, other than public announcements on its successful aspects.

Catherine Holley, Samuel’s mother, believes the Millennium implementation at the Royal United Hospital at Bath might have followed the above cycle.

Bath went live with Cerner Millennium at the end of July 2011. An upbeat trust statement at the time to E-Health Insider said:

“We can confirm that the new Cerner Millennium IT system successfully went live on Friday 29 July – as planned – at Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Trust.

“BT and Cerner worked closely with the trust and the Southern Programme for IT on the implementation over the past year – a complex and major change management programme.”

As part of its investigation into Samuel’s death, the BBC asked the RUH how many appointments were overdue to delayed because of the new computer system. Said the BBC’s Inside Out West programme:

“They told us there were 63 overdue appointments some with delays of up to 2 years before they were discovered.”

Separately an FOI request to the trust on the Millennium installation brought the response that there have been 65 cardiac outpatients’ appointments “that have been identified as being were missed due to problems with the delayed and that occurred around implementation of Cerner Millennium… All of these appointments have been followed up and actioned as required.”

The RUH is not discussing Samuel Starr’s death. A spokesperson said the inquest is expected to give Samuel’s family and everyone involved in his care a clearer indication of the circumstances surrounding his death. “We have offered our sincere condolences to the family of Samuel Starr following his sad death.”

Contradictory

RUH Board reports on Millennium’s deployment have had a general “good news” tone. But some of the reports have mentioned potentially serious problems. This was in an RUH board report in 2011 on Millennium:

“… there were significant issues with clinic templates and data that had not been migrated. This affected encounters with long term follow up appointments. As a result this meant that there was unplanned downtime across Outpatients and backlogs developed in addition to those produced as a result of planned downtime”.

Comment:

What’s striking about the reports to the Bath board of directors on the Cerner Millennium implementation is their similarity, in tone and substance, to the “good news” reports of deployments of Millennium at other trusts.

The go lives are nearly always depicted as successes for clinicians that have had minor irritations for administrators.

Now we know from the RUH Bath’s implementation of Millennium that when appointments are delayed as a result of inadequate preparations for, and structural settlement of, a new patient administration system, it can be a matter of life and death.

Indeed the BBC, in its investigation into Samuel Starr’s short life, raises the question of whether delayed appointments have been a factor in other deaths.

But do trusts genuinely care about the bigger picture, or do they regard each case of harm or death as an individual, unique event, to be reviewed after the problems come to light?

At the RUH Bath, IT appears to be treated as a separate department, too little interweaved with care and treatment. Managers talked enthusiastically of smartcard use, the work of the service desk, the need for more printers, resolving BT outages, the benefits of the service security model, champion users and floorwalkers, completing the Readiness Workbook, and keeping the Deployment Hazard Document up to date – while the parents of Samuel Starr could not get an appointment on the new system for their son to have a vital heart scan.

In 2011 a senior executive at Bath told his trust staff: “Our partners BT and Cerner are describing it [the go-live of Cerner Millennium] as the smoothest deployment yet” and “we now have the foundation in place to meet the future needs of the Trust and the NHS”.

Will things improve?

The comment in my post of December 2012, which was about Royal Berkshire’s implementation of Cerner Millennium, seems apt so some it may be worth repeating (below).

“Some Cerner implementations go well and bring important benefits to hospitals and their patients. Some implementations go badly. One question the NHS doesn’t ask, but perhaps should, is: what level of problems is acceptable with a new electronic patient record system?

“It appears from some EPR implementations in the NHS that there is no such thing as a low point. No level of disruption or damage to healthcare is deemed unacceptable.

“Berkshire’s chief executive Edward Donald speaks the truth when he says that the trust’s implementation of Cerner was more successful than at other NHS sites. This is despite patients at his trust attending for clinics that did not exist, receiving multiple requests to attend clinics and not receiving follow-up appointments…

“The worrying thing for those who use the NHS is that, as far as new IT is concerned, it is like flying in a plane that has not been certified as safe – indeed a plane for which there has been no statutory requirement for safety tests. And if the plane crashes it’ll be easy for its operators and supplier to deny any responsibility. They can argue that their safety and risk ratings were at “green” or “amber-green”.

“The lack of interest in the NHS over the adverse effect on patients of patient record implementations means that trusts can continue to go ahead with high-risk electronic patient record system go-lives without independent challenge.”

This very thing seems to have happened at the RUH Bath – with possibly tragic consequences.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the BBC’s investigation into Samuel Starr’s death.

RUH booking system might have contributed to boy’s death – BBC

Boy died after scan delay – BBC

Best Cerner Millennium implementation yet?

Officials black out IT security report after it’s published in full

By Tony Collins

In one of the most bizarre regressions since the FOI Act came into force in 2005, officials at Somerset County Council have redacted an audit report on SAP security weaknesses after the report was published in full.

The result is that anyone can see links to both reports. This is the report with parts of it redacted – blacked out. These are links to the full versions, which were published before the redactions – here and here.

The report was written by auditors Grant Thornton for Somerset County Council and highlights weaknesses in a database that is shared by the council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police.  The database is part of a SAP system run by Southwest One on behalf of the three authorities.

Southwest One is an IBM-led enterprise that provides IT and other services to the three authorities under a controversial outsourcing contract. Dave Orr has written comprehensively about the deal.

Somerset published the Grant Thornton report in full. The media including Campaign4Change published some details of the IT security weaknesses mentioned in the Grant Thornton report. It appears that Avon and Somerset Police asked officials at Somerset to black out details of some of the weaknesses.

Somerset-based FOI campaigner Dave Orr says the blacking out is to save the blushes of the police.

Says Orr: “Much of the redaction in the Somerset County Council IT Controls report by Grant Thornton, especially generic and available password advice in Section 3, is not based in a genuine security threat, but looks to be rooted in a Police culture that seeks to avoid criticism and/or embarrassment.”

Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger says:

“SAP was built on the cheap by IBM to serve three different customers – the County Council, Taunton Deane district council and the Police. It would have made sense to bung in a few partitions to stop council eyes taking a peek at police matters, or vice versa. But that would have cost money – perish the thought.”   

 Police SAP systems’s “significant” security weaknesses. 

Top 5 posts on this site in last 12 months

Below are the top 5 most viewed posts of 2013.  Of other posts the most viewed includes “What exactly is HMRC paying Capgemini billions for?” and “Somerset County Council settles IBM dispute – who wins?“.

1) Big IT suppliers and their Whitehall “hostages

Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, ICT futures advisor to the Cabinet Office and strategy director at consultancy Methods.

Last month he said in a Guardian comment that central government departments are “increasingly being held hostage by a handful of huge, often overseas, suppliers of customised all-or-nothing IT systems”.

Some senior officials are happy to be held captive.

“Unfortunately, hostage and hostage taker have become closely aligned in Stockholm-syndrome fashion.

“Many people in the public sector now design, procure, manage and evaluate these IT systems and ignore the exploitative nature of the relationship,” said Thompson.

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages bond with their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.

This month the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued  a pre-tender notice for Oracle ERP systems. Worth between £250m and £750m, the framework will be open to all central government departments, arms length bodies and agencies and will replace the current “Prism” contract with Capgemini.

It’s an old-style centralised framework that, says Chris Chant, former Executive Director at the Cabinet Office who was its head of G-Cloud, will have Oracle popping champagne corks.

2) Natwest/RBS – what went wrong?

Outsourcing to India and losing IBM mainframe skills in the process? The failure of CA-7 batch scheduling software which had a knock-on effect on multiple feeder systems?

As RBS continues to try and clear the backlog from last week’s crash during a software upgrade, many in the IT industry are asking how it could have happened.

3) Another Universal Credit leader stands down

Universal Credit’s Programme Director, Hilary Reynolds, has stood down after only four months in post. The Department for Work and Pensions says she has been replaced by the interim head of Universal Credit David Pitchford.

Last month the DWP said Pitchford was temporarily leading Universal Credit following the death of Philip Langsdale at Christmas. In November 2012 the DWP confirmed that the then Programme Director for UC, Malcolm Whitehouse, was stepping down – to be replaced by Hilary Reynolds. Steve Dover,  the DWP’s Corporate Director, Universal Credit Programme Business, has also been replaced.

4) The “best implementation of Cerner Millennium yet”?

Edward Donald, the chief executive of Reading-based Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, is reported in the trust’s latest published board papers as saying that a Cerner go-live has been relatively successful.

“The Chief Executive emphasised that, despite these challenges, the ‘go-live’ at the Trust had been more successful than in other Cerner Millennium sites.”

A similar, stronger message appeared was in a separate board paper which was released under FOI.  Royal Berkshire’s EPR [electronic patient record] Executive Governance Committee minutes said:

“… the Committee noted that the Trust’s launch had been considered to be the best implementation of Cerner Millennium yet and that despite staff misgivings, the project was progressing well. This positive message should also be disseminated…”

Royal Berkshire went live in June 2012 with an implementation of Cerner outside the NPfIT.  In mid-2009, the trust signed with University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre to deliver Millennium.

Not everything has gone well – which raises questions, if this was the best Cerner implementation yet,  of what others were like.

5) Universal Credit – the ace up Duncan Smith’s sleeve?

Some people, including those in the know, suspect  Universal Credit will be a failed IT-based project, among them Francis Maude. As Cabinet Office minister Maude is ultimately responsible for the Major Projects Authority which has the job, among other things, of averting major project failures.

But Iain Duncan Smith, the DWP secretary of state, has an ace up his sleeve: the initial go-live of Universal Credit is so limited in scope that claims could be managed by hand, at least in part.

The DWP’s FAQs suggest that Universal Credit will handle, in its first phase due to start in October 2013, only new claims  - and only those from the unemployed.  Under such a light load the system is unlikely to fail, as any particularly complicated claims could managed clerically.

 

Capita – an NAO insight.

By Tony Collins

Capita is a remarkable success story. Formed in 1984 with two people, as a division of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, it grew rapidly to become a FTSE 100 member in 2006. In 2012 its turnover was £3.35bn, its pre-tax profits were £425.6m and it employed 52,500 people. It now has 62,000 staff across the UK, Europe, South Africa and India. It  acquired about 36,000 staff through TUPE.

In a survey, 71% of Capita staff agreed with the statement that “Overall I feel Capita is a good place to work” and 85% have an overall satisfaction with management.

The company’s  public sector turnover in the UK is about £1bn, divided roughly equally between local and central government. Two of its most recent UK contracts are at Barnet Council.

Yesterday the National Audit Office published an insight into four companies, Capita being one, after a request by the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margarget Hodge. She is not so impressed by Capita’s success.

“I asked the NAO to carry out this work after looking at case after case of contract failure- G4S and the Olympic security, Capita and court translation services, Atos and work capability assessments, Serco and out-of-hours GP services, to name a few.

“In each case we found poor service; poor value for money; and government departments completely out of their depth,” said Hodge.

Capita, however, comes out of the NAO investigation fairly well, better than the other three companies (G4S, Serco and Atos) but the NAO made some general points, unspecific to any of the four contractors, that indicate contracting arrangements between government and some of its major suppliers are far from ideal.

One of the NAO’s findings is that some suppliers may be “too big to fail” – and “difficult to live with, or without”.

The NAO memo provides information on Capita that would not otherwise be in the public domain. The audit office based its information on interviews with suppliers and civil servants, surveys, company reports, data from “open book” accounting and Cabinet Office files.

The four suppliers co-operated with the NAO but not completely. Where the contract did not have “open book” clauses Capita did not provide information on its costs or profit margins.

Below are some of the NAO’s findings in its “Memorandum on the role of major contractors in the delivery of public services”.

Capita has contracts with most major central government departments. In 2012/13 these contracts by value included:

Department for Work and Pensions: £146m.

Home Office: £99m

NHS: £71m

MoD: £40m

Department for Transport: £28m

Ministry of Justice: £23m

Cabinet Office: £19m

Department for Education: £17m

Department for Business Innovation and Skills: £11m

Department for Culture Media and Sports: £5m

DEFRA: £5m

Department for Energy and Climate Change: £3m

Department for International Development: £2m

HM Treasury: £2m

HMRC: £1m

Department for Health: £1m

Capita’s profits

The NAO says:

“Capita has been profitable for many years. Its accounts allocate its activities to 11 operating segments according to the nature of the services provided. All of these operate globally and contain at least one public sector contract as well as UK private sector and overseas work.

“The information that we saw at Capita indicates the following

• Public sector work generally has a margin, before both divisional and global overheads, of 6 to 18 per cent, falling to between 1 to 10 per cent once overheads are included. Capita told us that its other public sector contracts would be similar, but that they were ‘doing better’ in the private sector.

• Two contracts reported a loss. Capita said this was because costs such as investment were being incurred at the start of the contract. Capita told us they expected these contracts to achieve a whole-life gross margin of at least 15 per cent.

• Some contracts had higher margins. Capita told us these were older contracts, some of which had made losses early on.

“Capita only showed us information on contracts that had open-book clauses. They believed that most of their clients regularly use open-book access rights. It  [Capita] said: ‘We do not distinguish between public and private sector contracts in our internal management information systems and it would be additional work for us to make available the information in a comparable format.’”

Capita’s UK taxes

The NAO estimate Capita’s UK tax paid in 2012 was £50m-£56m.

Below are some of the NAO’s general points that are not specific to any one of the four companies.

Making money through contract changes

NAO: “Changing a contract and adding requirements allows a contract to evolve, but can be less competitive than fully tendering the new requirement.

“Because of such changes, the total revenue through contract tends to grow, as reflected in the four contractors’ portfolios. In our experience the contractors tend to make higher profit margins on these changes. Good practice aims to build flexibility to the contract and relies on transparent costs and profits…

“Generally contractors manage their profit across a portfolio, targeting an overall level of profit. Low margins are often established during the bidding process, but can increase during the contract lifetime.”

Easier to stick with existing suppliers?

“Incumbents can be seen by procurement and policy officials as the easier and safer option. Across the 15 applicable services we looked at as case studies for this memorandum, seven had been re-tendered at least once, with four of the most recent competitions for each service being won by existing providers and three by new providers.”

Open book accounting not always open

“The government only has access to information on the profits contractors make where ‘open-book arrangements’ are written into contracts. Open-book arrangements either require the contractor to update the client department regularly on their costs and profit, or allow the client to audit those costs and profit on an ad hoc basis.

“We found that use of open-book access rights varies. Some public bodies do not try to see data on contract profits. Comparing profit levels from the open-book arrangements we reviewed also posed challenges as contractors vary in how and when they allocate central overhead costs against profits from contracts…

“We do not have direct audit rights over government contractors. It is normal, however, for government contracts to require the contractor to give us information and help when we audit that public service and government entity. Where there are open‑book accounting arrangements with the government then this includes making those available to us.”

Suppliers pass risk back once contract start?

The original allocation of risk in the contract often changes once the contract starts. For instance:

• Contractors will often pass risk back to clients who do not fully enforce or carry out their part of the contract. The government department therefore needs the appropriate skills to manage the type of contract it is using.

• The original understanding of the risks in the contract may prove to be wrong. This can lead to the contract being terminated (Figure 18) and risks that the government thought the contractor would manage returning to the public sector.

• The government sometimes ignores the commercial terms and risk allocation in the contract when trying to settle a dispute or vary the requirement. Instead, it can put political pressure on the contractor and threaten their reputation

You can’t rely on contracts

The standards expected of all public services are honesty, impartiality, openness, accountability, accuracy, fairness, integrity, transparency, objectivity, and reliability, says the NAO. They should be carried out:

• in the spirit of, as well as to the letter of, the law;

• in the public interest;

• to high ethical standards; and

• achieving value for money.

In these respects public contracts are limited in what they can achieve. Says the NAO:

“Many of the standards expected of all public services do not easily translate into a contract specification. It is not possible, for instance, to contract for ‘integrity’ or the ‘spirit of the law’.

“Achieving the standards expected for public service depends largely on the corporate culture, control environment and ethics of the contractor. It is not easy, however, to use contract negotiations to meaningfully assess and set standards for the contractor overall.

“Government therefore needs to supplement traditional contractual mechanisms with other means of ensuring the expected standards are met. In particular, they need to ensure that the companies’ own corporate governance, management and control environment are aligned with taxpayers’ interests.

“This requires both transparency over performance and incentives to implement the rigorous control environment required including credible threat to profits and future business if problems are found.”

The NAO says officials need to better understand the general control environment that contractors use to manage government contracts, and how far senior executives in those companies should understand what is happening within their companies.

US is more open than UK

The NAO says that companies’ own public reporting and transparency to the public is important to facilitate public scrutiny and trust. Although the government publishes new public contracts on its website www.contractfinder this contains only recently awarded contracts and “very few of the four contractors’ contracts are on it”, says the NAO which adds:

“By contrast, the US government website www.USAspending.gov sets out the full contracts and spending on all government suppliers.”

On Freedom of information, contractors compile information to answer freedom of information requests when asked by their government clients, where they hold the information for the government, but the department answers the actual request.

Says the NAO: “Freedom of information does not apply to the contractor’s business and commercially sensitive information can be exempt.”

On the openness of suppliers in reporting profits the NAO says:

“Even where transparency exists, it is inevitably difficult to interpret profit information. It can be unclear what a reasonable margin looks like. In theory, the margin is meant to reflect risk, innovation and investment. But these are difficult to measure. Furthermore, profit is rarely presented consistently. It can be unclear how overheads are allocated. The profit margin changes, depending on the stage of the project. And different companies may target different rates depending on their business model.”

KPIs of limited value

The NAO says KPIs give a limited overview of performance and are normally focused on things that are easily measurable.

“The main way the government can gain quality assurance is through the contractual reporting. This normally includes a set of KPIs that track performance and that are often linked to financial incentives. Together these make up the service level agreement (SLA). These can be used effectively to manage performance. However, there are three major risks that mean that contractual reporting is not sufficient on its own to monitor performance.”

The NAO says there are risks of misreporting. “There have been instances of contractors misreporting performance, including the case of Serco’s Cornwall out-of-hours healthcare contract …”

Poorly calibrated KPIs.  

“All the contractors told us about instances where poor calibration has resulted in green SLA traffic lights where the client is unhappy or red traffic lights where the client is content with the service. This reduces the SLA’s relevance and can indicate that incentives are not working.”

Are some suppliers too big to fail?

“The current government, like the one before it, sees contracting out as a way to reform public services and improve value for money. Contracting out can significantly reduce costs and help to improve public services. However, there are several indications that better public scrutiny is needed across government contracting:

• There have been several high-profile allegations of poor performance, irregularities and misreporting over the past few months. These raise concerns about whether all contractors know what is going on in their business and are behaving appropriately; and how well the government manages contracts.

• The government believes that contractors generally have often not provided sufficient value, and can contribute more to the overall austerity programme.But the general level of transparency over contractors’ costs and profits is limited. The government needs a better understanding of what is a fair return for good performance for it to maintain the appropriate balance between risk and reward.

• Third, underlying both these issues is the concern that government is, to a certain degree, dependent upon its major providers. There is a sense that some may be ‘too big to fail’ – and difficult to live with or without.

Can we see whether contractors’ profits reflect a fair return?

The NAO’s answer to its own question appears to be “no”.

It says there is a need to explore further:

• Whether there is sufficient transparency over costs, profit and tax.

• Whether the balance of risk and reward is providing the right incentives

for contractors.

• Whether profits represent a fair return.

Shareholder v taxpayers’ interests

The NAO suggests that suppliers are likely to put their own interests before taxpayers’.

“Companies’ own control environments will likely concentrate on maintaining shareholder value. Government needs to ensure that it is in the contractors’ financial interests to focus their control environment more widely on meeting the standards expected of public service.

“This involves using contractual entitlements to information, audit and inspection to ensure standards are being met. And it is likely to involve financial penalties, banning from competitions and political fallout when problems are found.”

The NAO says that, to be a well-informed customer, the government needs to satisfy itself that contractors’ corporate governance structures work in taxpayers’ interests, and that the companies are not paying ‘lip service’ at the centre with little group-wide control to back it up.

“Companies that are large and have sprawling structures, involving a vast number of subsidiaries, may have to make particularly strenuous effort to demonstrate this.”

The NAO suggests further areas to explore:

• Whether contractors are meeting the standards of performance the public expects.

• What contractors consider themselves accountable for.

• Whether transparency is sufficient to ensure contractors work in the taxpayers’ interests.

• Whether contractors’ control environments focus on ensuring standards of public services are met.

Supplier information unverified

The NAO says: “We are grateful for the help and cooperation provided by Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco in the preparation of this memorandum. Most of the information in this report is based on information the companies provided.

“Much of this would not otherwise be in the public domain. The contractors also helped us to understand their business and talked frankly about the risks, challenges and incentives they face.

“However, we do not directly audit these companies and have not been able to verify all the information provided against underlying evidence. We have therefore presented the information in good faith, and attempted to compare different evidence sources wherever possible.”

NAO memorandum on the role of major contractors in the delivery of public services

Comment

Capita is not a bad government contractor.  Perhaps it is one of the best. But is that a ringing endorsement?

The NAO has carried out a thorough investigation but its inquiry suggests that much about public sector contracting remains hidden. On suppliers in general, it is not difficult, if both sides tacitly agree, to hide problems from Parliament, the media and even the Cabinet Office which asks the right questions of departmental officials but does not always get answers, let alone accurate answers.

The NAO did not always get answers to its questions. Indeed Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said there is an impression that some officials are not in control of their suppliers.

“Contracting with private sector providers is a fast-growing and important part of delivering public services.  But there is a crisis of confidence at present, caused by some worrying examples of contractors not appearing to treat the public sector fairly, and of departments themselves not being on top of things.

“While some government departments have been admirably quick off the mark and transparent in investigating problems, there is a clear need to reset the ground rules for both contractors and their departmental customers,” said Morse.

My thanks to campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to Morse’s comment.

Does outsourcing make corruption more likely?

By Tony Collins

Few journalists want to write about corruption in local government unless they have specific evidence from a court case. Which helps to explain why a well-researched report on the subject last week attracted little mainstream publicity, although there was a piece in the Professional section of The Guardian .

Journalists assume, perhaps like many people, that local government doesn’t have a problem with corruption. But by its nature a subtle exploitation of the opportunities provided by a lack of oversight and accountability – at worst indifference – will remain hidden.

Who would say anything to the police – and if the police were informed would they act? – if officers or councillors shaped policy or a decision in favour of a certain company, with a view to opening up a path to future employment? Could such subtle deviance be proven?

“The temptation might be exacerbated by the risk of redundancy, providing a greater incentive for officers to use their position to build a network with a view to future employment,” says last week’s report Corruption in UK local government – the mounting risks.

The report was not written by a marginal organisation. It was researched and drafted for Transparency International by Elizabeth David-Barrett, Research Fellow at Said Business School and Director, Corruption and Transparency Research Centre, Kellogg College, Oxford University. Funding was from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. David-Barrett says a disturbing picture emerges of conditions in which corruption is likely to thrive, what she calls:

“low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate, outsourcing of public services, significant sums of money at play and perhaps a denial that corruption is an issue at all”.

High standards in public life are the norm but David-Barrett notes that a “feature of researching this report has been the lack of agreement among the many experts we consulted about the scale and prevalence of corruption in UK local government”.

Some argued that the cases that have come to light represent the tip of the iceberg. Others said the small number of obvious corruption cases, and their disclosure by existing oversight structures, indicated there was no iceberg.

The report makes no comment on current levels of corruption but points out that, by its nature, it will usually remain hidden. Corruption in local government does exist, says the report, and it gives a few examples that have been publicised.

Outsourcing

“If local authority employees abuse their access to insider information or their ability to shape policy or contracts whilst in office in order to create opportunities for themselves, their friends, or for private-sector companies for which they will later work, this is corrupt,” says the report.

Such corruption could manifest itself in poor services and value for money. It may shut out companies of unquestionable integrity that could offer better deals.

That said, some suppliers may be concerned about the risks to their reputation of hiring through the revolving door. One unnamed interviewee quoted in the report says:

“We’ve been approached by individuals who are retiring from local government but don’t want to stop working. They come to us and say they can help us, they have a lot of experience. We look at it very carefully and err on the side of caution if we are going to be working with that council.”

But another interviewee is quoted in the report as saying

“There are situations where local authority staff end up working for contractors and implicit agreements to scratch backs in return for contracts will arise.”

The report claims that a council officer who had written the specification for a tender for a particular contract resigned from the council and successfully bid for the contract as a private-sector supplier.

Undue influence

“Research conducted for this report suggested that revolving-door type corruption is difficult to prove, but may not be uncommon and is certainly creating suspicions which, in themselves, undermine public confidence.”

Change requests

An interviewee is quoted in the report as saying

“…the number of variations – that’s where people make money. The profit is often determined by the award of work under the framework contracts, particularly where the pricing basis is not clearly defined, so that you can end up with charging for extra work by hourly rates.”

Another interviewee said

“The sharp operator in terms of the outsourcing contractor company will have agreed a contract based on a lump sum, invariably based on a local authority which, at the time that the contract was let, was much larger.

“If you have a company which provides HR, IT and admin, where can it make its savings? If they are prepared to make the investment, they can usually make significant savings for themselves, that’s where they are legitimately making some of their profit, but if the local authority has downsized over the years, then there is less to provide.

“So if it’s a 20-year contract, every 5 years there is a review and renegotiation based around head count. But normally councils are not very good at negotiating soft-side deliverables.”

The report says that corruption can arise if favoured sub-contractors are not held accountable, or the use of sub-standard goods is overlooked, or if a corrupt company and corrupt supervising official collude to agree on price increases or changes in specifications.

“There is a key weakness in the governance of this area because the contract implementation phase is often managed by the local authority department which uses the procured goods or services, rather than by the central procurement function. This department may be unaware of the precise terms of the contract and may not notice if corners are cut.”

A procurement expert is quoted in the report as saying

“There might be a disconnect between a procurement department that does this first part [pre-tender and tender] and the ‘client’, for example, the council’s IT dept. It is the IT department that is supposed to monitor the contract, and see how it is performing, but the disconnect reduces accountability. The supplier might be able to provide sweeteners to the IT department to re-negotiate the contract without going back through the procurement department.”

Another procurement specialist said that relatively few resources are devoted to contract management.

“The central functions in local authorities often focus on contract letting and not contract management. Many of the same skills are involved, but less [sic] resources are devoted to contract management. And departments are often left to manage contracts – raising risks not just of corruption but also of inefficiency.”

Does outsourcing reduce accountability?

“When services are outsourced, local authorities retain a statutory obligation to ensure that all of the rules that would have applied to them are equally followed by the external providers. However, the extent to which that obligation is fulfilled varies… there are concerns that local government officers do not adequately monitor contract performance or respond to complaints. Councils sometimes seek to claim that decisions made by contractors on long-term contracts are beyond their control.

“Without the Audit Commission to exert pressure and with the decline of local investigative journalism, there is a risk that corruption in this area will become more common.

“The Institute for Government’s 2012 report, Commissioning for Success, argues that decisions about when to outsource need to be made on a more robust basis, that monitoring and stewardship of outsourced services needs to be strengthened, and that accountability arrangements need to be clarified.”

Auditors enfeebled?

The report says

“The system of checks and balances that previously existed to limit corruption has been eroded or deliberately removed.

“These changes include the removal of independent public audit of local authorities, the withdrawal of a universal national code of conduct, the reduced capacity of the local press and a reduced potential scope to apply for freedom of information requests. We have identified 16 areas in which we find a marked decline in the robustness of local government to resist corruption…”

The lack of independent audits is a particular concern. Audits are carried out by companies that can be sacked if they’re too critical.

“We believe that the new system – in which local authorities themselves are solely responsible for awarding their audit contracts and where there is no back-stop support for auditors who are challenging the local authority – will narrow the scope and effectiveness of local audits, while increasing potential conflicts of interest…”

External auditors risk being sued if they try to highlight suspected corruption in a report, even if they have the appetite to do it “which is less likely given their commercial priorities and the expected relative reduction in the scope of audits”.

The report goes further and says that external auditors “may face incentives to avoid undertaking investigations or raising concerns about suspicions of fraud or corruption”.

Audit professionals interviewed for this report saw these as serious concerns. One commented, “If you come down tough on a client, and it creates ruffles, you’ve got an eye to what will happen when it goes to open competition.”

Another said “external auditors now have nominal independence but they will probably feel pressure to keep their clients happy so as to avoid losing this contract, future contracts, or non-audit contracts with the local authority.”

Risks

Particular risks of corruption include:

1. public procurement at needs assessment stage;

2. public procurement at bid design stage;

3. public procurement at award stage;

4. public procurement at contract implementation stage;

5. control and accountability over outsourced services;

6. the revolving door of personnel between local authorities and private companies bidding to provide services;

7. planning discretion and influence regarding ‘permissions to build’ decisions;

8. planning discretion and influence regarding ‘changes of use’ decisions;

The report says:

“We feel it is important to emphasise, as has been noted in a number of public consultations and inquiries, that the majority of local councillors and council officers observe high standards of conduct and very few misuse their positions to further their own ends.

“There is no substitute for a commitment to ethics and integrity in public service. However, when accountability is absent, public officials may exercise their power for private ends unchecked by scrutiny, complaint, or the threat of punishment.

“Clear opportunities exist for unethical officers and members to exploit public trust for private gain. In any sector, corruption tends to increase as oversight and enforcement are weakened…

“Irrespective of how much corruption currently occurs, we believe that under the new and proposed arrangements for local government, corruption is likely to increase and there will be less reporting of that corruption.”

Media enfeebled?

The report says there is little scrutiny of local authority work by a “largely emasculated local media”; and the ballot box “provides only feeble discipline given that turnout is low and in many areas one party dominates or seats go uncontested”.

Corruption scandals over the years have revealed that individuals are sometimes able to capture local politics, exercising informal power over the local party and their political group as well as council officers, “so that they can shape policy to serve their own interests unchallenged by their peers”.

Countering corruption

The report highlights a need for:

-  Effective assessment of corruption risks;

-  Independence of the units or authorities whose duty is to prevent or investigate corruption;

-  Visible and effective whistleblowing mechanisms.  “Whistleblowing has been more effective than audit, internal monitoring, or police investigations in revealing corruption in local government … Suitable mechanisms should be established to provide an easy-to-use and confidential channel for reporting corruption suspicions or incidents.”

- The institutional will to mount effective investigation and prosecution of corruption;

- A nominated individual in every local authority who is responsible for counter-corruption and who conducts a regular corruption risk assessment and liaises closely with law enforcement authorities.

- Strong sanctions implemented against those who are caught – both legal and other;

- A commitment to transparency.

- Firms providing an audit function for local authorities not being allowed to provide other commercial and consultancy services to the same local authority.

-  Internal investigations being adequately resourced and sufficiently independent. “Internal audit teams are vulnerable to manipulation by the corrupt, and this vulnerability increases if they are under-resourced, unsupported by the leadership or have their terms of reference and freedom to investigate curtailed.”

- Strict procedures requiring officers always to report (i) major price discrepancies among procurement bids and (ii) details of contract variations to the council’s Audit Committee and senior management.

- Greater monitoring of elected officials’ interests

Private companies, when operating services in the public interest, to be required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act with regards to those services. Specifically audit reports from local authorities should be covered under the Freedom of Information Act or published directly as public documents.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Transparency International report.

Comment

Lack of firm oversight, and a tolerance of bad practice contributed to the financial crisis of 2007/8. It was normal to give mortgages to people who had no means of paying them back. Only when the crisis became manifest did people realise that what had been regarded as normal behaviour was in fact deviant.

Is there a danger of tolerance in local government to aberrant behaviour such as the shaping of policy to favour outsourcing which could later benefit some individuals?

Those who claim corruption hardly exists can point to the strong ethos of public service in many councils – and indeed countless councillors do important public work for very little money – but that doesn’t remove concerns about what may remain hidden.

Transparency International’s report rings alarm bells. It points out that auditors, the media and whistleblowers are unlikely to expose deviant practices, and are even less likely to in the future. The report suggests that local government provides unprecedented opportunities for corruption.

“The accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference.”  – Bess Myerson, columnist. 1974.

Corruption in UK local government – the mounting risks.

Capita has duty to promote success of Barnet contract

By Tony Collins

Capita has a contractual duty to promote the success of the “One Barnet” outsourcing deal with Barnet Council – apparently without taking into account facts that may count against success.

Within the 2,400 pages that make up contracts between Capita and Barnet Council, Unison has discovered clauses that appear to put the onus on the service provider to talk up the success of Barnet’s outsourcing deal.

These are excerpts from the contracts:

“The Service Provider shall use its relationships to create advocates of the success of the One Barnet programme by informing the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association of key milestones and achievements within the programme thereby supporting increased political awareness of the Authority and the Service Provider shall utilise its corporate and personal networks to support the communication of the success of the Partnership via appropriate case studies.”

The contract points out that the service provider has “frequent meetings across central government at official level and occasional meetings at ministerial level”. It also sits on the Public Services Strategy Board, the Whitehall & Industry Group, Reform, Policy Exchange and Localis.

“The Service Provider shall use its relationships to create opportunities for the successes of the Partnership to be promoted enhancing the profile of the Authority at strategic level across the public sector,” says one of the contractual clauses.

Thank you to Dave Orr, a campaigner for openness over local government outsourcing deals, for drawing my attention to the Barnet Council clauses.

Comment

It now seems to be official – that outsourcing deals in local government have to be perceived as successful. Perhaps these sorts of clauses in local government outsourcing contracts help to explain why the public don’t learn of failing “partnerships” and joint ventures until what has gone wrong can be hidden no longer.

This is not open government. This is a contractual expectation that the supplier’s representatives should smile, and smile broadly, whenever the subject of an outsourcing deal with Barnet is discussed, or there is an opportunity to discuss it.

Which rather undermines the credibility of the Public Services Strategy Board, the Whitehall & Industry Group, Reform, Policy Exchange and Localis if supplier’s representatives are there to pass on PR messages about their outsourcing deals, whatever the truth.

“Smile and others will smile back. Smile to show how transparent, how candid you are. Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference, shine out spontaneously in your smile.” Jean Baudrillard.

NPfIT central costs rise by tens of millions – even after “dismantling”

By Tony Collins

On 22 September 2011 the Department of Health announced the dismantling of the NPfIT. As the press release was being issued some officials at the department were aware that they were continuing to spend tens of millions on central administrative costs of the programme.

Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee has a figure for the central costs of the NPfIT until the end of March 2012 of about £890m. Before the DH announced the dismantling of the programme, in March 2011, the DH put the central costs at £817m.

So there has been a rise in central admin costs of about £70m since the NPfIT was supposedly dismantled.

The administrative costs are separate from spending on the contracts with BT or CSC. The admin costs don’t include the delivery of a single laptop to the NHS under the NPfIT. They are simply the central costs of administering the programme – including day rates for consultants – such as day rates of £1,700 to help senior officials prepare for appearances before MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.

The central costs have never been explained, not even by the National Audit Office which has published several reports on the NPfIT.  It is known that some central costs are explained by items of questionable benefit such as the commissioning of DVD films that marketed the NPfIT.

Some of the cost categories have emerged as a result of an FOI request (below).  Officials made regular visits to various parts of the globe to promote the success of the NPfIT. It’s thought that the DH has spent more than £100m on consultants for the programme.

Millions of pounds have been spent with public relations companies. The DH spent about £30,000 on press cuttings in two years alone.  Released central costs for just two years of the NPfIT between 2005 and 2007 include:

  • £1.23m with Expotel Hotel Reservations
  • £1.87 Harry Weeks Business Travel
  • BT conferencing – £1.15m
  • Intercall video conferencing – £274,973
  • MWB (Serviced Offices) – £15.8m
  • Regus – offices and meeting rooms – £3.17m
  • Spring International Express (courier and other services) – £192, 662
  • Cision UK (press cuttings) – £30,000
  • Fishburn Hedges (includes public relations) – £559,310
  • Good Relations (public relations] – £1.55m
  • Porter Novelli (public relations and information) – £943,000
  • ASE Consulting – £31.7m
  • Capgemini – £15m
  • Deloitte MCS – £42.8m
  • Atos Consulting – £32.3m
  • Gartner – £3.8m
  • QI Consulting – £14.5m
  • Tribal Consulting – £6.9m

Comment

Central administrative costs of nearly £900m on a single IT programme are breathtaking. That makes the National Programme for IT in the NHS one of the world’s largest public sector IT projects – before a penny has been spent on deliveries of hardware or software to the NHS.

It’s almost as surprising that not even the National Audit Office has been able to obtain a breakdown. Has central spending been properly controlled? Perhaps not, given that the DH, even this year, spent up to £1,700 a day on consultants to brief a senior official for a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee in June 2013.

Maybe the taxpayer should be grateful that the consultants were hired for only 52 days between February and June 2013 to prepare for the Committee’s hearing, and that the DH managed to renegotiate the day rate down from £1,714 to £1,000 a day between April and June.

Maybe the taxpayer should be grateful that the total cost of the consultancy for preparing for the PAC hearing was only £73,563.

But the £73,563 was spent after the DH estimated its central administrative costs on the NPfIT at nearly £900m – which are costs up to 31 March 2012.

It’s also remarkable that some at the DH still consider the NPfIT a success. This was the NAO’s conclusions on the NPfIT in its May 2011 report on the NPfIT Care Records Service:

“Central to achieving the Programme’s aim of improving services and the quality of patient care, was the successful delivery of an electronic patient record for each NHS patient. Although some care records systems are in place, progress against plans has fallen far below expectations and the Department has not delivered care records systems across the NHS, or with anywhere near the completeness of functionality that will enable it to achieve the original aspirations of the Programme.

“The Department has also significantly reduced the scope of the Programme without a proportionate reduction in costs, and is in negotiations to reduce it further still. So we are seeing a steady reduction in value delivered not matched by a reduction in costs.

“On this basis we conclude that the £2.7 billion spent on care records systems so far does not represent value for money, and we do not find grounds for confidence that the remaining planned spend of £4.3 billion will be different.”

But this was the Department of Health’s view on NPfIT Care Records Service value for money:

“The Department considers, however, that the money spent to date has not been  wasted and will potentially deliver value for money… The Department believes that the flexibility provided by the future delivery model for the programme will deliver functionality that best fits the needs of the clinical and managerial community. The future architecture of the programme allows many sources of information to be connected together as opposed to assuming that all relevant information will be stored in a single system. This approach has been proven in other sectors and is fully consistent with the Government’s recently published ICT strategy.”

This contradiction between the DH’s view of the NPfIT, and the NAO’s, indicates, perhaps, that the DH continues to live in a world not entirely attached to reality.

From April 2013, the DH’s central team and some local programme teams responsible for the NPfIT moved to the Health and Social Care Information Centre which has taken over the local service provider contracts with BT and CSC. Will it be able to control central spending on the very-much-alive NPfIT?

Update:

The central costs could rise much further – possibly by more than £100m – if the eventual settlement of the legal case between the DH and Fujitsu works out badly for the taxpayer. Legal costs on the case so far are about £31m.