By Tony Collins
The Major Projects Authority, which is part of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group, has today published its annual report on 188 projects including Universal Credit, about which it makes only positive comments.
But the authority’s annual report is, it appears, economical with the actualité. At the same time as the MPA published the report, the Department for Work and Pensions published a spreadsheet with statistics and its own narrative on the state of its major projects including the Universal Credit programme.
The spreadsheet said that the UC programme had an “amber/red” rating – but neither the MPA nor the Department for Work and Pensions has given the MPA’s reasons for the rating.
At the request of permanent secretaries the MPA has agreed not to publish its comments on the traffic light status of certain projects, including Universal Credit. The MPA and the Cabinet Office have agreed to allow officials in each departmental to give their own narrative to explain the traffic light status of their projects.
So the DWP, on its website, gives a summary of the state of its major projects, but its narrative on Universal Credit says nothing about the programme’s problems. Neither is there any of the MPA’s recommendations which related to the “amber/red” rating.
In a further shrinking from openness, the MPA and Cabinet Office have agreed with permanent secretaries that the traffic light status of major projects will be published only when they are out of date. So the “amber/red” rating on Universal Credit, although published today, is dated September 2014.
It is odd in a modern democracy that a large central government department – the DWP – can spend £330m on the IT for a major project and get away with publishing such obviously contradictory information on the scheme.
On the one hand the MPA, the Cabinet Office and the DWP publish only positive comments about progress on the Universal Credit programme.
These are some of the MPA’s comments on Universal Credit:
“Delivery remains on track against plans announced in September 2014. Additionally the Programme has brought forward testing of initiatives from which the programme can learn including the:
• Continued trialling of Universal Support in partnership areas to ensure the right integrated local foundations are in place to support UC expansion.
• Extending In work progression trials to help households increase their earnings once they have found work. • Extending the role of UC Work Coaches to engage with households at their work search interview to assess financial capability.”
Similarly the DWP’s comments in its spreadsheet on the status of its major projects reads like a government press release. Why was one of the government’s major projects – the whole life project costs of UC are estimated at £15.8bn – given an amber/red status?
We don’t know. Except we know that the MPA gives an amber/red rating when it regards a programme as not on track – a programme that needs an assurance and action plan to improve confidence in delivery. Why is the programme not on track? What does the assurance and action plan say? What is the rating today?
So much for open government. Indeed the DWP’s external lawyers are going to an FOI tribunal in London next month as part of a long legal battle to stop four old reports on Universal Credit being published.
Any ministerial announcements about open government in future should, perhaps, take this unedifying FOI episode into account.