By Tony Collins
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, describes as “nothing short of groundbreaking” a report of the Major Projects Authority which gives the RAG (Rred/Amber/Green) status of more than 100 major projects.
That the report came out late on Friday afternoon as most journalists were preparing to go home, some of them for the whole bank holiday weekend, suggests that the document was a negotiated compromise: it would be published but in such a way as to get minimal publicity.
Indeed the report is a series of compromises. It has the RAG status of projects but not the original text that puts the status into context.
Another compromise: senior civil servants in departments have persuaded Maude to publish the RAG decisions when they are at least six months old.
This enables departmental officials to argue their case in the “narrative” section of the MPA annual report that a red or amber/red decision is out-of-date and that there has been significant improvement since. This is exactly the DWP’s justification for the amber/red status on Universal Credit.
The DWP says in the MPA report: “This rating [amber/red] dates back to September 2012, more than seven months ago. Since then, significant progress has been made in the delivery of Universal Credit. The Pathfinder was successfully launched and we are on course both to expand the Pathfinder in July 2013 and start the progressive national roll-out of Universal Credit in October.”
That the Pathfinder was launched successfully might have nothing to do with Universal Credit’s amber/red status which could be because of uncertainties over how the IT will perform at scale, given the complexities and interdependencies. The MPA report says nothing about the uncertainties and risks of Universal Credit.
More compromises in the MPA annual report: the Cabinet Office appears to have allowed departments to hide their cost increases on projects such as HMRC’s Real-time Information [RTI] in the vague phrase “Total budgeted whole life costs (including non-government costs).”
The Cabinet Office has also allowed departments to write their own story to accompany the RAG status. So when HMRC writes its story on RTI it says that “costs have increased” but not by how much or why. We know from evidence that HMRC gave to the Public Accounts Committee that RTI costs have risen by “tens of millions of pounds”. There is nothing to indicate this in the MPA annual report.
Another compromise in the MPA annual report: there are no figures to compare the original forecast costs of a project with the projected costs now. There are only the 2012/13 figures compared with whole-life projected costs (including non-government projected spend).
And the MPA report is not comprehensive. It came out on the same day the BBC announced that it was scrapping its Digital Media Initiative which cost the public £98m. The MPA report does not mention the BBC.
The report is more helpful on the G-Cloud initiative, showing how cheap it is – about £500,000. But there is little information on the NHS National Programme for IT [NPfIT] or the Summary Care Record scheme.
Yet the MPA annual report is ground-breaking. Since Peter Gershon, the then head of the Office of Government Commerce, introduced Gateway reviews of risky IT projects about 12 years ago with RAG decisions, they have remained unpublished, with few exceptions. The Cabinet Office is now publishing the RAG status of major departmental projects for the first time. Maude says
“A tradition of Whitehall secrecy is being overturned. And while previous Governments buried problems under the carpet, we are striving to be more open. By their very nature these works are high risk and innovative.
“They often break new ground and dwarf anything the private sector does in both scale and complexity. They will not always run to plan. Public scrutiny, however uncomfortable, will bring about improvement. Ending the lamentable record of failure to deliver these projects is our priority.”
The MPA annual report is a breath of fresh air.
Nearly every sentence, nearly every figure, represents compromise. The report reveals that the Universal Credit project was last year given an amber/red status – but it doesn’t say why. Yet the report has the DWP’s defence of the amber/red decision. So the MPA report has the departmental defences of the RAG decisions, without the prosecution evidence. That’s a civil service parody of openness and accountability: Sir Humphrey is allowed to defend himself in public without the case against him being heard.
But it’s still useful to know that Universal Credit is at amber/red. It implies well into the project’s life that the uncertainties and risks are great. A major project at amber/red at this stage, a few months before go-live, is unlikely to turn green in the short term, if ever.
The Cabinet Office deserves congratulations for winning the fight for publication of the RAG status of each major project. Lord Browne, the government’s lead non-executive director and a member of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform group, has said that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being frittered away because of “worryingly poor” management of government projects.
“Nobody ever stops or intervenes in a poor project soon enough. The temptation is always to ignore or underreport warning signs,” he says.
The management of some large projects – usually not the smaller ones – is so questionable that departments ignore advice to have one senior responsible owner per major project, says the MPA.
The MPA annual report will not stop the disasters. Its information is so limited that it will not even enable the public – armchair auditors – to hold departments to account. Senior civil servants have seen to that.
But the report’s publication is an important development: and it provides evidence of the struggle within Whitehall against openness. Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, have had to fight to persuade departmental officials to allow the RAG status of projects to be published. The Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour says of the MPA annual report
“Publication led to fierce infighting in Whitehall as government departments disputed the listings and fought to prevent publication.”
If Maude and Kerslake struggled to get this limited distance, and there is still so much left to reform, will large-scale change ever happen?
Maude and his officials have as comprehensive mandate for change from David Cameron as they could hope for. Yet still the Cabinet Office still seems to have little influence on departments. When it comes to the big decisions, Sir Humphrey and his senior officials hold onto real power. That’s largely because the departments are responsible to Parliament for their financial decisions – not the Cabinet Office.
Maude and his team have won an important battle in publishing the MPA annual report. But the war to bring about major change is still in its very early stages; and there’s a general election in 2015 that could halt Maude’s reform plans altogether.