Will truth ever be told when things go wrong?

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has criticised civil servants who don’t always tell ministers what is going on in their departments. He used the Universal Credit project as an example.

He told the Financial Times: “There were a lot of failures in DWP and it isn’t good that it took a review commissioned . . . by the secretary of state to disclose what was going on.”

He added:

“You’ll find a lot of ministers don’t know a lot of things going on in the department because there’s no way you’ll find out.”

Maude’s comments touch on a common factor in IT-related project disasters in government – that ministers get mostly “good news” from their officials, and learn little or nothing about the seriousness of problems until a debacle is only too apparent to be denied.

But can ministers or the boards of large private companies ever expect their senior staff to be the bearers of bad news?

The Performing Right Society did not find out the truth about its failing IT-based project until it appointed a new head of IT who had no emotional equity in what had gone on before. [Crash – chapter 1)

The National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: early progress” referred to a “good news” culture at the Department for Work and Pensions that “limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge”.

Ministers in charge of the Rural Payments Agency’s Single Payment Scheme said they were kept in the dark about the seriousness of IT-related problems. “When delays occurred, many stakeholders only found out at the last minute,” said a report of the Public Accounts Committee.

“Conspiracy of optimism”

The PAC report of March 2007 is worth a further mention:

“Lord Bach [minister in charge of the Single Payment Scheme] told us that he felt very let down by the advice he had received from the RPA [Rural Payments Agency], upon whom he said the Department relied very heavily in these circumstances, and the “conspiracy of optimism” on the part of the Agency.”

Lord Bach told MPs that he kept being told by officials that all was well.

“I frankly have to say that I do not think that that was satisfactory from senior civil servants whose job is to tell ministers the truth.”

Let down by civil servants – Universal Credit

Now the FT reports that Francis Maude has “entered the controversy over the implementation of the government’s universal credit scheme”. Maude told the FT he believed that Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, had been let down by his civil servants.

Maude said senior civil servants in charge of projects should tell ministers bluntly if they felt they were being misdirected and insist on a formal “letter of direction” to show that they had raised their objections. If they did not, they should be accountable for failings on their watch.

Maude did not comment directly on whether Robert Devereux, the top official in Mr Duncan Smith’s department, should take the rap for the much-criticised implementation of universal credit, but said: “I think everybody has to take responsibility for what they were part of”.

SROs accountable to MPs?

He suggested that civil servants who are in charge of big projects, known as senior responsible owners (SROs), should account directly to parliament, which would “toughen the relationship with ministers” and give officials a greater incentive to challenge developments they believed were wrong.

He said: “If you have an SRO who knows that he or she is going to be hauled up in front of select committees and interrogated . . . then I think you’re much more likely to have what is a very healthy thing in our system which is push-back. . . There’s a great phrase ‘speaking truth unto power’ and it’s very important – it doesn’t happen enough.

He added: “I’ve never had a civil servant come to me and say ‘Would you like us to stop doing this?’ The answer might easily be, ‘yes’.”

Comment:

Do ministers and boards of large private companies always have to commission their own independent reports to find out if their organisation’s biggest IT-based projects are failing? Probably.

The problem is not one of lying. Civil servants tend not to lie. Neither do senior executives when reporting to their boards. But the sin of omission – the art of not telling the truth while not lying – is well practiced in public life.

A succession of IT-based project disasters in the US, Australia and the UK show that truth is the first casualty of any large failing IT-based project.

Barnet Council and Capita

It’s isn’t just IT-based projects that bring out the sin of omission. Outsourcing deals do too. Barnet Council’s outsourcing deal to Capita is mired in controversy over truth.

Why did Barnet’s officials give Capita £16m after saying that the council had no spare cash, and that Capita would make the necessary upfront IT investments?

Officials have given a long-winded explanation which is a little like the drawn-out, incomprehensible explanation a six year-old may give in the playground when teacher asks why he took his friend’s bar of chocolate.

Liverpool LDL, BT and excessive mark-ups?

Liverpool Direct Ltd, a joint venture between Liverpool council and BT, is also mired in a controversy over truth. According to the Liverpool Daily Post, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis has questioned whether LDL is proving value for money. There are allegations of excessive mark-ups on IT and services supplied by BT to the council.

It seems that BT makes a mark-up on what it supplies to LDL and LDL makes a further mark-up on what it supplies to the council.

But a council spokesperson said: ““The mark up incorporates a calculation of the cost of setting up a particular piece of hardware or software by LDL. The important figure is the profit after tax per item which is much lower, and on some items, LDL actually makes a loss.”

The minister said Liverpool Council needed to open up its books if it wants to insist it gets value for money from the BT deal. Will Liverpool Council open up?

Hardly.

Politicise parts of the civil service?

There is a strong argument for politicising the top echelons of the civil service so that ministers are not so reliant on officials who are thought to be neutral but evidence shows can be biased towards good news and suppressing the bad.

Ministers and boards of large companies do not need various versions of the truth when things go wrong. They need their own version.

As Richard Nixon said when accepting the presidential nomination in 1968 [pre-Watergate]:

“Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth—to see it like it is, and tell it like it is—to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth.”

Doubtless Nixon believed it when he said it. Just as countless officials and executives in public and private life believe they are speaking the truth when they ministers and boards on their big IT-based projects. It may be the truth. But how much of it are they telling?

Update:

In a tweet BrianSJ3 makes a great suggestion: Genchi Genbutsu – “go and see for yourself” he says.

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5 responses to “Will truth ever be told when things go wrong?

  1. Genchi Genbutsu!

    Great idea and the lack of one that I have espoused for ages as being the route cause of most of the reported IT blunders.

    David Chassels may have the best kit since sliced bread but it matters not a jot if the individuals who commission and manage such projects do not understand A. The business which has a requirement and B. the proposed solution (which at that point should be technology agnostic).

    From a technology perspective it again matters not a jot if it’s proprietary or open source, managed via an Agile methodology or the I-Ching. Focusing on the technologies and methodologies is another reason these projects fail to deliver. It happens because it is very appealing to look at the ‘what’s new’ or ‘what’s hot’ or ‘what’s trending’. It is far more appealing than understanding what the job actually requires and therefore what tools and approaches are most appropriate.

    Once you have worked all that out and successfully picked the most appropriate supplier you then have to have the ability to keep your eye on the ball. For that to happen in IT it is imperative to have managers in place who understand what is being delivered along with how, and and a large dose of why. IT management, in its broadest terms, is an area where domain knowledge is vital. As a great retail manager you will be able to manage any retail enterprise but will be lousy IMO as an IT manager.

    Any system is only as resilient as its weakest link. In the cases outlined they are the individuals responsible for the management and upward reporting of progress on any given project. Is it not easier to focus on what sounds good if you don’t actually know what is going on.

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  2. I’ve never had a civil servant come to me and say ‘Would you like us to stop doing this?’ The answer might easily be, ‘yes’.

    Rather a good idea.

    And not just at DWP.

    Officials at BIS could go to Vince Cable and ask him “would you like us to stop wasting our time with midata [1]”?

    Officials at the Cabinet Office could go to Francis Maude and ask him “would you like us to stop wasting our time with IDA [2]”?

    The answer should be “yes”. In each case.

    ———-

    1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-midata-vision-of-consumer-empowerment

    2. http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/category/id-assurance/

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  3. And this is transparent government the implementation of the “Big Society” where people stand up and be counted?….If a Minister expresses an opinion it should be backed up by informed facts. If he does not do it then do not expect others to be any different.
    And in the Cabinet Office more “good news only” from GDS see http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/2013/11/28/opening-the-doors-of-the-digital-services-store/#comment-50720 yet great pity that GDS do not have understanding of latest capabilities see extract of what I sent to OFT
    “I attended a GDS meeting in January 2013 and was deeply concerned that they failed to understand what “intelligent customer” actually entailed. As a fundamental it requires knowledge understanding of what technologies can deliver which allows those looking to buy new solutions to put their requirement into context – hence the relevance of the ICT Futures to scan “…developments of future technologies”? GDS saw simple as just better articulation of requirements ignoring how they might be supported by technology? I met a number of GDS procurement people but in particular Josh Russell who had responsibility to understand “what’s out there”. I explained what we had created. He clearly had no knowledge of us confirming any knowledge transfer from ICT Futures had failed? I invited him to visit UK Sport both at the meeting and subsequently by e-mail via Ross Kristian Senior Category Lead ICT Services Government Procurement Service but got no response? Since then I have continued to inform of both our and industry developments on Adaptive Case Management “ACM” which is ideally suited to deliver Government services. This is basically a customer centric approach supporting users direct or indirect. Again totally ignored by GDS who have an overly simplified “users” first which has little substance to the delivery of a service very much as the 4 Professors concluded”
    Is it acceptable that advice is handed out which does not reflect capabilities which reflect the visions of many have over 20 years as the future? They had the opportunity but something in the Cabinet Office is holding back progress Questions need to be asked….and I am not going away after what I have been through. Yet I must say many civil servant at the front line have been sympathetic even given encouragement but the “system” can’t cope with too many self interests……and so the truth is very difficult to “find”

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  4. The Cabinet Office is a complex organisation with many public faces. To FOI requests it seems to say “No – now what was it you asked for?” On the other hand Francis Maude and the team around him are, in my view, the best thing to have happened for government reform for a long time though others will no doubt disagree. It’s unlikely he looked at Procession plc. The response you had even if signed by him was probably the work of a civil servant who answers letters according to a template. Tony Collins.

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  5. Two points of relevance. First Ministers and their “top officials” need to learn to ask the right questions. This requires some basic knowledge of “IT” and that is clearly lacking. Becoming the “intelligent buyer” requires dissemination of knowledge on what is available and how that will meet the policy goals; it is not difficult!
    Second there will be many who knew the truth but the old style “command and control” management culture will suppress such views! The Minister has such responsibility and needs to listen to external intelligent arguments and use judgement. My experiences suggest “room for improvement”. An example I did communicate with Francis Maude via my local MP raising concerns about Government IT. In his eventual response which largely ignored the points I made he commented that what we were was just another process based tool which by the it is not it is a whole new way for IT that even Bill Gates called the holy grail of software removing need for coders.
    After complete failure to get the Cabinet Office to understand I was curious as to how the Minister drew his conclusions. I submitted a Freedom of Information request and this was the response “No assessment of the technology developed by Procession plc has been made to the Minister, either as advice or as a written report”. Frankly hard to believe …draw you own conclusions….?

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