Cover-up of Universal Credit problems?

By Tony Collins

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee say the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the Universal Credit project is “an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny”.

Says the Committee in a report published this week:

 “Despite welcome progress in extending the range of information published, the data [in the Major Projects Authority’ 2nd annual report]  is infrequent and out-of-date, and too much is still withheld. The MPA’s second annual report was a significant improvement on the first, with 30% less data withheld and more analysis provided.

“However, too much data is still missing. We are particularly concerned that the decision to award a ‘reset’ rating to the Universal Credit project was an attempt to keep information secret and prevent scrutiny.

“The Government’s transparency policy is too restrictive as it prevents useful data sets, such as the amount spent so far, from being published and stipulates that major project data can only be published once a year.

“This is too infrequent and means that the data available on high-profile, high-cost projects can be significantly out-of-date.”

The Major Projects Authority, at the request of “ministers” – which is taken to mean Iain Duncan Smith –  gave UC programme a “reset” designation instead of a red/amber/green traffic light.

All credit to the all-party committee for seeing the reset for what it is. The DWP tried to argue the UC programme was reset because the implementation had changed.

Before UC the Major Projects Authority had never given any project a “reset” designation  Even new projects considered risky are usually given a traffic light status.

Without a reset designation the MPA might have given the UC programme a red, or red/amber rating, which would have generated more bad publicity.

Comment

It’s extraordinary in an era of so-called open government that Major Project Authority reports on the progress or otherwise of big and risky government projects such as UC are not published.

It’s also extraordinary that the Cabinet Office minister and civil service reformer Francis Maude has been unable to get the reports published. He has agreed to keep them confidential in return for departmental ministers and permanent secretaries accepting publication of the MPA annual reports which have summaries of projects’ progress.

Even then Maude had little choice but to allow the summaries to be written by the department’s civil servants (not quoting the MPA reports). He has also accepted that the traffic light status’ will be at least six months old when published – in other words out-of-date.

Governments for more than a decade have been unable to publish progress reports on big IT-based projects. Civil servants will not let them be published.  Indeed the DWP is going through a series of appeals to stop UC reports from 2011 and 2012 being published – and these reports have nothing to do with the MPA.

If nothing else the MPA’s obsolescent second annual report – and the continued non-publication of progress reports on major projects – will contribute to the widely-held belief that it is the permanent civil service that is really in charge, not ephemeral ministers.

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