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.”
“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’.”
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?
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?