By Tony Collins
Stephen Crabb, IDS’s replacement at the Department for Work and Pensions, faces in the next few days an important first test of his desire for openness over problems on the Universal Credit IT-enabled programme.
The Sunday Times reported yesterday (3 April 2016) that Crabb has ordered weekly updates on the UC programme and has told officials to stop blocking freedom of information requests.
The paper has had, it appears, an off-the-record briefing on an internal DWP meeting last Thursday at which Crabb is said to have ordered officials to come clean with him and the public about problems on the UC programme. The meeting is said to have lasted about six hours.
A source quoted in the Sunday Times said,
“We need much greater transparency. This is such a public-facing project. We have nothing to fear from public scrutiny.”
But it’s almost inevitable that Crabb will face passionate opposition within the DWP. It will be surprising if he gets his way.
The DWP has spent years in legal actions to stop the release under FOI of old reports (dating back to 2012) on the problems and risks related to the UC programme. Crabb faces a key decision on the case in the next few days.
Last month a judge ordered the DWP to release three Universal Credit IT reports: a risk register, issues register and Major Projects Authority Project Assessment Review.
The DWP has 28 days from the date of the ruling to appeal, which means it will probably make its decision known within the next two weeks.
Any time now, then, Crabb will make a decision on whether to sign off a continued spend of public money on the case by approving a new FOI appeal.
If he agrees (there have been several appeals already) it will indicate that little has changed within the DWP and that the culture of secrecy is continuing.
If he stops his officials from requesting an appeal and the three reports in question are released, it will be a momentous change, for reasons I give below.
It is not the contents of the three reports that are particularly controversial.
If released they would show the extent to which the DWP’s ministers and departmental press releases misled the media and the public when giving assurances about the robust state of the UC IT programme.
But we already know that the DWP was over-optimistic – misleading – in its official statements on the UC programme.
Not wanting to give ammunition to its critics and Parliamentary opponents, the DWP will sometimes – perhaps usually – exaggerate the progress on a big IT-enabled project or programme.
The continued confidentiality of reports such as the risk and issues registers and the project assessment review minimises the risk that officials and ministers will face authoritative contradiction when they declare that a programme is on time and to budget.
But this is not the reason senior DWP officials are passionate advocates of continued secrecy. The desire for confidentiality is more deep-rooted.
One reason some very senior lifelong civil servants tend to enjoy their job is their privileged access to State secrets. It underlines the importance of their work.
We know from the volumes of DWP evidence in the UC FOI case of the quite extreme attempts by officials to keep the lid on their work. How detailed and extreme those attempts have been it is difficult to say because the DWP has so far refused consent for its evidence to the FOI tribunal to be published.
No Whitehall department publishes its internal reports on the performance of its major IT-enabled projects and programmes.
Attempts since the 1980s by the Public Accounts Committee to persuade officialdom to publish such reports have been resisted.
Even investigators at the National Audit Office sometimes have had difficulties finding out how badly an IT-enabled project was faring, on the NHS NPfIT programme for example.
Indeed the cabinet secretary would be horrified to learn of any attempt by Crabb to have the UC reports released. What next? The daily locations of nuclear submarines?
I would be amazed if Crabb has his way and the reports are released.
There again, Crabb is new enough, at the moment detached enough, to make a dent in the DWP’s self-protective layers of secrecy. I wish him well.
Obsessive secrecy could help to explain why the DWP has a decades-long history of project failure. Unnecessary secrecy may tempt ministers to make misleading announcements on a project’ progress, and could encourage director-level incompetence, bad managerial decision-making, a lack of truthful stakeholder consultations and even wrongdoing.
But campaigning for openness at the DWP is like trying to polish a rusty old car when it’s the chassis that needs replacing. Crabb might have realised that at last Thursday’s meeting.
That he is facing the most culturally important decision he may ever take at the DWP is, to me, not in doubt. We should know the result in the next two weeks, when the time allowed for any DWP appeal will expire.
Thank you to FOI campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Sunday Times article.
Sunday Times article (may need subscription)