By Tony Collins
Universal Credit is one the government’s most important IT-enabled programmes, along with HMRC’s “Real-time Information” scheme, Whitehall Shared Services and the MoD Change Programme.
If the Universal Credit programme goes wrong benefits claimants could have payments held up or receive incorrect amounts.
For this reason it is important that the coalition doesn’t repeat Labour’s mistake of wrapping IT-related projects and programmes in so much secrecy that the public, MPs and the media only discover problems when it is too late to effect a rescue.
Early warning of faltering projects
There is an early-warning of projects and programmes that are likely to falter or are actually faltering: “Starting” gate reviews and “Gateway” reviews, which are independent assessments of big or risky schemes.
The coalition in opposition promised to publish Gateway reviews if they came to power but civil servants have persuaded ministers to drop the proposal: does the minister want opponents and the media picking up authoritative internal information on projects that may be going wrong?
Our FOI request
Because of the continued suppression of the reports Campaign4Change, on 20 May 2011, made a request under the Freedom of Information for the Department for Work and Pensions to release a copy of Gateway reviews on the Universal Credit project.
The reply was nearly helpful. “There have been no Gateway reviews on the Universal Credit programme. There has been one Starting Gate review on the Universal Credit programme.” The reply, by Jack Goodwin of the DWP’s Universal Credit Briefing Team, did not include a copy of the Starting Gate review report, so we sent a follow-up email.
We pointed that that Public Administration Committee had already requested a copy of the Universal Credit Gateway Zero Review and, in response, the DWP had sent the Committee a copy of the Stating Gate review, though the Committee decided not to publish it.
On 13 July the DWP said it needed extra time to consider our request. Gina Talbot at the DWP’s “Freedom of Information Focal Point” said: “I need to extend the time limit because the information requested must be considered under one of the exemptions to which the public interest test applies. This extra time is needed in order to make a determination as to the public interest. Accordingly, I hope to let you have a response by 10 August 2011.”
DWP wasting public money
This extra time and consideration was unnecessary and a waste of public money because the DWP had already given the report to the Public Administration Select Committee. Indeed the Universal Credit Starting Gate report had also been lodged in the House of Commons library after an MP asked the Cabinet Office’s Ian Watmore for a copy in May 2011.
So the DWP was considering at length whether to release a report that the Department had already released twice – to two separate committees of the House of Commons.
Grounds for appeal
In August the DWP formally refused Campaign4Change’s request, so we appealed. These were some of the reasons we gave:
i) Universal Credit is one of the government’s “mission-critical” projects and its success will be potentially important to tens of millions of benefit claimants.
ii) In the public interest, MPs, the media and public should understand the project’s feasibility risks and chances of success – in short whether it has got off to a good start. The Starting Gate report could help provide such an insight.
iii) The Public Accounts Committee has recommended that Starting Gates be published. The refusal of our request would appear to be a denial of the wishes of the Committee.
iv) Sometimes statements in published Gateway reviews have turned out to be too weak, sometimes too strong. There is no reason to believe that if the reviewers know their reports are for public consumption they will weaken their comments; and if they do weaken them the published reports will allow the quality of advice to be questioned or challenged by what the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude calls armchair auditors.
v) The objection to publishing the reviews is that publication may inhibit candour. Starting Gate reviewers have a public duty to give the best advice they can (and indeed are paid for doing so). If they alter their advice to make it more acceptable to the public, media and Parliament they are failing in their public duty to give the best possible advice in all circumstances. Equally, if they give their advice in the expectation it will be kept confidential and therefore that they will not be held accountable for it, and alter their best advice on this basis, they could be failing in their public duty.
vi) There is no certain means for Parliament, the media or the public to know how large IT-based projects and programmes are progressing. Sometimes the National Audit Office reports on large IT-based projects, sometimes not. The NAO cannot be relied on to produce the equivalent of a Starting Gate review on a large IT-based project or programme. Gateway reviews are not usually published contemporaneously.
vii) Coalition ministers have made it clear in numerous speeches that the public have a right to know how their money is being spent. Universal Credit is costing, as an IT-based programme, several hundreds of millions of pounds. It is not in keeping with the spirit of ministerial statements on openness that the DWP keep confidential the Starting Gate review on Universal Credit. It is the only independent report on the feasibility of the project.
viii) Universal Credit is known to be a risky programme which senior civil servants have acknowledged. The Starting Gate review is likely to show whether or not those risks are understood.
ix) In refusing our request the DWP has not given any reasons for stating that it is satisfied that the “public interest in maintaining this exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure”.
DWP rejects our appeal
Our appeal came to nothing. It was refused by the DWP’s David Hodgson Stakeholder Manager, who said in a letter:
“The case has been examined afresh, and guidance has been sought from domain experts to ensure all factors were taken fully into account. I have reviewed the original decision carefully and have decided to uphold the original decision withholding information for the following reason.
“While we recognise that publication of this information would provide an independent assessment of the key issues and risks, we have to balance this against the fact that the review document includes operational details of a sensitive nature whose publication would prejudice effective conduct of public affairs.
“The Department is satisfied that the public interest in maintaining this exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
The report was released months ago
The DWP lodged the report in the House of Commons library months ago so it is in the public domain anyway. The department’s effort and time twice refusing the release of the report wasted public money.
Campaign4Change has now obtained a copy of the report via the House of Commons’ library. We will, separately, publish an article on the contents of the Starting Gate review report on Universal Credit.
This episode suggests that officials at the DWP default to secrecy whatever the coalition says about openness and transparency. There are many superficially valid reasons officials can give to keep Gateway and Starting Gate reports secret. It is up to ministers to challenge that secrecy. If they don’t, the same mistakes and cycles will be repeated:
a) IT-related projects and programmes will continue to falter in secret, as they did under Labour
b) MPs and the media will try and find out the truth
c) Ministers will go on the defensive
d) The truth will eventually emerge and the coalition will be branded as inept when managing large IT-based projects and programmes – as inept as Labour.
If ministers publish Gateway progress reports now – as early warning reviews – we and others will applaud if early action is taken to stop or rescue a failing project. If ministers continue to pander to civil service secrecy the media and Parliamentarians will be right to criticise the coalition. Ministers have a chance to avoid the stigma of mismanagement of public funds. But will they take it?