By Tony Collins
Today – 11 years later – the DWP is fighting to stop publication of four reports that would throw light on early problems with the IT work on Universal Credit.
And the DWP has continued to keep secret millions of pounds worth of reports on the progress or otherwise of its big projects, including those that have a major IT element, Universal Credit in particular.
The Department is preparing for a new one-day hearing as part of its legal efforts – which have lasted two years so far – to stop the four reports on Universal Credit being published under the FOI Act.
A first-tier tribunal judge in March 2014 ordered the DWP to publish the reports. The following month the same judge refused the DWP leave to appeal, but the DWP’s external lawyers appealed to an upper tribunal for leave to appeal.
Now a judge has ordered a new one-day hearing in London, at a date yet to be set.
While the appeals continue the DWP does not have to publish the reports. In the light of this, DWP officials plan to continue their legal fight to stop publication of the reports, irrespective of who wins the election next month.
Indeed the case could go on for years. That legal costs for taxpayers are mounting seems no deterrent to the Department’s officials.
The four reports are already dated – they go back to 2012. The reports are the risks register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review. All are about the Universal Credit programme.
John Slater, a programme and project management professional, requested three of the reports under FOI. I requested the project assessment review.
Little has changed – the DWP has remained defensive and secretive – since 2004 when the Work and Pensions Committee said in its weighty report “Department for Work and Pensions Management of Information Technology Projects: Making IT deliver for DWP Customers”:
“The record on IT by DWP and its predecessor the Department of Social Security, has been lamentable …”
The report referred to the DWP’s habit of setting “unrealistic deadlines” on big projects, a problem that years later hit Universal Credit.
The Committee in 2004 added that the DWP was keeping reports secret to avoid embarrassment:
“We felt that on occasions the secretive approach adopted by the Department and the Government … had little to do with commercial confidentiality and more to do with departments using it as an excuse to withhold information that rightly belonged in the public domain, but which might embarrass the Department if released publicly.
“In our view the lack of Parliamentary accountability is part of the reason for the relatively high number of defective IT projects.”
The secrecy is not the fault of the DWP’s major suppliers -who include IBM, HP, Accenture, BT and Fujitsu. The Work and Pensions Committee said:
“During our enquiry, we were struck by how open IT suppliers seemed prepared to be in contrast with the tendency of officials to invoke commercial confidentiality.”
In an echo of the Work and Pensions Committee’s 2004 report, the Public Accounts Committee said in February 2015, in its report: Universal Credit: progress update:
Ministers have so far been unable to persuade civil servants to publish contemporaneous reports on the government’s big IT-enabled projects and programmes.
Francis Maude came to power in 2010 expecting to publish “Gateway” reviews on IT schemes but senior civil servants refused, arguing in part that publication would have a “chilling effect” on those writing and researching the reports.
Maude gave up on trying to get the reports published but gained reluctant agreement from permanent secretaries to publishing the traffic light status of large projects – but only after these assessments have lost their topicality in the form of a six-month time lag.
FOI campaigners say there are several reasons senior civil servants do not want reports on big IT-based projects, including Universal Credit, published.
The main reason, they say, is tradition: departments have always kept secret their internal independent reports on the progress or otherwise of major schemes.
Another reason is that officials do not always implement the reports’ recommendations. If nobody outside a department’s inner circle knows what a report’s recommendations or findings are, will it matter if they go unimplemented?
A further reason is that disclosure of the reports may cause embarrassment by confirming that a department’s ministers and officials have been economical with the truth – giving Parliament and the media the wrong impression about a project’s successful progress.
Another reason for keeping the reports secret may be that it enables civil servants and consultants who write the reports to be kind – perhaps even deferential – to their Whitehall colleagues by producing positive reports on projects that may later go awry.
Writing and researching the reports can be lucrative work. They are sometimes worth £1,000 a day to some consultants. A positive report with comfortable conclusions is more likely to bring further commissions than a generally negative one.
Indeed an upper tribunal judge Edward Jacobs, in a ruling on the case of the four reports, hinted that they were so positive even a hostile press would be pressed to find things to criticise.
Jacobs said that if he grants a rehearing of the case it is possible that the new tribunal “will need to consider that some of the contents (of the four reports) could hardly be presented badly even in the most hostile media coverage”.
Why disclosure is important
Officials working on Universal Credit have repeated mistakes of the past: setting unrealistic deadlines, underestimating complexity and not being open about project problems – even internally: their minister, Iain Duncan Smith, to get the unvarnished truth, had to set up his own “red team” reviews to bypass civil servants who had been giving him information.
As John Slater has pointed out, the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham made an important statement on the need for openness:
“… Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.
“The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions. It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated.
“Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice. Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public.
“Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant. Where abuses are exposed, they can be remedied. Even where abuses have already been remedied, the public may be entitled to know that they occurred.”
The DWP’s culture of secrecy seems to overwhelm all new ministers who go along with it because they cannot run such a huge and complex department without the full support of their officials.
That’s perhaps why officials, on the matter of openness on IT projects, need never take seriously criticisms by the Information Commissioner, the Public Accounts Committee or the Work and Pensions Committee.
If officials have taken little notice of MPs for more than a decade, why should they start behaving differently under a new government?
The taxpayer suffers in the end. The DWP’s lamentable record on running major IT-based projects will probably continue, with huge financial losses and without accountability, while money continues to be poured into fighting pointless FOI legal battles.
It seems unlikely – and indeed would set a precedent – but perhaps a new set of ministers at the DWP will dare to try and change the culture.