By Tony Collins
A freedom of information tribunal has ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions should disclose four internal documents on the Universal Credit programme.
The documents give an insight into some of the risks, problems and challenges faced by DWP directors and teams working on UC.
They could also provide evidence on whether the DWP misled Parliament and the public in announcements and press releases issued between 2011 and late 2013.
The DWP and ministers, including the secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith, declared repeatedly that the UC scheme was on time and on budget at a time when independent internal reports – which the DWP has refused to publish – were highly critical of elements of management of the programme.
Some detail from the internal reports was revealed by the National Audit Office in its Universal Credit: early progress in September 2013.
The FOI tribunal, under judge David Farrer QC, said in a ruling on Monday that in weighing the interest in disclosure of the reports “we attach great importance not only to the undisputed significance of the UC programme as a truly fundamental reform but to the criticism and controversy it was attracting by the time of FOI requests for the reports in March and April 2012”.
“We are struck by the sharp contrast [of independent criticisms of elements of the UC programme] with the unfailing confidence and optimism of a series of press releases by the DWP or ministerial statements as to the progress of the Universal Credit programme during the relevant period.”
A measure of the importance of the tribunal hearing to the DWP was its choice of Sarah Cox to argue against disclosure.
Cox is now the DWP’s Director, Universal Credit, Programme Co-ordination.
She led business planning and programme management for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Despite Cox’s arguments Judge Farrer’s tribunal decided that the DWP should publish:
– A Project Assessment Review of Universal Credit by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. The Review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.
– A Risk Register of Universal Credit. It included a description of the risk, the possible impact should it occur, the probability of its occurring, a risk score, a traffic light [Red/Green Amber] status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialises, and a summary of the risk mitigation.
– An Issues Register for Universal Credit. It contained a short list of problems, the dates when they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.
– A High Level Milestone Schedule for Universal Credit. It is described in the tribunal’s ruling as a “graphic record of progress, measured in milestones, some completed, some missed and others targeted in the future”.
Campaign for openness
Campaigners have tried unsuccessfully for decades to persuade Whitehall officials to publish their independent reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled projects and programmes.
So long as the reports remain confidential, ministers and officials may say what they like in public about the success of the programme without fear of authoritative contradiction.
This may be the case with the Universal Credit. The tribunal pointed out that media coverage of the problems with the scheme was at odds with what the DWP and ministers were saying.
The ruling said:
“Where, in the context of a major reform, government announcements are so markedly at odds with current opinion in the relatively informed and serious media, there is a particularly strong public interest in up-to-date information as to the details of what is happening within the [Universal Credit] programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well-founded.”
The tribunal quoted a DWP spokesperson in 2012 as refuting criticism from the shadow secretary of state. The spokesperson said:
Liam Byrne is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is wrong.”
Sarah Cox implied that the DWP might have regarded a programme as on schedule, even if milestones were not achieved on time, provided that punctual fulfillment of the whole project was still contemplated. In reply to this, the Tribunal said:
“If that was, or indeed is, the departmental stance, then the public should have been made aware of it, because prompt completion following missed interim targets is not a common experience.”
DWP abuse of the FOI Act?
Under the FOI Act ministers and officials are supposed to regard each request on its own merits, and not have a blanket ban on, say, disclosure of all internal reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes.
The tribunal in this case questioned whether the DWP had even read closely the Project Assessment Review in question. The tribunal had such doubts because the DWP, some time after the tribunal’s hearing, found that it had mistakenly given the tribunal a draft of the Project Assessment Review instead of the final report.
The tribunal said:
“…the DWP discovered that the version of the Project Assessment Review supplied to the Tribunal was not the final version which had been requested. It was evidently a draft. How the mistake occurred is not entirely clear to us.
“ Whilst the differences related almost entirely to the format, it did raise questions as to how far the DWP had scrutinised the particular Project Assessment Review requested, as distinct from forming a generic judgement as to whether PARs should be disclosed.”
DWP’s case for non-disclosure
The DWP argued that disclosure would discourage candour, imagination [which is sometimes called creative or imaginative pessimism] and innovation – known together as the “chilling effect”.
It also said that release of the documents in question could divert key staff from their normal tasks to answering media stories based on a misconception, willful or not. These distractions would seriously impede progress and threaten scheduled fulfillment of the UC programme.
Disclosure could embarrass suppliers that participated in the programme, damage the DWP’s relationship with them, and cause certain risks to come closer to being realised. The DWP gave the tribunal further unpublished – closed – evidence about why it did not want the Project Assessment Review released.
My case for disclosure
In support of my FOI request – in 2012 – for the UC Project Assessment Review, I wrote papers to the tribunal giving public interest reasons for disclosure. Some of the points I made:
– the DWP made no acknowledgement of the serious problems faced by the UC programme until the National Audit Office published its report in September 2013: Universal Credit: early progress.
– Large government IT-enabled projects have too often lacked timely, independent scrutiny and challenge to improve performance. Publication of the November 2011 Project Assessment Review would have been a valuable insight into what was happening.
– The NAO report referred to the DWP’s fortress mentality” and a “good news culture” which underlined the public interest in early publication of the Project Assessment Review.
Part of John Slater’s case for disclosure
At the same time as dealing with my FOI request for the PAR, the tribunal dealt with FOI requests made by John Slater who asked for the UC Issues Register, Risk Register and High Level Milestone Schedule.
In his submission to the tribunal Slater said that ministerial statements and DWP press releases, which continued from 2011 to late 2013, to the effect that the Universal Credit Programme was on course and on schedule, demanded publication of the documents in question as a check on what the public was being told.
Information Commissioner’s case for disclosure
The Information Commissioner’s legal representative Robin Hopkins made the point that publishing the Project Assessment Review would have helped the public assess the effectiveness of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority as a monitor of the UC programme.
A chilling effect?
The tribunal found that there is no evidence to support the “chilling effect” – the claim that civil servants will not be candid or imaginatively pessimistic in identifying problems and risks if they know their comments will be published.
If a chilling effect exists, said the tribunal, “then government departments have been in the best position over the last ten years to note, record and present the evidence to prove it.
“Presumably, a simple comparison of documents before and after disclosure demonstrating the change, would be quite easy to assemble and exhibit,” said the tribunal’s ruling.
In her evidence to the tribunal Ms Cox did not suggest that the revelation by a third party of the “Starting Gate Review” [which was published in full on Campaign4Change’s website] had inhibited frank discussion within the UC programme, the tribunal said.
The tribunal also pointed out that the public is entitled to expect that senior officials will be, when helping with internal reports, courageous, frank and independent in their advice and assessments of risk.
“We are not persuaded that disclosure would have the chilling effect in relation to the documents before us,” said the tribunal. It also found that the DWP would not need to divert key people on UC to answering media queries arising from publication of the reports. The DWP needed only to brief PR people.
On whether the Issues Register should be published the tribunal said:
“The problems outlined in the Issues Register are of a predictable kind and “unlikely to provoke any public shock, let alone hostility, perhaps not even significant media attention. On the other hand, the public may legitimately ask whether other problems might be expected to appear in the register.”
On the chilling effect of publishing the Risk Register the tribunal said that any failure of a civil servant to speak plainly about a risk and hence to conceal it from the UC team would be more damaging to UC than any blunt declaration that a certain risk could threaten the programme.
“We acknowledge that disclosure of the requested information may not be a painless process for the DWP,” said the tribunal. ““There may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP, though not, we believe, of the order that it claims.
“We have no doubt, however, that the public interest requires disclosure, given the nature of UC programme, its history and the other factors that we have reviewed,” said the Tribunal.
The DWP may appeal the ruling which could delay a final outcome by a year or more.
The freedom of information tribunal’s ruling is, in effect, independent corroboration that Parliament can sometimes be given a PR line rather than the unvarnished truth when it comes to big IT-based programmes.
Indeed it’s understandable why ministers and officials don’t want the reports in question published. The reports could provide concrete evidence of the misleading of Parliament. They could refer to serious problems, inadequacies in plans and failures to reach milestones, at a time when the DWP’s ministers were making public announcements that all was well.
Those in power don’t always mind media speculation and criticism. What they fear is authoritative contradiction of their public statements and announcements. Which is what the reports could provide. So it’s highly likely the DWP will continue to withhold them, even though taxpayers will have to meet the rising legal costs of yet another DWP appeal.
One irony is that the DWP’s ministers, officials, managers, technologists and staff probably have little or no idea what’s in the reports the department is so anxious to keep confidential. On one of my FOI requests it took the DWP several weeks to find the report I was seeking – after officials initially denied any knowledge of the report’s existence.
This is a department that would have us believe it needs a safe space for the effective conduct of public affairs. Perhaps the opposite is the case, and it will continue to conduct some of its public affairs ineffectively until it benefits from far more Parliamentary scrutiny, fewer safe spaces and much more openness.