By Tony Collins
In 2009 Francis Maude promised, if the Conservatives came to power, that his party would publish “Gateway” reviews on the progress or otherwise or big IT-based projects.
He was surprised when I told him that civil servants wouldn’t allow it, that they wouldn’t want Parliament and the media knowing how badly their big programmes were being managed. Maude said he couldn’t see a problem in publishing the reports.
When Maude and the Conservatives won power, the Cabinet Office promised in its forward plans to publish Gateway reviews but it never happened.
The Cabinet Office told me its forward plans were “draft” (although they were not marked “draft”) and the commitment to publishing Gateway reviews was no longer included. It didn’t say why.
Still Maude worked privately within government to persuade departmental ministers to at least publish the “traffic light” status of major projects – red, amber or green. Eventually this happened – sort of.
Senior civil servants and their ministers agreed to publish the traffic light status of major projects only if the disclosures were at least six months old by the time they were published.
Maude agreed – and last year the Major Projects Authority published its delayed 2013 annual report. It revealed the out-of-date traffic light status of big projects.
Today the 2014 Major Projects Authority annual report is published. Alongside publication, departments are publishing the traffic light status of major projects – except the Universal Credit programme.
Where the DWP should be publishing the red, amber or green designation of the UC programme the spreadsheet says “reset”.
Therefore the DWP is avoiding not only the publication of Universal Credit reports as part of a 2-year FOI legal battle, it has stopped publishing the traffic light status of the Universal Credit programme.
Secrecy over the state of the UC programme is deepening, which could be said to make a mockery of the Cabinet Office’s attempts to bring about open government.
It seems that the DWP is happy for MPs, journalists and the public to speculate on the state of the Universal Credit programme. But it is determined to deny its critics authoritative information on the state of the programme.
Universal Credit is looking to me rather like a programme disaster of the type seen during Labour’s administration. And the detail is being kept hidden – as it was under Labour.
The DWP argues that UC reports cannot be published because of the “chilling effect” on civil servants who contribute to the reports. In other words they will not be candid in their assessments if they know their comments will be published.
What’s remarkable about this claim is the assumption that the status quo works. The DWP assumes that publication of the UC reports – even if there is a demonstrable chilling effect – will have a bad effect on the UC programme. But how could things be worse than they are? The National Audit Office report “Universal Credit – early progress” showed that the programme was being poorly managed.
The absence of a chilling effect has not served the UC programme well. Will the non-publication of a traffic light status for UC serve the programme well?
It may be that more rigorous Parliamentary scrutiny – by well informed MPs – is essential for the UC programme’s welfare.
But for that to happen IDS and the DWP’s ministers and senior civil servants will need to be dragged kicking and screaming towards the door marked “open government”. Will it ever happen? I doubt it.
PS: It appears that the Cabinet Office and its Major Projects Authority have agreed with departments that the MPA’s Annual Report will be published today – a Friday before a Bank Holiday weekend . Is this to reduce the chances it will be noticed by the trade press and national media?
Shortly after publishing the blog post above a DWP press officer gave me the following statement:
“Universal Credit is on track. The reset is not new but refers to the shift in the delivery plan and change in management back in early 2013.
“The reality is that Universal Credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way.
“It’s already operating in 10 areas and will start expanding to the rest of the North West in June. Jobseekers in other areas are already benefiting from some of its positive impacts through help from a work coach, more digital facilities in jobcentres, and a written agreement setting out what they will do to find work.”
The DWP says the “reset” rating reflects the fact that the Secretary of State decided to reset the programme in 2013, with a clear plan developed since then to deliver the programme.
Now this reset has taken place, future Major Projects Authority reports will give a traffic light status, says the DWP.