By Tony Collins
If the business world divides into two main types of character, black and white, and grey – neither being better or worse than the other – Maude is black and white.
He wants clarity. He shuns subtlety and complexity. He has no time for civil service sophistry and equivocation, or the coded language of some supplier representatives. He wants cuts in the cost of contracts and doesn’t want to hear long arguments on why things are not that simple. He had deep reservations over doing a new deal with CSC over the NPfIT.
A strength of Maude and his colleagues at the Cabinet Office has been the absence, or at least scarcity, of exaggerated and unsubstantiated statements of efficiency savings, of the sort made repeatedly during Labour’s tenure.
Is that beginning to change?
In the past fortnight Maude has made two major claims that are not based on published evidence.
• Maude said spending on SMEs has risen from 6.5% to 13.7%. It’s not clear how that figure is calculated. There’s a good analysis of the tenuousness of the claim by Peter Smith of Spend Matters. How much of the increase in SME work is down to unaudited claims by large companies that they are giving their SMEs more work?
• He said that £200m has been cut from Capgemini’s Aspire contract with HMRC. [Aspire also involves Fujitsu and Accenture.] He has received much good publicity for the claim. Said the Telegraph yesterday:
“He [Maude] announced that ministers had successfully renegotiated one deal on computers and tax systems for HM Revenue and Customs.
He said the new contract, with Capgemini, would save £200 million on the deal previously agreed.”
Last year Mark Hall, deputy CIO at HMRC was reported as saying that the Aspire contract was on course to save more than £1bn. Is the £200m quoted by Maude in many news articles this week new?
And none of the articles mention the total cost of the Aspire contract – so from what is £200m being cut?
At one point, according to Mark Hall, the estimated cost of Aspire rose to £10bn from its original estimate of £2.83bn over 10 years. This means that cost increases on the Aspire contract are measured in billions – which puts the £200m savings figure mentioned by Maude into context.
And have Maude and his team offered Capgemini anything in return for a price cut, such as an improved profit margin? [The contract is on an open-book accounting basis]. This week’s Cabinet Office statement on the £200m cut gives no help here. An HMRC FOI response in 2010 and an NAO report in 2006 show that costs of Aspire are fluid. They change according to internal demand; and pricing arrangements are complex. HMRC has refused FOI requests to publish the contract so how can anyone put the claimed £200m savings into a contractual content?
In 2007 negotiations between HMRC and Capgemini extended the 10-year contract by three years, to June 2017; and there’s an option to extend Aspire for a further five years to 2022. In return for the contract extension Capgemini has already guaranteed savings of £70m a year and a further £110m a year from 2012. Are these savings in addition to the £200m a year Maude has announced? Or the £1bn savings mentioned by Mark Hall?
The good news is that HMRC’s CIO is Phil Pavitt who is a natural sceptic of big outsourcing deals. If anyone is going to achieve genuine savings on Aspire it is Pavitt. Indeed he has given some details of his negotiations. But the contractual context remains abstruse.
Doubtless Maude believes the figures he has announced on SMEs and Aspire are correct but without substantiation they will mean little to anyone except the media. Maude, perhaps, needs to trust his own cautious instincts than listen too much to his advisers. Otherwise he’ll begin to sound more like Labour ministers who repeatedly made claims the NAO found difficult to substantiate.
The important and impressive work Maude is doing to cut the costs of running government should not be trivialised and debased by spin. Announcements on what he is doing to cut costs and make government more open are usually helpful. But Maude should the first to differentiate the real – in other words the factually corroborated – from aggrandising and flimsy political claims.