Is Sir Humphrey trying to kill off GDS and the innovations it stands for?

Tony Collins

After much progress in recent years, Government IT is at risk of going into reverse. But a return to ways of the past, and routine costly failures of big technology projects, is not inevitable.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see what has been happening at, and to, the Government Digital Service.

Much has been achieved by GDS. Some of its best work has been to encourage thousands of civil servants across government – mainly aged under 40 – to believe it’s possible to simplify their work, and do it better and more cheaply.

GDS is far from perfect but its philosophy when it makes mistakes is to fail cheaply. Its culture of always questioning, always challenging runs counter to Whitehall’s hierarchical traditions.

Since the creation of GDS it has become possible for the citizen to interact with government in ways that were not possible before. For example it’s possible to replace an old paper driving licence and update your address entirely online, once your photo has been digitised as part of, say, a (largely online) passport renewal.

trust-picIndeed the influence of GDS has been a breeze of fresh air blowing through fusty Whitehall corridors. A GDS rule is to put the interests of citizens, rather than the interests of departments and agencies, at the centre of its activities.

Weird hippies

But it is becoming clear that the old guard in Whitehall still see GDS people as “weird hippies”. That’s how some in government have regarded GDS people, according to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

Something similar was said by Mike Bracken, former executive director of GDS. In a conversation last month with the Centre for Public Impact, Bracken said the civil service old guard saw GDS people as “insurgent, incoming rule-breakers”.

Maude and Bracken’s recent comments suggest that Sir Humphrey has an unshakeable belief that government administration is a smooth-running machine that needs the occasional service but no major repairs. GDS favours pervasive reform.


Maude created GDS in 2011. He was an ardent reformer of Government IT and the civil service. But since he left last year Sir Humphrey appears to be regaining the control that he ceded temporarily to Maude and GDS’s innovators. This is some of what has happened since Maude’s departure:

  • GDS has lost Mike Bracken its highly-regarded executive director. He has gone to the Co-op as CIO.
  • GDS has just lost Bracken’s successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain who has fanned the breeze of fresh air referred to above. Foreshew-Cain said in his blog in June 2016 that cultures and behaviours in central government are “years behind the rest of the world”. He said, “At GDS, we’re fortunate because we’re a relatively new organisation. We were able to build our own culture from scratch.”
  • Mark DearnleyHMRC is to lose its plain-speaking reformer Mark Dearnley. His continued role in replacing the department’s “Aspire” contract was seen by public accounts MPs as vitally important. Attempts to renew his three-year CIO contract when it expires in September 2016 appear to have failed, or perhaps have not been earnest enough.
  • The department whose introspective, defensive and secretive culture has remained largely intact since the days when it was called the Department for Social Security – and whose main systems have been run by the same big IT suppliers for decades – is gaining influence in the Government IT field in the post-Maude era.
  • Maude said in his Centre for Public Impact interview that some senior bureaucrats were capable of “sabotage” if they disapproved strongly of an externally-imposed development in their department – such as a Cabinet Office “shared service” initiative. Maude said.

“Things like shared services – we struggled getting departments to give up their shared services, even when there had been a collective policy agreement that it should happen. What you then get is sniping. You get the different bits of government who want it to fail, who will sometimes, actually sabotage things, which is pretty disgraceful. That’s pretty outrageous, but it did happen; and it does happen; and that won’t be over yet.”

  • GDS lost Tom Loosemore, its deputy director, who initially led      the development of the website and tweeted on 1 August 2016 – the date of Fanshew-Cain’s announced departure – about “a day of the long digital knives”.

tom loosemore tweets


Digital chiefs evicted?

Derek Du Preez at Diginomica suggests that, according to his sources, “digital chiefs at the Home Office, DWP and HMRC have either been evicted by their permanent secretaries or are leaving their posts”.

UKAuthority reports rumours of “sustained resistance to the work of GDS in some Whitehall departments. Several departments were resisting GDS’s Government as a Platform programme in favour of working on their own digital solutions.

The article said that John Manzoni, as head of the civil service, “has not been in favour of it [GDS] setting a strong lead for other parts of Whitehall”.

Andrew Greenway, formerly of GDS, says the loss of two GDS leaders in less than a year “feels like a victory for those who believe a government organised along Victorian lines is fit for fixing today’s problems”.

Greenway writes:

“What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre; on the other big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding.

“That’s OK if everyone is on the path towards improvement. Whitehall’s watchers are not saying this.

“Meanwhile, GDS is following the course charted by other successful centralised reformers in government. Icarus-like soaring for a few years. The occasional flutter of feathers. Then a headlong dive into the timeless, inky depths of the bureaucratic abyss. The sun always rises, Whitehall always wins.

“The defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni. This is perplexing.

“The Civil Service’s CEO is there to drive big institutional priorities past departmental parochialism. Digital is one of these, giving it a seat at the top table. Yet as GDS’ influence has degraded. Chief Digital Officer roles in departments are also disappearing. Kevin’s departure comes hard on the heels of the Home Office scrapping their own CDO role.

“Manzoni came in to manage relations between the centre and the departments from a position of strength. From the outside, it now looks like he is being toyed with by the Civil Service’s most experienced turf warriors in HMRC and DWP.

“Permanent secretaries are gleefully reclaiming their territory…”

Fizzle out?

Does all this mean that Maude’s reforms of Government IT will soon fizzle out, heralding the return of the “powerful oligopolies” that Maude referred to when speaking of IT suppliers that presided over large costly IT project failures?


Leading bureaucrats approve of changes when it means more money is spent on policy implementation that brings with it a commensurate increase in power and influence of their department.

What some leading officials deeply resent is change that diminishes the power and influence of the department, especially if the change is instigated by people outside the department. It’s understandable, therefore, that some but not all permanent secretaries and their senior officials will resent any interference in their IT affairs by the Cabinet Office and GDS.

But interference there has to be. Chris Chant, former CIO at DEFRA, said in 2011 that the vast majority of Government IT was “outrageously expensive”. He said, “Things have changed and we haven’t.”

Under Maude, Bracken and GDS’s influence, things have gradually changed for the better.

But if Sir Humphrey now succeeds to getting GDS broken up it will show that, when it comes to the administration of central government, it is the leading civil servants who are in charge, not short-term ministers. Bracken says that if departmental and agency bureaucrats strongly disapprove of a centrally-agreed initiative they should debate it or leave.

Says Bracken,

“When you have a chief executive who says: ‘I don’t accept the rule of the government of the day and I am just not accepting it’, then you can’t tolerate that. You can have a debate around it but to just [drop] anchor and go ‘I am not moving’ is just not on. If you feel that strongly you should leave in my opinion. You should say, ‘I can’t tolerate this so I’ll do something else’.”

But who is going to persuade Sir Humphrey to leave or take early retirement?

When, as prime minister,  David Cameron said,

“I believe the creation of the Government Digital Service is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament.”

he was speaking as a politician who has a temporary job. On the other hand, bureaucratic resistance to change – the Whitehall culture – will last forever unless intervention is deep, effective and continual. That type of intervention cannot be expected of any short-term minister, not even a prime minister.

The hope now is that GDS’s influence within departments  and agencies has been far-reaching enough to encourage thousands of younger civil servants to try and effect change themselves – make the running of government simpler and much cheaper – at least for the sake of taxpayers.

As Maude says,

“You need people who are passionate about it (genuine transformation); and who don’t mind pissing people off frankly – don’t mind annoying people and upsetting the system.”

Sir Humphrey will oppose any change that diminishes his power base – but could his innate defence of old traditions be drowned out by an overwhelming chorus of reasoned sensibleness from thousands of GDS advocates?

Even when Sir Humphrey eventually retires and is replaced by another old crock (an arch defender of the status quo), some of GDS’s work will endure.  Bracken said in his Centre for Public Impact interview last month,

“Where I am hugely optimistic is that we left a way of working that will not revert. When we got there [GDS], there were pockets of people all over government who would struggle for years to do good digital stuff… they would be blocked at every turn and were absolutely fed up.

“What we did was give them validity; you can do it this way. Now there is a manual. There are guides; there are networks; there are communities. Treasury’s rules are published rules on how you do technology services and we wrote them.

“People saw us as insurgent, incoming rule-breakers. That’s how the old guard of the civil service would present itself. It’s hugely disrespectful because we put a great degree of intellectual thought into writing the new rules… Those Treasury rules on how you fund and build an agile technology service is the new norm.

“That’s not going to get changed anytime soon. In that system now there are, I suspect, 10,000 to 15,000 people probably under 40 who are all committed to working in an agile, open way.

“The point about working that way is you can’t go back. [If someone suggests] spending a year writing some requirements down and then outsourcing that to a third party, they are never going to do that. And they are the leaders of the future.

” I am not quite sure of the bumps along the road, the trajectories. It may wax and wane for a bit, but committed public servants will be working this way for the rest of their career. That will be our legacy.”

 Thank you to Derek Du Preez whose Diginomica article prompted this post.

Inside Universal Credit IT – analysis of document the DWP didn’t want published

dwpBy Tony Collins

Written evidence the Department for Work and Pensions submitted to an FOI tribunal – but did not want published (ever) – reveals that there was an internal “lack of candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit IT] Programme and publicly”.

It’s the first authoritative confirmation by the DWP that it has not always been open and honest when dealing with the media on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme.

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP's written submission

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP’s written submission

According to the DWP submission, senior officials on the Programme became so concerned about leaks that a former member of the security services was brought in to lead an investigation. DWP staff and managers were the subjects of “detailed interviews”. Employee emails were “reviewed”, as were employee access rights to shared electronic areas.

Staff became “paranoid” about accidentally leaving information on a printer. Some of the high-security measures appear still to be in place.

Unpublished until now, the DWP’s written legal submission referred, in part, to the effects on employees of leak investigations.

The submission was among the DWP’s written evidence to an FOI Tribunal in February 2016.

The Government Legal Service argued that the DWP’s written evidence was for the purposes of the tribunal only. It should not be published or passed to an MP.

The Legal Service went further: it questioned the right of an FOI Tribunal to decide on whether the submission could be published. Even so a judge has ruled that the DWP’s written evidence to the tribunal can be published.

Excerpts from the submission are here.

Analysis and Comment

The DWP’s submission gives a unique glimpse into day-to-day life and corporate sensitivities at or near the top of the Universal credit IT programme.

It reveals the lengths to which senior officials were willing to go to stop any authoritative “bad news” on the Universal Credit IT programme leaking out. Media speculation DWP’s senior officials do not seem to mind. What appears to concern them is the disclosure of any credible internal information on how things are progressing on Universal Credit IT.


Despite multiple requests from IT suppliers, former government CIOs and MPs, for Whitehall to publish its progress reports on big IT-based change programmes (some examples below), all central departments keep them confidential.

That sensitivity has little to do with protecting personal data.

It’s likely that reviews of projects are kept confidential largely because they could otherwise expose incompetence, mistakes, poor decisions, risks that are likely to materialise, large sums that have been wasted or, worst of all, a project that should have been cancelled long ago and possibly re-started, but which has been kept going in its original form because nobody wanted to own up to failure.

Ian watmore front cover How to fix government IROn this last point, former government CIO and permanent secretary Ian Watmore spoke to MPs in 2009 about how to fix government IT. He said,

“An innovative organisation tries a lot of things and sometimes things do not work. I think one of the valid criticisms in the past has been when things have not worked, government has carried on trying to make them work well beyond the point at which they should have been stopped.”

Individual accountability for failure?

Oblivious to MPs’ requests to publish IT progress reports, the DWP routinely refuses FOI requests to publish IT progress reports, even when they are several years old, even though by then officials and ministers involved will probably have moved on. Individual accountability for failure therefore continues to be non-existent.

Knowing this, MPs on two House of Commons select committees, Public Accounts and Work and Pensions, have called for the publication of reports such as “Gateway” reviews.

This campaign for more openness on government IT projects has lasted nearly three decades. And still Whitehall never publishes any contemporaneous progress reports on big IT programmes.

It took an FOI campaigner and IT projects professional John Slater [@AmateurFOI] three years of legal proceedings to persuade the DWP to release some old reports on the Universal Credit IT programme (a risk register, milestone schedule and issues log). And he had the support of the Information Commissioner’s legal team.

universal creditWhen the DWP reluctantly released the 2012 reports in 2016 – and only after an informal request by the then DWP secretary of state Stephen Crabb – pundits were surprised at how prosaic the documents were.

Yet we now know, thanks to the DWP’s submission, the lengths to which officials will go to stop such documents leaking out.


Some at the DWP are likely to see the submission as explaining some of understandable measures any government department would take to protect sensitive information on its largest project, Universal Credit. The DWP is the government largest department. It runs some of the world’s biggest IT systems. It possesses personal information on nearly everyone in Britain. It has to make the protection of its information a top priority.

Others will see the submission as proof that the DWP will do all it can to honour a decades-old Whitehall habit of keeping bad news to itself.

Need for openness

It’s generally accepted that success in running big IT-enabled change programmes requires openness – with staff and managers, and with external organisations and agencies.

IT-based change schemes are about solving problems. An introspective “good news only” culture may help to explain why the DWP has a poor record of managing big and successful IT-based projects and programmes. The last time officials attempted a major modernisation of benefit systems in the 1990s – called Operational Strategy – the costs rose from £713m to £2.6bn and the intended objective of joining up the IT as part of a “whole person” concept, did not happen.

Programme papers“watermarked”

The DWP’s power, mandate and funding come courtesy of the public. So do officials, in return, have the right to keep hidden mistakes and flawed IT strategies that may lead to a poor use – or wastage – of hundreds of millions of pounds, or billions?

The DWP’s submission reveals that recommendations from its assurance reports (low-level reports on the state of the IT programme including risks and problems) were not circulated and a register was kept of who had received them.

Concern over leaks

The submission said that surveys on staff morale ceased after concerns about leaks. IT programme papers were no longer sent electronically and were delivered by hand. Those that were sent were “double-enveloped” and any that needed to be retained were “signed back in”. For added security, Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

When a former member of the security services was brought in to conduct a leaks investigation, staff and mangers were invited by the DWP’s most senior civil servant to “speak to the independent investigator if they had any information”. This suggests that staff were expected to inform on any suspect colleagues.

People “stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the [Universal Credit IT] Programme,” said the submission. “People became suspicious of their colleagues – even those they worked closely with.

“There was a lack of trust and people were very careful about being honest with their colleagues…

“People felt they could no longer share things with colleagues that might have an honest assessment of difficulties or any negative criticism – many staff believed the official line was, ‘everything is fine’.

“People, even now, struggle to trust colleagues with sensitive information and are still fearful that anything that is sent out via email will be misused.

“For all governance meetings, all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings included, whether or not they contain sensitive information.”


dwpLines to take with the media were added to a “Rolling Brief”, an internal update document, that was circulated to senior leaders of the Universal Credit IT programme, the DWP press office and special advisors.

These “lines to take” were a “defensive approach to media requests”. They emphasised the “positive in terms of progress with the Programme without acknowledging the issues identified in the leaked stories”.

This positive approach to briefing and media management “led to a lack of candour and honesty through the Programme and publically …”

How the DWP’s legal submission came about is explained in this separate post.

Were there leaks of particularly sensitive information?

It appears not. The so-called leaks revealed imperfections in the running of the Universal Credit programme; but there was no personal information involved. Officials were concerned about the perceived leak of a Starting Gate Review to the Telegraph (although the DWP had officially lodged the review with the House of Commons library).

The DWP also mentioned in its statement a leak to the Guardian of the results of an internal “Pulse” survey of staff morale – although it’s unclear why the survey wasn’t published officially given its apparent absence of sensitive commercial, personal, corporate or governmental information.


The greater the openness in external communications, the less likely a natural scepticism of new ways of working will manifest in a distrust of the IT programme as a whole.

The NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT) – then the UK’s biggest IT programme costing about £10bn – was dismantled in 2011 after eight fraught years. One reason it was a disaster was the deep distrust of the NPfIT among clinicians, hospital technologists, IT managers, GPs and nurses. They had listened with growing scepticism to Whitehall’s oft-repeated “good news” announcements.

Ex-Government CIO wanted more openness on IT projects

When MPs have asked the DWP why it does not publish reports on the progress of IT-enabled projects, it has cited “commercial confidentiality”.

But in 2009, Ian Watmore (the former Government CIO) said in answer to a question by Public Account Committee MP Richard Bacon that he’d endorse the publication of Gateway reviews, which are independent assessments of the achievements, inadequacies, risks, progress and challenges on risky IT-based programmes.

“I am with you in that I would prefer Gateway reviews to be published because of the experience we had with capability reviews (published reports on a department’s performance). We had the same debate (as with Gateway reviews) and we published them. It caused furore for a few weeks but then it became a normal part of the furniture,” said Watmore.

Capability reviews are no longer published. The only “regular” reports of Whitehall progress with big IT programmes are the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual reports. But these do not include Gateway reviews or other reports on IT projects and programmes. The DWP and other departments publish only their own interpretations of project reviews.

In the DWP’s latest published summary of progress on the Universal Credit IT programme, dated July 2016, the focus is on good news only.

But this creates a mystery. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave the Universal Credit programme an “amber” rating in its annual report which was published this month. But neither the DWP nor the Authority has explained why the programme wasn’t rated amber/green or green.

MPs and even IT suppliers want openness on IT projects

Work and Pensions Committee front coverIn 2004 HP, the DWP’s main IT supplier, told a Work and Pensions Committee inquiry entitled “Making IT work for DWP customers” in 2004 that “within sensible commercial parameters, transparency should be maintained to the greatest possible extent on highly complex programmes such as those undertaken by the DWP”.

The Work and Pensions Committee spent seven months investigating IT in the DWP and published a 240-page volume of oral and written in July 2004. On the matter of publishing “Gateway” reviews on the progress or otherwise of big IT projects, the Committee concluded,

“We found it refreshing that major IT suppliers should be content for the [Gateway] reviews to be published. We welcome this approach. It struck us as very odd that of all stakeholders, DWP should be the one which clings most enthusiastically to commercial confidentiality to justify non-disclosure of crucial information, even to Parliament.”

The Committee called for Gateway reviews to be published. That was 12 years ago – and it hasn’t happened.

Four years later the Committee found that the 19 most significant DWP IT projects were over-budget or late.

DWP headline late and over budget

In 2006 the National Audit Office reported on Whitehall’s general lack of openness in a report entitled “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”.

The report said,

“The Public Accounts Committee has emphasised frequently the need for greater transparency and accountability in departments’ performance in managing their programmes and projects and, in particular, that the result of OGC Gateway Reviews should be published.”

But today, DWP officials seem as preoccupied as ever with concealing bad news on their big IT programmes including Universal Credit.

The costs of concealment

The DWP has had important DWP project successes, notably pension credits, which was listed by the National Audit Office as one of 24 positive case studies.

But the DWP has also wasted tens of millions of pounds on failed IT projects.

Projects with names such as “Camelot” [Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks] and Assist [Analytical Services Statistical Information System) were cancelled with losses of millions of pounds. More recently the DWP has run into problems on several big projects.


On 3 November 2014 the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge spoke on Radio 4’s Analysis of the DWP’s ‘abysmal’ management of IT contracts.”


As long ago as 1984, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee called for the civil service to be more open about its progress on major computer projects.

Today there are questions about whether the Universal Credit IT will succeed. Hundreds of millions has already been spent. Yet, as mentioned earlier, current information on the progress of the DWP’s IT programmes remains a state secret.

It’s possible that progress on the Universal Credit IT programme has been boosted by the irregular (but thorough) scrutiny by the National Audit Office. That said, as soon as NAO reports on Universal Credit are published, ministers and senior officials who have seen copies in advance routinely dismiss any criticisms as retrospective and out-of-date.

Does it matter if the DWP is paranoid about leaks?

A paper published in 2009 looks at how damaging it can be for good government when bureaucracies lack internal challenge and seek to impose on officials a “good news” agenda, where criticism is effectively prohibited.

The paper quoted the then Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev as saying, in a small meeting with leading Soviet intellectuals,

“The restructuring is progressing with great difficulty. We have no opposition party. How then can we control ourselves? Only through criticism and self-criticism. Most important: through glasnost.”

Non-democratic regimes fear a free flow of information because it could threaten political survival. In Russia there was consideration of partial media freedom to give incentives to bureaucrats who would otherwise have no challenge, and no reason to serve the state well, or avoid mistakes.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, was not acknowledged by Soviet officials for two days, and only then after news had spread across the Western media.

The paper argued that a lack of criticism could keep a less democratic government in power. But it can lead to a complacency and incompetence in implementing policy that even a censored media cannot succeed in hiding.

As one observer noted after Chernobyl (Methvin in National Review, Dec. 4, 1987),

“There surely must be days—maybe the morning after Chernobyl—when Gorbachev wishes he could buy a Kremlin equivalent of the Washington Post and find out what is going on in his socialist wonderland.”

Red team

Iain DuncanSmithA lack of reliable information on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme prompted the then secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith to set up his own “red team” review.

That move was not known about at the time. Indeed in December 2012 – at a point when the DWP was issuing public statements on the success of the Universal Credit Programme – the scheme was actually in trouble. The DWP’s legal submission said,

“In summary we concluded (just before Christmas 2012) that the IT system that had been developed for the launch of UC [Universal Credit] had significant problems.”

One wonders whether DWP civil servants kept Duncan Smith in the dark because they themselves had not been fully informed about what was going on, or because they thought the minister was best protected from knowing what was going on, deniability being one key Whitehall objective.

But in the absence of reliable internal information a political leader can lose touch completely, said the paper on press freedom.

“On December 21, 1989, after days of local and seemingly limited unrest in the province of Timi¸ Ceausescu called for a grandiose meeting at the central square of Bucharest, apparently to rally the crowds in support of his leadership. In a stunning development, the meeting degenerated into anarchy, and Ceausescu and his wife had to flee the presidential palace, only to be executed by a firing squad two days later.”

Wrong assumptions

Many times, after the IT media has published articles on big government IT-based project failures, TV and radio journalists have asked to what extent the secretary of state was responsible and why he hadn’t acted to stop millions of pounds being wasted.

But why do broadcast journalists assume ministers control their departments? It is usually more likely that ministers know little about the real risks of failure until it is too late to act decisively.

Lord Bach, a minister at DEFRA, told a House of Commons inquiry in 2007 into the failure of the IT-based Single Payment Scheme that he was aware of the risks but still officials told him that systems would work as planned and farmers would receive payments on time. They didn’t. Chaos ensued.

Said Lord Bach,

“I do think that, at the end of the day, some of the advice that I received from the RPA [Rural Payments Agency] was over-optimistic.”

Lord WhittyAnother DEFRA minister at the time Lord Whitty, who was also party in charge of the Single Payment Scheme, told the same inquiry,

“Perhaps I ought also to say that this was the point at which I felt the advice I was getting was most misleading, and I have used the term ‘misleading’ publicly but I would perhaps prefer to rephrase that in the NAO terms …”

Even the impressive Stephen Crabb – who has now quit as DWP secretary of state – didn’t stand much of chance of challenging his officials. The department’s contracts, IT and other affairs, are so complex and complicated – there are bookcases full of rules and regulations on welfare benefits – that any new ministers soon find themselves overwhelmed with information and complexity.

They will soon realise they are wholly dependent on their officials; and it is the officials who decide what to tell the minister about internal mistakes and bad decisions. Civil servants would argue that ministers cannot be told everything or they would be swamped.

But the paper on press freedom said that in order to induce high effort within a bureacucracy, the leader needs “verifiable information on the bureaucrats’ performance”.

The paper made a fascinating argument that the more complacent the bureaucracy, the more aggressively it would control information. Some oil-rich countries, said the paper, have less media freedom than those with scarcer resources.

“Consistent with our theory, [some] non-democratic countries … have vast resources and poor growth performance, while the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), while predominantly non-democratic in the 1970s and 1980s, have high growth rates and scarce natural resource.”

In an apparent opening up of information, the government in China passed a law along the lines of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (“China Sets Out to Cut Secrecy, but Laws Leave Big Loopholes,” New York Times, Apr. 25, 2007). But was this law self-serving? It, and the launch of local elections, provided the central government with relatively reliable information on the performance of provincial bosses.

These stories from less democratic countries may be relevant in Britain because politicians here, including secretaries of state, seem to be the last to know when a big IT-based programme is becoming a disaster.

Bad news

Whtehall’s preoccupation with “good news only” goes well beyond the DWP.

T auditors Arthur D Little, in a forensic analysis of the delays, cost over-runs and problems on the development of a huge air traffic control IT project for National Air Traffic Services, whose parent was then the Civil Aviation Authority, which was part of the Department for Transport, referred to an “unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news”.

Ministers helpless to force openness on unwilling officials?

Francis Maude came to the Cabinet Office with a reforming zeal and a sophisticated agenda for forcing through more openness, but the effects of his efforts began to evaporate as soon as he left office. Even when he was at the height of his power and influence, he was unable to persuade civil servants to publish Gateway reviews, although he’d said when in opposition that he intended to publish them.

His negotiations ended with central departments agreeing to publish only the “traffic light” status of big projects – but only after a minimum delay of at least six months. In practice the delay is usually a year or more.


Brexit campaigners argue that the EC is undemocratic, that decisions are taken in Brussels in secret by unelected bureaucrats. But the EC is at least subject to the scrutiny, sometimes the competing scrutiny, of 29 countries.

Arguably Whitehall’s departments are also run by unelected bureaucrats who are not subject to any effective scrutiny other than inspections from time to time of the National Audit Office.

Yes Minister parodied Sir Humphrey’s firm grip on what the public should and should not be told. Usually his recommendation was that the information should be misleadingly reassuring. This was close enough to reality to be funny. And yet close enough to reality to be serious as well. It revealed a fundamental flaw in democracy.

Nowhere is that flaw more clearly highlighted than in the DWP’s legal submission. Is it any surprise that the DWP did not want the submission published?

If officials had the choice, would they publish any information that they did not control on any of their IT projects and programmes?

That’s where the indispensable work of the National Audit Office comes into the picture – but it alone, even with the help of the Public Accounts Committee, cannot plug the gaping hole in democracy that the DWP’s submission exposes.

These are some thoughts I am left with after reading the legal submission in the light of the DWP’s record on the management of IT-based projects …

  • Press freedom and the free flow of information cannot be controlled in a liberal democracy. But does Whitehall have its own subtle – and not so subtle – ways and means?
  • In light of the DWP’s track record, the public and the media are entitled to distrust whatever ministers and officials say publicly about their own performance on IT-related programmes, including Universal Credit.
  • More worryingly, would the DWP’s hierarchy care a jot if the media and public didn’t believe what the department said publicly about progress on big projects such as Universal Credit?
  • Is the DWP’s unofficial motto: Better to tell a beautiful lie than an ugly truth?
  • AL Kennedy mentioned the “botched” Universal Credit programme  when she gave a “point of view” on Radio 4 last week. Not referring specifically to Universal Credit she said facts can be massaged but nature can’t be fooled. A girder that won’t hold someone’s weight is likely to fail however many PR-dominated assurance reports have gone before. “Facts are uncompromising and occasionally grim. I wish they weren’t. Avoiding them puts us all at increased risk,” she said.

 Excerpts from the DWP submission

Some Twitter comments on this post:





Paper on Universal Credit IT programme the DWP didn’t want published

By Tony Collins

Below are excerpts from a paper on the Universal Credit IT programme that a judge has ruled can be published.

Judge Chris Ryan has granted my request to publish written evidence that the DWP had submitted to an FOI Tribunal for a hearing in February 2016.

The tribunal was over the DWP’s prolonged refusal to publish three reports on the Universal Credit IT programme. The DWP lost the case and in April 2016 released the reports in question: a risk register, issues log and project assessment review. Subsequently the Government Legal Service, representing the DWP, refused permission for the department’s written evidence to the tribunal to be published.

My comments on the contents of the DWP’s written evidence are in a separate article.

Lawyers for the DWP had argued that its written evidence to an FOI Tribunal was for the purposes of the hearing only. The Government Legal Department told the FOI Tribunal,

“The open justice principle has been in this case; the proceedings were held in public; reporting of the proceedings was permitted; and the issues were ventilated very fully in open court.

“We do not consider that it is necessary to go further and for Mr Collins to be permitted to publish the witness statements themselves, outside of the proceedings for which they were made”.

But Judge Ryan,who had heard the original FOI case, granted my application citing this: Guardian Case – provision of documents used in an appeal

He said there would have been no issue if the evidence in question had been given in full during the hearing. To save time such evidence is not heard in full. Instead written statements are given to the judge, which can make it difficult for reporters or anyone listening to the case in court to pick up what is going on.

Said the judge in ruling,

“I am satisfied that Mr Collins has a genuine journalistic interest in referring to the material in his blog …

“I am satisfied, therefore, that the combination of a public hearing (at which the evidence was not heard) and a published determination (which referred to only parts of the evidence) does not do enough to satisfy the principle of open justice and that the contents of the open witness statements should be generally available, including being quoted in journalistic writing of the kind envisaged by Mr Collins.”

The statement in question

The DWP’s written evidence refers, in part, to the effects on staff and managers of leaks on the Universal Credit IT programme.

The DWP’s argument was, in essence, that the release of sensitive information as a result of leaks or an FOI ruling to disclose the three reports in question, would change the behaviours and attitudes of staff and managers.

The DWP’s written evidence gives a rare insight into how the department dealt with its own fear of leaks.

One interpretation of the DWP’s written evidence is that it shows the extent to which the DWP was careful to control information to the media, the public, stakeholders, MPs and the public to ensure that only the correct information about the Universal Credit IT programme was released, and then only by authorised persons.

Another interpretation is that it shows the extent to which the DWP was preoccupied with control of any bad news about the Universal Credit IT programme, to the point of frightening staff and managers by leak investigations, one led by a former member of the security services.

The leaks the DWP refers to in its evidence related to low-level information such as the results of a staff survey of morale or the release of a “starting gate review” that the DWP had lodged with the House of Commons library.

Part of the written evidence below gives several examples of how the fear of leaks manifested itself. For governance meetings, “all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings attached, whether or not they contain sensitive information”.

In a leak investigation, staff were subjected to detailed interviews and individual mailboxes “reviewed”, as were access rights to electronic shared areas.

Assurance reports (low-level reports on the state of the IT programme including risks and problems) were watermarked, numbered and password protected, and a register kept of who received them. Recommendations in the assurance reports were not circulated.

The submission said managers distrusted staff and there was a “lack of candour and honesty throughout the Programme and publicly”.

People became “paranoid that they might have accidentally caused a leak, for example by leaving information on a printer”.

At one point the permanent secretary posted a message on the DWP intranet informing everyone of the leak investigations and “inviting people to speak to the independent investigator if they had any information”.

(Please note)…

I have left out the names of the senior DWP executives who wrote the submissions. This is because the executives represented the position and views of the department rather than those of any individual. The submissions were given to the tribunal,  “on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions”.

Little in the contents of the evidence is surprising. On the other hand it is rare, and perhaps unprecedented, for the DWP’s preoccupation with controlling information on any of its big IT programmes to be articulated so clearly.

This website would argue that suppressing bad news is not conducive to good project management, and can alienate stakeholders who are likely to view a project with suspicion once they believe they are fed only good news.


Parts of the written statement of a senior executive on the Universal Credit IT programme follow.

The executive has been a civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions, and its predecessor departments and agencies, for more than 25 years.

“I therefore have a very good understanding of the general workings and culture of the DWP as a whole…”

The executive also has a “considerable experience of delivering large change programmes (although none as large as UC, which is unique in scale).

“Within my change management experience I have reviewed and managed risk registers and issue logs as part of the Senior Management team.”

The executive explained that the Universal Credit programme constitutes a massive investment of public money.

It is being delivered by a central programme staff of about 500 at present and eventually by “thousands of staff in our operational sites”.

The UC programme went through a “reset” instigated by the Major Projects Authority in 2013.

“This meant a considerable amount of re-planning and scrutiny from other Government Departments.

“There are very few senior level staff still working in the Department who worked on the Universal Credit Programme in 2011/2012. I have been asked to provide this witness statement as I joined the Programme in 2012 and have a good understanding of what happened on the Programme before that date as well as of DWP more generally.”

When joining the Universal Credit IT programme, the executive found that many of the senior management team were relatively new and, as colleagues were taken on board, “we were expected to learn about the Programme and deliver our critical areas of work simultaneously”.

“I was placed on temporary promotion … and asked to take on a fact-finding/troubleshooter role on behalf of the Programme Director, undertaking a stocktake and reporting back within 6 weeks on areas of known concern.

“As a Director I was also a member of the senior management team of the (Universal Credit) programme. It rapidly became apparent that many issues were being addressed within the Programme but that there were significant problems in some areas – including my area of expertise.

Significant problems

“I worked closely with the Secretary of State’s Special Adviser (Stephen Brien) and other security specialists to investigate the position. In summary, we concluded (just before Christmas 2012) that the IT system that had been developed for the launch of UC had significant problems.

“This was difficult news for the Programme and our conclusions were very sensitive. Having been told and having understood our discussions, ministers and the programme leaders (including me) needed to consider how the rollout of UC could proceed and the “art of the possible” in respect of launching UC in April 2013 as previously planned and announced. This was under discussion in late December/January.

“The Major Projects Authority undertook a review of the Programme in February 2013, where all Programme leaders and others, including me, were interviewed.

“The decision was taken that the Programme would be reset under the leadership of David Pitchford, then the Chief Executive of the Major Prpojects Authority. We were told that he would bring his own team with him and our own role remained uncertain for a few weeks. On arrival Mr Pitchford convened a workshop of all senior leaders of the Programme to set out the way forward for the Programme.

Mr Pitchford and his MPA team were in place for 13 weeks. I attended workshops and discussions with them and made them aware of the issues in relation to the Programme that my pre-Christmas stocktake had uncovered.

“I also continued to work with DWP teams to decide what recovery and improvement action was needed to support UC in the future, whatever the reset outcome. During this period Mr Pitchford was appointed as ‘Chief Executive of Universal Credit’, and suspended other governance meetings with decisions made by him at the centre of the Programme.

“In February 2013 an extraordinary ‘Ministerial Oversight Group’ was put in place, which was made up of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Secretary and very senior officials from each of the Departments concerned. I presented to this group on the issues I had been working on. This group met a small number of times during 2013 to monitor progress of the Programme.

“Mr Pitchford and his team departed in May 2013, leaving what they referred to as a ‘blueprint’ for the Programme for Ann Harris (the new programme Director) and Howard Shiplee (the new SRO).

On taking up appointment Mrs Harris and Mr Shiplee further reviewed staffing levels and expenditure on contracted resource, reducing both significantly.

“This inevitably created further confusion and concern in some areas of the Programme. They also re-established formal governance, a new Programme Board with an external non-executive chair and strong project management structures, including risks and issues management, and realised that further planning was required. As well as being part of the senior management team under Mr Pitchford’s direction, I was also part if the new senior management team from May 2013…

“I make these statements not only to describe my work on the Programme – and therefore my good understanding of the sort of pressures the Programme faced, and the nature of the culture within the Programme – but also more generally to try and give a picture of the extreme pressures that working on a Programme of sort of size and complexity can create.

“I also believe that those pressures emphasise the very great importance of ensuring that in the teeth of management change, and external and internal pressure, those responsible for the programme can nevertheless be assured that they receive accurate, frank and timely advice and information about the state of the programme. These sorts of pressures made it more difficult to ensure that this type of advice can be provided and is available for those who need it, even though it is vitally required…

The effect of Freedom of Information disclosures

“I will now turn to the effect of disclosing information that DWP seems sensitive under the FOI Act. It is very difficult to document actual cases of the effect of disclosure as, in my experience, the exemptions under the Act and decisions of the Information Commissioner and Tribunals mean that such sensitive information does not get released in the first place.

“It is therefore inevitable that the effect of disclosure has to be inferred from other types of disclosure (e.g. leaks); from knowledge of human behaviour under the sort of pressures that arise in the Programme of this kind: and from knowledge of departmental behaviour and culture.

“To give a flavour of this, if we take 2012 as an example (as the year that these requests were made) DWP disagreed with the decisions to order the release of information in just 7 cases which came before the Information Commissioner. This is out of a caseload of 4,778 FOIA requests that year.

“Of the cases where we disagreed with the decisions, 2 are the ones before the Tribunal now, 3 are joined with each other as they relate to the same information and are scheduled before the Court of Appeal in June 2016 and on the remaining 2 the Tribunal agreed with the DWP’s judgement and the information did not get released.

“It is therefore difficult for me to give examples of where inappropriate disclosure has caused harm, precisely because the mechanisms designed to protect against that are generally effective.

“Whilst there will undoubtedly be specific reasons relating to each case, considering PARs [project assessment reviews], Risk and Issues Registers in general terms, release of the sensitive information commonly held in these documents would inhibit candour .

“In lookalike cases across government this position has been supported by the Information Commissioner and Tribunals, or the government has as I understand it decided to use the executive override (the FOI “veto”) under section 53 of FOIA.

“DWP rarely receives requests for a PAR or Risk or Isssues Register relating to a major programme and has not released one to date.

“The initial requests for information in these cases also included the request for the Universal Credit milestone schedule. This was released by the Department earlier this year (2015), so I should explain here why we did not feel its release would unduly affect candour.

“Previous submissions from the Department have clearly stated that the “chilling effect” applies in a very minor way to milestone schedules, as they are by their nature a lit of milestones and dates to achieve those milestones.

“A limited chilling effect may occur if information disclosures led to future milestone schedules containing vaguely labelled milestones and deadlines that were unrealistically long, but this sort of minor chilling effect is likely to be picked up by the robust Programme Management which we have in place. Given that, and the passage of time that has now elapsed since the milestone schedule was requested, I agree that it was appropriate to release that document rather than continue to withhold it.

“Given the lack of evidence that I am able to draw on regarding the damage caused by the release of information through FOI, the evidence I can present must come from a different source, namely that of unauthorised leaks of information. Both leaks and disclosure of sensitive information through FOI result in civil servants losing trust in the sanctity of the information sharing systems and processes, resulting in a loss of trust and diminished openness and candour.

“Whilst this is different for FOIs and leaks in that one can be planned for and managed, the damage to trust is still essentially the same. Leaks caused additional damage in that trust of colleagues is also undermined, which is unlikely to be the case with the release of sensitive information under FOI (though there may be a little distrust in colleagues, as some people contributing to risk registers and issues registers may not be aware of FOI rules so may think colleagues have chosen to release documents inappropriately).

My own experience, and those of my colleagues, on the effect of leaks.

I now turn to my own experience of leaks and how they have undermined candour. During 2011 and through to 2013 there were a number of leaks and unauthorised disclosures that came out of the Programme.

“Leaks cannot be managed and considered in the same way as freedom of information requests. Leaks are managed in a reactive and defensive way: however, the impact on staff can be similar. With leaks, staff grow to distrust their colleagues and managers; with the release of data through FOIs, staff grow distrustful of the system and, if they are aware their work can be released this way, will be less candid in the information they record.

Major Projects Authority Review

“In 2011, the Major Projects Authority undertook an independent review of Universal Credit – this was a Starting Gate Review on behalf of the Senior Responsible Owner. The report of the review is confidential to the SRO, and if it is to be helpful it must contain candid advice, both in terms of processes and individuals.

“In this instance the Universal Credit Programme underwent a Programme Assurance Review from the Major Projects Review Group (MPRG), (Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and invited independent experts). The meeting was to provide further recommendations to the SRO and to write to HM Treasury in support of the Treasury Approval Point, which was the ultimate source of funding for the Programme.

“After the meeting of MPRG the Starting Gate Review report and elements of the costs and benefits for Universal Credit were leaked in the Daily Telegraph. These documents are clearly marked as confidential and sensitive. The Business Case provides the economic, commercial and financial argument to allow Government to make key decisions on investment when it comes to large Programmes. It contains sensitive financial and commercial information.

“The various leaks took place at a time (late 2011) when there was press speculation about ‘tension’ between DWP and HM Treasury officials over Universal Credit, and the MPA report was candid in its appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the Programme, identifying areas for improvement, and risk areas to manage.

“The leaking of these various documents made DWP officials feel more defensive and built a sense of being ‘under siege’ and having to take extreme care about what information was being shared and with whom. This was observed by others such as the National Audit Office (NAO), who felt that the Universal Credit Programme was building a ‘fortress culture’.

“The extreme care that was taken had particular consequences. One was that it was harder for people on the Programme, and throughout Government, to obtain the information they needed to do their jobs – even the members of the Programme Board could no longer receive their papers electronically, which meant twenty packs of up to 200 pages delivered by hand every month.

“As is clear from this example, extra time had to be taken in relation to protecting information when the time needed to be spent on introducing UC.

“Valuable resource, both people and time, was taken up ensuring all documents were marked securely in the correct way, all papers were numbered and signed for, any that were sent were ‘double-enveloped’, and any papers that needed to be retained were ‘signed back in’. People were focused on physically protecting information when the time needed to be spent on planning and delivering UC.

“This, then, was the effect of leaking the Starting Gate Review, which for the reasons I have already explained above was a less sensitive document and leaked at a much less sensitive time than either the PAR report in this case, or indeed the Risk Register, or Issues Register.

Pulse Survey

In 2013, the results of a Universal Credit ‘Pulse Survey’ were shared with the Programme. A Pulse Survey is used to gain a quick and simple snapshot of how people feel about the workplace.

“The covering note, sent only to UC staff, acknowledged how difficult it had been to work in the Programme, but explained that there had been a lot of work done to develop a more positive culture, that things were improving and that the leadership team were committed to improving this. There was an embedded file in the note that included personal comments made by the staff in response to some of the questions, and some of these comments were very negative in nature.

“These were included to give an honest picture of how it felt to work in the Programme to ensure staff recognised that their concerns were understood and that changes would be made for the better. The letter and comments were leaked to the Guardian Newspaper and made the front page. The comments in the Guardian included:

Working on UC was ‘soul-destroying’ and ‘unbelievably frustrating’.

People were under so much pressure that they could only engage in ‘fire-fighting and panic management’.

One civil servant writes of a ‘near complete absence of anything that looks like strategic leadership in the programme’.

‘There is a divisive culture of secrecy around current programme developments and very little in the way of meaningful messages for staff or stakeholders explaining what will happen and when.’

‘I have never worked somewhere where decision making was so apparently poor at senior levels …’

“As a consequence of these leaks and others a number of leak investigations were instigated by the Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State. One was led by a former member of the Security Services. They involved detailed interviews with a wide variety of staff – where direct questions were asked about colleagues – and interrogation of email systems and reviews of staff access to documents.

“People became suspicious of their colleagues – even those they worked closely with. There was a lack of trust and people were very careful about being honest with their colleagues. People were very careful who they shared information with, and became paranoid that they might have accidentally caused a leak, for example by leaving information on a printer.

“People also stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the Programme, even when those comments would be useful as part of something like an MPA review.

“Colleagues also became concerned about the sanctity of the information systems and processes – which were also examined as part of the investigation where elements such as access rights to electronic shared areas and individual mailboxes were reviewed.

“The leaks had a considerable impact on the member of staff who sent out the note on the pulse survey and those that read the note, including those who contributed the anonymous comments in the embedded document.

“People felt they could no longer share things with colleagues that might have an honest assessment of difficulties or any negative criticism – many staff believed the official line was ‘everything is fine’.

“People, even now, struggle to trust colleagues with sensitive information and are still; fearful that anything that is sent out via email will be misused. For all governance meetings, all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings included, whether or not they contain sensitive information.

How did it change the way we did things?

“All future MPAs, other assurance reports, risk registers and issues registers were all treated with utmost care.

“For assurance reports, only the SRO and Programme Director could have electronic copies (and the password protected) and other recipients received printed, watermarked, numbered copies, with a register kept of who had received them.

“While the business case tem has copies of the recommendations, these were not circulated, and while the team did pursue progress against this clearly could not be set in the full context of the report outside a small number of people.

“This was damaging to the programme because people felt management did not trust them, leading to a lack of loyalty and commitment and further distrust of the system. Releasing what Programme staff would have seen as sensitive and ‘official’ information in the form of the PAR report or risk or issues register at that time would have exacerbated an already difficult situation in the Programme.

“At the time of the leaks and the investigations that followed, Programme senior leaders were expected to speak to their teams about what had happened and what the ‘lines to take’ were.

“The lines to take were also added to the Rolling Brief (an internal update document) and circulated to senior leaders in the Programme, press office, special advisors and so on. The lines were a ‘defensive’ approach to media requests, emphasising the positive in terms of progress in the Programme without acknowledging the issues identified in leaked stories.

“This positive approach to briefing and media management built on the effect of the leaks and led to a lack of candour and honesty throughout the Programme and publically – it contributed to the to the ‘fortress mentality’ spoken of by the National Audit Office.

“Subsequent to the various leaks, the Permanent Secretary posted a message on the DWP internal intranet informing every one of the investigations and inviting people to speak to the independent investigator if they had any information. This was at a time when the Permanent Secretary needed to give as much focus as possible to the Programme itself.

“The arrangements around sensitive documents, such as assurance reports, business cases and risk logs, are still tightly controlled in the Universal Credit programme, both as a consequence of the leaks and the investigations and because of the perception that these fostered that anything that did not reflect well on the Programme was likely to be leaked.

“Further release of information, either through the FOI route or another leak would have piled pressure both on management and on the Programme staff, with everyone feeling limited in what they could say, and how honest they could be when recording their concerns about Programme progress.

“One of the broader consequences of this was that the level and frequency of communications was reduced because of this lack of trust in systems for recording information. ‘Temperature checks’ and similar ‘pulse surveys’ were no longer carried out.

“This led to people feeling ‘disengaged’ and the level of commitment from people reduced. This low level of engagement was evident in the 2013 and 2014 People Survey results, with those feeling proud of working in the Programme being significantly less than those who were proud of working for the Department as a whole.

“Part of this lack of candour caused by leaks relates to dedicated civil servants not wanting to harm the Programme and risk its delivery. Universal Credit is the most profound change to the welfare state that most will work on in their career. The benefits that will stem from the change will have a significant impact on millions of lives and save billions of pounds.

“Undermining trust in the information-sharing systems and processes that are used by a group of people dedicated to wanting to see this positive change will almost certainly result in them stepping back from the frankness and candour that is so necessary for effective Programme Management.

“This may be done with the best of intentions. Officials will not want to be the source of information made public, that reflects badly on a Programme they consider will have a positive effect on so many. But (to give one example) toning down, even unconsciously, the wording of a risk makes effective programme management much harder.

“This in turn increases the risk of issues occurring, which might otherwise have been drawn out, planned for and avoided. This may be a relatively slight issue in a small programme with a small number of staff, but on a Programme the size and scale of Universal Credit, that candour is vital to ensure we make the most effective decisions, since they ultimately affect the lives of millions of citizens.

The above facts are true to the best of my knowledge and belief.

Signed electronically

6th November 2015

I make this statement on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions in support of the DWP’s position in three appeals under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).”

My submission to the tribunal, which includes responses to the above DWP points is here:  Tony Collins statement to FOI DWP tribunal January 2016.doc

[Thank you to FOI campaigner and IT projects professional John Salter [@AmateurFOI] who provided invaluable help with my submissions to the FOI tribunal. It was largely through Slater’s efforts – including his own submissions and attendance at two FOI tribunal hearings where he cross examined DWP witnesses  – that the DWP eventually released the reports in dispute.]

Comment and analysis on the DWP’s written evidence.

NHS “Wachter” digital review is delayed – but does it matter?

By Tony Collins

The Wachter review of NHS technology was due to be published in June but has been delayed. Would it matter if it were delayed indefinitely?

A “Yes Minister” programme about a new hospital in North London said it all, perhaps. An enthusiastic NHS official shows the minister round a hospital staffed with 500 administrators. It has the latest technology on the wards.

“It’s one of the best run hospitals in the country,” the NHS official tells the minister, adding that it’s up for the Florence Nightingale award for the standards of hygiene.

“But it has no patients,” says the minister.

Another health official tells the minister,

“First of all, you have to sort out the smooth running of the hospital. Having patients around would be no help at all.” They would just be in the way, adds Sir Humphrey.

In the Wachter’s review’s terms of reference (“Making IT work: harnessing the power of health IT to improve care in England“)  there is a final bullet point that refers, obliquely, to a need to consider patients. Could the Wachter terms of reference have been written by a satirist who wanted to show how it was possible to have a review of NHS IT for the benefit of suppliers, clinical administrators and officialdom but not patients?

The Wachter team will, according to the government,

• Review and articulate the factors impacting the successful adoption of health information systems in secondary and tertiary care in England, drawing relevant comparisons with the US experience;

• Provide a set of recommendations drawing on the key challenges, priorities and opportunities for the health and social care system in England. These recommendations will cover both the high levels features of implementations and the best ways in which to engage clinicians in the adoption and use of such systems.

In making recommendations, the board will consider the following points:

• The experiences of clinicians and Trust leadership teams in the planning, implementation and adoption of digital systems and standards;

• The current capacity and capability of Trusts in understanding and commissioning of health IT systems and workflow/process changes.

• The current experiences of a number of Trusts using different systems and at different points in the adoption lifecycle;

• The impact and potential of digital systems on clinical workflows and on the relationship between patients and their clinicians and carers.

Yes, there’s the mention of “patients” in the final bullet point.

Existing systems?

nhsSome major IT companies have, for decades, lobbied – often successfully – for much more public investment in NHS technology. Arguably that is not the priority, which is to get existing systems to talk to each other – which would be for the direct benefit of patients whose records do not follow them wherever they are looked at or treated within the NHS.

Unless care and treatment is at a single hospital, the chances of medical records following a patient around different sites, even within the same locality, are slim.

Should a joining up of existing systems be the main single objective for NHS IT? One hospital consultant told me several years ago – and his comment is as relevant today –

“My daughter was under treatment from several consultants and I could never get a joined-up picture. I had to maintain a paper record myself just to get a joined-up picture of what was going on with her treatment.”

Typically one patient will have multiple sets of paper records. Within one hospital, different specialities will keep their own notes. Fall over and break your leg and you have a set of orthopaedic notes; have a baby and you will have a totally different set of notes. Those two sets are rarely joined up.

One clinician told me, “I have never heard a coroner say that a patient died because too much information was shared.”

And a technology specialist who has multiple health problems told me,

“I have different doctors in different places not knowing what each other is doing to me.”

As part of wider research into medical records, I asked a hospital consultant in a large city with three major hospitals whether records were shared at least locally.

“You must be joking. We have three acute hospitals. Three community intermediate teams are in the community. Their records are not joined. There is one private hospital provider. If you get admitted to [one] hospital and then get admitted to [another] the next week your electronic records cannot be seen by the first hospital.  Then if you get admitted to the third hospital the week after, again not under any circumstances will your record be able to be viewed.”

Blood tests have to be repeated, as are x-rays; but despite these sorts of stories of a disjointed NHS, senior health officials, in the countless NHS IT reviews there have been over 30 years, will, it seems, still put the simplest ideas last.

It would not cost much – some estimate less than £100m – to provide secure access to existing medical records from wherever they need to be accessed.

No need for a massive investment in new technology. No need for a central patient database, or a central health record. Information can stay at its present location.  Just bring local information together on local servers and provide secure access.

A locum GP said on the Pulse website recently,

“If you are a member of the Armed Forces, your MO can get access to your (EMIS-based) medical record from anywhere in the world. There is no technical reason why the NHS cannot do this. If need be, the patient could be given a password to permit a GP to see another Surgery’s record.”

New appointments

To avoid having patients clog up super-efficient hospitals, Sir Humphrey would have the Wachter review respond to concerns about a lack of joined up care in the NHS by announcing a set of committees and suggesting the Department of Health and NHS England appoint a new set of senior technologists.

Which is just what has happened.

Last week NHS England announced  “key appointments to help transform how the NHS uses technology and information”. [One of the NHS appointments is that of a Director of Digital Experience, which is not a fictional title, incidentally. Ironically it seems to be the most patient-facing of the new jobs.]

Said the announcement,

“The creation of these roles reflects recommendations in the forthcoming review on the future of NHS information systems by Dr Bob Wachter.

“Rather than appoint a single chief information and technology officer, consistent with the Wachter review the NHS is appointing a senior medical leader as NHS Chief Clinical Information Officer supported by an experienced health IT professional as NHS Chief Information Officer.

“The first NHS Chief Clinical Information Officer will be Professor Keith McNeil, a former transplant specialist who has also held many senior roles in healthcare management around the world, including Chief Executive Officer at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Chief Executive Officer at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in Australia.

“The new NHS Chief Information Officer will be Will Smart, currently Chief Information Officer at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust. Mr Smart has had an extensive career in IT across the NHS and in the private sector.

“The NHS CCIO and NHS CIO post-holders will act on behalf of the whole NHS to provide strategic leadership, also chairing the National Information Board, and acting as commissioning ‘client’ for the relevant programmes being delivered by NHS Digital (previously known as the Health and Social Care Information Centre).

“The roles will be based at NHS England and will report to Matthew Swindells, National Director: Operations and Information, but the post-holders will also be accountable to NHS Improvement, with responsibility for its technology work with NHS providers.

“In addition, Juliet Bauer has been appointed as Director of Digital Experience at NHS England. She will oversee the transformation of the NHS Choices website and the development and adoption of digital technology for patient ‘supported self-management’, including for people living with long term conditions such as diabetes or asthma. Ms Bauer has led delivery of similar technology programmes in many sectors, including leading the move to take Times Newspapers online…”

Surely a first step, instead of arranging new appointments and committees, and finding ways of spending money on new technology, would be to put in place data sharing agreements between hospitals?

A former trust chief executive told me,

“In primary care, GPs will say the record is theirs. Hospital teams will say it is our information and patient representative groups will say it is about patients and it is their nformation. In maternity services there are patient-held records because it is deemed good practice that mums-to-be should be fully knowledgeable and fully participating in what is happening to them.

“Then you get into complications of Data Protection Act. Some people get very sensitive about sharing information across boundaries: social workers and local authority workers. If you are into long-term continuous care you need primary care, hospital care and social care. Without those being connected you may do half a job or even less than that potentially. There are risks you run if you don’t know the full information.”

He added that the Summary Care Record – a central database of every patient’s allergies, medication and any adverse reactions to drugs, was a “waste of time”.

“You need someone selecting information to go into it [the Summary Care Record]so it is liable to omissions and errors. You need an electronic patient record that has everything available but is searchable. You get quickly to what you want to know. That is important for that particular clinical decision.”

Is it the job of civil servants to make the simple sound complicated?

Years ago, a health minister invited me for an informal meeting at the House of Commons to show me, in confidence, a one-page civil service briefing paper on why it was not possible to use the internet for making patient information accessible anywhere.

The minister was incredulous and wanted my view. The civil service paper said that nobody owned the internet so it couldn’t be used for the transfer of patient records.  If something went wrong, nobody could be blamed.

That banks around the world use the internet to provide secure access to individual bank accounts was not mentioned in the paper, nor the existence of the CHAPS network which, by July 2011, had processed one quadrillion (£1,000,000,000,000,000) pounds.

Did the briefing paper show that the civil service was frightened by the apparent simplicity of sharing patient information on a secure internet connection? If nothing else, the paper showed how health service officials will tend, instinctively, to shun the cheapest solutions. Which may help to explain how the (failed) £10n National Programe for IT came into being in 2002.


Radiation_warning_symbolNobody will be surprised if the Wachter review team’s report is laden with  jargon about “delays between technology being introduced and a corresponding rise in output”. It may talk of how new technology could reduce the length of stay by 0.1528 of a bed day per patient, saving a typical hospital £1.8m annually or 7,648 bed days.

It may refer to visions, envisioning fundamental change, establishing best practice as the norm, and a need for adaptive change.

Would it not be better if the review team spoke plainly of the need for a patient with a fractured leg not having to carry a CD of his x-ray images to different NHS sites in a carrier bag?

Some may await the Wachter report with a weary apprehension that its delay – even indefinitely – will make not a jot of difference. Perhaps Professor Wachter will surprise them. We live in hope.

Wachter review terms of reference.

Review of IT in the NHS

Another NPfIT IT scandal in the making?

Hunt announces Wachter review

What can we learn from the US “hospitalist” model?

Another public sector IT project disaster – but a useful failure if lessons are disseminated

By Tony Collins

Comment and analysis

Government Computing reported on 1 July 2016 that the Scottish Police Authority has agreed with Accenture to end their “i6” programme.

It’s a classic public sector IT project disaster. It failed for the usual reasons (see below). What marks it out is the unusual post-failure approach: a limited openness.

Police in Scotland and the Scottish Government plan a review of what went wrong, which is likely to be published.

Usually senior civil and public servants in Whitehall, local government in England and Wales and the NHS rush to shut the blinds when an IT-enabled change project goes awry, which is what has happened recently after failures of the GP Support Services contract with Capita.  [GP magazine Pulse reports that NHS England is to withhold report on primary care support problems until 2017.]

The police in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament are being open but not completely. Their settlement with Accenture remains confidential, but the Scottish Police Authority has published the full business case for i6 and – under FOI – early “Gateway” reviews and “Healthcheck” reports, though with quite a few redactions.

Despite FOI, it’s almost unknown for Whitehall, the NHS or local government in England and Wales, to publish Gateway reviews of big IT projects.

All this means there may be a genuine attempt in Scotland to learn lessons from the failure of the i6 project, and perhaps even let the public sector as a whole benefit from them (if it’s interested),

Due originally to go live last December, and then in the autumn this year, i6 hit problems within months of the start of the contract with Accenture. The contract was signed in June 2013, work started in July and the two sides were reported as being in mediation by August 2013.


But the programme had followed well-established preparatory routines. One internal report described the procurement approach as an exemplar for the rest of the public sector. Yet it still ended in failure.

In fact i6 followed the classic script of a traditional public sector IT-based project disaster:

  1. An over-ambitious plan for widespread “integration” – which is one of the most dangerous words in the history of public sector IT-enabled change projects. It seemed a great idea at the time: to save vast sums by bringing together in a single system similar things done in different ways by formerly separate organisations.
  2. A variety of early independent reports that highlighted risks and strengths of the programme but didn’t ask the biggest question of all: could a single national system ever work satisfactorily given the amount of organisational change required – changes that would impose on the system design constant modification as end-users discovered new things they wanted and didn’t want that were in the original design – and changes that would require a large team on the police side to have the time to understand the detail and convey it accurately to Accenture.
  3. An assumption that the supplier would be able to deliver an acceptable system within tight deadlines in a fast-changing environment.
  4. Milestones that were missed amid official denials that the project was in disarray.
  5. An agreement to end the contract that was on the basis of a secret settlement, which brought little or no accountability for the failure. Nobody knows how much has been spent on the project in staff and managerial time, hiring of various consultancies, the commissioning of various reports, and money paid over to the supplier.

What are the lessons?


The 10-year programme, which was said to cost between £40m and £60m, was ambitious. It was supposed to replace 135 IT-and paper-based systems across Scotland with a single national integrated system that would be rolled out to all Police Scotland divisions.

A “Gateway review” of the project in March 2013 said the project involved the “largest organisagtional change in the history of Scottish policing”.

The released documents have much praise for the police’s preparatory work on the contract with Accenture. Private consultants were involved as the technical design authority. Deloitte was hired for additional support. There were regular “healthcheck” and Gateway reviews.

Too ambitious?

Bringing together dozens of systems and paper-based processes into a new standardised system that’s supposed to work across a variety of business units, requires – before a single new server is installed – agreement over non-IT changes that are difficult in practice to achieve. It’s mainly a business-change project rather than an IT one.

The business case promised “Full interoperability, of processes and technology, at local and national level.” Was that ever really possible?

The disastrous Raytheon/Home Office e-borders project was a similar classic public sector project failure based on “integration”.  Although it was a much bigger project and far more complex than i6, it followed similar principles: a new national system that would replace a  patchwork of different systems and business processes.

Raytheon could not force change on end-users who did not want change in the way Raytheon envisaged. The Home Office wasted hundreds of millions on the project, according to the National Audit Office which said,

“During the period of the e-borders programme the Department made unrealistic assumptions about programme delivery without recognising the importance of managing a diverse range of stakeholders.

“Delivering the e-borders vision requires that more than 600 air, ferry and rail carriers supply data on people they are bringing in and out of the country, while around 30 government agencies supply data on persons of interest.

“During the e-borders period, the contract made Raytheon responsible for connecting e-borders to these stakeholders’ systems, under the Department’s strategic direction. But carriers and agencies expressed general concerns about the costs and other implications of revising their systems to connect to e-borders, including the interfaces they were expected to use.

“The contract strongly incentivised Raytheon to deliver the roll-out to the agreed schedules but provided less incentive for Raytheon to offer a wider choice of interfaces…Lack of clarity on what was legal under European law further exacerbated the difficult relationships with carriers. These difficulties affected progress in rolling out e-borders from the outset…

“Following the cancellation of the e-borders contract in 2010, the Department [Home Office] took more direct ownership of external relationships instead of working through Raytheon. Transport carriers told us there is now a better understanding of needs and requirements between themselves and the Department.”

The NHS National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was another similar failure, in part because of overly ambitious plans for “integration” – on a scale that could never be imposed on a diverse range of largely autonomous NHS organisations. Some hospitals and GPs did not want a national system that did less than their existing systems. Why would they want to replace their own proven IT with cruder standardised systems for the sake of the common good?

More recently the GP support services contract with Capita has run into serious problems largely because of an overly ambitious objective of replacing fragmented ways of working with a national “common good” system.

A Capita spokesperson said of the new system: ‘NHS England asked Capita to transform what was a locally agreed, fragmented primary care support service, to a national standardised system.”

It’s naïve for politicians and senior public servants to view integration as a public benefit without questioning its necessity in the light of the huge risks.

[Mao Tsedong saw the Great Leap Forward as a public benefit. It was a costly catastrophe, in human and financial terms. ]

Disputes over whether proposals would meet actual needs?

It appears that i6 officials found Accenture’s solutions unconvincing; but it’s likely Accenture found that requirements were growing and shifting, leading to disagreements over varying interpretations of different parts of the contract. Accenture could not compel cooperation by various forces even it wanted to.

It may work elsewhere – but that doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.

This is one of the oldest lessons from countless disaster in the history of the IT industry. It was listed as a key factor in some of the world’s biggest IT disasters in “Crash”.

The business case for i6 says:

“The [Accenture] solution is based on a system delivered to 80,000 officers in the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force.

“The procured solution includes software components, software licences, specialist hardware, integration tools and services, business change activities, implementation services, reporting capabilities, data management activities, ongoing support, optional managed service arrangements, additional integration services and other relevant services necessary for the successful implementation of the solution.”

Is it wise to promise huge savings many times greater than projected costs?

Clearly i6 is a political scheme. It’s easy in the public sector to declare at the outset any amount of anticipated savings when it’s clear to everyone that the actual audited savings – or losses – will probably never be announced.

Initial costs were put at £12m, but later revisions put the cost nearer to £46m. More recently costs of £60m have been reported. In 2013, cashable savings to be made by developing i6 were said to be over £61m, with the total cashable and non-cashable savings estimated to be £218m over ten years.

That said, the police appear to have paid over relatively small sums to Accenture, not tens of millions of pounds.

Lessons from past failures have been learned – really?

The Scottish Police Authority gave an unequivocal assurance to its members in June 2013 that i6 will “not suffer the same fate as other high profile large scale IT projects”. This is what the Authority said to its members,

“Delivery Assurance – SPA [Scottish Police Authority] members have sought and been provided with significant assurance that the i6 programme will deliver the intended outcomes and not suffer the same fate as other high profile large scale IT projects.

“The robustness and diligent detail that has gone into the full business case itself provides much of that assurance. Further delivery confidence around i6 comes from a number of sources including:
1. Rigorous Programme Governance.
2. Widespread User Engagement and Robust Requirements Gathering.
3. The creation of a ‘live’ multi-sector i6 Learning Network.
4. The formation of strategic partnership groups.
5. Alignment to the wider Scottish Government Digital Strategy.
6. Active learning from the Audit Scotland Review of Public Sector IT Projects and the Common Performance Management Project (‘Platform’).
7. Significant time and investment in the use of Competitive Dialogue.
8. The formation of a strong and consistent programme team with integrated professional advice & support.
9. Exposure to the full independent OGC Gateway Review Process.
10. An independent Scottish Government Technical Assurance Review.

A growing list of changes.

In February 2016 Accenture said, “This is a very complex project. The complexity of the solution, which has been driven by the client, has increased significantly over the last two years.”

This suggests the scope and specification grew as the many different stakeholders gradually formed a view of what they wanted.

Criticism of the supplier, as if it were the only party responsible or delivering the system.

Police Scotland told members of the Scottish Parliament in February 2016 that Accenture has let the police down.

One question auditors may ask is whether it would have been better for local policing divisions to keep control of their own IT.

Internal reviews too soft, too reassuring?

A technical assurance review in June 2013 gave the i6 project an “amber/green” status.

A secret settlement leaves taxpayers having no clue of how much money has gone down the drain.

The Scottish Police Authority says the settlement is confidential. “The terms of the agreement are commercially confidential. However we can confirm that the settlement results in no financial detriment to the police budget.”

The current police budget may not be affected but how much has already been paid and how much of this is wasted? If no figures are ever given, how can there be proper accountability that could deter a new set of officials making similar mistakes in a future project?

Doomsday Register?

If the public sector kept a published “Doomsday” register of failed projects and programmes and the mistakes made in them, as identified by auditors, the same mistakes would be less likely to be repeated.

Perhaps i6 could be the first entry into a new Doomsday register.

The future’s looking bright (?).

When a project is cancelled, it’s almost inevitable that the consequences will be declared to be minimal; and we’re all left wondering why the project was needed in the first place if the future is so rosy.

Half the story

As things stand,  when a council, police, NHS, or Whitehall project fails and millions of pounds, sometimes tens of millions, even billions, are lost, there’s no incentive for anyone but taxpayers to care – and even then they don’t know half the story.

In the case of i6, once the settlement with Accenture is finalised – with hardly anyone knowing the details – officialdom is free to embark on a similar project in a few years time, with different people involved, and describing it in a different way.

Who cares when the public sector has another IT disaster that follows an age-old script?


Project summary

The i6 project was introduced to merge more than 130 different computer and paper systems left in place after eight regional forces were merged to form Police Scotland.

Police Scotland told MSPs in February that they were looking at contingency options because they could not solve scores of faults that had emerged during testing.

Officers involved in the tests said at one point they had found 12 critical errors that made it unusable, and a total of 76 defects that required further work.

Accenture said in February that i6 passed its internal testing but flaws emerged when Police Scotland tested the programme.


The Guardian reports on another IT-enabled project problems in Scotland.

“Scottish ministers have already been forced to seek an extension from the European commission after its new £178m farming payments system had to be dramatically scaled back and failed to meet an EU deadline.

“There have been significant delays and cost rises too in a new call-handling and IT system for NHS Scotland’s telephone advice service, NHS 24, which has not yet become operational. Its budget has risen by 55% to nearly £118m, and it is four years late.”

Scottish Police Authority and Accenture terminate i6 contract – Government Computing



Aspire: eight lessons from the UK’s biggest IT contract

By Tony Collins

How do you quit a £10bn IT contract in which suppliers have become limbs of your organisation?

Thanks to reports by the National Audit Office, the questioning of HMRC civil servants by the Public Accounts Committee, answers to FOI requests, and job adverts for senior HMRC posts, it’s possible to gain a rare insight into some of the sensitive commercial matters that are usually hidden when the end of a huge IT contract draws closer.

Partly because of the footnotes, the latest National Audit Office memorandum on Aspire (June 2016) has insights that make it one of the most incisive reports it has produced on the department’s IT in more than 30 years.

Soaring costs?

Aspire is the government’s biggest IT-related contract. Inland Revenue, as it was then, signed a 10-year outsourcing deal with HP (then EDS) in 1994, and transferred about 2,000 civil servants to the company. The deal was expected to cost £2bn over 10 years.

After Customs and Excise, with its Fujitsu VME-based IT estate, was merged with Inland Revenue’s in 2005, the cost of the total outsourcing deal with HP rose to about £3bn.

In 2004 most of the IT staff and HMRC’s assets transferred to Capgemini under a contract known as Aspire – Acquiring Strategic Partners for Inland Revenue. Aspire’s main subcontractors were Accenture and Fujitsu.

In subsequent years the cost of the 10-year Aspire contract shot up from about £3bn to about £8bn, yielding combined profits to Capgemini and Fujitsu of £1.2bn – more than double the £500m originally modelled. The profit margin was 15.8% compared to 12.3% originally modelled.

The National Audit Office said in a report on Aspire in 2014 that HMRC had not handled costs well. The NAO now estimates the cost of the extended (13-year) Aspire contract from 2004 to 2017 to be about £10bn.

Between April 2006 and March 2014, Aspire accounted for about 84% of HMRC’s total spending on technology.

Servers that typically cost £30,000 a year to run under Aspire – and there are about 4,000 servers at HMRC today – cost between £6,000 when run internally or as low as £4,000 a year in the commodity market.

How could the Aspire spend continue – and without a modernisation of the IT estate?

A good service

HMRC has been generally pleased with the quality of service from Aspire’s suppliers.  Major systems have run with reducing amounts of downtime, and Capgemini has helped to build many new systems.

Where things have gone wrong, HMRC appears to have been as much to blame as the suppliers, partly because development work was hit routinely by a plethora of changes to the agreed specifications.

Arguably the two biggest problems with Aspire have been cost and lack of control.  In the 10 years between 2004 and 2014 HMRC paid an average of £813m a year to Aspire’s suppliers.  And it paid above market rates, according to the National Audit Office.

By the time the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group announced in 2014 that it was seeking to outlaw “bloated and wasteful” contracts, especially ones over £100m, HMRC had already taken steps to end Aspire.

It decided to break up its IT systems into chunks it could manage, control and, to some extent, commoditise.

HMRC’s senior managers expected an end to Aspire by 2017. But unexpected events at the Department for Work and Pensions put paid to HMRC’s plan …

Eight lessons from Aspire

1. Your IT may not be transformed by outsourcing.  That may be the intention at the outset. But it didn’t happen when Somerset County Council outsourced IT to IBM in 2007 and it hasn’t happened in the 12 years of the Aspire contract.

 “The Aspire contract has provided stable but expensive IT systems. The contract has contributed to HMRC’s technology becoming out of date,” said the National Audit Office in its June 2016 memorandum.

Mark DearnleyAnd Mark Dearnley, HMRC’s Chief Digital Information Officer and main board member, told the Public Accounts Committee last week,

“Some of the technology we use is definitely past its best-before date.”

2. You won’t realise how little you understand your outsourced IT until you look at ending a long-term deal.

Confidently and openly answering a series of trenchant questions from MP Richard Bacon at last week’s Public Accounts Committee hearing, Dearnley said,

“It’s inevitable in any large black box outsourcing deal that there are details when you get right into it that you don’t know what’s going on. So yes, that’s what we’re learning.”

3. Suppliers may seem almost philanthropic in the run-up to a large outsourcing deal because they accept losses in the early part of a contract and make up for them in later years.

Dearnley said,

“What we are finding is that it [the break-up of Aspire] is forcing us to have much cleaner commercial conversations, not getting into some of the traditional arrangements.

” If I go away from Aspire and talk about the typical outsourcing industry of the last ten years most contracts lost money in their first few years for the supplier, and the supplier relied on making money in the later years of the contract.

“What that tended to mean was that as time moved on and you wanted to change the contract the supplier was not particularly incented to want to change it because they wanted to make their money at the end.

“What we’re focusing on is making sure the deals are clean, simple, really easy to understand, and don’t mortgage the future and that we can change as the environment evolves and the world changes.”

4. If you want deeper-than-expected costs in the later years of the contract, expect suppliers to make up the money in contract extensions.

Aspire was due originally to end in 2004. Then it went to 2017 after suppliers negotiated a three-year extension in 2007. Now completion of the exit is not planned until 2020, though some services have already been insourced and more will be over the next four years.

The National Audit Office’s June 2016 memorandum reveals how the contract extension from 2017 to 2020 came about.

HMRC had a non-binding agreement with Capgemini to exit from all Aspire services by June 2017. But HMRC had little choice but to soften this approach when Capgemini’s negotiating position was unexpectedly strengthened by IT deals being struck by other departments, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions.

Cabinet Office “red lines” said that government would not extend existing contracts without a compelling case. But the DWP found that instead of being able to exit a large hosting contract with HP in February 2015 it would have to consider a variation to the contract to enable a controlled disaggregation of services from February 2015 to February 2018.

When the DWP announced it was planning to extend its IT contract with its prime supplier HP Enterprise, HMRC was already in the process of agreeing with Capgemini the contract changes necessary to formalise their agreement to exit the Aspire deal in 2017.

“Capgemini considered that this extension, combined with other public bodies planning to extend their IT contracts, meant that the government had changed its position on extensions…

“Capgemini therefore pushed for contract extensions for some Aspire services as a condition of agreeing to other services being transferred to HMRC before the end of the Aspire contract,” said the NAO’s June 2016 memo.

5. It’s naïve to expect a large IT contract to transfer risks to the supplier (s).

At last week’s Public Accounts Committee hearing, Richard Bacon wanted to know if HMRC was taking on more risk by replacing the Aspire contract with a mixture of insourced IT and smaller commoditised contracts of no more than three years. Asked by Bacon whether HMRC is taking on more risk Dearnley replied,

“Yes and no – the risk was always ours. We had some of it backed of it backed off in contract. You can debate just how valuable contract backing off is relative to £500bn (the annual amount of tax collected).  We will never back all of that off. We are much closer and much more on top of the service, the delivery, the projects and the ownership (in the gradual replacement of Aspire).”

6. Few organisations seeking to end monolithic outsourcing deals will have the transition overseen by someone as clear-sighted as Mark Dearnley.

His plain speaking appeared to impress even the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier who asked him at the end of last week’s hearing,

Meg Hillier

Meg Hillier

“And what are your plans? One of the problems we often see in this Committee is people in very senior positions such as yours moving on very quickly. You have had a stellar career in the private sector…

“We hope that those negotiations move apace, because I suspect – and it is perhaps unfair to ask Mr Dearnley to comment – that to lose someone senior at this point would not be good news, given the challenges outlined in the [NAO] Report,” asked Hillier.

Dearnley then gave a slightly embarrassed look to Jon Thomson, HMRC’s chief executive and first permanent secretary. Dearnley replied,

“Jon and I are looking at each other because you are right. Technically my contract finishes at the end of September because I was here for three years. As Jon has just arrived, it is a conversation we have just begun.”

Hiller said,

“I would hope that you are going to have that conversation.”

Richard Bacon added,

“Get your skates on, Mr Thompson; we want to keep him.”

Thompson said,

“We all share the same aspiration. We are in negotiations.”

7. Be prepared to set aside millions of pounds – in addition to the normal costs of the outsourcing – on exiting.

HMRC is setting aside a gigantic sum – £700m. Around a quarter of this, said the National Audit Office, is accounted for by optimism bias. The estimates also include costs that HMRC will only incur if certain risks materialise.

In particular, HMRC has allowed around £100m for the costs of transferring data from servers currently managed by Aspire suppliers to providers that will make use of cloud computing technology. This cost will only be incurred if a second HMRC programme – which focuses on how HMRC exploits cloud technology – is unsuccessful.

Other costs of the so-called Columbus programme to replace Aspire include the cost of buying back assets, plus staff, consultancy and legal costs.

8. Projected savings from quitting a large contract could dwarf the exit costs.

HMRC has estimated the possible minimum and possible maximum savings from replacing Aspire. Even the minimum estimated savings would more than justify the organisational time involved and the challenge of building up new corporate cultures and skills in-house while keeping new and existing services running smoothly.

By replacing Aspire and improving the way IT services are organised and delivered, HMRC expects to save – each year – about £200m net, after taking into account the possible exit costs of £700m.

The National Audit Office said most of the savings are calculated on the basis of removing supplier profit margins and overheads on services being brought in-house, and reducing margins on other services from contract changes.

Even if the savings don’t materialise as expected and costs equal savings the benefits of exiting are clear. The alternative is allowing costs to continue to soar while you allow the future of your IT to be determined by what your major suppliers can or will do within reasonable cost limits.


HMRC is leading the way for other government departments, councils, the police and other public bodies.

Dearnley’s approach of breaking IT into smaller manageable chunks that can be managed, controlled, optimised and to some extent commoditised is impressive.  On the cloud alone he is setting up an internal team of 50.

In the past, IT empires were built and retained by senior officials arguing that their systems were unique – too bespoke and complex to be broken up and treated as a commodity to be put into the cloud.

Dearnley’s evidence to the Public Accounts Committee exposes pompous justifications for the status quo as Sir Humphrey-speak.

Both Richard Feynman and Einstein said something to the effect that the more you understand a subject, the simpler you can explain it.

What Dearnley doesn’t yet understand about the HMRC systems that are still run by Capgemini he will doubtless find out about – provided his contract is renewed before September this year.

No doubt HMRC will continue to have its Parliamentary and other critics who will say that the risks of breaking up HMRC’s proven IT systems are a step too far. But the risks to the public purse of keeping the IT largely as it is are, arguably, much greater.

The Department for Work and Pensions has proved that it’s possible to innovate with the so-called digital solution for Universal Credit, without risking payments to vulnerable people.

If the agile approach to Universal Credit fails, existing benefit systems will continue, or a much more expensive waterfall development by the DWP’s major suppliers will probably be used instead.

It is possible to innovate cheaply without endangering existing tax collection and benefit systems.

Imagine the billions that could be saved if every central government department had a Dearnley on the board. HMRC has had decades of largely negative National Audit Office reports on its IT.  Is that about to change?


This morning (22 June 2016) on LinkedIn, management troubleshooter and board adviser Colin Beveridge wrote,

“Good analysis of Aspire and outsourcing challenges. I have seen too many business cases in my career, be they a case for outsourcing, provider transition or insourcing.

“The common factor in all the proposals has been the absence of strategy end of life costs. In other words, the eventual transition costs that will be incurred when the sourcing strategy itself goes end of life. Such costs are never reflected in the original business case, even though their inevitability will have an important impact on the overall integrity of the sourcing strategy business case.

“My rule of thumb is to look for the end of strategy provision in the business case, prior to transition approval. If there is no provision for the eventual sourcing strategy change, then expect to pay dearly in the end.”

June 2016 memorandum on Aspire – National Audit Office

Dearney’s evidence to the Public Accounts Committee

Avon and Somerset Police to end outsourcing deal after years of proclaiming its success

avon and somerset police logoBy Tony Collins

Avon and Somerset Police has been consistent in its good news statements on the force’s “innovative” outsourcing deal with IBM-owned Southwest One.

These announcements and similar FOI responses have a clear message: that savings from the deal are more than expected.

But the statements have differed in tone and substance from those of Somerset County Council which ended up in a legal action with Southwest One.

Somerset’s losses on its Southwest One deal could leave the casual observer wondering why and how Avon and Somerset Police had made a success of its deal with Southwest One, whereas the county council has had a disastrous experience.

Now the BBC reports that Avon and Somerset will not be renewing its contract with Southwest One when the deal expires in 2018.

Southwest One is 75% owned by IBM and carries out administrative, IT and human resources tasks for the force.

Avon and Somerset Police’s “new” chief constable Andy Marsh – who took up the post in February 2016 – confirmed he has “given notice” that the Southwest On contract will not be renewed.

Andy Marsh, chief constable, Avon and Somerset.

Andy Marsh, chief constable, Avon and Somerset.

Instead he said he wants to work with neighbouring police and fire services. Marsh said,

“We will be finding a new way of providing those services. It is my intention to collaborate with other forces. I do believe I can save some money and I want to protect frontline numbers.”

Marsh came to Avon and Somerset with a reputation for making value for money a priority.

These are some of the statements made by Avon and Somerset Police on the progress of the Southwest One contract before Marsh joined the force:

  • “I am delighted with the level of procurement savings Southwest One is delivering for us, particularly as it is our local communities who will benefit most as front-line services are protected. “
  • “Using Southwest One’s innovative approach, we have been able to exceed our expected savings level.”
  • “I am looking forward to building on our close working relationship with Southwest One to deliver even greater savings in the future.”

FOI campaigner David Orr says of the police’s decision not to renew its contract with Southwest One,

“This controversial contract with IBM for Southwest One was signed in 2007 with the County Council, the Police and Taunton Deane Borough Council.

“We were promised £180m of cash savings, an iconic building in Taunton at Firepool, as well as new jobs and a boost to the economy. None of that ever materialised. “


If Avon and Somerset Police is happy with its outsourcing deal with Southwest One, why is it not renewing or extending the contract?

It’s clear the “new” chief constable Andy Marsh believes he can save money by finding a new way of delivering services, including IT. This sounds sensible given that the client organisation will at some point have to contribute to the supplier’s profits, usually in the later years of the contract.

Savings by ending outsourcing

Public authorities, particularly councils, when they announce the end of an outsourcing contract, will often say they plan to make substantial savings by doing something different in future – Somerset County Council and Liverpool Council among them.

Liverpool Council announced it would save £30m over three years  by ending its outsourcing deal.

Dexter Whitfield of the European Services Strategy Unit which monitors the success or otherwise of major outsourcing deals, is quoted in a House of Commons briefing paper last month entitled “Local government – alternative models of service delivery” as saying,

“Councils have spent £14.2bn on 65 strategic public-private partnership contracts, but there is scant evidence of full costs and savings”.

According to Whitfield, this is due to “the lack of transparent financial audits of contracts, secretive joint council-contractor governance arrangements, poor monitoring, undisclosed procurement costs, a lack of rigorous scrutiny and political fear of admitting failure”.

If it’s so obvious that outsourcing suppliers will eventually try to make up later for any losses in the early stages of a contract – suppliers are not registered charities – why are such deals signed in the first place?

Do officials and councillors not realise that  their successors will probably seek to save money by jettisoning the same outsourcing deal?

The problem, perhaps, is that those who preside over the early years of an outsourcing contract are unlikely to be around in the later years. For them, there is no effective accountability.

Hence the enthusiastic public announcements of savings and new investments in IT and other facilities in the early stages of an outsourcing  contract.

It’s likely things will go quiet in the later years of the contract when the supplier may be trying to recoup losses incurred in the early years.

Then, suddenly, the public authority will announce it is ending its outsourcing deal. Outsiders are left wondering why.

Good news?

Given Avon and Somerset’s determination to end its relationship with Southwest One, can we trust all the good news statements by the force’s officials in past years?

With facts in any outsourcing deal so hard to come by, even for FOI campaigners, selective statements by public servants or ruling councillors about how successful their deal is, and how many tens of millions of pounds they are saving, are best taken with a pinch of salt.

Especially if the announcements were at an early stage of the contract and things have now gone quiet.

Thank you to David Orr for alerting me to the BBC story and providing links to much of the material that went into this post.

From hubris to the High Court (almost) – the story of Southwest One.

Too easy for councils to make up savings figures for outsourcing deals?

Capita NHS contract under scrutiny after “teething problems”.

By Tony Collins

A seven-year £330m contract signed by NHS England and Capita last September has run into problems.

The difficulties and complaints by GPs raise a question about how officials at NHS England considered it possible that Capita could save 40% in the first year, transform services for GPs, and make a profit – all concurrently.

Pulse reports that the true cost of NHS managers’ bid to save money by contracting Capita to carry out support services for GP practices is “now becoming clear”.

It’s emerged that NHS England expected Capita to help cut costs while contractors were learning the exact nature of the range of services they were contracted to deliver.

On 1 September 2015, Capita took on responsibility for the delivery of NHS England’s primary care support services for GPs. It included the transportation of paper-based records when patients move home.

NHS England’s vision was to create “modern, easy to use administrative and business support services, which are consistent across England and which help lower the administrative burden on primary care”.

NHS England asked Capita to look at cutting costs in year one by:

  • Moving the delivery of all services from over 40 sites across England to three
  • Opening a new national customer support centre for all customer queries
  • Introducing a new online portal, providing easy access to many of our services

In a succession of articles this year Pulse, the magazine for GPs,  says the outsourcing has led to some GP practices

–              buying their own clinical supplies to continue running patient clinics

–              not receiving payments they are due

–              experiencing delays in the manual transfer of patient records

–              reporting that they that they have been sent the wrong patient records or those of patients who have been recently deceased.

–              stockpiling the records of patients who have moved home

Pulse says that the Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating whether patient records have gone missing. The ICO will question Capita on the matter.

The magazine says Capita has come under fire from NHS England, the General Practitioners Committee of the British Medical Association and GPs.

The General Practitioners Committee said in a letter Capita had been “considerably underprepared for the level of work and resource required for the rollout”.

NHS England told Pulse there were “transition issues” that need to be fixed. Capita said it had been tasked with “transforming” a previously “ fragmented” system, and that initial teething problems were inevitable.

Capita said,

“Capita are in the process of delivering a range of changes to primary care support services which are designed to make services more efficient, more reliable and ultimately better for GP practices.

We will continue to work closely to monitor, review progress and investigate any issues raised by users… reported issues are routinely logged and investigated to determine root causes and the appropriate remedial action in line with NHS England information governance procedures.”

The General Practitioners Committee has asked for GP practices to be compensated for the disruption.

Problems have continued despite various assurances they were being addressed.

In April Pulse reported that “GP practices are missing thousands in payments following the outsourcing of a national primary care support service.”

An anonymous healthcare professional on Pulse’s website asked why it had taken so long for officials to “realise the situation is so bad”.

Even before NHS England received bids for the outsourcing contract, the then head of the contracts and regulation subcommittee of the GP Committee of the British Medical Association, Dr Robert Morley, told Pulse,

“The portents are absolutely horrendous for general practice I’m afraid…There’s nothing at all that reassures me this isn’t going to be an absolute bloody disaster.”

Last month, in a letter dated 11 May 2016 to NHS England, the head of the GP Committee of the BMA, Chaand Nagpaul, said

“Practices have advised that due to a failure in the provision of medical supplies (such as syringes, needles) and prescriptions stationery, patient services have been disrupted.

“Clearly this presents a significant risk to the care provided to patients.

“We understand that measures are being put in place to mitigate against the lack of supplies, but often these mitigations increase workload and cost to practices and despite the reassurances we received some weeks ago there does not seem to be improvement.”

The letter added:

“NHS England made this change to a reliable and trusted NHS service with the explicit intent of making significant financial savings through the use of a commercial provider.

“The result has been an unacceptable transfer of unfunded work on to already hard-pressed practices.

“Therefore every practice should receive recurrent recompense for the extra workload related to the new Capita services, in addition to compensation for increased workload and inconvenience caused by the unsatisfactory introduction of these services.”

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the GP Committee, told Pulse the BMA has ‘been contacted by more practice managers on this issue than anything we’ve ever had’.

The letter said that there has been much trepidation about the future transformation of the service. There needs to be “vigorous testing and scrutiny” and acceptance by the end-user. Robust contingency planning needs to be in place.

Paul Cundy, the IT voice of the BMA’s GP committee, said on Pulse’s website,

“What has happened is that NHSE [NHS England] has given a contract to Capita for 40% less than it used to pay PCSS [Primary Care Support Service] services.

“That 40% has been re-couped by Capita and NHSE by expecting GP staff to do the sorting , collating, bagging and labelling of individual medical records in our surgeries. In other words we are now doing their work for them and for no extra money.”

An NHS manager Emma Bravery told Pulse:

“Medical records are being delivered to the wrong practices and being returned to the originating practice.

“As notes only get requested once a patient has moved practices, and this is updated on the spine, surely if Capita’s working systems were fit for purpose this simply couldn’t happen?

“In once instant the same set of notes was returned to the orginating practice twice!

“This is a massive IG breach, and it needs to be sorted now before we see medical notes being discovered in skips, or floating down the Trent.”

Paul Attwood, a GP partner, wrote on Pulse’s website,

“Our practice is winding down (retiring) and we had something like 200 sets of notes bagged and ready to go. Despite several telephone calls with the Capita lady assuring us they would be collected they took 3 weeks…”

He said support services for GPs were by no means perfect but have been made worse by attempts to save “only to find they have to spend that money and more to rescue the mess that they have helped create”.

He called for the names of those who awarded the contract to be made known.


There’s a silver lining.

Outsourcing problems don’t always reach the public domain. Suppliers and their clients sometimes keep quiet (especially in local government) because any difficulties are usually the fault of both sides.

But when GPs have problems it doesn’t get hidden. GPs – rightly – will not think twice about criticising anything that gets in the way of their caring for patients.

When bad news leaks out in the world of local authorities and central government, officials and suppliers will say that media reports are wrong. All problems however serious and enduring will be said to be teething.

One result is that outsourcing still has a generally good reputation. This is, perhaps, how it was possible for officials at NHS England to see a large hole opening up before them and still walk into it believing it didn’t really exist.

It was obvious to some others that you could not cut costs by 40%, transform services and make a profit. Something has to give.

Why then do officials at NHS England who awarded the contract to Capita still have their jobs?

They would probably says it is normal in outsourcing to cut costs while transforming services. But what’s normal doesn’t always make it right.

The Space Shuttle “O ring” disaster was caused in part by Nasa officials doing what they thought “normal”. Bad practice at Nasa had become what Diane Vaughan called “normalised”.

Is irrational optimism made credible by financially creativity involved in writing business cases? There are experts in Whitehall, local government and the NHS in writing business cases.

One council built a credible business case for saving millions of pounds by outsourcing IT and other services and, a few years later, when the deal turned sour, presented a new business case showing how many millions could be saved by taking services back in-house. At least those officials have a sense of humour.

I would hope problems on the GP support services contract will give officials the chance in future outsourcing talks to put enthusiasm and over-optimism aside and look more sceptically at exactly what is and is not achievable, whatever the business case says.


Practices suffering ‘significant and unpredictable’ disruption due to privatisation of support services – Pulse August 2015


NHS England vows to hold Capita “to account” for disruption to GP practices – Pulse May 2016

Information Commissioner to question Capita over missing GP patient records – Pulse May 2016

Can all councils open up like this please – even Barnet?

By Tony Collins

Bitten by misfortune over its outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM, Somerset County  Council has become more open – which seemed unlikely nearly a decade ago.

In 2007 the council and IBM formed Southwest One, a joint services company owned by IBM. The deal was characterised by official secrecy. Even non-confidential financial information on the deal was off-limits.

That’s no longer the case. Humbled a little by a failure of the outsourcing deal (including a legal action launched by IBM that cost the council’s taxpayers at least £5.9m)  local officials and their lawyers don’t automatically reach for the screens when things go wrong.

In 2014 Somerset County Council published a useful report on the lessons learnt from its Southwest One contract.

The latest disclosure is a report to the council’s audit committee meeting in June. The report focuses on the poor management and lack of oversight by some of Somerset’s officers of a range of contractor contracts. The council has 800 contracts, 87 of which are worth over £1m and some worth a lot more.

Given that the Council is committed to becoming an increasingly commissioning authority, it is likely that the total value of contracts will increase in the medium term, says the audit report by the excellent South West Audit Partnership (SWAP).

SWAP put the risk of contracts not being delivered within budget as “high”, but council officers had put this risk initially at only “medium”. SWAP found that the risk of services falling below expected standards or not delivering was “high” but, at the start of the audit assessment, council officers had put the risk at only “medium”.

somerset county council2One contract costing more than £10m a year had no performance indicators that were being actively monitored, said SWAP.

None of the contracts reviewed had an up-to-date risk register to inform performance monitoring.

No corporate contract performance framework was in place for managing contracts above defined thresholds.

“Some key risks are not well managed,” says the report.

“It is acknowledged that the Council has implemented new contract procedural rules from May 2015 which post-dates the contracts reviewed in this audit; however these procedural rules contain only ‘headline’ statements relating to contract management.

“Most notable in the audit work undertaken was the lack of consistency in terms of the approach to contract management across the contracts reviewed. Whilst good practice was found to be in place in several areas, the level of and approach to management of contracts varied greatly.

“No rationale based on proportionality, value, or risk for this variation was found to be in place. The largest contract reviewed had an annual value of over £10 million but no performance indicators were currently being actively monitored.”

Report withdrawn

Soon after the report was published the council withdrew it from its website. It says the Audit Committee meeting for 3 May has been postponed until June. It’s expected that the audit report will be published (again) shortly before that meeting.

Fortunately campaigner Dave Orr downloaded the audit report before it was taken down.


How many councils manage outsourcing and other contracts as unpredictably as Somerset but keep quiet about it?

Why, for example, have Barnet’s officers and ruling councillors not made public any full audit reports on the council’s performance in managing its contracts with Capita?

It could be that councils up and down the country are not properly managing their contracts – or are leaving it to the outsourcing companies to reveal when things go wrong.

Would that regular SWAP reports were published for every council.

All public authorities have internal auditors who may well do a good job but their findings, particularly if they are critical of the management of suppliers, are usually kept confidential.

Freedom of information legislation has made councils more open generally, as has guidance the Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2014.

But none of this has made councils such as Barnet more open about any problems on its outsourcing deals.

Indeed clear and perceptive audit reports such as the one from SWAP are rare in the world of local government.

All of which raises the question of whether one reason some councils love outsourcing is that they can pass responsibility to suppliers for things that go wrong knowing the public may never find out the full truth because secrecy is still endemic in local government.

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the audit report – and its (temporary) withdrawal.

Somerset Council’s (withdrawn) Audit Committee report

Southwest One – the complete story by Dave Orr

Hidden for four years – a review of Universal Credit IT

By Tony Collins

Front page of a report the DWP kept hidden for four years. The DWP's lawyers went through numerous FOI appeals to try and stop the report being published.

Front page of a report the DWP kept hidden for four years. The DWP’s lawyers went through numerous FOI appeals to try and stop the report being published.

This is the independent Universal Credit Project Assessment Review  that lawyers for the Department for Work and Pensions went through numerous FOI tribunal appeals trying to keep hidden.

It  was written for the DWP by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. Interviewees included Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud who was – and is – a work and pensions minister.

In 2012 Lord Freud signed off the DWP’s recommendation that an FOI request for the report’s release be refused.


The now-released report is remarkable for its professionalism and neutrality. It’s also remarkably ordinary given the number of words that have been crafted by the DWP’s lawyers to FOI tribunals and appeals in an effort to keep the report from being published.

The DWP’s main reason for concealing the report – and others that IT projects professional John Slater had requested under FOI in 2012 – was that publication could discourage civil servants from speaking candidly about project problems and risks, fearing negative publicity for the programme.

In the end the DWP released the report 11 days ago. This was probably because the new work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb refused to agree the costs of a further appeal. Last month an FOI tribunal ordered that the project assessment review, risk register and issues register be published.

Had the reports been published at the time of the FOI request in 2012 it might have restricted what ministers and the DWP’s press office were able to say publicly about the success so far of the Universal Credit programme.

In the absence of their publication, the DWP issued repeated statements that dismissed criticisms of its programme management. Ministers and DWP officials were able to say to journalists and MPs that the Universal Credit programme was progressing to time and to budget.

In fact the project assessment review questioned a projected increase of £25m of IT spend in the budget.

MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group, part of the Cabinet Office. OBC is the Outline Business Case for Universal Credit. SOBC is the Strategic Outline Business Case.

MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group, part of the Cabinet Office. OBC is the Outline Business Case for Universal Credit. SOBC is the Strategic Outline Business Case.





The DWP claimed in the report that the projected of £25m in IT spend was a “profiling”rather than budgetary issue.

By this the DWP meant that it planned to boost significantly the projected savings in later years of the project. Those anticipated savings would have offset the extra IT spend in the early years. Hence the projected overspend was a “profiling” issue.

But the report questioned the credibility of the profiling exercise.

credibility extract

On the question  of whether the whole programme could be afforded the report had mixed views.

affordability extract

The report was largely positive about the DWP’s work on Universal Credit. It also revealed that in some ways not all was progressing as well as had been hoped (which was contrary to DWP statements at the time). The report said,

behind the curve extract

And a further mention of “behind the curve”…

behind the curve excerpt

None of these problems was even hinted at in official DWP statements in 2012. About six months after the project assessment review was conducted, this was a statement by a DWP minister (who uses words that were probably drafted by civil servants).

“The development of Universal Credit is progressing extremely well. By next April we will be ready to test the end to end service and use the feedback we get from claimants to make final improvements before the national launch.

“This will ensure that we have a robust and reliable new service for people to make a claim when Universal Credit goes live nationally in October 2013.”

And the following is a statement by the then DWP secretary  of state Iain Duncan Smith in November 2011, which was around the time the project assessment review was carried out. Doubtless his comments were based on briefings he received from officials.

“The [Universal Credit] programme is on track and on time for implementing from 2013.

“We are already testing out the process on single and couple claimants, with stage one and two now complete. Stage 3 is starting ahead of time – to see how it works for families.

“And today we have set out our migration plans which will see nearly twelve million working age benefit claimants migrate onto the new benefits system by 2017.”


It’s ironic that the DWP spent four years concealing a report that could have drawn attention to the need for better communications.

communications extract

The report highlighted the need for three types of communication, internal, external and with stakeholders.

communications extract2

On communications with local authorities ..

communications extract3


The DWP has denigrated the released documents. A spokesperson described them as “nearly four years old and out of date”.

It’s true the reports are nearly four years old. They are not out of date.

They could hardly be more important if they highlight a fundamental democratic flaw, a flaw that allows Whitehall officials and ministers to make positive public statements about a huge government project while hiding reports that could contradict those statements or could put their comments into an enlightening context.

Stephen Crabb, IDS’s replacement at the DWP, is said by the Sunday Times to want officials to come clean to him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.

To do that his officials will have to set themselves against a culture of secrecy that dates back decades. Though not as far as the early 1940s.

Official proceedings of parliament show how remarkably open were statements made to the House during WW2. It’s odd that Churchill, when the country’s future was in doubt, was far more open with Parliament about problems with the war effort than the DWP has ever been with MPs over the problems on Universal Credit.

I have said it before but it’s time for Whitehall departments, particularly the DWP, to publish routinely and contemporaneously their project assessment reviews, issues registers and risk registers.

Perhaps then the public, media and MPs will be better able to trust official statements on the current state of multi-billion pound IT-based programmes; and a glaring democratic deficit would be eliminated.

Openness may even help to improve the government’s record on managing IT.

Universal Credit Project Assessment Review

Is DWP’s Universal Credit FOI case a scandalous waste of money?