Main themes from 2016’s IT events

By Tony Collins

Below are some of the main points (lessons, perhaps) from posts on this site in 2016.

One recurring theme was the amount of evidence that came to light, partly as a result of material released under FOI tribunal papers,  on the extent to which an internal “good news” culture is inimical to IT project success.

If your organisation doesn’t welcome being told about actual or potentially serious problems – and views constructive criticism as nay-saying – how can it solve problems that could floor the project? An example:

Universal Credit IT programme

The so-called digital Universal Credit system – using agile development principles – is going better now than in the past.

The Universal Credit IT programme still faces big challenges – partly around delays in paying people, leaving them destitute despite the promise of emergency loans.

And it’s unknown whether the system can operate at scale, the current number of claimants being in the low hundreds of thousands [339, 000 in September 2016], not millions of people as originally envisaged.

But the DWP is gradually facing up to  problems on the Universal Credit IT programme – probably because it has no choice, given the high level of external scrutiny.

The National Audit Office reports regularly on its progress, as do councils, the Citizens Advice Bureau and many others.  As a result, the DWP cannot hide from scrutiny, as it did in the fraught early years of the Universal Credit project.

External scrutiny vital?

Perhaps a lesson from this website’s 2016 posts on Universal Credit IT is that genuinely independent and fearless external scrutiny can make the difference between IT programme success and failure.

If that’s true, the onus is on the DWP’s talented senior officials to thwart the department’s “good news” culture.

Instead of quitting – which is what most of the best IT executives in central government seem to do – they could stay in post and work harder to thwart a lumbering, hierarchical, unredeemably secretive internal culture that has dogged Whitehall (and particularly the DWP) for decades.

[The DWP would argue it is more open today than ever, but it’s open about matters that throw no light on its own performance. Arguably the DWP’s self-claimed openness is a mask behind which the introspective, good-news culture hides.]

3 February 2016

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts committee found that the Department for Work and Pensions was “selective or even inaccurate” when giving information to the committee on the Universal Credit IT programme.

In answering some questions, the committee found officials “evasive”.

The Public Accounts Committee’s report on Universal Credit said,

“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays … the Department’s continued lack of transparency makes it very difficult for us and the public to understand precisely how its plans are shifting.”

9 February 2016

Another NPfIT scandal in the making?

After behind-the-scenes lobbying by some major suppliers, the government announces £4bn to be spent on IT in the NHS.

He announces a “Wachter” review on how – not whether – the money should be spent.

The eventual Wachter review report focuses on  technologies to be introduced into the NHS with barely a mention of the health service’s most urgent IT need: to make existing systems talk to each other.

18 February 2016

The Department for Work and Pensions is in Leicester magistrates court next week to stop Universal Credit IT reports being published.

Do the costs of the case border on a criminal waste of public money?

After several years of hearings and appeals, the DWP eventually releases the reports in question, leaving everyone wondering why public money was spent suppressing them in the first place.

Was it because of a cultural obsession with secrecy – because that’s the way it has always been? Ministers including Lord Freud fell into line and signed off DWP requests for IT reports on Universal Credit to be kept secret.

19 February 2016

The DWP’s legal case in fighting to stop IT reports on Universal Credit being published bears a striking similarity to Parliament’s case for stopping reporters covering proceedings of the House of Commons in 1738.

In April 1738 the House of Commons passed a resolution declaring that it was a “high indignity and a notorious breach of privilege” to report what was said in the Chamber, even when it was in recess.

16 March 2016

Judge orders DWP to release Universal Credit IT reports. Judge Chris Ryan says in his ruling that that disclosure of the documents,

“might have corrected a false impression, derived from official government statements by revealing the very considerable difficulties that were beginning to develop around the time when the information requests were submitted.”

18 April 2016

New minister’s momentous FOI decision on Universal Credit IT reports?

On 3 April 2016 the Sunday Times reported that new DWP secretary of state Stephen Crabb had ordered officials to stop refusing FOI requests and come clean with him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.

Three days later the DWP publishes the reports in question, after spending years and untold sums of public money on a legal fight to stop the reports being published.

19 April 2016

Hidden for four years – a review of Universal Credit IT.

17 May 2016

Could all councils open up like this please – even Barnet? Somerset County Council publishes a useful audit report.

8 June 2016

Capita NHS contract under scrutiny after “teething problems”.

A seven-year £330m contract signed by NHS England and Capita last September has run into problems.

The difficulties and complaints by GPs raise a question about how officials at NHS England considered it possible that Capita could save 40% in the first year, transform services for GPs, and make a profit – all concurrently.

NHS England’s claim that the problems were teething proves to be misleadingly optimistic.

20 June 2016

After years of proclaiming the success of its outsourcing deal with IBM and Southwest One, Avon and Somerset Police announces it will not be renewing the contract when it expires in 2018.

A “new” chief constable Andy Marsh believes he can save money by finding a different way of delivering services, including IT.

Public sector organisations do not have to publish detailed accounts on their outsourcing deals so public statements on the “success” of these contracts can be seen, usually, as public relations exercises.

22 June 2016

Aspire: eight lessons from the UK’s biggest IT contract.

  1. Your IT may not be transformed by outsourcing.
  2. You won’t realise how little you understand your outsourced IT until you look at ending a long-term deal.
  3. Suppliers may seem almost philanthropic in the run-up to a large outsourcing deal because they accept losses in the early part of a contract and make up for them in later years.
  4.  Expect suppliers to top up their profits by negotiating contract extensions. It’s naïve to expect a large IT contract to transfer risks to the supplier (s).
  5. Few organisations seeking to end monolithic outsourcing deals will have the transition overseen by someone as clear-sighted as Mark Dearnley.
  6. Be prepared to set aside millions of pounds – in addition to the normal costs of the outsourcing – on exiting.
  7. Projected savings from quitting a large contract could dwarf the exit costs.

12 July 2016

Another public sector IT project disaster – but a useful failure if lessons are disseminated.

The procurement approach to the Scottish Police i6 project is described as exemplary, but still it ends in disaster. A Holyrood minister later blames the supplier.

13 July 2016

NHS “Wachter” digital review is delayed – but does it matter?

The Wachter review of NHS technology was due to be published in June but has been delayed. Would it matter if it were delayed indefinitely?

In the Wachter’s review’s terms of reference (“Making IT work: harnessing the power of health IT to improve care in England“)  there is a final bullet point that refers, obliquely, to a need to consider patients.

Was the Wachter review commissioned for the benefit of suppliers, clinical administrators and officialdom more than patients?

20 July 2016

Evidence submitted to an FOI tribunal by a senior DWP official concedes that there was a “lack of candour and honesty throughout the Programme and publicly”.

The official was referring to the Universal Credit IT programme.

The same official admits to paranoia within the DWP about the accidental leak of information about the Universal Credit IT programme.

The official said Programme Board members ceased to receive their papers electronically, which meant twenty packs of up to 200 pages delivered by hand every month.

All programme documents were marked securely, numbered and signed for, any that were sent were ‘double-enveloped’, and any papers that needed to be retained were ‘signed back in’.

Even documents that did not contain sensitive information were password protected and had official security markings.

After the Guardian reported the results of a survey of the morale of staff working on Universal Credit IT, the DWP’s secretary of state organised a leak investigation headed by a former member of the security services.

“People also stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the Programme, even when those comments would be useful as part of something like an MPA [Major Projects Authority] review,” said the DWP’s paper to an FOI tribunal.

“People felt they could no longer share things with colleagues that might have an honest assessment of difficulties or any negative criticism – many staff believed the official line was ‘everything is fine’.”

The paper appeared to confirm that the DWP’s “good news” culture is departmental policy, raising questions of whether it is hard-wired for project failure.

Inside Universal Credit IT – analysis of document the DWP didn’t want published.

3 August 2016

Is Sir Humphrey trying [slowly] to kill off the Government Digital Service and the innovations it stands for?

It’s a question that remains unanswered today.

6 September 2016

The Institute for Government publishes one of the most incisive – and revelatory – reports ever produced on a big government IT project.

It reveals that when Cabinet Office officials sought the views of DWP staff on Universal Credit’s progress, the officials found that staff had been scared to tell the truth.

The Cabinet Office assured staff that their comments would not be attributable. And under nearly every stone officials found there was chaos.

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening,” said the Institute’s report.

7 September 2016

DWP derides claimant complaints over digital rollout of Universal Credit.

Less than 24 hours after the Institute for Government criticised the DWP’s “tendency not to acknowledge bad news”, the department’s press office has poured scorn on complaints to an MP about problems with the rollout of Universal Credit’s “digital” system.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions has described as “anecdotal” complaints by the public about the “full” digital Universal Credit system in south London.

The DWP has declined to publish reports that would give a factual account of the performance of the Universal Credit digital system during rollout.  Its spokespeople can therefore describe claimant complaints as “anecdotal”.

21 September 2016

Capita and NHS England apologise after continuing problems on £330m contract.

The problems are not entirely Capita’s fault.  Will anyone at NHS England be held accountable for ignoring the warning signs before outsourcing the contract for GP support services?


21 October 2016

The venerable and charismatic Jonathan Green-Armytage dies. He was a journalist at Computer Weekly in the 1980s and 1990s and later joined Gartner.

He was proof of the old adage that the better you understand a complex subject the more simply you can explain it.

24 October 2016

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice. He carried on campaigning against a Post Office injustice until he had no strength left to fight.

His campaign – and that of more than 150 other subpostmasters – was to clear their names. The Post Office branded them criminals after the central Horizon computer system showed discrepancies on local post office accounts.

Lawyers acting for the Justice for Subostmasters Alliance have issued a High Court writ on behalf of the subpostmasters. An initial hearing is planned for January 2017.

The Post Office could settle the cases now, and not put the families of so many subpostmasters through any more suffering.

Julian Wilson discovered last year he had terminal cancer.  This summer he deteriorated rapidly.

4 November 2016

Well done to Unite for challenging council’s joint venture “savings” claim.

When councils make unexplained (and self-congratulatory) claims that they have made savings at the end of a joint venture, it will usually raise a series of questions.

So well done to Nigel Behan of the Unite union for putting a series of FOI questions to Taunton Deane Borough Council about its joint venture with IBM, as part of Southwest One.

Without people like Nigel Behan and Somerset campaigner Dave Orr, and organisations like Unite, councils would get used to saying publicly whatever they liked, possibly without challenge.

9 November 2016

Capita adds 500 staff to boost recovery on “unacceptable” NHS contract

Health minister Nicola Blackwood describes failings on Capita’s GP support services contract as “entirely unacceptable”.

She tells MPs at an adjournment debate on failures relating to Capita’s £1bn Primary Care Support England contract,

“It was always clear that Capita’s services needed to be at least as good as those that they replaced…However, it is evident that Capita was inadequately prepared for delivering this complex transition.”

But the minister does not acknowledge that officials failed, before awarding the contract, to understand what Capita was capable and not capable of delivering.

Is it good enough for officials to take the pre-contract sales claims from suppliers at face value?

10 November 2016

Another village post office closed over Horizon IT controversy?

17 November 2016

Birmingham City Council is set to take back the “Revenues” – council tax – element of its £1bn Service Birmingham contract with Capita.

Local officials expect to make “savings” by bringing the revenues collection service back in-house, which raises a question of whether the council made a mistake by outsourcing the service in the first place.

When councils claim to save money by outsourcing, and again when they take the same services back in-house, they are not required to prove their claims by publishing audited figures.

The result is that councils, when outsourcing or taking back the same services, can define the word “savings” in any way they choose.

22 November 2016

Days from taking back outsourced IT, Somerset County Council is unsure what it’ll find.

That Somerset County Council laments setting up the Southwest One joint venture with IBM is not new. What continues to surprise is the extent of the difficulties of ending the joint venture cleanly – despite more than a year of preparations.

I December 2016

Barnet Council claims £31m savings with Capita – and not an auditor in sight

8 December 2016

Capita share price falls to new 10-year low as it lowers profit forecast. The company’s share price of 513p at lunchtime today was 9% down on yesterday’s close.  A year ago it was around 1200p.









4 responses to “Main themes from 2016’s IT events

  1. When will Government learn not to allow unsupported PR to emerge from “IT” where huge vested interests just love the mix of publicity and complexity. Well done you guys for exposing the reality and let’s all work to ensure senior politicians understand the need to build up knowledge of what is really happening……?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I agree – but the idea that politicians will build up a knowledge of what is really happening makes me smile. A small number of MPs have a deep understanding – including Margaret Hodge, Frank Field and Richard Bacon – but they’re not ministers and, if they were, their civil servants would probably seek to stop them interfering too much in departmental affairs by drowning them in complexity.
      As I am sure you know, ruling politicians control the purse strings but it’s the permanent secretaries who run government, sometimes well and often badly. They’d prefer any messes they make to remain hidden. If it weren’t for the National Audit Office, FOI campaigners and occasional leaks they’d succeed. But the NAO has a limited number of staff and money. Tony.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Tony,
    Congratulations in surviving another year.
    And congratulations in still managing to do good work within an environment of Good News Culture, which the prophet George Orwell knew only too well means – Absolutely Tragic News and no culture whatsoever.
    When organisations have lost their core values, their principles and thus their direction, they only have left the imperative to cock-up and cover-up and a reliance on P.R. and propaganda to produce misleadingly optimistic statements they can hide behind.
    I admire the use of the words – genuinely independent and fearless external scrutiny – if only to imagine the horror on the faces of those who have dedicated their lives to defeating such approaches.
    Allow me to thank you and to wish you a very Happy New Year.


    • Thank you – and for your comment. I am glad you mentioned Orwell. For everyone in senior management, particularly those at the top of the DWP and on NHS trust boards, “1984” is worth a re-read. Maybe senior managers will be reminded about how their organisational culture frowns on useful dissent, what Orwell referred to as “thoughtcrime”.
      From the DWP FOI legal documents I’ve read, and the people I have spoken to there, incisive internal criticism of a big IT project or programme is all but silenced because it would bring instant unpopularity. Groupthink prevails. A culture change at the DWP is possible with the right person at the top. Happy new year. Tony.

      Liked by 1 person

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