By Tony Collins
Civil servants are excluding some of the biggest and riskiest IT and other projects from oversight by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, the National Audit Office has found.
A report of the NAO, which is published today, raises questions about why officials are removing projects from oversight for no clear reason.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, calls for the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to exercise a “tougher discipline over the terms on which projects are included, or more to the point excluded from its oversight”.
The NAO report says that 29 major ICT projects costing about £10bn fall within the Authority’s remit, as well as a further 41 major projects worth £83bn that are described as “Government transformation and service delivery” projects. These 41 projects include the modernising of government “back office” activities.
Specific major projects that fall within the Authority’s remit include the Universal Credit IT programme, the separate Department for Work and Pensions “IT transformation” and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s smart meters roll-out.
The NAO criticises the “poor records and incomplete reporting of the process for projects entering or leaving” the Authority’s portfolio. This lack of transparency “increases the risk and perception that projects are removed inappropriately”, says the NAO.
Major IT projects such as the one that supports the roll-out of Universal Credit are not subject to independent oversight where the results are published, except when the National Audit Office investigates or when the projects are reported on in a general and vague sense by departments. Public Accounts MPs regard oversight by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as important because it reveals whether projects have had “red”, “amber” or “green” traffic light reviews.
But for years senior civil servants have resisted publication of the traffic light status of their major projects. A test case went to the High Court in 2008 when the civil service fought the publication of “Gateway Reviews” which included the traffic light status of the ID cards scheme.
Co-presenter of the BBC R4 Today programme John Humphrys covered the High Court case at the time. He began his interview with Computer Weekly by saying,
“The government does not want us to know how its big IT projects are going. It’s using an ancient law to keep these massive projects, most recently ID Cards, from public view…”
Thanks to the insistence of the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who introduced measures in 2011 to force departments to be more openness about major IT projects, the annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority contains short summaries of the status of major projects.
But the civil service continues to refuse FOI requests to publish the results of its reviews of the status of major projects such as Universal Credit and the smart meters roll-out.
And today’s NAO report – “Leaving the government major projects portfolio” – underlines the fact that departments close down some major IT and other projects without mentioning anything to Parliament or the public. The NAO calls on the civil service to “publish a statement on project closure that assesses what has been delivered”. The NAO says,
“Departments are responsible for delivering the benefits of projects and such a statement would close the gap in visibility of major projects…Publication of evaluations would help departments learn lessons from major projects, including the realism of expected benefits.”
The NAO finds that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority is agreeing to requests by departments to remove major projects from the Authority’s oversight.
The NAO goes further: it says it is not clear why some programmes were not included in the Authority’s portfolio of projects in the first place.
The NAO report also found that the civil service has:
- Revised a project’s original plans and targets, then given the project a “green” traffic light status based on the revised baseline rather than the original plan. The NAO cited the Mobile Infrastructure Project to fill gaps in commercial mobile telephone coverage. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport worked in partnership with four mobile network operators. It initially committed to building 575 mobile telephone masts to expand coverage to 60,000 premises, at an estimated cost of £150m. But after approval, these targets proved over-optimistic and ultimately unattainable. It built 75 masts against a revised target of 40, reaching 7,199 premises at a cost of £36m. The Infrastructure and Project Authority’s exit review gave the project a “green” traffic light status against the new baseline. The subsequent evaluation used only the revised baselines and reported that they had been achieved.
- Changed the scope of projects without reporting it.
- Withdrawn projects from the Authority’s oversight without carrying out a final “Gate 5 Review” – or any other exit review – of whether the project has achieved the intended benefits. Sometimes departments are “not clear” what the withdrawn project has achieved”, said the NAO.
- Withdrawn projects from the Authority’s scrutiny after they have obtained poor results during reviews (Par 14).
- Withdrawn projects before they are complete or have achieved their objectives. “The Authority monitors benefits when a project is on the Portfolio but is not in a position to monitor whether they are realised once it leaves,” says the NAO.
- Withdrawn projects from the Authority’s scrutiny without anyone knowing why. The NAO report said, “We saw very limited documentation to support the Authority’s agreement to remove a large number of projects from the Portfolio on three occasions. This reduces transparency. Similarly, departments often had difficulties in responding to our questions about sample projects when relevant people had moved on, indicating a lack of central record-keeping on projects within departments.”
- Embarked on major projects without a dedicated project team, a clear end point or a business case. “Out of the 302 projects that left, the Authority recorded 48 as having no business case,” said the NAO.
The NAO report is thorough. It suggests that little has changed in decades.
MPs and the public have no secure right to know if major IT projects are failing, have been cancelled or are going massively over their budget.
Francis Maude tried to force departments to be open about their major IT projects but since he left as Cabinet Office minister the civil service has returned to its old unaccountable ways.
Tens of billions of public money are being spent on major IT-related projects. Why would any government want information published on whether its major projects are failing?
As John Humphys of the BBC Today programme said in 2008, “The government does not want us to know how its big IT projects are going”. It’s up to public accounts MPs and the NAO to continue to campaign for this to change.