By Tony Collins
Stephen Crabb, the new DWP secretary of state who replaces IDS, has started to make a difference.
On 3 April 2016 the Sunday Times reported that Crabb had ordered officials to stop refusing FOI requests and come clean with him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.
Five days later (8 April 2016) the DWP released three reports under FOI on the Universal Credit programme: a risk register, an issues register and a Major Projects Authority project assessment review.
The DWP fought for years at FOI tribunals and appeal hearings to stop the reports being published. Officials were expected to instigate a further appeal after an FOI tribunal ruled last month that the reports be published.
But it now appears that Stephen Crabb refused to sign off further public money for an appeal and officials were left with little choice but to release the reports.
The reports show the extent to which the DWP was economical with the truth in its self-praising departmental press releases and ministerial statements on the state of the Universal Credit programme in 2012 and 2013.
Indeed, how can we trust any DWP press statement on Universal Credit given that officials are still keeping hidden from Parliament and the public the risk registers, issues registers and project assessment reviews carried out on the UC programme since 2012.
Crabb’s appointment and the release of the three reports dated 2011 and 2012 are, from an FOI point of view, a good start.
But will the DWP become more open in the future about the state of its big IT-enabled change programmes?
Probably not. In a statement to Computer Weekly last week, a DWP spokesperson dismissed the released reports as “nearly five years old and out-of-date” and went on to praise the Universal Credit programme (which involves a waterfall approach and separate much cheaper, and to some extent competing, agile-based project).
This statement suggests that the DWP’s “no bad news” culture is still pervasive; that it is prepared to denigrate its own reports as out of date when they convey messages that conflict with officialdom’s good news culture.
A mass of DWP paperwork and legal bundles on the FOI appeals and hearings related to the documents show how earnest were the reasons for the DWP’s refusal to release the reports until this month.
It is likely that Crabb personally ordered their release. But, probably unknown to Crabb, the DWP has just refused an FOI request to release an Integrated Assurance and Approval Plan (IAAP) on the Universal Credit programme.
IT projects professional John Slater had requested the IAAP. He’d also made the original request for the UC risk register and issues register, and had campaigned long and hard for their release.
Some people may be surprised by the DWP’s refusal to release the IAAP, given that it is another very old Universal Credit report, dating back to the start of the programme. It may even pre-date the released risk register, issues register and project assessment review.
But the IAAP’s release could embarrass the DWP. IAAPs have been mandatory for all major projects since 1 April 2011. They show how well officials have planned a project or programme.
The Treasury will not normally approve funding without a satisfactory IAAP. It is likely the DWP made a range of over-optimistic assumptions about the UC roll-out in its IAAP.
The DWP’s refusal to release it was under section 36 of FOI legislation. This requires sign off by a minister. In this case it is likely to have been signed off by Lord Freud, the welfare and pensions minister.
He was the minister who originally refused the FOI requests for the Universal Credit risk register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review.
It is unlikely that Crabb knows anything about Slater’s request for the IAAP.
No Whitehall department has yet released contemporaneously – under FOI or outside it – any reports on the performance, progress or otherwise of its big IT-enabled projects or programmes, including Universal Credit.
Arguably it is the continued secrecy on the way officials manage big and costly schemes that contributes more than anything else to the poor record of central government when it comes to understanding and implementing IT-related change.
Out of control?
John Slater said of the released reports,
“Whilst the information disclosed relates to the UCP as it was back in 2012 it is still important and relevant to the programme today.
“The information shows a programme that appears to have been running at breakneck pace and was out of control.
“The normal checks and balances that a professional organisation should have had in place, especially cost control, simply weren’t there. Whilst these problems were recognised in the risks and issues there was no sense that the senior leadership team were willing or able to do anything about them.
“Having read the information it is not a surprise that the Major Projects Authority had no other option but to stop and restart the programme via the now infamous reset.
“The released information also raises questions about the validity of the Universal Credit business case that might explain why it still hasn’t been signed off by the Treasury.”
Well done to Stephen Crabb. He has given the culture of secrecy at the DWP a gentle shake. But can he make a lasting difference?
As we saw in “Yes Minister” it is difficult for a new minister – or any minister – to have any permanent influence on officialdom. And it remains the case that neither the DWP nor any other department has ever released contemporaneously reports on its own performance or the progress on a big IT-related change programme.
The nearest thing to it is a National Audit Office report, but these are usually retrospective and they are almost always dismissed by departmental press offices and ministers as out of date, whether they are or not.
It is abundantly clear that the DWP is pre-occupied – maybe paranoid – about negative media coverage of the Universal Credit programme.
The same thing happened at the Department of Health over media coverage of the NPfIT NHS IT programme: officials even issued written instructions to NHS staff on the tone of voice they should use with journalists and others when discussing the programme.
Many of the legal reasons the DWP gave to FOI tribunals and appeal judges revolved around the fear of releasing information that could fuel a negative response by the media to the Universal Credit programme.
Crabb has won an FOI battle but his officials are winning the pro-secrecy war. For Crabb to make a lasting difference he will need to persuade Lord Freud – and any of his successors – of the virtues of openness.
Until officials willingly publish contemporaneous reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes, government will probably continue to have a poor record when managing these schemes.
Success in government IT requires openness because IT-enabled projects and programmes are about solving problems; and if the problems cannot be admitted let alone discussed widely they are unlikely to be solved,as we saw with the initial problems on the Universal Credit programme.
Universal Credit involves many external organisations such as local authorities and housing associations. The DWP could start to embrace media coverage as giving healthy challenge to its decisions – challenges that may help to resolve a range of problems that are inevitable when the benefit system is being simplified.
Keeping reports such as the IAAP secret – even after five years – will continue to fuel the internal paranoia against open and constructive debate.
After decades of secrecy over the contemporaneous release of project and performance reports it is time for lasting change.
Universal Credit shows it’s time to make all major government projects open and transparent – Computer Weekly Editor’s Blog.
Judge orders Universal Credit reports must be published – The Register