Category Archives: managing change

Real time information – the good and bad

By Tony Collins

Widespread publicity over the past week has drawn attention to inaccuracies in Real Time Information, HMRC’s system for handling PAYE submissions from employers every time they pay an employee rather that at the year-end. The Daily Telegraph broke the story with the headline

“Five million UK workers face uncertainty after tax bills wrongly calculated twice in HMRC blunder”

The BBC said tax  statement errors affect thousands of people.  Accountancy Live reported that tax experts were urging HMRC to review RTI to see if it’s fit for purpose. The FT reported HMRC as admitting that an “unknown number of inaccurate P800 statements and payment orders for the 2013/14 tax year had been sent to taxpayers since September 15″.

But HMRC says that RTI is a success for more than 98% of those employers who have to use it.

Tens of millions of PAYE employees are now on RTI – and if the system were a disaster HMRC and MPs would be deluged with complaints. That hasn’t happened.

Indeed the National Audit Office was complimentary in its audit of HMRC’s 2013/14 accounts of the ability of RTI to give employees the correct tax code when their jobs change – thereby reducing the levels of under and overpayments.

“Data quality has improved and HMRC’s own evaluation suggests that RTI is helping to change employer behaviour by encouraging them to tell HMRC of changes in employee circumstances earlier,” said the NAO.

RTI – the good and bad

The good news for HMRC and the government’s welfare reformers is that Universal Credit, which relies on RTI to calculate benefits, is running well behind its original schedule.

UC is rolling out to a small number of people – fewer than 12,000 by 14 August 2014 –  rather than the expected 184,000 by April 2014, according to the DWP’s revised December 2012 business case.  This means that inaccuracies in RTI will have little effect on UC for the foreseeable future.

The bad

If RTI cannot be relied on to provide accurate information on whether Universal Credit claimants are paying the right amount of tax, UC cannot be relied on to provide correct payments to claimants – which would undermine the welfare reform programme.

Another problem is that tax experts are weary of HMRC’s repeated blaming of employers for RTI’s problems. One of the reasons RTI contains inaccuracies is that HMRC uses employers’ changing internal “works” numbers as individual identifiers, as well as the National Insurance Number.

Employers change their payroll works numbers for a variety of reasons, say when an employee is promoted to management, when the company wants to distinguish various groups for the employer’s own purpose, or when an employee moves location.

The works number is for the internal use of the employer but is included in information submitted to HMRC. The number is “owned” by employers and is for them to use and administer as they see fit. It should have no relevance to HMRC.  But when the works number changes, it can trigger a false assumption in HMRC’s systems that the employee has two employments, with the same employer.  This would generate an incorrect tax code – and would be HMRC’s fault, not the employer’s.

Steve Wade, tax director at KPMG, puts it well.  He says of the latest publicity about RTI errors:

“These systems issues are causing so called ‘employer errors’, which is where the data supplied by the employer is not processed by HMRC systems as expected.

“Sometimes this can be due to bad data being supplied but equally it can be due to errors in HMRC systems which were not designed to deal with all the complexities of PAYE.

“The upshot for employers and employees is that they find that the PAYE tax and National Insurance Contributions that have been paid do not match those calculated by HMRC, despite their providing the information as requested.  As a result, they now face uncertainty over whether they have paid the right amount of tax.

“There needs to be some significant and urgent investment in the processing and back end software systems at HMRC which collect and process this data to generate the operational efficiencies envisaged when the whole RTI initiative was conceived.”

Wade told Accountancy Live: “At the moment, RTI just does not seem to be delivering information that is real. What we need is a thorough investigation of what has happened by a team which includes not just HMRC personnel but external specialists. Only that will give the necessary degree of confidence in the system that is vital for everyone who depends upon it.”

Natalie Miller, President of the Association of Taxation Technicians, says of RTI’s inaccuracies:

“This is an alarming revelation and further underscores the need for collaboration with external stakeholders, all of whom have a vested interest in the success of RTI.

“We have been drawing HMRC’s attention to the quirks and complexities of RTI in meetings and correspondence from its inception. We have also highlighted the significant burdens it places on employers and agents. What we are seeing now are real and serious practical problems for possibly many thousands of employees at a time when building confidence in the system is crucial.

“Some of those difficulties might have been avoided if HMRC had heeded advice from ATT and similar bodies at an early stage.

“In light of this latest revelation, we are calling for an urgent review of the RTI system to ensure that it is fit for purpose. This is essential because every employer and employee is entitled to know that PAYE is being dealt with properly. It is doubly important because the RTI system underpins the Universal Credit system that is being rolled out by the Department for Work and Pensions to replace certain state benefits.

“If, as HMRC’s reported comments suggest, the particular problem arose because employers had failed to send in final payment statements for the full 2013/2014 tax year, that suggests two things.

“Firstly, that the process is simply too complex for employers to understand. Secondly, that either HMRC know the information to be incomplete and are failing to address this before placing reliance on the information, or HMRC do not know the information is incomplete, which raises the equally worrying prospect that the system cannot identify when important information is missing.

“It is in nobody’s interest that RTI stumbles from problem to problem; that threatens its credibility. We all need a system that does what it says on the tin. At the moment, Real Time Information just does not seem to be delivering information that is real. What we need is a thorough investigation of what has happened by a team which includes not just HMRC personnel but external specialists.

“Only that will give the necessary degree of confidence in the system that is vital for everyone who depends upon it (employees, pensioners, employers, payroll bureaux, tax advisers, other parts of government and HMRC itself). The review’s remit should extend to other areas of RTI where systemic problems have been identified. The ATT and many other professional bodies stand ready to assist HMRC in that review.”

George Bull, senior tax partner at Baker Tilly, said that the RTI system had so far failed to demonstrate that it can put an end to the annual problem of incorrect tax demands and refunds. “It seems to me that in 2014, this is a pretty sorry state to be in.”

HMRC note to employers, professional bodies and business groups in full (published by Accountingweb)

“We are today emailing our stakeholders to explain that we are aware that a number of employees recently received a form 2013-14 P800 which was issued during our bulk 2013-14 End of Year reconciliation exercise.

“The 2013-14 P800 shows an incorrect overpayment or underpayment where the pay and tax shown on the P800 is incorrect and does not match that shown on their 2013-14 P60.

“The most common scenarios are where:

  • An incorrect overpayment is created as the 2013-14 reconciliation is based upon the Full Payment Submission (FPS) up to month 11 although the employment continued all year.
  • Where the year to date figures supplied are incorrect, for example where an employer reference changed in-year and the previous pay and tax is incorrectly included in the “year to date” (YTD) totals.
  • We have received an “Earlier Year Update” (EYU) and this is yet to be processed to the account.
  • There is a duplicate employment (often caused by differences in works numbers and other changes throughout the year)

“We are urgently investigating these cases and will look to resolve the matter in the next 6-8 weeks.

“We currently do not know the scale of the issue, but some large employers are involved, so several thousands of employees may be affected.

“Next Steps

“We are very sorry that some customers will receive an incorrect 2013-14 P800 tax calculation.

“We are urgently investigating these cases and will look to resolve the matter and issue a revised P800 to the employee in the next 6-8 weeks.

“Employers and their agents should not send any 2013-14 EYUs unless requested by us. We are aware that there are still some 2013-14 EYUs which we have yet to process to the relevant account.

“If an employee asks about a 2013-14 P800 which they think is incorrect, they should advise them:

  • Not to repay any underpayment shown on the P800
  • Not to cash any payable order they may have received
  • Employees will not be affected by the incorrect tax code as we will issue a revised P800 before Annual Coding.”

Comment

RTI is not a disaster but it’s clearly not in a fit state to support Universal Credit – another uncertainty for UC. When the National Audit Office reports on UC, as it is due to do in the next few weeks, it would be useful if it also reports on the state of RTI.

If it does so report, the NAO should not take at face value HMRC’s claims that the fault with RTI lies mainly with employers.

[The NAO will find that, even after the modernisation of PAYE processes, the systems still incorporate COP/CODA/BROCS software that dates back more than 30 years.]

Labour asks good questions on Universal Credit programme

By Tony Collins

Labour has a “Universal Credit Rescue Committee” whose membership includes a former Rolls Royce CIO Jonathan Mitchell.

Mitchell is quoted in Government Computing as saying that it would be irresponsible for a Labour government to continue spending large amounts of money on Universal Credit without getting answers to important questions such as:

  • Is there a comprehensive business case – one that clearly outlines the expected benefits, demonstrating that the Universal Credit project is viable?
  • Is the business case agreed by all stakeholders?
  • Is there clarity about what needs to be achieved?
  • Is there a stable specification explaining exactly how the new processes will work and how they will be automated?
  • Is the project being managed and staffed by people and organisations with appropriate levels of experience, track-record and expertise, all of whom are capable of delivering the benefits of the project and ensuring safe roll-out in a timely manner?
  • Is the project fully under control?
  • Can it absorb the changes demanded by a new incoming Government? If not, can the project be brought under control at an acceptable cost with respect to the business case, through a re-planning exercise?
  • Once such a re-planning exercise is completed, are we convinced that it was successful and that the project will now proceed to a satisfactory completion in a controlled fashion?
  • Are there appropriate “control gates” in place to ensure that all aspects of each phase of the plan are fully completed (and that projected costs to completion preserve the business case) before allowing the project to move safely onto each next stage?

Mitchell said, “Universal Credit is one of those applications that might look straightforward when you first look at it, but this is most definitely not the case. I believe there are significant process and technical challenges to overcome.”

Comment

Good questions, most of which the Department for Work and Pensions is unlikely to be able to answer satisfactorily today.

The Treasury still hasn’t approved the full business case, which is odd for a project that started in earnest more than three years ago.

It’s hard to see, given the rate of progress, the amount of work being completed manually, the lack of integration with legacy systems, the complexity of changes of behaviour required, the reliance on other parties such as local authorities, the inflexibility of some supplier contracts, regularly changing project leadership, the variable performance of HMRC’s RTI systems, and the DWP’s poor history of success on big IT-related projects, how the UC programme will be completed before 2020 whoever wins the next election.

Labour committee outlines Universal Credit “rescue” strategy – Government Computing

DWP’s advert for a £180k IT head – what it doesn’t say

By Tony Collins

Soon the Department for Work and Pensions will choose a Director General, Technology.  Interviewing has finished and an offer is due to go out to the chosen candidate any day now.

The appointee will not replace Howard Shiplee who runs Universal Credit but has been ill for some months. The DWP is looking for Shiplee’s successor as a separate exercise to the recruitment of the DG Technology.

In its job advert for a DG Technology the DWP seeks a “commercial CIO/CTO to become one of the most senior change agents in the UK government”.

The size of the salary – around £180k plus “attractive pension” – suggests that the DWP is looking for a powerful, inspiring and reforming figure. The DWP’s IT makes 730 million payments to a value of 166bn a year.

In practice it is not clear how much power and influence the DG will have, given that there will be a separate head of Universal Credit (Shiplee’s successor) and there is already in place a Director General for Digital Transformation Kevin Cunnington.

What’s a DG Technology to do then?

The job advert suggests the job is about bringing about “unprecedented” change.  It says:

“The department is undergoing major business change, which has at its heart a technology and digital transformation of the services it provides, which will radically improve how it interacts with citizens.”

The role, says the advert, involves:

  • “Designing, developing and delivering the technology strategy that will enable unprecedented business change.”
  • “… Reducing the time to taken to develop new services and cutting the cost of delivery.”

The chosen person needs “a clear record of success in enabling the delivery of service driven, user focused, digital business transformation,” says the advert.

What the DWP doesn’t say

If DWP officials took a truth pill when interviewing candidates they might have said:

  • “No department talks more about change than we do. We regularly commission reports on the need for transformation and how to achieve it. We issue press releases and give briefings on our plans for change.  We write  ministerial speeches on it. We employ talented people to whom innovation and productive change comes naturally. The only thing we don’t do is actually change. It remains an aspiration.
  • “We remain one of the biggest VME sites in the world (VME being a Fujitsu – formerly ICL – operating system that dates back to the 1970s). VME skills are in ever shorter supply and it’s increasingly costly to employ VME specialists but changing our core software is too risky; and there is no commercial imperative to change: it’s not private money we’re spending.  We’ve a £1bn a year IT budget – one of the biggest of any government department in the world.
  • DWP core VME systems run an old supplier-specific form of COBOL used on VME, not an industry standard form.
  • We’ve identified ways of moving away from VME: we have shown that VME-based IDMSX databases can be transitioned to commodity database systems, and that the COBOL code can be converted to Java and then run on open source application servers. Still we can’t move away from VME, not within the foreseeable future. Too risky.
  • We’d love the new DG Technology to work on change, transformation and innovation but he/she will be required for fire-fighting.
  • It’s a particularly difficult time for the DWP. We are alleged to have given what the Public Accounts Committee calls an unacceptable service to the disabled, the terminally ill and many others who have submitted claims for personal independence payments. We are also struggling to cope with Employment and Support Allowance claims. One claimant has told the BBC the DWP is “not fit for purpose”.
  •  The National Audit Office will publish an unhelpful report on Universal Credit this Autumn. We’ll regard the report as out-of-date, as we do all negative NAO reports. We will say publicly that we have already implemented its recommendations and we’ll pick out the one or two positive sentences in the report to summarise it. But nobody will believe our story, least of all us.
  • If we could, we’d appoint a representative of our major suppliers to be the head of IT.  HP, Fujitsu, Accenture, IBM and BT have a knowledge of how to run the DWP’s systems that goes back decades. The suppliers are happily entrenched, indispensable. That they know more about our IT than we do puts into context talk of SMEs taking over from the big players.
  • One reason we avoid major change is that we are not good at it: Universal Credit (known internally as Universal Challenge), the £2.6bn Operational Strategy benefit scheme that Parliament was told would cost no more than £713m, the £141m  (aborted) Benefit Processing Replacement Programme, Camelot which was the (aborted) Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks,  and the (aborted)) Debt Accounting and Management System. Not to mention the (aborted) £25m Analytical Services Statistical Information System.
  • They’re the failures we know about. We don’t have to account to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of our big projects, and we’re particularly secretive internally, so there may be project failures not even senior management know about.
  • We require cultural alignment of all the DWP’s most senior civil servants. This means the chosen candidate must – and without exception – defend the department against all poorly-informed critics who may include our own ministers.
  • The Cabinet Office has some well-meaning reformers we want nothing to do with. That said, our policy is to agree to change and then absorb the required actions, like the acoustic baffles on the walls of a soundproofed studio.

 

 

Stop filming! That’s the IBM exit strategy we’re discussing

By Tony Collins

Dave Orr, a former IT employee at Somerset County Council, is now a local taxpayer trying to see if public statements made aboutthe authority’s joint venture with IBM match up to the facts.

Some councillors don’t seem to welcome his scrutiny, or his campaigning which can attract the attention of the local press.

Somerset claims it is saving millions of pounds through the Southwest One joint venture – which is majority owned by IBM. But Orr has learned through FOI requests and council reports that once extra costs are taken into account the council has had a net loss of £53m on the contract. He points to:

- £52m of SAP and “transformation” costs the council paid upfront to IBM

- £4m of council bid costs

-  £2m for a written-off loan to Avon and Somerset Police for SAP

-  £3m interest on a £30m loan over 10 years

-  £3m in contract management costs

-  £5m in legal costs over a dispute with IBM

This totals £69m. Procurement savings to December 2013 were £16m – which gives a net loss of £53m. The contract is supposed to save £150m over its 10-year life. The deal was signed in 2007 by IBM, Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police. The authorities are considering what they will do at the end of the contract.

Stop filming

At a meeting of the council’s audit committee last month, the chairman of the audit committee asked Orr to stop filming. He was using a Panasonic compact camera. A vote was proposed and seconded that the meeting not be recorded.

Five councillors voted in favour and 3 Lib-dems abstained. Those supporting the motion to stop filming included Tory, Labour and UKIP members.  Somerset is Conservative controlled.

Orr says the discussion shortly before the vote was taken was on Southwest One and the council’s exit strategy from the contract.  Councillors also agreed that they may at a later date go into a secret “Part 2″ session to discuss a “lessons learnt” report about the collaboration with Southwest One.

A blow to local democracy?  

The government has issued guidance that states explicitly that councils should allow the public to film council meetings. Under the heading “Lights, camera, democracy in action” an announcement by local government secretary Eric Pickles  says on the gov.uk website:

“I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state. Data protection rules or health and safety should not be used to suppress reporting or a healthy dose of criticism.

“Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.

“Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests.”

Before the meeting of the audit committee Orr had obtained informal consent from the council to filming.

Comment

Open government is not a party political issue – none of the parties seem to want it. Indeed councillors at Somerset seem at their most comfortable  when voting for secrecy.  Is this because it gives them a feeling of privilege – having access to information the ordinary citizens don’t have?

In central government one of the first things the civil service does after a general election is give new ministers access to state secrets. It distances the ministers from ordinary people. Ministers feel privileged – “one of us”.  Is this the main unspoken reason some Somerset councillors  love to have secret meetings?

Councillors may feel weighed down by Orr’s questions and campaigning. But his questions are arguably more important than those raised internally by deferential party politicians who don’t ask the most difficult questions.

If anything they should be asking themselves whether they should ask the questions he is asking.

It’s too easy on big outsourcing contracts for supplier and client to put a gloss on the relationship. It’s easier talking about unsubstantiated savings than explaining why the contract isn’t making the savings originally intended. And it’s even easier when you shun scrutiny from members of the public.

Minister didn’t lie over UC business case – but did officials deliberately mislead?

By Tony Collins

Comment

DWP minister Esther McVey is facing criticism that she misled Parliament by saying that the Universal Credit business case had been approved when it hadn’t.

A close look at the facts shows that the minister spoke the truth, and the DWP officials who wrote her Parliamentary answer also told the truth. But MPs were still misled, perhaps deliberately so.

The officials who wrote the minister’s reply knew that there is an early and very basic business case for Universal Credit,  the strategic outline business case, which had been approved.

All big projects in central government have strategic outline business case approval before they get underway. Universal Credit was the same as any other big programme in this respect.

What hadn’t been approved was the full business case which requires much more detail than the strategic outline case – and it requires plans and costs to be finalised among other things.

When, on 30 June 2014,  Rachel Reeves, Labour’s spokeswoman on work and pensions, asked the government whether the business case for Universal Credit had been approved officials wrote a cleverly deceptive answer.

They wrote that the strategic outline business case had been approved. They did not mention that the full business case had not been approved. It’s certain that the minister did not realise that this answer was deceitful.

That said, the  answer was in line with the DWP’s culture which is to project good news and conceal bad news (NAO report Universal Credit: early progress, September 2013).

This was the original Parliamentary question and answer on 30 June 2014.

Rachel Reeves (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; Leeds West, Labour)  

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions … whether he has approved the Department for Work and Pensions’ business case for the implementation of universal credit.”

Esther McVey (The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions; Wirral West, Conservative)

“The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has approved the UC Strategic Outline Business Case plans for the remainder of this Parliament (2014-15) as per the ministerial announcement.”

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the DWP, in drafting the minister’s reply to Reeves, intended to mislead.

That’s politics. On the other hand it is an extraordinary misuse of power by senior civil servants.

A strategic outline business case is very different to a full business case.

The strategic outline case merely sets out the strategic context and the case for change, together with the supporting investment objectives for the scheme. It sets out likely funding needs and speculates that the scheme is achievable and meets best practice principles.

The full business case has finalised arrangements including key contractual arrangements , costs,  agreed implementation timescales, main risks, constraints, dependencies, benefits and “dis-benefits”. It sets out an argument on the affordability of the scheme.

The controversy over whether Parliament was misled – which it was – shows the ease with which the senior civil service can protect the government of the day from embarrassment. Except that this time the truth came out; and it came out unexpectedly because a tenacious Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, kept asking civil servants whether the business case for UC had been approved. Eventually, though with some reluctance, they told her the truth.

If a little truth comes out in such an unplanned way, one can only guess at how much other information on the Universal Credit programme is being hidden. Perhaps deliberately so.

Upper Tribunal refuses DWP leave to appeal ruling on Universal Credit reports

By Tony Collins

An upper tribunal judge this week refused consent for the Department of Work and Pensions to appeal a ruling that four reports on the Universal Credit programme be published.

It’s the third successive legal ruling to have gone against the DWP as its lawyers try to stop the reports being released.

The DWP is likely to request further consideration of its appeal. History suggests it will devote the necessary legal time and funding to stop the reports being published.

In March 2014, the first-tier information tribunal rejected the DWP’s claim that disclosure of the four reports would inhibit the candour and boldness of civil servants who contributed to them – the so-called chilling effect.

The DWP sought the first-tier tribunal’s leave to appeal the ruling, describing it as “perverse”. External lawyers for the DWP said the tribunal had wholly misunderstood what is meant by a “chilling effect”, how it is manifested and how its existence can be proved.

They claimed the misunderstanding and the perverse decision were “errors of law”. For the first-tier tribunal’s finding to go to appeal to the “upper tribunal”, the DWP would have needed to prove “errors in law” in the findings of the first-tier tribunal.

The judge in that case, David Farrer QC, found that there were no errors in law in his ruling and he refused the DWP leave to appeal. The DWP then asked the upper tribunal to overrule Farrer’s decision – and now the DWP has lost again.

The upper tribunal’s judge Nicholas Wikeley says in his ruling this week:

“This [chilling effect] is a well known concept, and I can see no support for the argument that the [first-tier] Tribunal misunderstood its meaning.

“The Tribunal was surely saying that whilst it heard Ms Cox’s claim that disclosure would have a chilling effect, neither she nor the Department provided any persuasive evidence to that effect.” [Sarah Cox is a senior DWP executive on the Universal Credit programme.]

“Indeed, the Tribunal noted, as it was entitled to, that Ms Cox did not suggest that frank discussion had been inhibited in any way by a third party’s revelation of the ‘Starting Gate Review’.”

In conclusion the judge says:

“I therefore refuse permission [for the DWP] to appeal to the Upper Tribunal.”

The DWP’s lawyers asked the upper tribunal for a stay, or suspension, of the first-tier tribunal’s ruling that the four reports be published. This the judge granted temporarily.  The lawyers also asked for a private hearing, which the judge did not decide on.

DWP too secretive?

John Slater, who has 25 years experience working in IT and programme and project management, requested three of the four reports in question under the FOI Act in 2012. He asked for the UC issues register, high-level milestone schedule and risk register. Also in 2012 I requested a UC project assessment review by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

The Information Commissioner ruled that the DWP should publish three of the reports but not the Risks Register.  In March 2014 the first-tier information tribunal ruled that all four reports should be published.

Excluding these four, the DWP has had 19 separate reports on the progress or otherwise of the Universal Credit programme and has not published any of them.

Work and Pensions minister Lord Freud, told the House of Lords, in a debate on Universal Credit this week:

“I hope we are as transparent as we can be.”

What happens now?

Slater says that as the DWP has been refused permission to appeal it will probably ask for an oral hearing before the upper tribunal. This would mean that the DWP would get a second chance to gets its point across directly in front of the Upper Tribunal rather than just on paper, as it has just tried, says Slater. There is no guarantee that the DWP would be granted an oral hearing.

Comment

If all was going well with the DWP’s largest projects its lawyers could argue, with some credibility, that the “safe space” civil servants need to produce reports on the progress or otherwise of major schemes is having a useful effect.

In fact the DWP has, with a small number of notable exceptions such as Pension Credit, presided over a series of major IT-based projects that have failed to meet expectations or business objectives, from  “Camelot” in the 1980s to “Operational Strategy” in the 1990s. Universal Credit is arguably the latest project disaster, to judge from the National Audit Office’s 2013 report on the scheme.

The”safe space” the DWP covets doesn’t  appear to work.  Perhaps it’s a lack of firm challenge, external scrutiny and transparency that are having a chilling effect on the department.

Upper Tribunal ruling Universal Credit appeal

My submission to FOI tribunal on universal credit

Judge [first-tier tribunal] refuses DWP leave to appeal ruling on Universal Credit reports – April 2014

 

 

 

2 councils cut costs of Capita deals, bringing hundreds of staff in-house

By T0ny Collins

Councils in Birmingham and Swindon are cutting the costs of their Capita outsourcing deals, in part by bringing hundreds of staff in-house.

Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, is bringing back about 500 staff after the council negotiated with Capita to cut £20m a year from the cost of running Service Birmingham, a contract which started in 2006 and has 7 years left to run, reports the Birmingham Post.

Service Birmingham is two-thirds owned by Capita and a third by Birmingham Council.

Deputy leader Ian Ward is quoted in the Birmingham Post as saying the changes would bring major savings and a greater degree of control over council communications.

“We have negotiated an agreement with Service Birmingham which provides a major step forward in reducing our cost base for ICT. On balance, the council considers the risk of changing ICT provider at this time too risky.

“It would take a considerable period of time to procure and would cost an additional tens of millions up front in early termination charges and re-procurement costs.”

The council will bring the call centre in house by the end of the year, as part of a “One Contact” vision to resolve queries at the first point of contact.

Councillors routinely face complaints from constituents about poor service when attempting to phone the council, according to a local political blog, The Chamberlain Files.

Ward said: “It’s not just about how quickly we can answer the telephone or how polite the person answering the phone is. These things are important but we need ensure that queries are resolved to the citizen’s satisfaction.”

The blog quotes Birmingham’s leader Sir Albert Bore as saying that Capita had taken a pragmatic view and recognised the changing circumstances faced by the council.

A clause in the existing contract enabling the council to withdraw ‘at will’ from the Capita agreement within 60 days will remain. A controversial 17% mark-up on purchases has been removed.

The council hopes to gain more value from the new contract by limiting the number of projects it requires Capita to oversee and reducing the number of IT applications run by the authority. Capita was appointed originally because the council did not have the expertise to develop a modern contact centre and had invested little in new technology.

Ward said he hoped the council’s relationship with Capita, which has not always been harmonious in the past, would improve.

“What I also want to see coming out of this challenge is for both parties to work harder to make the partnership work better than it has to date. We need to make sure we have an ICT strategy that is fit for purpose and that will improve our control and planning for projects.”

The contract’s cost has reduced from about £120m a year to £80m a year, says The Chamberlain Files.

Swindon Council

Conservative-controlled Swindon Council is set to save about £2m a year by renegotiating with Capita on back-office services, says the Swindon Advertiser. It says that around 200 Capita staff will move to the council’s employment.

A contract with Capita, worth more than £240 million, was signed in 2007 and was set to last for 15 years.

Council leader David Renard is quoted as saying: “A number of years ago we entered into a 15-year contract with Capita but we obviously now live in a very different world.

“The council has to find savings every year and that means nothing is off the cards, so we have asked to sit down and have a look at the contract.

“The potential saving of £2m is very significant so it is something we have to look at. In fairness to Capita, we have asked to look at the arrangement on a number of occasions and they have been receptive.

“We want to maintain a positive relationship with them because there are things, such as revenue and benefits, which they do very well.”

A Capita spokeswoman said: “Swindon Council has undertaken a thorough review of its budget and services, including those services delivered by Capita.

“The council is considering a range of options to ensure it delivers integrated and effective services and Capita is fully engaged in that process.

“Capita’s priority is to continue delivering high quality services to the council and residents in Swindon, and to keep our employees informed throughout the process.”

Since signing the deal with Capita seven years ago many of the services can now be provided in-house, said the Swindon Advertiser. The council has become less reliant on Capita for some of its services, it says.

The deal with Swindon Council has allowed the company to win contracts with other local authorities and there are now fewer specialists to dedicate their time to Swindon, it adds.

 

 

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Survive a Public Accounts Committee hearing – a lesson for ministers and top civil servants?

By Tony Collins

Mark_ThompsonMark Thompson was Director General of the BBC for eight years from 2004 to 2012. He was one of the highest paid in the public sector, earning more than £800,000.  He’s now CEO of the New York Times Company.

When he went before the Public Accounts Committee in February 2014 he faced accusations he had mislead MPs over the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative which was cancelled in 2013. The BBC wrote off £98.4m on the project.

Thompson has emerged from the affair unscathed although he had presided over the project.  Indeed he seems to have impressed the committee’s MPs who are notoriously hard to please.

In today’s PAC report on the failure of DMI, MPs appear to have preferred Thompson’s evidence over that of other witnesses. So how is it possible to come to a PAC to answer accusations of misleading Parliament and end up winning over your accusers?

Today’s PAC report on DMI criticises the BBC for:

-  complacency in taking a “very high-risk” project in-house from Siemens

-  spending years working on a system that did not meet users’ needs

-  not knowing enough about progress which led to Parliament being   misinformed that all was well when it wasn’t

- ending up with a system that costs £3m a year to run, compared to £780,000 a year for the 40 year-old “Infax” system it was designed to replace. And Infax works 10 times faster.

In February 2014 Committee chairman Margaret Hodge began her questioning of Thompson over DMI by pointing out that, three years earlier, in 2011, he had assured the PAC that all was well with the project when it wasn’t.

Thompson told Hodge in February 2011 that DMI was “out in the business” and “there are many programmes that are already being made with DMI”. In reality, the DMI had been used to make only one programme, called ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ – and problems on the project at that time were deepening but, as in many public sector IT-based projects that go wrong, such as Universal Credit, bad news from the project team was not being escalated to top management (or the BBC Trust).

How Thompson won over PAC MPs

At the PAC hearing in February 2014 Hodge asked Thompson if he had misled the Committee when he spoke positively about DMI in 2011.

Thompson’s reply was so free of reserve that it appears to have taken the wind out of Hodge.

Thompson replied: “I don’t believe that I have misled you on any other matter, and I do not believe that I knowingly misled you on this one.

“I will answer your question directly, but can I just make one broad point about DMI before then? In my time at the BBC, we had very many successful technology projects—very large projects, some of them much larger than DMI. I believe that the team, including John Linwood [then the BBC’s Chief Technology Officer], who were in the middle of DMI, had many successes—for example, digital switchover, West One, Salford and BBC iPlayer.

“I just wanted to say … everything I have heard and seen makes me feel that DMI was not a success. It failed as a project. It failed in a way that also meant the loss of a lot of public money. As the director-general who was at the helm when DMI was created and developed and who, in the end, oversaw much of the governance system that, as we will no doubt discuss, did not perform perfectly in this project, I just want to say sorry.

“I want to apologise to you and to the public for the failure of this project. That is the broad point.”

Hodge (who would normally, at a point such as this, launch her main offensive) said simply:

“Thank you.”

Usually civil servants will deny that a big IT-based project has actually failed. Many times the archetypal civil servant Sir David Nicholson, when Chief Executive of the NHS, defended the failed NPfIT at PAC hearings.

But Thompson told PAC MPs:  “Here we are in the beginning of 2014—I am not going to debate with you whether or not this project [DMI] failed. I am sure we can talk about how, why, where and so forth, but it definitely failed.

“When I came to see you in February 2011, I believed that the project was in very good shape indeed. Why did I believe that? I had seen a number of programmes myself—I had been and seen parts of DMI working on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’; I knew that ‘The One Show’ had started to use elements of DMI a few weeks earlier; and I knew that a kind of prototype version of the technology had been used in the very, very successful ‘Frozen Planet’ natural history series.

“I have gone back and asked the BBC to look at all the briefing materials—I had a voluminous amount of briefing from the BBC—and there is a real consistency between the briefing I got – .”

Richard Bacon: Sorry, a real inconsistency?

Thompson: No, a real consistency between the briefing I got and the evidence that I gave. To be honest, some of this is going to go very much to the point Mr Bacon was making earlier on (about what is or is not a deployment).

Stephen Barclay: Just a second…So it was consistent, but consistently wrong, wasn’t it, because just the following month, after the consistent briefing, you were then aware that it was going to miss the key milestone? From March 2011 you knew it [DMI] was not going to hit the deadline.

Thompson: If I may say so, what I am trying to focus on at the moment is the question—I understand, given subsequent events, the perfectly reasonable question—about whether the testimony I gave in February 2011 misled you or not… My belief is that my testimony gave a faithful and accurate account of my understanding of the project at this point.

Hodge: But were you misled, then?

Thompson: Let me give you just a sense of my briefing. To be honest, there were echoes of this in John Linwood’s testimony a few minutes ago, and Mr Bacon has helped me to understand this by putting his finger on the use of one word in particular, which is ‘deployment’. This is the timeline …”

Thompson then did something civil servants rarely do, if ever, when they appear before the committee. He read from the internal briefings he had received on the project in 2010 and 2011 . Those briefings indicated all was well.

He was not even shown a draft Accenture report in December 2010 that said the elements of the DMI examined (by Accenture) were not robust enough for programme-making and that significant remedial work was required.

Thompson said that the day before he gave evidence to the PAC in February 2011 he was given an internal note which said:

“Our next release [of DMI], Enhanced Production Tools, entered into user acceptance testing this week. This release builds on the production tool we previously delivered in 2010, Fabric Workspace, and desktop editing and logging.

“We will deploy its release to pilot users in Bristol, the ‘Blue Peter’ production team, ‘The One Show’ current affairs team, ‘Bang Goes the theory’ — again — ‘Generation Earth’, weather and ‘Pavlopetri’ inside London Factual.”

Thompson had the firm impression that DMI was challenging but that the BBC was starting to deliver the system and users had been positive about the elements delivered.

Thompson said in February 2014, “Mr Bacon is right about the very bullish use of the world “deployed”, meaning, perhaps, elements that have been loaded on to a desktop but not really extensively used: that was the background to the remarks I made to you in February 2011. I am absolutely clear that at the time that was what I knew and believed about the project.”

Hodge: So you were misled?

Thompson replied, in essence, that the BBC’s business users tried to make DMI work but most of them gave up. There were tensions between the project team who were enthusiastic about DMI and the business users who, mostly, weren’t.

These were complicated, difficult issues, said Thompson. “There was a pronounced and, it would appear, growing difference of opinion between the team making DMI and the business users on how effective and how real the technology was.

“You will understand that I have been involved in a lot of projects at the BBC and in other organisations, and I can smell business obstinacy. I can smell when a business is unready, is not prepared to play ball or is constantly moving the goalposts.

“I absolutely understand John Linwood’s particular perspective, given what he was doing. He was a very passionate advocate of the project, and I understand all of that.

“In my time, which ended when I left in September 2012, I saw great efforts being made by the business—in other words, by colleagues inside BBC Vision, BBC North and elsewhere—to get DMI to work. Although there were tensions, I do not believe that those tensions, which frankly were more or less inevitable, were themselves a central and critical part of the project’s failure.”

Richard Bacon: … It sounds to me as if the people getting the business case through the main governance processes were technology and finance people. I want to be clear on what you are saying. It sounds to me as if the technology people were very gung-ho and the experience of the business people on the ground was that it was not necessarily working as well as they had been led to believe, so they probably lost faith in it. Is that a fair summary?

Thompson: “I believe that that was definitely what started to happen, certainly by the end of 2011 and through 2012. It happened for understandable reasons. This has been a troubled project…

“I thought great efforts were made in BBC Vision and in BBC North both by senior people and by some front-line programme makers to help us to get the thing to work.

“Where my perspective perhaps differs from John’s perspective – it is very easy for me to sit here and say that this project failed because some difficult programme makers refused to use it, although there may have been an element of that somewhere – is that I thought that, overall, this was a project on which there was a lot of work and effort to try to get it to work on the business side…”

Hodge asked again if Thompson had been misled when he assured the PAC in February 2011 that DMI was being used at the BBC.

Thompson: I believed it.

Hodge: You believed it?

Thompson: Yes.

Hodge:  You believed it, but were you being misled?

Thompson: “I think that the language that the team was using, combined to some extent with the fact that I had seen what looked like a very positive demonstration of it … I had heard that “The One Show” had also started using it, and I saw a list of other programmes that were also using it. That combined with the language in the briefing led me to believe that it was being more extensively used.”

PAC conclusion

The PAC could have concluded in its report today that the BBC had misled Parliament in February 2011. But MPs used the word “misinformed” instead.

“Neither the [BBC’s] Executive Board nor the [BBC] Trust knew enough about the DMI’s progress, which led to Parliament being misinformed. While [Thompson] assures us that he gave a faithful and accurate account of his understanding of the project at that point in early 2011, he was mistaken and there was confusion within the BBC about what had actually been deployed and used.

“In its reporting on major projects, the BBC needs to use clear milestones that give the Executive and the Trust an unambiguous and accurate account of progress and any problems.”

Comment

The PAC had every right to be angry.  So credible were the BBC’s assurances about DMI in February 2011 that the Committee published a report in April 2011 that reflected those assurances. It was wrong.

But there is a positive element in the failure of DMI – and that is the completely open and honest testimony of Mark Thompson.

MPs on the PAC are used to be being misled – usually by the sin of omission – when civil servants and ministers come before them. But when Thompson read from his internal briefings it was easy to see how he came to the view that DMI in February 2011 was showing signs of a success.

It was clear to MPs that Thompson had not set out to mislead.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that you can go far with honesty and openness. That’s not an easy lesson for the ministers and civil servants who have to appear before the PAC, but it has certainly served Thompson well.

BBC Digital Media Initiative – Public Accounts Committee report

 

BBC’s DMI project – another fine mess that was predictable

By Tony Collins

A National Audit Office memorandum published today on the BBC’s failed £125.9m Digital Media Initiative is a reminder – as in most failed big IT-enabled projects – that the causes have nothing to do with software and everything to do with management and people.

The NAO’s memorandum tells an all too familiar story with government IT (and the BBC is a public sector organisation):

- Over-optimism about the ability to implement

- Over-optimism about the ability to achieve the benefits

- Unclear requirements

- No thorough independent assessment of the technical design to see whether the DMI was technically sound

- The successful completion of the most straightforward of technology releases for the DMI, but these proved an unreliable indicator of progress.

- Technical problems and releases not meeting user expectations which contributed to repeated extensions to the timetable for completing the system, eroding user confidence and undermining the business case.

- Poor internal reporting. “The governance arrangements for the DMI were inadequate for its scale, complexity and risk. The BBC did not appoint a senior responsible owner to act as a single point of accountability and align all elements of the DMI. Reporting arrangements were not fit for purpose,” said the NAO.

- In the same way as the DWP failed with Universal Credit to take full account of recommendations in review reports, the BBC “did not adequately address issues identified by external reviewers during the course of the programme”.  The BBC had been aware that business requirements for the DMI were not adequately defined.

The BBC estimates that it spent £125.9m on the DMI. It offset £27.5m of spending on the DMI against transfers of assets, cash and service credits that formed part of its financial settlement with DMI’s previous developer Siemens. This left a net cost of £98.4m.

The BBC cancelled the DMI without examining the technical feasibility or cost of completing it, said the NAO.

The Corporation has written off the value of assets created by the programme, but is exploring how it can develop or redeploy parts of the system to support its future archiving and production needs.

Diane Coyle, Vice Chairman BBC Trust, said:

“We are grateful to the NAO for carrying out this report, which reinforces the conclusions of the PwC review commissioned by the Trust. It is essential that the BBC learns from the losses incurred in the DMI project and applies the lessons to running technology projects in future.

“The NAO’s findings, alongside PwC’s recommendations will help us make sure this happens. As we announced last December, we are working with the Executive to strengthen project management and reporting arrangements within a clearer governance system.  This will ensure that serious problems can be spotted and addressed at an earlier stage.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today:

“The BBC Executive did not have sufficient grip on its Digital Media Initiative programme. Nor did it commission a thorough independent assessment of the whole system to see whether it was technically sound.

“If the BBC had better governance and reporting for the programme, it would have recognized the difficulties much earlier than May 2012.”

Comment

The DMI project is exemplar of all that tends to go wrong in big government IT-enabled projects. Strong independent oversight and independent reviews that were published would have provided the accountability to counterbalance over-optimism.  But these things never seems to happen.

There are also questions about why the BBC took on the project from Siemens  and turned what could have been a success into a financial disaster.

NAO memorandum on the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative