Is Universal Credit really on track? The DWP hides the facts.

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions has told Campaign4Change that consultancy reports it commissioned on Universal Credit would, if disclosed under FOI, cause “inappropriate concern”.

Who’s to say the concern would be inappropriate?

At the weekend a spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions told the BBC: “Liam Byrne (Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary) is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is incorrect.”

But the DWP has decided not to disclose reports by consultants IBM and McKinsey that could throw light on whether the department is telling the truth. Though the reports cost taxpayers nearly £400,000, the public has no right to see them.

The DWP told us: “Disclosure [under FOI] would … give the general public an unbalanced understanding of the [Universal Credit] Programme and potentially undermine policy outcomes, cause inappropriate concern (which in turn would need to be managed) and damage progress to the detriment of the Government’s key welfare reform and the wider UK economy.”

Comment

In refusing to publish the costly reports from IBM and McKinsey the Department for Work and Pensions makes the  assumption that the Universal Credit IT programme will be better off without disclosure. But does the  DWP know what is best for the Universal Credit project?  Is the DWP’s own record on project delivery exemplary? Some possible answers:

–  The DWP has a history of big IT project failures, some of which pre-date the “Operational Strategy” project in the 1980s to computerise benefit systems. MPs were told the Operational Strategy, as it was called, would cost about £70om; it cost at least £2.6bn.  Today, decades later, the DWP still has separate benefit systems and relies on “VME” mainframe software that dates back decades.

– NAO reports regularly criticise the DWP’s management of projects, programmes or  suppliers. One of the latest NAO reports on the DWP was about its poor management of a contract with Atos , which does fit-to-work medical assessments.

– The DWP hasn’t broken with tradition on the awarding of megadeals to the same familiar names. Though Universal Credit is said to be based, in part, on agile principles, Accenture and IBM are largely in control of the scheme and the department continues to award big contracts to a small number of large companies. HP, Accenture, IBM and Capgemini are safe in the DWP’s hands.

–  The NAO has qualified the accounts of the DWP for 23 years in a row because of “material” levels of fraud and error.

So is the DWP in an authoritative position to say that the taxpayer and the Universal Credit IT project are better off without disclosure of consultancy reports when the DWP has never done it differently; in other words it has never disclosed its consultancy reports?

Can we trust what DWP says?

Without those reports being put in the public domain can we trust what the DWP says on the success so far of the Universal Credit programme?

Unfortunately departments cannot always be trusted to tell the truth to the media, or Parliament, on the state of major projects.

In 2006 the then health minister Liam Byrne praised the progress of the NHS National Programme for IT, NPfIT. He told the House of Commons that the NPfIT had delivered new systems to thousands of locations in the NHS. “Progress is within budget, ahead of schedule in some areas and, in the context of a 10-year programme, broadly on track in others.”

That was incorrect. But it was what the Department of Health wanted to tell Parliament.

Now it is the DWP that is praising Universal Credit and it is Liam Byrne criticising the programme. This time Byrne may have a point. The problem is we don’t know; the DWP may or may not be telling the truth – even to its Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

It would not be the first time ministers were kept in the dark about the real state of big IT projects: ministers were among the last to know when the Rural Payment Agency’s Single Payment Scheme went awry.

And while the NPfIT was going disastrously wrong, progress on the programme was being praised by ministers who included Caroline Flint, Lord Hunt, Lord Warner, John Reid, Andy Burnham, Ivan Lewis and several others. Even a current minister, Simon Burns, gave Parliament a positive story on the NPfIT while the programme was dying.

So while DWP spokespeople and Iain Duncan Smith praise the Universal Credit IT programme can anyone trust what they say? Though Duncan Smith sits on an important DWP steering group on Universal Credit, does he know enough to know whether he is telling the truth when he says the programme is on track and on budget?

At arm’s length to ministers, officialdom owns and controls the facts on the state of all of the government’s biggest projects – and the facts on Universal Credit’s IT programme will continue to stay in locked cupboards unless the Information Commissioner rules otherwise, and even then the DWP will doubtless put up a fight against disclosure.

The IBM and McKinsey reports were so well hidden by the DWP that, for a time, it didn’t know it had them.

The DWP gave the reasons below for rejecting our appeal against the decision not to publish. The DWP’s arguments against publishing the reports on Universal Credit are the same ones that, hundreds of years ago, were used to ban the publication of Parliamentary proceedings: that reporting would affect the candour of what needed to be said. That proved to be nonsense.

By hiding the reports the DWP gives the impression it doesn’t want the truth about Universal Credit to come out – leaving the department and Iain Duncan Smith free to continue saying that the scheme is on track. Indeed Duncan Smith said yesterday that he “has nothing to hide here”. That is evidently not true.

The reports we’d requested were:

– Universal Credit end-to-end technical review” (IBM – cost £49240).
– Universal Credit delivery model assessment phases one and two. ( McKinsey and Partners – cost £350,000).

DWP’s letter to us:

7 September 2012
Dear Mr Collins,

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

I am writing to advise you that the Department has decided not to disclose the information you requested.

The department has conducted an internal review and the information you requested is being withheld as it falls under the exemptions at section 35(1)(a) and (formulation of Government policy) and Section 36 (2) (b) and (c) (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) of the Freedom of Information Act. These exemptions require the public interest for and against disclosure to be balanced.

These reports from external consultants discuss the merits or drawbacks of the UC delivery model and an assessment of whether the IT architecture is fit for purpose. This must be candid otherwise; the Department and the taxpayer will not secure value for money. Such reports can therefore be negative by nature in their outlook.

The Department considers that premature disclosure of these reports could lead to future consultants’ reports being less frank. In addition, there is a risk that this may lead to an absence of a recorded audit trail of the more candid elements. This is not in the public interest. Similarly, key staff selected to be interviewed by consultants are likely to be inhibited if they think their candour is likely to be recorded and released.

It is vital that the Department’s ability effectively to identify, assess and manage its key risks to delivery is not compromised. The willingness of senior managers to fully engage in a timely manner and support consultants assessment and assurance of key IT projects in an unrestrained, frank and candid way is vital to the effectiveness of the process.

Disclosure would also give the general public an unbalanced understanding of the Programme and potentially undermine policy outcomes, cause inappropriate concern (which in turn would need to be managed) and damage progress to the detriment of the Government’s key welfare reform and the wider UK economy.

While we recognise that the publication of the information requested could provide an independent assessment of the key issues and risks, we have to balance this against the fact that these reports includes details of ongoing policy formulation and sensitive information the publication of which would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

The Department periodically publishes information about the introduction of Universal Credit, and this can be found on the Departments website here http://www.dwp.gov.uk/policy/welfare-reform/universal-credit/

Yours sincerely
Ethna Harnett

We have appealed the DWP’s refusal so the matter is now before the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Universal  Credit programme on course for disaster – Frank Field

Has the DWP lost £400,000 of reports it commissioned on Universal Credit?

Millions of pounds of secret DWP reports

NAO criticises Atos benefits contract

DWP scraps £141m IT project three months after assurance to MPs

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6 responses to “Is Universal Credit really on track? The DWP hides the facts.

  1. Pingback: Why isn’t Universal Credit IT a disaster yet? | Campaign4Change

  2. This is an intriguing post, and I’m unsure of your wider stance. In particular, I’m interested to know: is it your belief that all reports about public sector projects should be made public?

    I ask this because I would like this public sector project to be a success, and I would like public money to be spent well. I also believe that criticism is usually most constructive if the two parties can speak frankly without external interference. I therefore also believe that it’s very plausible that if IBM and McKinsey need to provide constructive criticism to aid improvements in the UC project then it would best be done without that conversation being made public.

    I don’t know if that’s the purpose of the report, but I do believe it’s very plausible. However, I don’t see that option being considered in the above blog post, and I’m interested in why that is.

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  3. You’ve wrung a vast amount of information about the Southwest One venture using FOI; and more to come I am sure.
    I have a feeling that the DWP will not publish the Universal Credit consultancy reports even if the Information Commissioner’s Office orders disclosure. It will probably appeal and appeal again, degrading the subject’s topicality.

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  4. Tony – Well done for appealing this FOI Act refusal, which looks to be unlawful. I hope you win through. This kind of secrecy by public bodies in very unhealthy in a functioning democracy. Asking questions is good!

    On ICO appeal, every refused FOI question that I have asked (on the controversial joint venture South West One with IBM) either through my local Council or Police service here in Somerset has been upheld in favour of public disclosure.

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