Category Archives: governance

Lives ruined by IT glitches? Post Office officials face the critics

By Tony Collins

post officeAfter dozens of subpostmasters were jailed, bankrupted or lost their livelihoods because of irregularities and shortfalls they say were not their fault, MPs met on Tuesday [3 February 2015) to question senior Post Office officials and their critics.

It was the first time, in public, that Post Office officials have answered a comprehensive set of points made by their critics.

Ian Henderson of forensic accountants Second Sight, who were brought in by the PO to investigate possible miscarriages of justice and complaints by subpostmasters, made some trenchant criticisms of Post Office IT, processes, attitudes and culture.

Dozens of subpostmasters were accused of false accounting, fraud or theft because of shortfalls in their daily balances that, they say, were due to  a lack of training or IT problems related to the Post Office Horizon system.

Some were jailed. Some have had their lives ruined by having to pay back to the Post Office tens of thousands of pounds they say they did not owe. Some have had to sell their homes to pay the Post Office.

Those answering questions at a hearing this week of the House of Commons’ Business Innovation and Skills Committee included Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of the Post Office.

The uniqueness of the hearing and the incisiveness of the points raised make it worthwhile to report on the proceedings in depth. Excerpts are below.

The campaign for justice is important not only because of the impact that accounting discrepancies have had on the lives of more than 150 subpostmasters but because of the wider questions:

–  how has it come to be that the output of a computer system has been trusted over the integrity of individuals who are – were – pillars of their local communities?

– should independent controls exist to ensure innocents are not branded criminals because of output from a complex system that has multiple interfaces and known fallibilities?

Excerpts from Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, House of Commons, 3 February 2015.  Witnesses:

– Andy Furey, Assistant General Secretary, Communication Workers Union

– Mark Baker, National Branch Secretary, Postmasters Branch, Communication Workers Union

– George Thomson, General Secretary, National Federation of Subpostmasters

– Alan Bates, Chairman, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

– Kay Linnell, Chartered Accountant, Kay Linnell & Co, adviser to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

– Ian Henderson, forensic computing expert, Advanced Forensics (Second Sight Ltd). The Post Office commissioned Second Sight to investigate complaints by subpostmasters.

– Paula Vennells, Post Office Chief Executive

– Angela van den Bogerd, Head of Partnerships, Post Office Ltd

 

Mediation Scheme [set up by the Post Office in August 2013 to deal with complaints by subpostmasters that they have been incorrectly blamed for shortfalls in daily balances shown on the PO/Fujitsu Horizon system].

Paula Vennells: “As you have heard, 136 cases have come into the scheme. We set it up [the mediation scheme] with the ambition to find out exactly what those people are concerned about, because it is of concern to me and the Post Office that we do that…

“What we have seen from the scheme is that yes, as you heard earlier, it has taken longer than we would have liked. The reason for that – this is one of the benefits of having put the scheme in place –  is that we have investigated every single case in the most thorough detail.

“We have been rigorous about this. As chief executive of the Post Office, I could not put this scheme in place and not do it properly. The system and the people who work in our branches are too important for that.

“Perhaps the most significant finding from it is that we can continue to have confidence in the Horizon system and how people are running post offices across the country…”

**

Andy Furey (Communication Workers Union): “Our concern overall is the hundreds of postmasters who seemingly have not had justice.

“They were dismissed for irregularities that were not down to them as individuals or their staff, and which are seemingly a problem of the system.

“We were pleased that the mediation scheme was erected and set up, but we do not think it has delivered as it was envisaged to in the first place. We are concerned about the pace of the process of mediation, and the number of cases that seem to have fallen out of the process. Overall, we are not particularly happy with the way that the mediation scheme has been conducted.

**

Angela van den Bogerd (Post Office):  “I am part of the working group, and I have been the Post Office person who has been in there from the start until today. As you heard earlier, the investigation—the whole process of cases into the mediation scheme – has taken longer than we all anticipated it would, at every stage, from the applicant putting in their initial application, through to asking whether they want an investigation to Second Sight doing theirs.

“These are individual cases and very complex. What we have wanted to do, and are very committed to doing, is a thorough investigation of each of the issues raised by each of the applicants to the scheme. That has been a very long process.

“We have not dragged our feet. I have had 20 people working on this full-time for over a year. We have produced thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence in support of each of the cases that we have put.

“I would have liked it to have been quicker, but not at the expense of a thorough investigation.”

George Thomson (National Federation of Subpostmasters):  “Can I just say, firstly, 99% of postmasters are dead straight and honest? But on this very important issue about mediation, I think it was probably the training.

“Some people believe that money went missing and it had to be Horizon where it was maybe staff error. But the third point, and this is contentious, the difficulty the Post Office must have is that some of the people are chancing their luck…

**

Alan Bates (Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance): “… from what I am hearing from the membership who received these [mediation] reports of their cases from the Post Office, basically the Post Office are saying that they have done everything right and the sub-postmaster did everything wrong. That seems to be the summary of the majority of the cases at the moment.”

**

Mark Baker (Communication Workers Union):  “I have three members in the mediation scheme and from our experience, it is agonisingly slow. I have only got one member who got to the stage where he gets the Post Office response…I do not know why Mr Thomson comments on the mediation scheme; he does not have any members in it.

“The scheme could do with some form of external body sitting on it that could perhaps keep the pace of progress going a bit faster and maybe offer a bit more of a robust challenge to the Post Office on some of the reasons it gives why things have to be done the way they are. ..”

**

Kay Linnell (Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Arbitrators): “The reason the working group is not as fast at pushing this scheme through to mediation as it was, is because some of the goalposts have been moved by the Post Office…”

**

Katy Clark (Labour MP and member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee): “Is there anyone with an IT background on the mediation scheme?”

Vennells: “The mediation scheme is the scheme where the individuals go into -”

Clark: “I understand that, but can you answer the question of whether there is anyone on the scheme with an IT background?”

Vennells: “When you say on the scheme, as part of the working group? No, there is not.”

Clark: “Are you aware that that is a major criticism?”

Vennells: “Yes, I am.”

Clark:  “Are you able to address that at this stage?”

Vennells:  “For each of the 150 cases for which we have now concluded our investigations, where there have been IT issues, we have looked into those and taken the right advice from our IT experts in the business. Yes, we have.”

**

Contract between Post Office and subpostmasters

Kay Linnell:  “When the Post Office moved to a computerised system in 2000-01, they did not amend the contract between the sub-postmasters and the Post Office. The individual subpostmaster remained totally responsible for all gains and losses, but they were no longer able to check each and every transaction because there were no slips.

“My understanding is that the Post Office had to pay for metadata from their contractors Fujitsu. This meant that when a shortage or overage arose and subpostmasters tried to investigate it and asked the Post Office about it, there was an extreme reluctance to investigate each and every shortage or overage…”

**

Ian Henderson (Second Sight, forensic accountants investigating individual cases):  “Over a period of time, Post Office has quite sensibly introduced a number of system changes.

“Some have benefited sub-postmasters and Post Office, of which the changes to lottery and scratch cards are a very good example.

“Bearing in mind that, under the contract, the sub-postmaster is responsible for making good all losses, I am concerned that a number of those process changes have reduced costs to Post Office or have benefited Post Office, and have acted to the disadvantage of sub-postmasters.

“A number of those changes have been implemented without any consultation or adequate consultation. I am concerned that, over time, Post Office has been gradually transferring risk from itself to sub-postmasters, which is ultimately being reflected in the losses they are bearing…

“While the contract has been changed in part, it has remained substantially the same for 20 or 30 years. We think that it does not provide sufficient safeguards for sub-postmasters.

“For example, there is no entitlement to investigative support. We have been told that many sub-postmasters were not even provided with a copy of the contract.

“In the contract, it states that investigative support will be provided only in cases of suspected criminality – in other words, if a criminal prosecution can or may be brought by Post Office.

“It does not seem to cover a situation where a sub-postmaster identifies a problem, has exhausted all the readily available help mechanisms and wants some serious, professional help from a trained Post Office auditor.

“To his surprise, he will find that he has no entitlement to that. Bearing in mind that Post Office holds all the data, we find that surprising. In the context of modern business practices and best practice, we think that that is unfortunate.

“Our view is that the contract needs a fundamental overhaul to reflect far better an appropriate relationship. It strikes us that it is written very much in words reflecting a master/servant relationship that perhaps was appropriate 70 years ago but should not be part of a modern contract.

“Sub-postmasters are described as partners, but it is certainly not a partnership of equals. The risk is largely borne by sub-postmasters, and some of the changes that have happened recently have benefited Post Office.”

Training

Brian Binley (Conservative member of the Committee): I would like to take a vote. Was the support and ongoing training good enough when this sizeable system was launched? Yes or no?

George Thomson: Yes.

Andy Furey: No.

Mark Baker: No.

Alan Bates: No.

Kay Linnell: No.

**

Mark Baker: “As a serving sub-postmaster, live, as we speak—I should be back at the branch, but I am here—perhaps I should tell you that training is generally received by serving subpostmasters through the form of manuals. We call them Branch Focuses.

“They arrive every week and we read them to receive training and instructions on how to operate certain transactions. They are hopeless.

“My wife prepared a 54-page dossier, randomly taking one month’s selection of Focuses and highlighting all the misinformation and errors contained within them, which she sent to the board of directors. She did not get a single reply from any director.

“The file was passed on to a functionary further down the line, who made a hopeless job of trying to explain everything my wife was trying to point out. She was trying to point out that we are reliant on receiving the correct instructions in order to be able to operate Horizon and perform the transactions, and the people who are telling us how to do it cannot even get it right. That is the reality in the Post Office world as we speak today.”

**

Mark Baker: “The training started off reasonably good, but as the system evolved there was no back-up training of any adequacy. Postmasters are just sent manuals and are expected to not only teach themselves but have to teach their staff as well. So training is a huge issue.”

**

Alan Bates: “I was also involved with the training at that point when the system came in, and I was a sub-postmaster then. I had one and a half days’ training, my staff had one day’s training and I believe that the regional people who worked for the Post Office had two and half days’ training.

“I, too, received a 500-page pack to take away and learn how to use the system afterwards. That is how it was dropped on everyone. I had five members of staff who did training at that session. One of them had never even turned on a computer before, but she did a day’s training and then she was certified as being sound and correct and fine to use the system at the end of one day.

“It was madness; she had no idea what she was doing. Staff were just abandoned at that point.”

 Chaotic IT?

Mark Baker: Apart from representing postmasters nationally, I am still a serving sub-postmaster. I have been doing the job now for 27 years, and 10 years prior to that I was working for the head Post Office. Horizon was introduced for a specific purpose: mainly to fulfill the wishes of the Department for Work and Pensions to have more automated process for pension allowances.

“Horizon could also do other things in its early says, but its basic requirement changed as the DWP changed their requirements and the Post Office needed to use Horizon for more commercial reasons and had developed application upon application upon application. They had more and more data centres talking to each other, exchanging information.

“It is a very chaotic, behind-the-scenes set of circumstances in IT terms.”

Glitches?

Ian Henderson: “… the Post Office disclosed to us that a number of software defects had been identified that affected 76 branches. It took some time for those defects to be identified—somewhere in the order of 12 months.

“A feature of a number of the matters reported to us appeared to be the old and unreliable hardware that features in the Horizon system – old Horizon and new Horizon.

“We have heard about communication failures and the consequences of that. We have been advised that approximately 12,000 communication failures occur each year, and all of those can have consequences for sub-postmasters…

“Particularly under new Horizon, the servers are located centrally. All the branches, and indeed Crown offices, have to communicate electronically with those servers. There are fall-back procedures…some rural branches have broadband and technology problems. Some of those branches also suffer from a poor mobile phone signal…

“Failures are inevitable with that infrastructure. In general, Horizon has a robust recovery mechanism to cope with those failures. The cases we have looked at are primarily the 150 applications to the mediation scheme.

“They have shown that when there has been an unusual combination of circumstances – they are relatively rare, and I would emphasise the point made previously that, most of the time, Horizon works well – such as power and telephone communication failures, errors being made at the counter or some of the other errors that we have now highlighted and that we will report on in our next report, it is how the Post Office has responded to those that has contributed to the problem. This is partly about a lack of training, partly about a lack of support and, in particular, about a lack of investigation.”

**

Kay Linnell:  “If you talk to anybody who has served in one these smaller, independent subpostmaster branches, you will see that there is a succession of people who have had problems with the hardware, the software or the support, and there are unanswered questions as to why the differences arose—small or large. It is that not knowing how the difference arose for which they are responsible that has, frankly, driven some of them to the edge of sanity.

**

Mark Baker:  “I think there are a lot of areas which have been highlighted since Second Sight issued their first report. I have the benefit, because it was issued to one of my members, of reading their report that they prepare for the mediation scheme, where they are now highlighting lots of areas that have the potential to cause discrepancies.”

**

Andy Furey: “I think it is that question of whether there are some glitches in the system that have created problems for some individual postmasters. Let me put this into scale. There are 11,500 post offices and 30,000 or 40,000 Horizon terminals up and down the length and breadth of the country, so this is not a wide-scale problem, but nonetheless it is a problem for the individuals who were impacted, who have lost their livelihoods.”

**

Mark Baker: “There will always be human error when humans interact with computers. However, what has been systemic and consistent throughout Horizon’s life is the failure to recognise that parts of the infrastructure could be to blame for some of these discrepancies occurring.”

**

Kay Linnell: “We have evidence of historic failures. A lot of the connections on very complicated things like ATMs were done through a mobile phone connection, which sometimes dropped before both ends of the transaction were captured…”

**

Mark Baker: “I have a lot of experience in another life in IT network systems working over virtual private networks, and I have been doing a lot of research into data flow disruption. Horizon just produces packets of data. It has to be transmitted, and it needs a secure network over which to be transmitted. The ADSL lines are not interleaved. If you do not interleave an ADSL line and put other equipment on it, you run the risk of disruption happening to the data flow.

“Power can cause the same kind of disruption. The infrastructure in branch has not been maintained at all since it was introduced. The power lines have never been checked. The plugs have never been PAT tested.

“The trip control switches, which are designed to protect the electrical circuitry, have never been looked at since the day they went in. I have no idea whether they still work, so what damage can power surges and power outages cause.

“The interaction of Horizon when it loses its ADSL connectivity for whatever reason and defaults to its modem is another area of concern to me. We are doing highly encrypted secure banking transactions on a mobile phone chip, and that is a recipe for disaster.

“In the rural areas, it will be worse than in the urban areas. Urban areas get the same problem, but in the rural areas, you are a long way away from your BT exchange.

“The signals are not always very good if you have to go on to the backup through the modem, and it is a recipe for disaster. This is not only my opinion. Second Sight have raised this issue, particularly if you read the report that they have provided to the mediation scheme.

**

Angela van den Bogerd: [Regarding telecommunications problems and a loss of power]. “The system is designed to cope with that. If there is a loss of power or of communication mid-transaction, none of those data are lost. It freezes in time, and when the system comes back on, the screen asks the user to give it some information about what point in the transaction you were at. Did that transaction complete? Had you given money? Had you taken money?

“That recovery process, as it is called, actually resets the system to that moment in time, so no data are lost. Yes, it is inconvenient, and yes it is frustrating for branches and sub-postmasters and assistants, who want serve their customers, but that does not cause the discrepancies that it has been claimed it does. It does not do that.”

**

Ian Henderson:  “In terms of IT support, we are concerned about some of the interfaces with third-party partners such as Bank of Ireland and other banks, ATMs and so on. The issue is those interfaces and the flow of information from those third parties, which of course would not happen in a high street bank where everything is integrated. It is those third-party interfaces that seem to cause a disproportionate number of problems… In 2009, when the Post Office performed an audit of 20 branches relating to the lottery scratchcards. Those 20 branches caused £147,000 in losses, and as a result of that, certain process changes were eventually developed.

“In 2010, over a three-month period, more than 1,000 transaction corrections –TCs – were issued to branches, the financial value of which was £744,000.

“To our minds, that indicates that there was a system-wide problem with lottery scratchcards. Two years later, the Post Office introduced a number of changes that largely prevented that problem occurring. However, it was three years before those early problems that had been identified were fully resolved, and I am sure there were other examples.”

Mike Crockart (Lib-Dem member of the Committee): “And during those three years, sub-postmasters would have been expected to make up the loss?”

Henderson: Correct.

Angela van den Bogerd:  “We have tried to automate products, so that less human interaction is required. In the case of lottery scratchcards, those error notices were particular to cases where sub-postmasters had sold scratchcards before they had booked them in.

“They were selling scratchcards with a value of, say, £200 that they had not actually booked into that account. So they would have had a surplus of £200, which if you scale up reaches a sum of £700,000. So it is not an actual loss; it is just that they have accounted for it incorrectly at the start.”

Aren’t Crown-owned Post Offices hit by discrepancies?

George Thomson:  “If there was a systemic issue … there would be big problems in the Crown offices as well. I cannot recall a single big issue where someone in Crown offices has blamed Horizon.

“If it was systemic, it would be a nonsense to suggest that the only time there are computer faults is to do with independent sub-postmasters or franchise sub-postmasters; and yet there does not seem to be any noise at all that has developed with the Crown offices over 15 years. That is very strange, given they are doing 16% of all the volumes.”

**

Alan Bates: “One of the few documents that has come to light in all of this is a 2007-08 internal report from the Post Office, which showed that the Crown offices lost £2.2m across their counters that year. So Crown offices do lose money.

Henderson:  “Crown offices have one significant difference compared with branches: they have the ability to write off losses up to certain levels. A sub-postmaster cannot do that; he is accountable for every penny.

“If there is a discrepancy, he has to make that good. The same principle does not apply to Crown offices.

“Another of the outstanding questions we have put to Post Office is that we want data comparing and contrasting losses written off by Crown offices and the equivalent losses borne by sub-postmasters.

“Our work to date has indicated that they both suffer from the same underlying problems. However, the solutions are very different because, generally speaking, a sub-postmaster cannot write off a loss; he has to make it good.”

Is the Federation of Subpostmasters supporting members hit by shortfalls?

Alan Bates: “The reason why the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance was set up was that the Federation refused to support sub-postmasters in any cases about Horizon. It never once supported people in court cases or anything like that.

“It was just saying to people, ‘Right, you’re saying it’s a Horizon problem. Oh, I’m sorry. There’s nothing wrong with Horizon. The Post Office has told us there’s nothing wrong.’ That is why the JFSA came about. Every one of our members wants their dues back from the federation because of its so-called support -or lack of support – over the years.

“It is really frustrating to have to sit here listening to somebody who is meant to be representing sub-postmasters – it is like they are in a paid position in the Post Office.”

**

Kay Linnell: “Frankly, it [the Federation] is supposed to be representing sub-postmasters who have lost their livelihoods, their homes, their money and their reputation because of faults put at their door by the Horizon system.”

**

George Thomson: “We have to be careful that we are not creating a cottage industry that damages the brand and makes clients like the DWP and the DVLA think twice…

“We pay out £18bn a year for the DWP in Government benefits. The DWP would not have re-awarded the Post Office card account contract … in the last month if they thought for a minute that this computer system was not reliable…

“If we are not careful, we damage the brand, we damage the franchise and we cost my members’ ability to sell the franchise.

“If we lose big contracts, Andy’s members lose their jobs as well. So we have to be careful that we do not create a cottage industry that is built on supposition.”

Proper investigation of shortfalls?

Kay Linnell: “My understanding is that the Post Office had to pay for metadata from their contractors Fujitsu. This meant that when a shortage or overage arose and SPMs tried to investigate it and asked the Post Office about it, there was an extreme reluctance to investigate each and every shortage or overage.

“When they [subpostmasters] made calls to the helpline supporting them, these were not dealt with, or were marked with low priority…”

**

Mark Baker:  “The Post Office failed to recognise that they needed to drill down into each and every kind of discrepancy – whether that was a surplus or a shortage is irrelevant: it is a discrepancy; and refused to look at their system and analyse, ‘Is it fit for purpose in the modern day? Is it independently audited by accredited IT professionals?’

“It was not supporting the postmasters – the ones that find themselves in the JFSA group – or looking into their cases. Why has that happened over the years that Horizon has been in life? That very much is the core reason why we find ourselves here today.

**

Alan Bates:  The Post Office never investigate cases if a sub-postmaster has an issue. If they raise that they have a problem, they suddenly get landed on by Post Office’s audit and, more than likely, they will be thrown out or even charged afterwards.

“That is what has gone on in the past. I think they are trying to change it these days, but I do not know how successful because two or three new people a week call me, and these are serving sub-postmasters having problems as well. There are ongoing issues.

**

Henderson:  “… we think that there have been prosecutions brought by the Post Office where there has been inadequate investigation and inadequate evidence to support some of the charges brought against defendants -sub-postmasters and former sub-postmasters.

“In particular, we are aware -this, again, is why we need to see the full prosecution files – that a common tactic employed by the Post Office, or lawyers acting on its behalf, is to bring charges for both false accounting, which is a relatively easy charge to prove, and theft; then, as a bargaining point -a plea-bargain, almost – before trial, they drop the charge for theft on the basis that, first, the defendant will probably avoid a custodial sentence and, secondly, the evidence is much simpler.

“When we have looked at the evidence made available to us – bear in mind that I have been an expert witness for the Crown Prosecution Service, instructed by the CPS on fraud cases – I have not been satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to support a charge for theft. You can imagine the consequences that flow from that. That is why we, Second Sight, are determined to get to the bottom of this matter, which we regard as extremely serious.”

How many postmasters are affected?

Mike Crockart:  “I want very briefly to try to get a feel for the size of the problem because we are talking in generalities here. Andy, you just said that hundreds of postmasters have had this problem. How big is the problem? How many postmasters have reported incidents?”

George Thomson:  “I will put it in perspective over the whole 15 years. At one time, 100,000 postmasters and their staff were dealing with Horizon every week on the computers when the network was bigger; that is down to 50,000. It has always been a tiny amount. Going on to Paul’s point to put it together, some of it is training. A small element is that –

Crockart: “I am trying to get an idea of the size of the problem. You said that it is a small number – what does that mean?”

Thomson: “It’s tiny, because you are talking about something in the region of more than 30 million transactions every single week. It used to be about 60 million transactions.

Crockart: “The question was: what number of postmasters are affected by this? Perhaps I can turn to somebody else.”

George Thomson: “Tiny.”

Alan Bates: “During the 12-week period in which the mediation scheme was open, we had 150 people apply for it. Since then, probably a similar amount have been trying to get into the scheme, but it is closed.

“Before that, the JFSA was going for maybe two or three years and we had probably a similar amount. There are still people finding out about all of this all the time, so it is a growing number.”

Crockart: “There are 150 in the mediation system and roughly 150 that you know about that would have liked to, but have missed the boat.”

Bates: “And there are more coming along.”

Did postmasters have full control over their accounts?

Kay Linnell:  “The problem that the members of JFSA and the complainants have is that the analysis and evidence has not been produced…  What has happened with the small sub-postmasters is that, even where there is only the subpostmaster operating the tills, money has gone missing which is outwith their control.

“For example, if cash collection is picked up and remitted to head office, it is sometimes not logged against them in head office and a shortage arises.

“Sometimes, an entry goes through -a transaction correction or credit – and they do not know about it. Although the sub-postmaster is personally responsible to pay cash, they are not aware of how the differences have arisen.

“If this mediation scheme had told the complainants – the applicants – where the money had gone, there would be a lot of settlements, but we still do not know. The accounting is outside the subpostmasters’ control.”

Binley: “But how can the sub-postmaster be responsible?”

Linnell: “Because, under the contract with the Post Office, they are responsible…”

Binley:  “How can they be expected to be responsible when in fact they do not have the tools to carry through that responsibility? Is that the nub of it?”

Linnell: “That is absolutely the key question.”

Support when things go wrong?

Linnell: “People today are still getting shorts [shortfalls] and overs [surpluses] on a daily basis and still have no clue why the accounting systems that they can see do not balance.

“To my mind, that is the support that the subpostmaster on the ground needs today. Helplines are all very well, but you get a person on the end who may log the call and mark it low priority. That doesn’t help you.”

**

Ian Henderson: “The core system – the software, for want of a better word – works well most of the time. Like any large system, it occasionally generates errors. Our concern is the response by Post Office to supporting sub-postmasters when they face those problems.

“Yes, there is a helpline facility, and, yes, training is provided, but there is no formal investigative support.

“Under the contract, sub-postmasters are not entitled to investigative support when they say, ‘Look, we’ve got this discrepancy. I don’t understand how it happened.’ They are left largely to their own resources, supported by the helpline and so on, to get to the bottom of those problems.

“As we have seen time and again, they have failed to do that. In some cases, Post Office has refused to provide information to them on the grounds of cost – this comes back to the contract with Fujitsu. They say, ‘It is too expensive. It is outside the terms of our service level agreement. We cannot provide you with the detailed information that Post Office holds.’ It is not prepared to disclose that information to sub-postmasters, even though, under the contract, it has a legal obligation to make good those losses. It is matters such as that that we are looking into.”

**

Paula Vennells:  “We monitor very carefully the training and support that we give. The first point that I want the Committee to hear is that there are always opportunities for us to do it better. I have no doubt about that; it applies to any organisation. We are not perfect, and we continually try to improve things.

“The satisfaction rate for the support desk for the sub-postmasters is running at about 87%. It has improved since we put in place changes last year, but it has always been good.

“As you heard from George Thomson, the vast majority of people have no issue with the system, and they are actually quite satisfied with the training and support around it. We are dealing with a very small number of people who have had some really difficult things happen to them.

“Going through this process, which Angela has built on, we have learned where we could have done some of those things better. However, that is not to say that throughout that period—we are talking about 10 years—the system, the support and the training were not good. In the vast majority of cases, they were. Angela will tell you about what we have done and the improvements that we have made.”

**

Angela van den Bogerd: “If a branch finds that it has a large unexplained loss, the first port of call is for them to ring the helpline. There is a process in place for them to be helped remotely. If the helpline cannot solve their problem at the time, it goes to another team—a branch support team, which has a bit more expertise and can dive a bit deeper into the information.

“If that fails, we send someone out to visit the branch and see if they can help them there. That process is in place.

“Looking back over the cases that we have investigated, we could have done that a bit better in some of those cases. It is not that there is a culture of denial here. I have personally been involved in each of those 150 cases and got into the detail.

“Where we could have done better – it is only a handful of cases – we have absolutely said that. I cannot accept that we are in denial about that, because we are looking at it…

Is PO/Fujitsu forthcoming with information?

Ian Henderson:  “I have spent a lot of the past 12 months, frankly, dealing with Post Office, requesting access to documents that have been challenged, as I understand it, on legal advice.

“One issue we have been looking at relates to the Fujitsu office in Bracknell. We first requested documents relating to that in February 2013 – almost two years ago. We have still not been provided with those documents.

“We are very concerned about the operation of the suspense account by Post Office. We have been asking for that information since July last year. Perhaps the most important failure to disclose to us is the full access to the legal and prosecution files.

“When this scheme first started we were given full access to those files. Again, presumably on legal advice, that access has been extremely restricted. We feel that this is a very severe constraint on our ability to conduct an independent investigation into what has happened.”

**

Alan Bates: “It [the mediation scheme] was originally launched in 2013 and it closed on 18 November that year. There were thoughts that it would be a matter of weeks for the Post Office. I think the Post Office allowed four weeks to look at cases and investigate them, whereas it has been taking them four, five, six or seven months to investigate a case.

“Second Sight is also taking not quite as long, but it is certainly taking considerably more time to investigate these cases. So it is taking far longer than was thought. One of the problems is trying to get hold of information. I think people have been struggling to get hold of information from Post Office and from Fujitsu down the way to investigate records. No, it is not satisfactory how long it has taken. You are quite right.”

**

Angela van den Bogerd:  It is not that we are not sharing information; it is about understanding the format the information is in.

**

Paula Vennells:

Second Sight are independent; there will be disagreements about requirements for information at some stage. I do know that where we are able to we have shared everything we possibly can.

**

Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative MP on the Committee):  “Mr Henderson, did you ask for the e-mails from 2008?”

Henderson: “Yes, we did.”

Zahawi:  “And you were provided with 2009 instead?”

Henderson: “We were provided with 2009. We were told at the time that with the first batch there were some technology issues relating to the provision of the 2008 e-mails. Two years down the line, we still don’t have those.”

Zahawi:  “You are saying that you actually asked for the correct ones, and you still don’t have those?”

Henderson: “Yes.”

**

Henderson:  “The final category, and probably the most important, is full access to the legal and prosecution files held by Post Office.”

Chair: “I understand that they did do that initially.”

Henderson: “Initially, yes; but for the past year access to those files has been blocked…”

**

Henderson: “When we were first appointed, we were told that the principle behind what we were doing was to seek the truth, irrespective of the consequences.

“We could look at anything that we felt,  as an independent investigator, was necessary to conduct our investigation. Unsurprisingly, with cases that came into the early part of the scheme that involved a criminal prosecution, we were provided with full access to a small number of files.

“As further cases were accepted into the scheme, we unsurprisingly asked for full access to those legal files. Responses were to the effect, ‘Under no circumstances are we going to give you access to those files. You are entitled to the public documents that would normally be available to the defendant if the case had gone to trial.’

“We felt it was necessary for us to review the internal legal files, looking at the depth of any investigation that had happened and possibly even legal advice relating to the prosecution…”

Zahawi:  Angela, will you provide it? If your CEO cannot answer, will you provide the prosecution files as requested by Ian Henderson?”

Angela van den Bogerd: Mr Zahawi, as Ian said, we have previously provided them, and we have provided the information necessary for those investigations as a pack. So there are thousands of pieces of information already provided to Second Sight.”

Zahawi:  “But we have heard already that he has been obstructed from getting the legal files that you use internally, which he used to get before. That is what I have heard. Will you now commit to providing those files going forward?”

Angela van den Bogerd:  “We provided them to Second Sight early in the investigation.”

Zahawi: Will you provide them?

Angela van den Bogerd:  “Just let me finish, please. We have been working with Second Sight over the last few weeks to get to an understanding of what we need to provide. We are working through those, and information has been flowing.”

Zahawi: “So you do not understand what you need to provide?”

Angela van den Bogerd:  “We have been providing what we agreed we would provide at the outset. In some cases, Second Sight have concluded their investigation on that basis. What has been asked in the last few weeks is for access to further information that we were not providing under the agreement that we had.”

Zahawi:  “What he is asking you for – there is no wriggle room – is to provide the prosecution files going forward. Will you commit to doing that? That is all I am asking.”

Angela van den Bogerd: “What I am saying is that we have already been exchanging that information over the last few weeks.”

Zahawi: “So you have been providing them?”

Angela van den Bogerd:  “We have been providing that over the last few weeks.”

Zahawi: “Is that right, Mr Henderson?”

Henderson: “No, it is not, I am sorry to say…”

**

Henderson: “Chairman, may I add something by way of clarification? It is the general counsel of Post Office, to whom I have spoken, who said that he is not prepared to disclose to us the full legal files. I do not know to what extent he gave the same answer and advice to the chief executive of the Post Office.”

Binley: “Thank you, Mr Henderson.”

Chair: “That is very helpful indeed. Could you just repeat who it was for the record?”

Henderson: “The general counsel -the head of legal for Post Office.”

**

 PO approach to mediation dominated by lawyers?

Alan Bates:  “At the outset, the people who were involved with it, JFSA, Post Office and Second Sight, all thought we were doing one thing. We were heading in one direction.

“But since the scheme has moved forward, I think we are finding ourselves at odds with each other. People are becoming far more partisan in their approach. Post Office has gone straight to lawyer-based support and response to queries. So it has become very unsatisfactory.”

Culture of denial?

Paul Blomfield (Labour MP on the Committee)  … “It appears that there is a culture of denial about the problems…”

Vennells:  “In terms of the culture, the reason I came today, is that I really want the Committee to hear that that is not the case. We put this scheme in place because we wanted to find out what was going on.

“Inevitably, because of their distress, the people who have gone through this are very vocal and very challenging about what they have been through – quite rightly so. As we have gone through the investigations, we have looked at where there are things we could improve. There were things that we could improve, absolutely.

“The only point I am trying to make to the Committee is that for the vast majority of people—70,000 people are using the system today, and half a million people over the last 10 years have not had those problems.

“I am not denying at all that there are problems. Of course there are—there are problems in any organisation – but this is about the reputation of the Post Office.

“This system works well for the vast majority of people. For those it does not work for, we are doing our utmost. I have worked for huge businesses before, but I have not worked for any that could have done this as well as we have, in terms of our rigour and the detail we have gone into to try to get to the bottom of this.”

Blomfield:  “We have heard considerable evidence from all involved that the system usually – overwhelmingly works well, but the focus of this inquiry is how the Post Office handles that small number of cases where it does not.”

Vennells: Yes.

**

Henderson:  “On the culture point, until we issued our interim report, the mantra that we regularly heard from Post Office was, ‘Horizon is perfect. We have total confidence in the Horizon system’.

“That position is slowly changing; however, in the limited cases that we have looked at – we are very concerned about the prosecution cases – we have seen no evidence that the Post Office’s own investigators were ever trained or prepared to consider that Horizon was at fault. That was never a factor that was taken into account in any of the investigations by Post Office that we have looked at…”

Audit trails

Angela van den Bogerd: … “The information that the sub-postmaster needs to balance their accounts is available in branch. There has always been an audit trail in branch. Before we went on to the online system in 2010, the reports were available for a period of 42 days.

“They could look back into their accounts for 42 days. Since 2010, that has extended to 60 days, so the information has always been available in branch. The difficulty with some of those cases is that they did not declare their loss at that time. In some cases, they have hidden the loss and falsified their accounts, and we have only discovered later that the error occurred. Those reports in branch have then obviously expired.”

**

Ian Henderson: May I come back on a couple of points made by Angela? She is quite correct on the numbers that she has quoted, referring to the audit trail available to sub-postmasters; for a long time, there was a limit of 42 days. Unfortunately, the transaction corrections that they are asked to accept – if they do – often generate losses for that branch and that sub-postmaster.

“When the audit trail was 42 days, the delay in producing the corresponding TC [transaction correction] that they needed to investigate was in the order of three months. It was three months late, and therefore outside the 42 days of the audit period.

“That, I would argue, is another example of a systemic flaw in the overall process, because we have a mismatch between the TC – the adjustment made by Post Office – and the audit data available to the sub-postmaster.

False accounting

Henderson:  “False accounting is a relatively easy charge to bring. When we have spoken to sub-postmasters who have been charged with that – some of whom have pleaded guilty – their response has been, ‘I had no options; I was not aware at the time of the range of options available to me at the end of a trading period, when I was faced with a substantial discrepancy that I didn’t understand and hadn’t investigated properly, and on which I had had inadequate support by the help desk. I therefore did the only thing that I felt was possible or sensible at the time: I entered false figures into my month-end balances. I did that out of desperation because I did not know what else to do’

“Bear in mind that the help desk does not operate 24/7. At the end of trading periods, often when sub-postmasters are working late at night to try to resolve a significant discrepancy, the help desk is not even available.”

Angela van den Bogerd:  “The help desk has always been available after the trading hours of the post offices – until 10 o’clock at night, back in those days – and if they were unable to get hold of somebody, they were able to leave a message for a call back.

“There was always some access to help in those situations… a sub-postmaster has a choice. At the time that they make their balance and find that they have a discrepancy, they have a choice to declare that loss and make us aware of that, or – as happened in some cases, unfortunately – cover up that loss and hide it from the Post Office. That is false accounting.

As Ian said, that charge is quite easy to bring, because it is evident, but they have a choice at that point and they are not forced to do anything; it is a conscious decision.”

Are subpostmaster  “losses” in a secret PO suspense account?

Henderson:  “We know that every year Post Office takes the credit of its profit and loss account, generally a six-figure number, from a suspense account. The concern raised by a number of sub-postmasters is that some of those credits actually relate to transactions where they have suffered a loss.

“We have been asking for that data since July last year. We had a meeting with the new finance director of Post Office yesterday and we hope we will make some further progress, but it is already almost nine months since we first asked for that data.”

Thousands of abandoned helpline calls

Binley:  “Evidence has been submitted to us by a very high-level person, James Arbuthnot (MP – leader of Parliamentary campaign for justice for postmasters), who has been looking into this matter for a considerable time. As part of his evidence, he says: ‘The Post Office has accepted that its support systems left much to be desired, and as a result it has changed them. The sheer number of calls to the Post Office helpline is astonishing. The calls are from professional users,’ and this is the bit that counts, ‘but tens of thousands of them were abandoned; they were not just made, but abandoned.’ Does that cause you considerable concern?”

Angela van den Bogerd: “… We do not want to have tens of thousands of calls abandoned … Obviously, as you are aware with contact centres, when people ring up initially, there might be other options that take them to a different route and they therefore go a different route and they put the phone down. It does not necessarily mean they are not answered.”

Destroyed documents

William Bain (Labour MP on the Committee):  “We have heard some evidence that some documents that could be relevant in mediation have been destroyed as a result of your particular policy. What steps are you taking to ensure that that does not happen?”

Vennells:  “As soon as we went into the scheme, I had a conversation – in fact, I have had it several times because I know that people are concerned about this – with Mr Arbuthnot and Mr Bates – to reassure them that nothing would be destroyed when the scheme was set up.

“Prior to that, we did not know that we were going into the scheme. We have a data retention policy that is the same as many businesses. Some of these cases are regrettably very old, so some of the data are simply not there. As soon as the scheme started, we made sure that we did not destroy any data related to it at all. That would have lacked integrity.”

Bain:  “And your policy is to keep everything from the last seven years?”

Angela van den Bogerd:  “Sorry, not everything. The seven years is the information in the Horizon system. The hard files for post offices are kept for six years. Within branches, there are different retention periods, but the majority of where we got the information from is the Horizon system, and that is seven years.”

Bain:  “Why did you make that particular distinction when you drew up the policy?”

Angela van den Bogerd:  “So normal retention policies for commercial organisations are for six years. That is in line, usually, with the statute of limitation. We have gone a little bit further with the Horizon system, where it is seven years.

“In branch, we ask them to keep some reports for two years and others for six years. It comes down to volume and how you store paper. That is a decision that most commercial organisations take, because it costs to store all the data.”

PO deficient  in duty of care to subpostmasters?

Chair: “Do you not accept that the Post Office has been deficient in its duty of care towards the sub-postmasters who are so important in reinforcing that positive brand?”

Vennells:  “Not at all, in terms of the vast majority. As we have said to you today, yes, in some cases we could have done better in terms of training and support.”

Improvements

Katy Clark:  “The Post Office will obviously be very aware of the high level of concerns among MPs on a cross-party basis about this issue – a huge number of MPs have been involved in the group that Sir James Arbuthnot has been involved with – and they have no doubt read the transcript of the recent Adjournment debate, which made very clear the anger among many MPs about how this whole matter has been handled. What do you think you are doing or could do to address these concerns?

Vennells:  “I completely understand that MPs are concerned, quite rightly, because people have suffered some pretty terrible things as a result of what has happened.”

Clark: “Yes, with people going to jail.”

Vennells: We have listened very carefully. We have been in contact with all the MPs. We offered all the MPs with constituents involved in the meetings, at the beginning of the process and throughout it, after the Westminster Hall debate—

Clark:  “I am not particularly concerned about the MPs; I am concerned about what the Post Office is doing to get its own act in order. What lessons are you learning from everything that has happened so that you can improve your organisation?”

Vennells:  “I think we have learned a number of lessons as we have gone through this. You have heard about the improvements we have made in training and support. The other thing that is important for us today is that the Committee can hear both sides, because the Post Office has put a huge amount – ”

Katy Clark: I asked a question, and I would like an answer to the question. What are you doing, or what have you done, to improve the way that your organisation works?

“For example, one of the issues that has been put to me is that there is a lack of qualified people within the Post Office hierarchy with whom it is possible for a sub-postmaster to have a discussion when there is a technical issue to do with the Horizon system. What are you doing to improve that, for example, and what other lessons have you learned?”

Vennells: I would say that that isn’t true. If sub-postmasters have queries, they can escalate them as high as they need to. I get phone calls and e-mails, and I personally take them on a regular basis.

Clark:  “But you are not an IT specialist?”

Vennells:  “If they have an IT query, I will immediately go to my CIO, and she is prepared to talk to any sub-postmaster about it. The organisation wants to help sub-postmasters to run post offices properly- of course we do- and we have put ourselves out as much as we possibly can.

“Where we have got it wrong, because human error happens, then we have put in really significant changes in terms of the training and support that is available. The fact that you can access training 24/7 has to be a significant improvement.

“We have set up a branch user forum – we have sub-postmasters coming to it who are very critical of us, which is why we did it – is to learn the things that we can improve.

“We would not have wanted to be in this situation. As soon as I found out about it, we set up the [mediation] scheme. We put in hours and hours and hours of detailed work to make sure that we have done investigations as thoroughly as we can. At the same time, we have a list of things that we will deal with as we go along.”

Clark:  “What do you think needs to be done as a result of everything you have learned from that process so that these kinds of problems do not happen again?”

Vennells:  “We have outlined some of those things already, such as the way that we listen to sub-postmasters through the branch user forum, and the training. It seems to me that one of the big issues to come out of this is that in some cases – not the majority, but I accept Mr Blomfield’s point that this is about the small number of cases here today – we could have done things better.

What should happen now?

Alan Bates: “First, Post Office has to be investigated – it has to become part of the investigation. It is trying to act as an agent and as everything – it is trying to control the information coming out, what is released and all the rest of it.

“It has to be investigated and taken out of the scheme, which Government have to take over. They really do. While Post Office is still sat there controlling all the information, we will never really find out the truth.”

George Thomson:  “For a tiny percentage of complaints over a 15-year history, it would be nonsense for the Government to take over. Let’s bring it to conclusion as quickly as we can.

“The cases that are in mediation, let’s deal with them. Let’s get out the way, let’s move forward and let’s try to make sure that Post Office has a decent future as a stand-alone company outside the Royal Mail group. Let’s get on with that.”

Andy Furey: I would suggest that the mediation scheme needs to be opened up for some of the contemporary cases that are ongoing today.

“I would ask the Post Office to withdraw any obstacles in the way of CWU [Communication Workers Union]  representing postmasters. Mark gets lots of obstacles, such as lack of recognition for representing postmasters.

“The filtering through the walk-in group to stop cases getting to mediation needs to be removed and they need somebody to bring some independence in the mediation scheme beyond the current people involved.”

“Kay Linnell:  “The initial complaint review and mediation scheme, with 150 cases in it, needs to be drawn to a conclusion by making the Post Office go back to the original brief and stop doing this legal defence thing.

“But I also think that a permanent, Government-based solution for new complainants to a third-party individual such as an ombudsman for future fault reporting, without any recrimination or redress from the Post Office on the person raising the complaint, is an essential way to go forward.

“We need something for future complainants to do, albeit that the MPs have been fabulous. It should not be necessary for somebody with a current problem to fall back on their MP and raise it in that way.”

Mark Baker:  “We [the Communication Workers Union] are an organisation that is excellent at advocacy and being able to sort the weaker claims out from the stronger claims; and we know how to work with Post Office.

“We know how to challenge it—we are not in awe of it, as some people are. We would make a valuable contribution to improving and moving the mediation scheme on.

“If that cannot be achieved, I would support what Alan said: perhaps the Government should take it over and get it sorted out.”

Business, Innovation and Skills Committee hearing on Post Office Horizon system and mediation scheme – 3 February 2015

 

The story of Southwest One

By Tony Collins

Dave Orr worked in a variety of IT and project management roles for Somerset County Council and retired in 2010. For years he has campaigned with extraordinary tenacity to bring to the surface the truth over an unusual joint venture between IBM, Somerset County Council, a local borough council and the local police force.

Now he has written an account of the joint venture and the lessons. It is published on the website of procurement expert Peter Smith.

Orr questions whether Southwest One was ever a good idea, since it was formed in 2007.

The deal has not made the savings intended, a SAP implementation went awry, the contract has been mired in political controversy and criticism, Southwest One has repeatedly lost money, and many of the transferred staff and services have returned to the county council, and some services returned to the borough council. IBM and the county council have ended up in a legal dispute that cost the county council £5.5m to settle. Southwest One was not exactly the partnership it set out to be.

The contract may show how an outsourcing deal that doesn’t have the support of the staff being transferred is flawed fundamentally from the start (which is one reason few people will be surprised if a 10-year £320m deal for Capita to run Barnet Council’s new customer service organisation [NSCSO]  ends in tears).

These are some of Orr’s points:

-  Like other light-touch regulators, the Audit Commission repeatedly gave Southwest One positive reports, without ever qualifying the accounts, even as problems with SAP implementation mounted in 2009 and procurement savings were not being made in line with forecasts.

 - The contract called for transformation based upon ‘world-class technologies’, yet all of the IT Service was placed into Southwest One with no IT expertise back in the Somerset County client (until after a poor SAP implementation in 2009). Was the lack of retained IT skills in the Somerset County client behind the formal acceptance of a badly configured SAP implementation?

– Large scale outsourcing over a long contract of 10 years or more requires an ability to foresee the future that is simply not possible to capture in a fixed contract. In a 10-year contract, there will be three changes of national government and three changes of local government. That is a great deal of unpredictable change to cope with via a fixed, long-term contract.

– Local Government will always be at a disadvantage in resources and skills, to a large multi-national contractor like IBM, when it comes to negotiating, letting and managing a complex multi-service contract.

– What was the culture of Southwest One (75% owned by IBM)? Was it private, public or a hybrid? The management culture remained firmly IBM, yet the councils and police workforces were seconded and remained equally firmly public sector rooted. There is such a thing as a public service ethos. In fact, Southwest One was run like a mini-IBM based upon global divisions, complete with IBM standard structures and processes. Southwest One seconded employees were not allowed anything like a full access to IBM internal systems, thus creating additional complexity, as “real” IBM employees relied entirely upon on-line systems.

–  Mixed teams in a single shared service were hard to amalgamate. This meant the IBM managers of Southwest One never really gained the sort of command & control of the multi-tier workforces that their bonus-oriented model needs to function. “I doubt that IBM would ever again contemplate the seconded staff model over the TUPE transfer model,” says Orr.

– Somerset County Council ran with a “thin” client management team that, in Orr’s view, did not have sufficient expertise or enough staff resources to effectively manage this complex contract with IBM. The councils relied upon definitions of “partnership” that meant one thing to the councils’ side and quite another thing to IBM, says Orr.

– In Southwest One, Somerset County Council handed their entire IT Service over lock, stock and barrel. “Can you really consider IT as wholly a ‘back office’ service? Many successful private Companies see IT as a strategic service to be kept under their own control.”

– The real savings might have been found in optimising processes in big departments (like Social Care, Education, Highways) that lay outside of Southwest One’s reach. “The focus on IT rather than service processes was another flaw in the model.”

Orr  concludes that nobody who played a major part in the Southwest deal has in any way been held to account for what has gone wrong.

Southwest One – the complete story from Dave Orr

When Whitehall shuns statutory scrutiny

By Tony Collins

In some ways central departments are deeply accountable.

They provide volumes of statistics and reports to the centre of government (Cabinet Office and Treasury) – as far as their limited management information systems will let them – and senior officers will sometimes answer questions from MPs on Parliamentary committees. Their permanent secretaries will meet colleagues in other departments every week.

At the same time, on things that really matter, some central departments – and councils – can be infinitely unaccountable. 

A report by the National Audit Office – which it says was researched and written unusually quickly, partly in response to parliamentary concern – gives a glimpse of how unaccountable central departments (and councils) can be.

When they don’t want to provide information they simply don’t – and nothing it seems can be done to force disclosure.

Power to ignore

With explicit and written approval from David Cameron the Cabinet Office has the power to mandate change in central departments. But senior officials can, if they wish, when faced with central requests for information, ignore, reject, deliberately misunderstand, confuse or minimise answers, or delay until the request no longer need be answered.

This ability of central departments to evade democratic and even statutory scrutiny surfaces in the NAO report Confidentiality clauses and special severance payments.

The report is into the gagging of public servants when they receive payments for ending their employments early. Rightly, the media’s coverage of the report focuses on the NAO’s concerns over gagging clauses that stop officials becoming whistleblowers. The FT said on Friday (21 June 2013)

“More than a thousand civil servants have signed gagging clauses that could stop them speaking out about problems, a system the [NAO] condemned as “unacceptable”.

What the national media apparently did not notice was that the NAO was unable to obtain all the information it had requested of departments.

“Despite the NAO’s statutory access rights, it received only 60 per cent of the compromise agreements requested from departments,” says the NAO.

The NAO has statutory rights of access to information held by departments. Indeed its Comptroller and Auditor General Amyas Morse certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. The NAO says he has “statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy”.

Avoiding NAO scrutiny

But some departments have not complied with the NAO’s requests, and one, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, formally requested not to be involved in the NAO’s investigation.

Says the NAO report

“Unfortunately, some departments did not respond promptly to our requests, and were delayed by their legal teams’ questioning of our access rights.

The NAO adds

“The Department for Culture, Media & Sport requested not to be involved in this piece of work, a position which could not be resolved until after our fieldwork window had closed.

“We found it challenging to gain a complete picture of the use of confidentiality clauses as, by their nature, they are not openly discussed. Our work was also hampered by incomplete records, and access to data as outlined above.

“It took several attempts to identify the appropriate individuals within departments responsible for compromise agreements and the associated payments. We experienced delays in receiving data, and what departments provided was frequently incomplete or in a format that was difficult to collate and analyse.”

So what can the NAO do now it has been snubbed or, to put it in Whitehall-speak, has encountered departmental non-compliance with statutory access requests?

Little or nothing. The NAO has no power to punish. Through MPs on the Public Accounts Committee it can admonish. That is all.

Says the NAO:

“Given the innovative nature of this work, some initial difficulties were anticipated. We will continue to work with departments, the Treasury and Cabinet Office to explore ways in which we can obtain the evidence on a timelier basis. It is important that departments are able to respond more quickly to these investigations in the future.”

Councils too can evade democratic accountability. The NAO has no access rights to local authorities but councils are, in theory, subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In practice they can all but ignore the FOI legislation if they wish.

In March 2010, the Audit Commission published a report on severance payments to council chief executives. The study found that:

• agreed severance packages for 37 council chief executives totalled £9.5 million, 40 per cent of which were in pension benefits;

• three in every ten outgoing council chief executives received a pay-off;

• the average cost to councils of each severance package was almost double the annual basic salary, but in four cases was more than triple; and

• 79 per cent of mutually-agreed severance payments had a confidentiality clause.

But the NAO found that, in a recent survey of councils by a member of the public under the FoI Act, 52 councils refused to disclose information on their use of compromise agreements.

The good news

The NAO says: “Some organisations have chosen to be transparent about severance packages, such as NHS National Services Scotland, who agreed to the disclosure of a director’s remuneration package, despite a confidentiality agreement being in place, following consultation with legal advisers.”

Comment:

How is Francis Maude to reform central government, particularly IT, if officials in central departments can apparently do what they wish?

The NAO found cases of payments that were higher than contractual entitlement, where there was the apparent reward for failure, and no attempt to seek Treasury’s approval.  Is all this lawful? 

On top of this there are departmental officials who avoided the NAO’s statutory requests for information.

If they can circumvent the law they can probably resist any central demands for change. Resistance seems to be regarded within departments as honourable.

One irony is that bureaucrats in Russia probably have little choice but to respond to central demands – whereas officials in Whitehall departments don’t have to.

Radical reform to change Whitehall’s outdated and costly ways is unlikely to happen while senior officers in departments run the system and have the final say.

NAO report “Confidentiality clauses and special severance payments

Did officials exaggerate death of the NPfIT?

By T0ny Collins

In 2011 the Department of Health made a major announcement that implied the NHS IT programme, the NPfIT, was dead when it wasn’t.

The DH’s press release announced an “acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT, following the conclusions of a new review by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority”.

It said the Authority had concluded that the NPfIT was “not fit to provide the modern IT services that the NHS needs…” The National media took the press release to mean that the NPfIT was dead.

What the announcement didn’t mention was that at least £1.1bn had still to be spent, largely with CSC, provided that the company successfully completed all the work set out in its revised contracts, and that the projected end-of-life of some centrally-chosen NHS IT systems was 2024.

Some will say: who cares if the DH issues a press release that is misleading. Others may say that in a democracy one should be able to trust institutions of state. If the DH issues an official notice that has the effect of manipulating public perceptions – gives a false impression – can citizens trust the Department’s other official notices?

The press release in question did not say the NPfIT was closing but gave that impression. The announcement distanced the government and the Department of Health from an IT scheme, perhaps the world’s largest non-military IT programme, that was failing. This was the press release:

The government today announced an acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT.

“The government today announced an acceleration of the dismantling of the National Programme for IT, following the conclusions of a new review by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority (MPA). The programme was created in 2002 under the last government and the MPA has concluded that it is not fit to provide the modern IT services that the NHS needs…”

The press release was given added weight by those quoted in it. They included the Department of Health, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Sir David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS.

But the truth about the press release emerged this week at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee.

Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, began a hearing on the NPfIT on Wednesday by asking Sir David Nicholson, the NHS chief, a canny question.

Hodge:  “There was a big announcement back in 2011 that you were closing the NPfIT programme.”

“Yes,” replied Sir David.

“That’s not true,” said Hodge. “It was a PR exercise to say you closed it.”

Nicholson: “It certainly was not a PR exercise.”

Hodge: “What changed?”

Nicholson: “The governance arrangements changed.  So there are separate senior responsible officers for each of the individual programmes [within the NPfIT].”

Hodge: “With the greatest respect, changing governance arrangements is not closing the programme.. .I think the impression you were trying to give was that you were closing the programme. All you were doing was shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. You were shifting the way you were running it but you were keeping all that expenditure running… The impression given to the public was that you were going to get out of some of these contracts.”

On the basis of the press release the Daily Mail published a front page lead story with this headline:

£12bn NHS computer system is scrapped… and it’s all YOUR money that Labour poured down the drain

On the day of the press release the Daily Telegraph reported that the £11.4bn NHS IT programme was “to be abandoned”.  Similar reports appeared in the trade press.

But this week’s Public Accounts Committee heard that the NPfIT is very much alive:

– the estimated worth of CSC’s contracts under the NPfIT has risen from £3.1bn to £3.8bn at today’s prices.

–  officials expected to pay CSC a further £1.1bn on top of the £1.1bn it has already received, and this payment may include up to £600m for Lorenzo deployments at only 22 trusts. Hodge said: “You are going to spend another half a billion with this rotten company providing a hopeless system” – to which the DH argues that CSC has delivered thousands of (non-Lorenzo) working systems to the NHS which trusts and community health services rely on.

– About £500m of the £1.1bn still set aside for CSC will go on GP systems supplied by CSC’s subcontractor TPP Systmone.

– Further spending on the NPfIT may come as a result of Fujitsu’s legal action against the DH after it left the NPfIT in 2008, which leaves the taxpayer with a potential pay-out of £700m or more. The outcome of a formal arbitration is expected in about six months. The closing arguments are due at the end of this month.

– £31.5m has so far been spent on the DH’s legal costs in the Fujitsu case, mostly with the .law firm DLA Piper.

– DH has agreed a compensation payment to CSC of £100m. In return CSC has released the Department of Health from a contractual commitment for 160 NHS trusts to take the Lorenzo system. The DH has made a further payment to CSC of £10m in recognition of changes to its software which had been requested by the NHS but not formally agreed with CSC.

Comment

It appears there has been no deliberate deception and no deliberate manipulation of public perceptions of the NPfIT. But the fact remains that the DH made a major announcement in 2011 which gave the impression the NPfIT was dead when this was not true.

When a BBC Radio 4 journalist called me this week and we spoke briefly about the NPfIT he said: “I thought it was dead”.

Perhaps the mindset of officials was that the NPfIT was dead because everyone except the suppliers wanted it to be. But because local service provider contracts had to stay in place – the suppliers being much better equipped than the DH to handle any disputes over early termination – large payments to CSC and BT had to continue.

It’s a little like the political row over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It’s unlikely Blair lied over the existence of WMD. He probably convinced himself they existed. In a similar act of self-delusion officials appear to have convinced themselves the NPfIT was dead although it wasn’t.

But if we cannot believe a major DH announcement one starts to ask whether any of the department’s major announcements can be believed.

Uncoloured information on the NPfIT has always been hard to come by. So credit is due to the Public Accounts Committee and particularly its MP Richard Bacon for finding out so much about the NPfIT.  All credit to Margaret Hodge for picking up on Bacon’s concerns. Were it not for the committee, with indispensable support from the National Audit Office, the DH would have been a sieve allowing only bits of information it wanted to release to pass through.

The fall-out from the NPfIT will continue for years. We still don’t know, for example, what all the trusts with BT and CSC systems will do when the NPfIT contracts expire in the next three years. The hope is for transparency – and not of the sort characterised by the DH’s announcement in 2011 of the NPfIT’s dismantling.

This post also appears on ComputerworldUK

Francis Maude –“unacceptable” civil service practices

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude laments civil service inaction over a cabinet committee mandate for centralising procurement. It “corrodes trust in the system”.

Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service,  confronted Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of civil service reform, on BBC R4’s In Defence of Bureaucracy last week.

The irreconcilable differences between O’Donnell and Maude were obvious and may be a sign of how difficult it will be for the minister to make lasting and deep cuts in IT-based spending, simplify overly complex processes, and reduce duplication.

O’Donnell spoke of the virtues of the civil service that have served the country for more than a century, particularly its impartiality.  But Maude said the “value of impartiality can sometimes turn into indifference”.

O’Donnell said: “We need to be proud and passionate about the public sector ethos…” and confronted Maude for saying things about the civil service “that are not always totally positive”.

francis-maude.jpgIndeed Maude said,

“Most of the civil servants I deal with are terrific, work hard and do really good work.  It is not universal.”

O’Donnell then confronted Maude for saying that ministers in this and previous government have too often found that decisions they have made don’t get implemented. Is that the fault of ministers or civil servants, asked O’Donnell.

“I’d be astonished if it’s ministers,” said Maude who added,

“ I had a meeting the other day around this table …  where a decision was made by a cabinet committee, more than a year ago, on the centralising of procurement. It had happened to a very minimal extent.

“If there is a problem with it, that can be flagged up and tell us. Just to go away and not do it is unacceptable … it is protection of the system. This is the speaking truth unto power thing. What is unacceptable is not to challenge a ministerial position but then not to implement it. That is what corrodes trust in the system.”

About £230bn a year – nearly a third of everything government spends – is on public sector procurement.  In 2010, Nigel Smith, then CEO of the Office of Government Commerce, spoke to the “Smartgov” conference about the need for major reform in the way government buys things.

He spoke of the need for re-useable software, open source if possible, and said that suppliers regularly use fragmentation within government to maximise profits. “This has got to change,” says Smith.

He said there were 44,000 buying organisations in the public sector which buy “roughly the same things, or similar things, in basic commodity categories” such as IT and office supplies.

Massive duplication

He spoke of “massive duplication”, high tendering costs on suppliers, and a loss of value due to a lack of true aggregation. He said suppliers had little forward look of opportunities to tender and offer innovative solutions for required outcomes.

“Contract management with supplier relationship management is inconsistent, with too little attention paid to continuous improvement and benefits capture within contract.

“The opportunity to improve outcomes and efficiency gains should not be constrained by contract terms and innovations should not stop at the point of contract signature.

“If we miss this opportunity [to reform] we need shooting.”

So it is clear procurement [and much else] needs reforming. But in the R4 broadcast last week (which unfortunately is no longer available) O’Donnell portrays a civil service that is almost as good as it gets.

He speaks of its permanence in contrast to transient ministers. His broadcast attacks the US system of government in which public service leaders change every time there is a new government.  The suggestion is that the US system is like a ship that veers crazily from side to side, as one set of idealogues take the captain’s wheel from another. O’Donnell implies that in the UK civil service stability lasts for decades, even centuries.

The virtues he most admires in the UK civil service are what he calls the 4 “Ps” – Pace, Passion, Professionalism and Pride.  His broadcast speaks of the UK civil service as a responsible, effective, continual and reliable form of administration.  

Comment

O’Donnell’s most striking criticism of Maude’s intended reforms of central government goes to the heart of what Maude is trying to do: change what is happening in departments.

When, in the broadcast, Maude suggested that civil servants were not challenging ministerial decisions and were not implementing them either, O’Donnell replied that Maude was “overstating the issue”. But O’Donnell went much further and added a comment that implied Maude should leave departments alone.

O’Donnell said

“These sorts of problems mainly arise when ministers at the centre of government want to impose their will on secretaries of state who want to be left alone to run their departments as they see fit.”

Is O’Donnell giving permanent secretaries and departmental ministers his support if they continue to snub Cabinet Office reforms?

It is hardly surprising Maude is a bundle of frustrations. Central government administration cannot be reformed if departments have the autonomy to refuse to implement decisions of a cabinet committee.

It is ironic that cabinet committee decisions are binding on the entire Cabinet – but not, it seems, on departments.

Perhaps the gap between political and civil service leaders at the centre, and senior civil servants in departments, is as irreconcilable as ever. Today’s UK civil service is more than ever “Yes Minister” without the jokes.  Should this be the dysfunctional basis for coalition reforms of central government?

Perhaps this explains why Maude is trying to implement open standards, make government procurement friendly to SMEs and encourage the use of G-Cloud while the Department for Work and Pensions and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are  agreeing new mega-contracts,  with the same handful of monolithic suppliers.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary,  is perhaps a little more Maude-friendly than O’Donnell when he says in the R4 broadcast,

“There are lots of things we need to do better. Too many projects that we undertake are delayed, are over budget and don’t deliver on all the benefits that were promised. We are not as digital as the most effective private sector organisations are. We have been slow to embrace the digital revolution.”

Fine words. But if a cabinet committee’s decision on centralising procurement has little effect, how is Sir Jeremy going to convert his words into action? Or Francis Maude’s?

Are HMRC’s IT costs under firm control?

By Tony Collins

 The costs of IT outsourcing at HMRC have soared despite a well-written contract that promised large savings. When, as Inland Revenue, the department first outsourced IT in 1994, annual IT costs were around £100m.  Now it has emerged that HMRC’s  annual IT spending was running at more than  £1bn between April 2011 and March 2012.  Only some of the 10-fold increase is explained by new work.

Are there lessons for Barnet, Cornwall and other public authorities as they ponder large-scale outsourcing, given that HMRC did almost everything right and still faces a costly contractual lock-in to major IT suppliers until 2017 – a 13-year outsourcing contract?

HMRC has made some extraordinary payments to its outsourcing suppliers since 2011  – more than mid-way through a 13-year contract.

HMRC figures collated by former Inland Revenue IT employee and now payroll specialist Matt Boyle of Research4paye show that HMRC paid its “Aspire” IT partners £964.2m in a single year, between April 2011 and March 2012.

HMRC paid a further £42.6m of invoices from Serco for one year of website development and support. These figures do not include all of HMRC’s IT costs between April 2011 and March 2012, such as invoices from Accenture for maintenance fees and for work relating to Customs.

IT costs soar

1994. £100 annual IT costs. Inland Revenue first outsources its 2,000-strong IT department to EDS. The annual cost of the 10-year contract is about £100m a year according to the National Audit Office.

2004.  £250m annual IT costs. The end of the EDS contract. HMRC’s annual IT costs have risen to about £250m a year (National Audit Office figure).

2004. £280m annual IT costs. Capgemini wins from EDS a new 10-year HMRC outsourcing deal called Aspire (Acquiring Strategic Partners for the Inland Revenue). Capgemini’s main subcontractors are Fujitsu and Accenture. Capgemini’s bid is for £2.8bn, an average of £280m a year.

2005. £539m annual IT cost.  Inland Revenue merges with Customs and Excise to form HMRC which takes on £1bn Fujitsu IT contract from Customs. The first year of the Aspire contract costs £539m, nearly double the expected amount. The NAO blames most of the increase on new work.

2007. In return for promised savings of £70m a year from 2010/11, HMRC extends Capgemini’s contract by three years to 2017. There’s an option to extend for a further five years.

2010. £700m annual IT costs. Under FOI, HMRC releases a statement saying that the Aspire annual contract costs are running at about £700m.

2011/12. £964.2m annual IT cost. HMRC’s list of invoices from its Aspire suppliers for one year between April 2011 and March 2012 add up to £964.2m. A further £42.6m is invoiced by Serco for website development and support.  This puts HMRC’s IT annual outsourcing costs at 10 times higher than they were when Inland Revenue let its first outsourcing deal in 1994. Some of today’s HMRC systems pre-date 1994 [BROCS/CODA].

Aspire – a good contract?

It appears that HMRC did everything right in its Aspire contract. Indeed the National Audit Office has found little to criticise. Aspire is committed to “open book”, so Capgemini, Fujitsu and Accenture must account for their costs and profit margins.

The contract has some innovations. The suppliers’ margin is retained by HMRC until trials are successfully passed. Even then 50% of the margin is retained until the final Post Implementation Trial about six months after implementation.

Charges under Aspire are split into two categories: “S” and “P”.  The former is mainly a commodity pricing arrangement with unit prices being charged for all service elements at a commodity level (e.g. per Workstation, volumes of printed output etc). The charge to HMRC will vary by volume of demand for each service line.

The ‘’P’’ series charge lines are charged on a man-day basis. Application development and delivery is charged mainly on what HMRC calls an “output basis utilising function points“.

Where IT spending goes

There are more than 800 invoices from Aspire covering the year from April 2011 to March 2012. Some of the invoices are, individually, for tens of millions of pounds and cover a single month’s work.

The invoices cover services such as data centre output, data centre operations, systems software maintenance, software coding changes, licences, IT hardware and data storage.

For some of the Aspire invoices HMRC gives a brief explanation such as £57.6m – “June monthly payment for development and support”. But some of the biggest invoices have little explanation:

May 2011:  invoice for £24.7m – IT Software. A further invoice of £61.7m – “data output prod”.

June 2011: invoice for £55.8m – “data output prod”. A further invoice £56.8m – “data output prod”.

On top of these payments HMRC paid about 24 invoices of management fees in the year. Typical monthly invoice amounts for Aspire management fees ranged from about £390,000 to £2.9m.

There are dozens of Aspire invoices in the year for IT software changes to support day-to-day HMRC’s business. Quite a few of those invoices for software changes are each for tens of thousands of pounds but more than 30 invoices for IT changes in the year 2011/12 each bill more than £100,000. The biggest single invoice in the same year for software changes to support day-to-day HMRC business is  £469, 964 in December 2011.

Transparency

Matt Boyle collated the figures on HMRC’s IT spending from spreadsheets published by HMRC . All credit to Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, for making government departments publish details of their invoices over £25,000.

And credit is due to Matt Boyle for collating and totalling HMRC’s IT-related invoices. Boyle says he is surprised at the high costs of Aspire. He is also surprised that the contract excludes web development and support.

Comment:

HMRC appears to have done nearly everything right and still its IT outsourcing costs are soaring, apparently uncontrollably.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the department and taxpayers would have been much better off if Inland Revenue had not outsourced and instead spent the millions it pays annually on, say,  management fees, to building up an in-house IT force and expertise.

Central government seems now to shun big outsourcing deals but local authorities including Barnet and Cornwall are at the stage Inland Revenue was in 1994: they are considering saving money by outsourcing major IT and other services to one main supplier.

If they learn from HMRC’s experiences – and the sums it has had to pay to outsourcing partners – it may take a little of the sting out of HMRC’s enforced prodigality.

[It may also be worth mentioning that some including Boyle ask how it is possible to credibly justify a spend of £46m in one year on a website.]

DWP finds hidden Universal Credit reports – after FOI requests

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions has found two reports on Universal Credit reports it commissioned from IBM and McKinsey and did not know existed.

One of the reports was a Universal Credit “end to end technical review” carried out by IBM at a cost of £49,240. Another was a review of the Universal Credit “delivery model assessment phases one and two” carried by McKinsey and Partners at a cost of £350,000.  The assessments were in the first half of 2011.

In March, under the FOI Act, Campaign4Change asked the DWP for a copy of the reports and the Department couldn’t find them.

On 19 July 2012, Julie Kitchin, Senior Business Partner, Operations at the Financial Control Directorate, Risk Management Division, DWP Quarry House, Leeds, said in a letter:

“You asked for a copy of the Universal Credit Delivery Model Assessment Phase 1 and 2, and the Universal Credit End to End Technical Review.

“To ascertain whether the Department holds these documents I requested a thorough search of the Universal Credit Programme document library.

“Universal Credit Colleagues have confirmed that the Department does not hold documents with these titles or under these names…”

I replied that a mistake appeared to have been made. “The reports I asked for are referred to in this Parliamentary reply, which gives the cost of the reports and the consultants whom the DWP commissioned to produce them. How can the DWP now say they have no record of the reports?” I gave a link to the Parliamentary reply.

Kitchin said she would seek clarification.  Now Martin Dillon of the DWP’s Central FOI Team, says his Department has found the reports. Says Dillon in a letter,

“It has taken time to locate the documents as they are sensitive in nature and held securely and separately from the normal programme library of information – accessible only through a secure authority.

“I can however now confirm that the relevant records have been located and retrieved.”

Comment

So will the DWP now release the Universal Credit reports?

Not a chance.   The DWP does not publish any consultancy reports, especially external assessments of Universal Credit. Indeed it appears to be so innately, instinctively and culturally secretive that it hides from its own staff independent  assessments of its projects.

Could it be that the DWP is in part PR-driven, to the extent that it commissions tens of millions of pounds worth of external reviews of projects, which ministers and officials can quote from selectively in case a project such as Universal Credit is criticised in Parliament, but which remain hidden so that anything negative is always kept from public and Parliamentary scrutiny?

In defence of the DH’s decision to pay generous sums to BT for Rio and Cerner deployments under the NPfIT, the department quoted selectively from a series of consultancy reports which it refused to publish.

Officially the DWP has not made up its mind on whether to publish the Universal credit reports. In private its officials know there is no way it will publish them.

This is the official DWP response to Campaign4Change on the reports requested under FOI:

“It is occasionally necessary to extend the time limit for issuing a response. In the case of your request, we need to extend the time limit because the information requested must be considered under one of the exemptions to which the public interest test applies.

“This extra time is needed in order to make a determination as to the public interest. Accordingly, we hope to let you have a response by 13 September.”

Universal Credit is one of the government’s biggest IT-related projects. Ministers say that all is going well. But what if the plans are to go live with a tiny proportion of claimants in October next year, with most of the remainder to follow after the next general election, if at all? Is that a PR success or a postponed disaster? It’s certainly a good reason to keep independent assessments of the project secret.

“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” – Yes Minister.

Has DWP lost £400,000 worth of Universal Credit studies it commissioned?

DWP hides already published report on Universal Credit

Millions of secret DWP reports.

Time for truth on Universal Credit IT

Maude gives up on plan to publish regular reports on major projects

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has given up on publishing regular “Gateway” reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT and construction projects.

Publication of the independent reviews has proved a step too far towards open government.  Were Maude to insist on publishing Major Projects Authority “Gateway” review reports, it would alienate too many influential senior civil servants whose support Maude needs to implement the Civil Service Reform Plan of June 2012.

Gateway reviews are independent reports on medium and high-risk projects at important stages of their lifecycle.  If current and topical the reviews are always kept secret. One copy is given to the project’s senior responsible owner and the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority keeps another. Other copies have limited distribution.

In opposition Maude said he would publish the reviews; and when in power Maude took the necessary steps: the Cabinet Office’s “Structural Reform Plan Monthly Implementation Updates” included an undertaking to publish Gateway reviews by December 2011 .

When some officials, particularly those who had worked at the Office of Government Commerce, objected strongly to publishing the reports (for reasons set out below), the undertaking  to publish them vanished from further Structural Reform Plan Monthly Implementation Updates.  When asked why, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the plan to publish Gateway reviews had only ever been a “draft” proposal.

The anti-publication officials have thwarted even Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the Home Civil Service, who replaced Sir Gus O’Donnell.  When in May 2012 Conservative MP Richard Bacon asked Kerslake about publishing Gateway reviews, Kerslake replied:

Yes, actually we are looking at this specific issue as part of the Civil Service Reform Plan….I cannot say exactly what will be in the plan because we have not finalised it yet, but it is due in June and my expectation is that I am very sympathetic to publication of the RAG [red, amber, green] ratings.”

Inexplicably there was a change of plan. The Civil Service Reform Plan in fact said nothing about Gateway reports. It made no mention of RAG ratings. What the Plan offered on openness over major projects was an undertaking that “Government will publish an annual report on major projects by July 2012, which will cover the first full year’s operation of the Major Projects Authority.”  (This is a far cry from publishing regular independent Gateway assessments on major projects such as the IT for Universal Credit.)

Even that promise has yet to materialise: no annual report has been published. The Cabinet Office originally promised Parliament an annual report on the Major Projects Authority by December 2011. The Cabinet Office says that the annual MPA report has been delayed because the “team is now clear that it makes sense to include a full financial year’s worth of data and analysis in its first report”.

When eventually published the annual report will, says the Cabinet Office,  “make for a far more informative and comprehensive piece, and will include analysis of data up to 31 March 2012. This will be the first time the UK government has reported on its major projects in such a coherent and transparent way.”

Even so it’s now clear that the Cabinet Office is discarding its plans to publish regular Gateway review reports. Maude wants cooperation with officials, not confrontation.  He made this clear in the reform plan in which he said:

“Some may caricature this action plan as an attack on the Civil Service. It isn’t. It would be just as wrong to caricature the attitude of the Civil Service as one of unyielding resistance to change. Many of the most substantive ideas in this paper have come out of the work led by Permanent Secretaries themselves.”

But Maude is also frustrated at the quiet recalcitrance of some officials.  To a Lords committee that was inquiring into the accountability of civil servants, he said

“The thing for me that is absolutely fundamental in civil servants is that they should feel wholly uninhibited in challenging, advising and pushing back and then when a decision is made they should be wholly clear about implementing it.

“For me the sin against the holy ghost is to not push back and then not do it – that is what really enrages ministers, certainly in talking to ministers in the last government and in the current government. It is by no mean universal, but it is far more widespread than is desirable.”

It’s likely that Maude will keep Gateway reports secret so long as he has the cooperation of officials on civil service reforms.

Why officials oppose publication

The reasons for opposing publication were set out in the OGC’s evidence to an Information Tribunal on the Information Commissioner’s ruling in 2006 that the OGC publish two Gateway reports on the ID Cards scheme.

Below are some of the OGC’s arguments (all of which the Tribunal rejected).  The OGC went to the High Court to stop two early ID Cards Gateway reports being published, at which time OGC lawyers cited the 1689 Bill of Rights. The ID Cards gateway reports were eventually published (and the world didn’t end).

The OGC had argued that publishing Gateway reports would mean that:

–  Interviewees in Gateway reviews gave their time voluntarily and may refuse to cooperate.  (The Information Commissioner did not accept that officials would cease to perform their duties on the grounds the information may be disclosed.)

– Interviewees would be guarded in what they said;  reviewers would be less inclined to cooperate; and disclosure would result in anodyne reports. These three arguments were given in evidence by Sir Peter Gershon, the first Chief Executive of the OGC.

– Civil servants would be reluctant to take on the role of senior responsible owner of a project.

– Critics of a project would have ammunition which could discourage other departments and agencies from participating in the scheme.

– Cabinet collective responsibility could be undermined if Ministers were interviewed for a review.

– Criticisms in the reviews could be “in the newspapers within a very short time”, and the media could misrepresent the review’s findings. (The Tribunal discovered that those involved in the reviews were generally more concerned with their programme than possible adverse publicity.)

– Reports would take longer to write.

– The public would not understand the complexities in the reports.

Why Gateway reports should be published

The Tribunal found that OGC fears about publishing were speculative and that disclosure would contribute to a public debate about the merits of ID Cards, and provide some insight into the decision-making which underlay the scheme. Disclosure would ensure that a complex and sensitive scheme was “properly scrutinised and implemented”, said the Tribunal.

Was OGC evidence to Tribunal fixed?

The Tribunal was also suspicious that the OGC had submitted several witness statements that used identical wording. The Tribunal said the witnesses should have expressed views in their own words.

It found that disclosure could make Gateway reviewers more candid because they would know that their recommendations and findings would be subject to public scrutiny; and criticisms in the reports, if made public, could strengthen the assurance process.

Importantly, the Tribunal said the disclosure would help people judge whether the Gateway process itself works.

Comment

Hundreds of Gateway reports are carried out by former civil servants who can earn more than £1,000 a day for doing a review (although note Peter Smith’s comment below). As the reports are to remain secret how will the reviewers be held properly accountable for their assessments? No wonder officials don’t want the reports published.

Any idea how many projects we have and what they’ll cost? – Cabinet Office.

Whitehall cost cutting saves £5.5bn

Lessons from an IT disaster

By Tony Collins

Only rarely is an independent report on an IT-related disaster published.  So North Bristol NHS Trust deserves credit for publishing a report  by Pricewaterhousecoopers into the problematic go-live of Cerner Millennium in December 2011.  PwC calls the Cerner system a “business-critical patient record system”.

The implementation, says PwC,  resulted in significant continuing  operational difficulty. PwC was asked to review the implementation, identify what went wrong and make recommendations.

What is clear from PWC’s report is that North Bristol NHS Trust repeated the known mistakes of other trusts that had gone live with Cerner Millennium:

–          A lack of independent challenge

–          Not enough testing of the system and new business processes

–          Inadequate contingency arrangements

–          Not enough time for data migration

–          Training systems not the same as those to be used

–          Preparations treated as an IT project, not a change programme.

–          Differences between legacy and Cerner systems not fully understood before go live

–          Staff did not always understand new or changed business processes

In 2007 the National Audit Office reported in detail on the lessons from the go-live of Cerner Millennium at Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Oxford in December 2005.

One of those lessons was that the Trust did not learn lessons from earlier NPfIT Cerner Millennium go-lives. This happened again at North Bristol, suggests the PwC report:

“There were not dissimilar Cerner implementations within the Greenfield [other ex-Fujitsu and now BT-managed Cerner Millennium implementations under the NPfIT] systems running a few months before NBT’s [North Bristol Trust] implementation. Similar difficulties were experienced there, but they were more successfully addressed.”

Below are extracts from PwC’s report “Independent review of Cerner Millennium implementation North Bristol NHS Trust”.

“The success of an implementation of this scale, complexity and timing depends on substantial, robust and enduring programme management focusing on:

–          The IT implementation. Incorporating configuration of Cerner Millennium, infrastructure, security, interfaces and testing;

–          The migration of data from the two legacy PAS systems into Cerner Millennium;

–          Change management to engage and train stakeholders, embed change in the organisation and ensure that processes and procedures are aligned to the new system;

–          Continuous communication with users about changes to business processes as a result of the implementation; and

–          Quality control criteria and the association governance to ensure that go-live went ahead in a safe and sustainable manner.

–          The Trust needed stringent programme management with programme and project managers of the highest quality, to ensure that effective governance and project planning procedures were followed.

–          The go-live decision and assurances needed to pass strict criteria with sufficient evidence to provide assurance to the board that all necessary activities were completed prior to go-live.

The implementation in both the wards and the Emergency Department (ED) went well. Staff in ED were well engaged in the project and as a result were fully aware of the changes to their business processes at go live. There were some minor system issues initially but these were resolved quickly and ED was fully operational with Cerner Millennium soon after go live. One of the underlying factors in the success of the deployment to ED was that there was no data migration required as the historical data remains in the old system.

The launch in the wards went as expected; the functionality was tested well and the data was loaded manually, although there now appear to be issues with staff engaging and using the system as intended.

The majority of problems encountered at go live related to the theatre and outpatient clinic builds.

Outpatients had the most disruption immediately after go live. The Trust’s back office team had not finished building the outpatient clinics in Cerner Millennium, so the new and old systems did not mirror each other and data could not successfully migrate. Changes continued to be made to clinics in the old PAS systems, and these were not all reflected in Cerner Millennium.

Ad hoc clinics were used in the old PAS system to allow overbooking to maximise activity. These were not separated from real clinics at go live and migrated to Cerner Millennium as real clinics. The ad hoc clinics in PAS had deliberately abnormal timings so they could be excluded from time-based reports, for example 12:30am and 5:30am. The system generated letters for these ad hoc out- of-hours clinics, and many were sent to patients.

In the old system, clinics for a number of consultants could be pooled to facilitate patients seeing the next available consultant.  All clinics in Cerner Millennium are specific to a consultant and this caused significant confusion to administration staff using the new system.

PAS [the legacy patient administration system] treats “weeks” differently to Cerner Millennium. On migration, weeks were misaligned and the dates for clinics and theatres was incorrect. This created huge confusion as patient notes did not agree with Cerner Millennium , despite exhaustive work before go live to ensure that all patient notes were ready for the clinics that should have been on the system.  This also affected information in letters, with patients advised to attend their appointment on the wrong date.

There was a further issue in theatres relating to theatre procedure codes. The Trust did not map the old procedure codes to the new to ensure that all the required procedures would be available in Cerner Millennium for the data to migrate successfully. The Trust identified this issue soon after go live and has run a parallel manual process to ensure patients received the correct procedures.

The training provided to staff by the Trust did not equip them to be able to use Cerner Millennium at go live. The training environment did not mirror the system the Trust implemented as certain elements of the system were not complete when the training domain was created. Theatre staff and outpatient appointments could not train on a system with theatre schedules and outpatient clinics built in.

The Trust is now beginning to move out of the crisis and return to normal operations.

Lack of effective quality controls

There was insufficient rigour over the controls criteria and sign off of the gateway reviews.

There was inadequate operational control over the go live process, such as clinic freeze and updates pre-, during, and post go-live. Evidence from the interviews suggests that:

  • There was little challenge to confirm that the gateway criteria had in fact been met.
  • There was no evidence presented to the Cerner Programme Board or the Trust Board to demonstrate that the gateway criteria had been met.
  • There was not enough focus on or monitoring of risks and issues and their impact on go live.
  • The cleansing of old and out-of-date data from the legacy PAS systems was inadequate; as a result, erroneous data became live data in the Cerner system.
  • Data Migration issues were not all resolved and their impact on go live was not considered.
  • The outpatient and theatre builds were neither complete nor accurate, and there were no controls which could have detected this before go live.
  • There were inadequate controls over clinic freeze and clinic changes prior to go live.

Lack of effective programme planning

Programme plans were not rigorously updated as the programme progressed and planning around training, testing and data migration and build was not robust. The Trust failed to recognise this programme as a change programme and did not effectively manage the engagement and feedback from their stakeholders. Evidence from the interviews suggests that:

  • The Trust did not factor contingency into its programme plan to account for changes to the go live date.
  • The Cerner Programme Management Office was not effective because of inadequate resource and programme tools.
  • The Trust had a lack of sufficiently skilled resources for a project on this scale.
  • The Trust’s operational staff were not fully engaged in the Cerner project.
  • The Cerner project was treated as an IT project and not a business change programme.
  • The training was inadequate and did not provide users with the skills they needed to be able to use the system at go live.
  • The testing focused on the functionality of the system and not end-user testing of the outpatient and theatre builds.
  • There was no end-user testing of the final outpatient clinic and theatre builds prior to go live.
  • There was lack of understanding of roles within the wider programme team.
  • External parties offered NBT help and advice. They felt that the advice was not taken and the help was refused.

Lack of effective programme governance

Programme governance processes were not reviewed and updated regularly to ensure that they were adequate and there was inappropriate accountability for key decision making. During the implementation, the Trust established new overarching change management arrangements for the Building our Future programme. Evidence from the interviews suggests that:

  • The Cerner Project team failed to comply with the Trust’s Building our Future governance processes
  • The information presented to the Cerner Programme Board and the Trust board by the Cerner Project team was inadequate for them to make informed decisions;
  • The Cerner Programme Board was not effective; and
  • Significant issues relating to the theatre and outpatient clinic build were not escalated to the Cerner Programme Board or the Trust board.

PwC’s Conclusions

For a programme of this scale and complexity, the management arrangements were not sufficiently extensive or robust. There were many issues with the software and data migration, the training of users and operational go live planning. The Trust Board and the Cerner Programme Board did not plan to have, and did not receive, independent assurance that the state of the programme supported a decision to go-live.

Complex IT implementations are never without risks and issues that need to be managed, even at the point of go live. The scale of the issues in this implementation was not properly understood by those with responsibility, and as a result they were not in a position to make sound decisions.

Many of the problems are associated with poor data and process migration. Staff found that a significant proportion of migrated data was incorrect in the new system, and this had rapid and substantial operational impact which has taken a considerable time to rectify with manual processes. Staff needed to be more directly involved in migration and process testing.

The implementation was manifestly a complex change programme. But IT took the lead, and there was no intelligent customer with sufficient distance from IT to ensure products and progress were properly challenged.

There were not dissimilar Cerner implementations within the Greenfield running a few months before NBT implementation. Similar difficulties were experienced there, but they were more successfully addressed.”

PwC recommends that:

-  the Trust “stop and take stock”. It says  “The Trust needs to take stock of its position and develop a coherent and detailed plan for the remainder of the recovery stage. The Trust then needs to ensure that effective cross programme planning and governance arrangements are enforced for all current projects, especially those under the Building Our Future programme.”

PwC also recommends that the Trust carry out a:

–  Governance review

– Capability/capacity review

– Cross programme plan review

– Operational assessment

– Review of process and controls

– Review of information requirement

– Technical resilience/infrastructure review

– Review of access controls

Comment:

To me the PwC report throws up at least six points:

1) Are NPfIT go-lives more political than pragmatic?

In the 1990s Barclays Bank went live with new systems for all its branches. During the night (I was invited to watch the go-live at head office) the most striking element was a check list that asked questions on progress so far. The answers determined whether the go-live would happen. The check-list was completed repeatedly – seemingly endlessly – during the night.

Many  different types of mishaps could have stopped the go-live.  None did.  Go-lives of Cerner Millennium are different. They seem unstoppable, whatever the circumstances, whatever the problems.  There was nothing political about the Barclays go-live. But NPfIT go-lives are intensely political.

Would North Bristol’s board have accepted with equanimity a last-minute cancellation, especially after go-lives had been postponed at least twice before?

2)  Are NHS boards too focused on “good news” to oversee an NPfIT go live?

North Bristol NHS Trust deserves praise for publishing the PwC report.  But it’s not the whole story.  The report says little about any potentially serious impact on patients. Also it mentions (almost in passing) that the Trust board discussed in November 2011 the readiness of Cerner Millennium to go live. That discussion was probably positive because Millennium went live a month later. But there is no mention of that discussion in the Trust’s board papers for November 2011.

Why did the Trust discuss its readiness to go live in secret? And why did it keep secret its November 2011 report on its readiness to go live?

If North Bristol, like so many NHS trusts, is congenitally beset with a good news culture at board level, can the full truth ever be properly discussed?

3) Isn’t it time Cerner lessons were learnt?

After seven years of Cerner implementations in the NHS, several of them notorious failures, isn’t it time Trusts learnt the lessons?

4)  What’s the current position?

PwC’s report is succinct and professional. It’s also diplomatically-worded. There is little in the report that points to how the Trust is coping with the operational difficulties. Indeed it suggests the Trust is returning to normal. “The Trust is now beginning to move out of the crisis and return to normal operations,” says the PwC report. But that is, in essence, what the Trust has been saying publicly since January 2012.  PwC says nothing about whether the safety of patients has been jeopardized by the go-live.

5) Where were the Trust’s Audit Committee – and internal auditors?

Every NHS Trust has an audit committee and internal auditors to warn about things that are going wrong, or may go wrong. It appears that they were out to lunch when it came to North Bristol’s Cerner Millennium project and its consequences.  The Audit Committee seems hardly to have mentioned the project. Should North Bristol’s board hold the Audit Committee and internal auditors to account?

6) Is the Trust board to blame?

Perhaps rightly PwC does not seek to apportion blame. But did the Trust board ask the right questions often enough?  The tacit criticism in the PwC report is of the IT department and layers of management below board level. But is that criticism misdirected? If the board’s culture of encouraging good news – of “bring me solutions not problems” –  has not changed, perhaps little or nothing will have been learned from North Bristol’s IT-related disaster.

PWC report Independent review of Cerner Millennium implementation North Bristol NHS Trust.

Lessons from Nuffield Orthopaedic’s Cerner Millennium implementation in 2005.

North Bristol apologises over Cerner go-live.

New hospital system caused chaos.

MP asks why two Cerner systems cost vastly different prices.

IBM won bid without lowest-price – council gives detail under FOI

By Tony Collins

Excessive secrecy has characterised a deal between IBM and Somerset County Council which was signed in 2007.

Indeed I once went to the council’s offices in Taunton, on behalf of Computer Weekly, for a pre-arranged meeting to ask questions about the IBM contract. A council lawyer refused to answer most of my questions because I did not live locally.

Now (five years later) Somerset’s Corporate Information Governance Officer Peter Grogan at County Hall, Taunton, has shown that the council can be surprisingly open.

He has overturned a refusal of the council to give the bid prices. Suppliers sometimes complain that the public sector awards contracts to the lowest-price bidder. But …

Supplier / Bid Total cost over 10 years
BT Standard bid £220.552M
BT Variant Bid £248.055M
Capita Standard Bid £256.671M
Capita Variant Bid £267.687M
IBM Standard Bid £253.820M
IBM Variant Bid £253.820M

The FOI request was made by former council employee Dave Orr who has, more than anyone, sought to hold Somerset and IBM to account for what has turned out to be a questionable deal.

Under the FOI Act, Orr asked Somerset County Council for the bid totals. It refused saying the suppliers had given the information  in confidence. Orr appealed. In granting the appeal Grogan said:

“I would also consider that the passage of time has a significant impact here as the figures included under the exemption are now some 5 years old and their commercial sensitivity is somewhat eroded.

“Whilst, at the time those companies tendering for the contract would justifiably expect the information to be confidential and that they could rely upon confidentiality clauses, I am not able to support the non-disclosure due the fact that the FOI Act creates a significant argument for disclosure that outweighs the confidentiality agreement once the tender exercise is complete and a reasonable amount of time has passed.

“I therefore do not consider this exemption [section 41] to be engaged. Please find the information you requested below…”

[In my FOI experience – making requests to central government departments – the internal review process has always proved pointless. So all credit to Peter Grogan for not taking the easy route, in this case at least.]

MP Ian Liddell-Grainger ‘s website on the “Southwest One” IBM deal.

IBM struggles with SAP two years on – a shared services warning.

Council accepts IBM deal as failing.

Was Audit Commission Somerset and IBM’s unofficial PR agents?