Publish Universal Credit and other project reports, says ex-gov’t CIO

By Tony Collins

John SuffolkJohn Suffolk, the government’s former chief information officer, says warnings that publishing Universal Credit reports will have a chilling effect are “poppycock”.

His comments were prompted by the Department for Work and Pensions’ appeals against a ruling by the first-tier information tribunal that 4 reports on the Universal Credit programme be published.

The DWP has failed in every legal move it has made to stop the reports being published but is continuing its attempts although costs for taxpayers are increasing.

The DWP and its external lawyers argue that publishing the 4 reports would have a chilling effect by inhibiting the candour and boldness of civil servants who contribute to such reports.

But Suffolk says the claims of a chilling effect are “poppycock”. Suffolk was responding to a Campaign4Change blog “DWP tries again to stop disclosure of Universal Credit reports“.  He says:

“As you know I am a great fan of publishing all of the project reports. I note all of the comments on the “chilling effect” but this is poppycock.

“There is no chilling effect and if there was it would be countered by the extra scrutiny change programmes would receive by increased transparency. We should publish everything on projects and programmes.

“Transparency is a good thing. Government does complex work and more eyes on the problem would be a help not a hindrance, accepting we all need to know ‘who is the cook and who is the food critic’.

Suffolk was government CIO for nearly 5 years between 2006 and 2011 where he helped to steer an annual IT budget of billions of pounds.  He is now Head of Cyber Security/SVP at Huawei Technologies

His comments in full:

“It is such a shame that we have reached this position. Part of the Conservative Party (not the coalition) election thrust was on openness, transparency etc.

“Indeed some work has been done on this such as publishing the finance data, a summary report on major projects, but we appear to have gone backwards on no longer publishing an annual report for ICT spend, no longer publishing benchmark data – a prime driver that can reduce costs. According to the NAO some of what is published in terms of progress, is a little, how can I phrase this suspect.

“The realism is the only time a government can introduce transparency is at the beginning of a political cycle, this should have been executed at the beginning of the coalition as it becomes almost impossible to become transparent at the beginning of a new election cycle.

“A few words about UC. Before I left Government we reviewed the outline of UC as part of Francis Maude’s project control. I have to say the Ministers were excellent.

“They fully understood the policy objectives, fully understood the likely benefits and costs, understood the challenges but rightly deferred to officials on execution – how do we get from A to B.

“The Officials were far less impressive… Since then the ICT Team and Executive at DWP have gone through substantial change, the Civil Service have gone through a period of “transition” or “turmoil”; suppliers have gone through similar experiences and here we are trying to undertake one of the largest changes to the benefits system.

“We should not be surprised if there are a few wrinkles, nor should we be surprised if things move around a bit (what doesn’t – big or small) but what we should be surprised at is that Cabinet Office doesn’t appear to be backing the programme.

“I read with some mild amusement that GDS had taken their toys home and withdrew troops from “supporting” the programme.

“Excuse me, but isn’t this a flagship Programme? Won’t this programme save billions of pounds? Won’t this programme begin to change the something-for-nothing culture to nothing-for- nothing culture (unless there are real health reasons etc)?

“So we should have robbed all of the most talented resources of less priority programmes to support this. We didn’t. We went and sulked in the corner because they wouldn’t accept our ideas – instead we go and play around with websites and mess with tactical online services rather than focussing on the things that matter.

“You could also see this manifested in the major projects report where they singled out UC in a special category. Boys boys your job is to work together not squabble like little children.

“Get the best resources on UC, accept it is complex and dates will move around, take steady small steps and prove the programme and then get your shoulders behind it to make the implementation a success.

“Without doubt the Government have made many substantial improvements but when it comes to getting big changed implemented there is a long way to go.”

Millions of pounds of secret DWP reports

Judge refuses DWP leave to appeal ruling on Universal Credit reports

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7 responses to “Publish Universal Credit and other project reports, says ex-gov’t CIO

  1. I…. smell something funky.

    “Universal Jobmatch revolutionises the way jobseekers look for work and it has already helped many jobseekers find the jobs they want through the millions of vacancies posted since 2012.

    “The truth is that the vast majority of employers post genuine jobs, and we crack down on those who don’t play by the rules. We also regularly monitor the site and remove jobs that don’t meet our rules, such as duplicate advertisements or jobs for franchises.”

    That’s the quote from the DWP spokesman, is this “CIO” really serious that ministers had nothing to do with removing all the employer pre-vetting that monster do on their own site? (Monster don’t have a captive audience and couldn’t force people to use a terrible website)

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  2. Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    Although Suffolk has criticised the government’s secrecy and lack of transparency in its refusal to publish the information on the massive failure of Universal Credit, he still seems to be in favour of Universal Credit itself, and believe that the massive overspending involved is just a natural part of the process, which every project on this scale would go through. It isn’t – it’s just proof that the project was unworkable from the outset, regardless what Francis Maude and his minions have to say. IDS and his scuttling myrmidons realise this too, and that’s why they definitely don’t want it published.

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  3. Looking at the various reports this government has refused to publish on the same grounds – including the risk analysis for the HSCA – what is the position if the government changes?
    i.e. if the Tories lose the next election, would the incoming government be able to publish reports their predecessors had gone to such lengths to keep secret?

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    • It’s a good question. They’re project reports – not political advice, so they can be viewed by a new government’s ministers. The problem is that ministers seem to have no say on whether the reports are published. It’s the civil service that has an unofficial blanket ban on all project reports being published, no matter what department, no matter what government. Such reports have been kept confidential for decades. It doesn’t matter what’s in them. It’s just civil service tradition that they’re not published so ministers and civil servants will spend whatever is necessary on lawyers to keep them secret. Francis Maude said in opposition he would publish “Gateway review” reports. When in power he was persuaded by civil servants not to publish. The public have a view that ministers can do what they wish within their departments. They cannot in practice. They need the support of civil servants to run their departments. They cannot afford to upset them. The blanket ban on the disclosure of project reports, whatever government is in power, shows that some civil service traditions are immutable. Just shows how weak ministers can be. Tony Collins.

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      • maryhawking

        If project reports and risk analyses are never published on principle, who is allowed to see them, and what are they used for?

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      • Another good question. From what I gather from FOI hearings and responses to FOI appeals by government lawyers, the reports seem to be done by routine then stored away, looked at by hardly anyone. On one of my FOI requests to the DWP it denied the existence of a Universal Credit report until I pointed out it had been mentioned by name in a Parliamentary reply. Only then did the DWP find the report – in a cupboard. In another FOI case (the one where the DWP is fighting a ruling that 4 UC reports be published) the DWP accidentally gave the information tribunal a draft report instead of the final one to review. It wasn’t until after an FOI tribunal hearing in Leicester – attended by the DWP’s external lawyers – that the DWP realised it had given the tribunal the wrong report. I am not sure the DWP had even looked closely at it. New ministers have sometimes commented that departments do things by rote without asking why they’re doing it – perhaps commissioning project progress reports are examples. Perhaps officials use positive reports as proof internally they are on the right track. When the reports are negative they are probably filed away, ignored and the report writers not commissioned again. You can do all this when the reports are kept confidential. Tony.

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