Whitehall renews facade of openness on major IT projects

By Tony Collins

Headlines yesterday on the state of major government IT projects were mixed.

Government Computing said,

“IPA: Whitehall major projects show ‘slow and steady’ delivery improvement”

Computer Weekly said,

“Government IT projects improving – but several still in doubt”

The Register said,

“One-quarter of UK.gov IT projects at high risk of failure – Digital borders, digital tax and raft of MoJ projects singled out”

The headlines were prompted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual report which was published yesterday.

The report listed the RAG – red/amber/green – status of each of 143 major projects in the government’s  £455bn major projects portfolio. Thirty-nine of these are ICT projects, worth a total of £18.6bn.

Publication of the projects’ red/amber/green status – called the “Delivery Confidence Assessment” – seemed a sign that the government was being open over the state of its major IT and other projects.

A reversal of decades of secrecy over the progress or otherwise of major IT projects and programmes?

In a foreword to the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s report, two ministers referred twice to the government’s commitment to openness and accountability.

MP Caroline Nokes, Cabinet Office minister, and MP Andrew Jones, a Treasury minister, said in their joint foreword,

“The government is also committed to transparency, and to being responsive and accountable to the public we serve.

“Accordingly, we have collected and published this data consistently over the past five years, enabling us to track the progress of projects on the GMPP [Government Major Projects Portfolio] over time.

“We will continue to be responsive and accountable to the public.”

But the report says nothing about the current state of major IT projects. The delivery confidence assessments are dated September 2016. They are 10 months out of date.

This is because senior civil servants – some of whom may be the “dinosaurs” that former minister Francis Maude referred to last month – have refused to allow politicians to publish the red/amber/gtreen status of major projects (including the Universal Credit programme and the smart meters rollout) unless the information, when published, is at least six months old.

[Perhaps one reason is to give departmental and agency press officers an opportunity to respond to journalists’ questions by saying that the red, red/amber of amber status of a particular major project is out of date.]

Amber – but why?

An amber rating means that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist” though any problems “appear resolvable”.

In September 2016 the Universal Credit programme was at amber but we don’t know why. Neither the IPA or the Department for Work and Pensions mention any of the “issues”.

The £11bn smart meters rollout is also at amber and again we don’t know why. Neither the IPA nor the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy mention any of the “issues”. Permanent secretaries are allowed to keep under wraps the IPA’s reasons for the red/amber/green assessments.

Even FOI requests for basic project information have been refused.  Computer Weekly said,

“Costs for the Verify programme were also withheld from the IPA report, again citing exemptions under FOI.”

Comment

The senior civil servants who, in practice, set the rules for what the Infrastructure and Projects Authority can and cannot publish on major government projects and programmes are likely to be the “dinosaurs” that former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude referred to last month.

Maude said that Whtehall reforms require that new ministers “face down the obstruction and prevarication from the self-interested dinosaur tendency in the mandarinate.”

Clearly that hasn’t happened yet.

The real information about Universal Credit’s progress and problems will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Work and Pensions – but from local authoritities, housing associations, landlord organistions, charities and consumer groups such the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (which has called for Universal Credit to be halted), the local press, the National Audit Office and Parliamentary committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and Work and Pensions Committee.

On the smart meter rollout, the real information will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – but from business journalist Paul Lewis, consumer advocate Martin Lewis, business organistions such as the Institute of Directors,  experts such as Nick Hunn, the Energy and Climate Change Committee and even energy companies such as EDF.

Much of this “real” information will almost certainly be denied by Whitehall press officers. They’ll be briefed by senior officials to give business journalists only selected “good news” facts on a project’s progress and costs.

All of this means that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority may have good advice for departments and agencies on how to avoid project failures – and its tact and deference will be welcomed by permanent secretaries – but it’s likely the IPA will be all but useless in providing early warnings to Parliament and the public of incipient project disasters.

Ministers and some senior civil servants talk regularly about the government’s commitment to openness and accountability. When it will start applying to major government IT projects?

 

UK.gov watchdog didn’t red flag any IT projects. And that alone should be a red flag to everyone

 

 

 

 

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2 responses to “Whitehall renews facade of openness on major IT projects

  1. Please don’t buy the myth that Francis Maude loved transparency. That only applied to other departments – not his own. I had a number of examples of Cabinet Office FOIs that were refused, or was told “the info will be published in our own time” – months and months later usually. The business case for the CCS “centralization” programme (which has turned out to be a disaster) was a case in point.

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    • Thank you for the comment.

      That the Cabinet Office was – and is – one of the least open of all Whitehall departments is a given. I know from my FOI requests that it can take years for the Cabinet Office to release material that the Information Commissioner has said should be published. That the Cabinet Office blithely spends money on unnecessarily withholding information it is later ordered to release suggests that refusing FOI requests is second nature to Cabinet Office officials.

      I don’t believe that Francis Maude was culpable. It’s highly unlikely he was involved in refusing FOI requests; and when ministers have to sign off (potentially costly) FOI appeals, they may take the approach that they should defer to their civil servants on small disagreements which gives them more credibility when arguing on bigger matters.

      On the rare occasions I have met ministers of different governments I have always had the firm impression that their civil servants kept them – as far as possible – from the day to day running of their departments.

      On one occasion, at a Christmas drinks “party” in Whitehall, I asked the then home secretary some work-related questions – which wasn’t the done thing at an informal get-together – and was pounced on by PR people who politely led me away.

      On another occasion, an MP I had known well became a minister whereupon I found it difficult to contact him on his work numbers because his calls were answered by civil servants. I could only contact him on his home number.

      Another minister invited me informally to the Commons to discuss a technology-related briefing paper she’d received from civil servants. On that occasion, she didn’t trust the advice of her officials.

      Ministers do tours of the constituencies. They visit outposts of their department. They give talks abroad, sign what they are asked to sign and say what they are asked to say to the House of Commons and its committees.

      Francis Maude was unusual. I don’t think he did anything by rote. He questioned. He made things happen. He tried to reform Whitehall. He was vilified by some civil servants. I believe he was in favour of transparency. His Cabinet Office officials were not. But Maude had to pick his fights. In rejecting FOI requests, my guess is that he deferred to his officials rather than squabble over every single one. Tony Collins.

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