By Tony Collins
A Cabinet Office review of the Whitehall contracts of IT services company Atos following a Public Accounts Committee allegation of “sharp practice” has more than exonerated the supplier.
After looking at 12 Atos government contracts, the Cabinet Office has written to the Public Accounts Committee praising Atos for going beyond its contractual obligations. Where the company has fallen short, it has taken remedial steps.
Rarely are any government statements on an IT supplier replete with praise.
It’s likely the vindication will take some MPs by surprise after failings in a project to gather and collect in one place data from all the various GP practice systems – the so-called General Practice Extraction Service.
Now Atos may in future be a position to use the statement as evidence, when bidding, of its success in delivering government IT services and projects.
Millions written off
In December 2015 the Public Accounts Committee was highly critical of Atos in its report on the extraction service project.
The NHS Information Centre accepted the system from Atos although it didn’t work properly. The Centre also made public announcements at the time on the system’s success. In fact the system had “fundamental design flaws” and millions of pounds was written off.
The Committee said,
“Very common mistakes from past projects were repeated, such as failing to adopt the right contracting approach, failing to ensure continuity of key staff on the project, and failing to undertake proper testing before accepting the system.
“GPES [General Practice Extraction Service] started some five years later than planned; it is over-budget; and it still does not provide the full service required.
“Atos, supplier for a key part of the system, may have met the letter of its contractual obligations but took advantage of a weak client by taking the client’s money while knowing full well that the whole system had not been properly tested.”
The Committee said that the NHS official who was chief executive of the Information Centre when it accepted the flawed system was “awarded total emoluments of £470,000 for the financial year 2012–2013 including a redundancy payment of £330,000”.
The Committee found that in its approach to the project, “Atos did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer”.
“We are not satisfied Atos provided proper professional support to an inexpert client and are very concerned that it appears to have acted solely with its own short term best interests in mind.
“Atos admitted that end-to-end testing should always be undertaken and that it was supposed to have happened in this case. However, NHS IC and Atos agreed a more limited test of the Atos component due to delays in completing other parts of the system.
“The Atos software passed this test, but after NHS IC accepted the system—and to Atos’s professed surprise—the system as a whole was found not to work. Atos claims it fixed the issues relating to its software at its own expense and that the additional £1.9 million it received while doing so was for additional work related to 15 new features.
“We found that Atos’s chief executive, Mr Adrian Gregory—the company’s witness in our enquiry—appeared rather indifferent to the plight of the client; we expect more from those contracting with government and receiving funds from the taxpayer.”
The Committee recommended that the Cabinet Office undertake a “full review of Atos’s relationships as a supplier to the Crown”.
“We expect the Cabinet Office to note carefully this example of sharp practice when determining what obligations a duty of care on contractors should entail and what sanctions would apply when performance falls short.”
The government agreed to have a review.
Findings of Cabinet Office review of Atos contracts
The Cabinet Office found no “examples of behaviour that might be described as sharp commercial practice in the course of this review”.
The review team looked at 12 Atos contracts worth a total of more than £500m a year – 80% of Atos’s work with central government.
|1||Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)||Personal Independence Payments (PIP)|
|2||Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)||Government Gateway Agreement|
|3||Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)||ICT in support of medical assessments|
|4||HM Treasury (HMT)||National Savings and Investments (NS&I)|
|5||Ministry of Justice (MOJ)||Development, Innovation and Support Contracts (DISC) Infrastructure Services Agreement|
|6||Ministry of Justice (MOJ)||End User Computing Services (EUCS)|
|7||Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA)||Shared Service Alliance|
|8||Home Office (HO)||IND Procurement of Infrastructure Development and Support (IPIDS) Agreement|
|9||Home Office (HO)||Contain Agreement|
|10||Department of Health (DH)||Information Management Services (IMS 3)|
|11||Ministry of Defence (MOD)||Strategic Partner Framework Defence Core Network Services (DCNS01)|
|12||Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA)||ICT Managed Services Agreement (IS2003)|
Far from finding examples of sharp practice, the review team found “examples to the contrary”. In some of the contracts, Atos was “working at risk” and going “beyond their contractual obligations to act in the client’s interests”.
“Specific examples include expediting change control notices at the client’s request in advance of formal approval, taking financial risk ahead of contract extensions and proactively supporting the redeployment of resource to assist in the avoidance of client cost. On one contract, a notice period for a number of major decommissioning events lapsed and Atos continued to deliver the services flexibly to the client’s requirements until the service could be safely decommissioned.”
Where Atos did not meet monthly performance targets, service penalties were incurred and charged to Atos. “It was evident that when operational performance fell short appropriate sanctions were applied.”
The Cabinet Office went on to say that Atos proactively and constructively engaged in the review and provided information as requested, “sometimes over and above their contractual commitments”.
The review team added,
“It is clear that Atos values its relationship as a supplier to the Crown; it has a comprehensive approach to the governance of all the contracts reviewed and the Atos leadership team shows commitment to its customers.
“In response to the PAC [Public Accounts Committee] hearing Atos has undertaken a number of initiatives to address PAC’s concerns.
“The Atos corporate programme ‘Client at the Heart’ aims to deepen the client-focussed culture within the organisation by embedding a set of values and action plans to deliver improved service for each contract they run, including all government contracts.
“In addition, whilst employees have always been recognised for achievement in quantitative and qualitative objectives, financial targets vary but typically account for only a small proportion of total reward packages.
“We see this as evidence that Atos client executives are incentivised to provide the appropriate professional support.”
An Atos spokesman told civilserviceworld that the company was “proud to be a trusted supplier” and had welcomed the review as an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of its services.
“We are pleased that the Cabinet Office has concluded that we deliver the appropriate level of professional support to our government clients,” he said.
It’s clear that Atos deserves credit for going beyond the call of duty on some contracts. It is also clear that those departmental officials the Cabinet Office spoke to as part of the review were happy with Atos.
What’s not so clear is the extent to which civil servants in general are in a position to know how well their major IT suppliers are performing.
Evidence from National Audit Office reports is that departments may not always have comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information – and enough staff time – to give sound judgements on how well a major IT supplier is performing on a complex contract.
Indeed the National Audit Office can be scathing about the quality of contract management within departments.
In 2013 the Audit Office, in its report “Universal Credit: early progress” identified a series of astonishing failings that, taken together, suggested that the DWP had little understanding of what its major IT suppliers were charging for, or why, let alone what their performance was like.
The DWP is the largest central government department – which leaves one to wonder whether some other departments, which have smaller budgets and fewer staff, are better or worse off in terms of understanding their IT contracts.
These were some of the contract management weaknesses at the DWP as identified by the National Audit Office in 2013:
- Over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation.
- Inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.
- Weak contractual relationships with supplier
- The Department did not enforce all the key terms and conditions of its standard contract management framework, inhibiting its ability to hold suppliers to account.
- Limited line of sight on cost of delivery, in particular between expenditure incurred and progress made in delivering outputs.
- Poorly managed and documented financial governance, including for delegated financial authorities and approvals; for example 94 per cent of spending was approved by just four people but there is limited evidence that this was reviewed and challenged.
- Limited IT capability and ‘intelligent client’ function leading to a risk of supplier self-review.
- Insufficient review of contractor performance before making payments – on average six project leads were given three days to check 1,500 individual timesheets, with payments only stopped if a challenge was raised.
- Ministers had insufficient information to assess the value for money of contracts before approving them.
- Insufficient challenge of supplier-driven changes in costs and forecasts because the programme team did not fully understand the assumptions driving changes.
The Cabinet Office, in its review of Atos, found “inconsistencies” in departmental compliance with guidelines on contract management. It said,
“Where the evidence suggests that contract management is inconsistent [with National Audit Office guidelines on contract management] the Cabinet Office is discussing improvements with the contract owners in the Departments concerned.”
Praise where praise is due and Atos may well be a good – and perhaps outstanding – IT supplier to central government.
But if departments don’t have enough solid information on how well their major IT suppliers are performing, to what extent is any Cabinet Office statement praising an IT supplier likely to be a hopeful panegyric, based on what officials in departments believe they are expected to say?