By Tony Collins
“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary, Yes Minister, episode 1, Open Government.
Home Office officials kept secret from the man in charge of a £9.3bn project a report that showed the scheme in serious trouble.
The Emergency Services Network is being designed to give police, ambulance crew and firemen voice and data communications to replace existing “Airwave” radios. The Home Office’s permanent secretary Philip Rutnam describes the network under development as a “mission-critical, safety-critical, safety-of-life service”.
But Home Office officials working on the programme did not show an internal review report on the scheme’s problems to either Rutnam or Stephen Webb, the senior responsible owner. They are the two civil servants accountable to Parliament for the project.
Their unawareness of the report made an early rescue of the Emergency Services Network IT programme less likely. The scheme is now several years behind its original schedule, at least £3.1bn over budget and may never work satisfactorily.
The report’s non circulation raises the question of whether Whitehall’s preoccupation with good news and its suppression of the other side of the story is killing off major government IT-based schemes.
With the Emergency Services Network delayed – it was due to start working in 2017 – police, ambulance and fire services are having to make do with the ageing Airwave system which is poor at handling data.
Meanwhile Motorola – which is Airwave’s monopoly supplier and also a main supplier of the Emergency Services Network – is picking up billions of pounds in extra payments to keep Airwave going.
Motorola may continue to receive large extra payments indefinitely if the Emergency Services Network is never implemented to the satisfaction of he emergency services.
EE is due to deliver the network component of the Emergency Services Network. Motorola is due to supply software and systems and Kellogg Brown & Root is the Home Office’s delivery partner in implementing the scheme.
Has Whitehall secrecy over IT reports become a self-parody?
The hidden report in the case of the Emergency Services Network was written in 2016, a year after the scheme started. It said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, did not start until after the effective delivery dates. Integration is still the main programme risk.
MP SIr Geoffrey Clifton Brown has told the Public Accounts Committee that the report highlighted an absence of clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, which caused something of an impasse.
He said the report “alluded to the fact that that [a lack of clarity around integration] remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution”.
Stephen Webb has been in charge of the project since its start but he is the business owner, the so-called “senior responsible owner” rather than the programme’s IT head.
In the private sector, the IT team would be expected to report routinely to a scheme’s business owner.
But in central government, secrecy over internal assurance reports on the progress or otherwise of major IT-related projects is a Whitehall convention that dates back decades.
Such reports are not published or shared internally except on a “need-to-know” basis. It emerged during legal proceedings over the Universal Credit IT programme that IT project teams kept reports secret because they were “paranoid” and “suspicious” of colleagues who might leak documents that indicated the programme was in trouble.
As a result, IT programme papers were no longer sent electronically and were delivered by hand. Those that were sent were “double-enveloped” and any that needed to be retained were “signed back in”; and Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.
The secrecy had no positive effect on the Universal Credit programme which is currently running 11 years behind its original schedule.
Webb has told MPs he was “surprised” not to have seen review report on the Emergency Services Network. He discovered the report’s existence almost by accident when he read about it in a different report written a year later by Simon Ricketts, former Rolls Royce CIO.
This month the Public Accounts Committee criticised the “unhealthy good news” culture at the Home Office. The Committee blamed this culture for the report’s not being shown to Webb.
The Home Office says it doesn’t know why Webb was not shown the “Peter Edwards” report. The following was an exchange at the Public Accounts Committee between MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Webb and Rutnam.
Clifton-Brown: When you did that due diligence, were you aware of the Peter Edwards report prepared in the fourth quarter of 2016?
Rutnam: No, I’m afraid I was not. The Peter Edwards report on what exactly, sorry?
Clifton-Brown: Into the problems with ESN [Emergency Services Network], in particular in relation to suppliers.
Rutnam: I do not recall it. It may have been drawn to my attention, but I’m afraid I do not recall it.
Webb: It was an internal report done on the programme. I have not seen it either.
Clifton-Brown: You have not seen it either, Mr Webb—the documents tell us that. Why have you not seen such an important report? As somebody who was in charge of the team—a senior responsible officer—why had you not seen that report?
Webb: I don’t know. I was surprised to read it in Simon’s report. [Simon Ricketts.]
Chair: Who commissioned it?
Webb: The programme leadership at the time.
Chair: That is the board?
Webb: The programme director. It was a report to him about how he should best improve the governance. I think he probably saw it as a bit of an external assurance. It probably would have been better to share it with me, but that was not done at the time.
Clifton-Brown: “Probably would have been better to share it”? That report said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, only started after the effective delivery dates. The report highlighted that there was not clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, and that caused something of an impasse. It also alluded to the fact that that remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution. That was in 2016, in that report. Had that report been disseminated, would we still be in the position that we are today?
Webb: I think that we would have wanted to bring forward the sort of [independent] review that the Home Secretary commissioned, and we would have done it at an earlier date.
Clifton-Brown: Why did you need to? You would not have needed to commission another review. You could have started getting to the root of the problem there and then if you had seen that report.
Webb and Rutman seem highly competent civil servants to judge from the open way they answered the questions of MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.
But they did not design the Emergency Services Network scheme which, clearly, had flawed integration plans even before contracts were awarded.
With no effective challenge internally and everything decided in secret, officials involved in the design did what they thought best and nobody knew then whether they were right or wrong. With hindsight it’s easy to see they were wrong.
But doing everything in secret and with no effective challenge is Whitehall’s systemically flawed way of working on nearly all major government IT contracts and it explains why they fail routinely.
It’s extraordinary – and not extraordinary at all – that the two people accountable to Parliament for the £9.3bn Emergency Services Network were not shown a review report that would have provided an early warning the project was in serious trouble.
Now it’s possible, perhaps even likely, the Emergency Services Network will end up being added to the long list of failures of government IT-based programmes over the last 30 years.
Every project on that list has two things in common: Whitehall’s obsession with good news and the simultaneous suppression of all review reports that could sully the good news picture.
But you cannot run a big IT-based project successfully unless you discuss problems openly. IT projects are about solving problems. If you cannot admit that problems exist you cannot solve them.
When officials keep the problems to themselves, they ensure that ministers can be told all is well. Hence, ministers kept telling Parliament all was well with the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS – until the scheme was eventually dismantled in 2011.
Parliament, the media and the public usually discover the truth only when a project is cancelled, ends up in the High Court or is the subject of a National Audit Office report.
With creative flair, senior civil servants will give Parliament, the National Audit Office and information tribunals a host of reasons why review reports on major projects must be kept confidential.
But they know it’s nonsense. The truth is that civil servants want their good news stories to remain uncontradicted by the disclosure of any internal review reports.
Take the smart meters roll-out. Internal review reports are being kept secret while officials give ministers and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the good news only. Thus, the latest Whitehall report on smart meters says,
“Millions of households and small businesses have made the smart choice to get a smart meter with over 12.8 million1 operating in smart mode across Great Britain. This world leading roll out puts consumers firmly in control of their energy use and will bring an end to estimated bills.”
Nothing is said about millions of homes having had “smart” meters installed that are neither smart nor compatible for the second generation of smart meters which have a set of problems of their own.
For more than 30 years the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have published seemingly unique reports that each highlight a different set of problems. But nobody joins the dots.
Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary said in “Yes Minister“, that open government is a contradiction in terms. “You can be open, or you can have government.
This is more than a line in a TV satire. It is applied thinking in every layer of the top echelons of civil service.
Collective responsibility means civil servants have little to fear from programme failures. But they care about departmental embarrassment. If reviews into the progress or otherwise of IT-enabled programmes are published, civil servants are likely to be motivated to avoid repeating obvious mistakes of the past. They may be motivated to join the dots.
But continue to keep the review reports secret and new sets of civil servants will, unknowingly each time, treat every project as unique. They will repeat the same mistakes of old and be surprised every time the project collapses.
That the civil service will never allow review reports of IT programmes to be published routinely is a given. If the reports were released, their disclosure of problems and risks could undermine the good news stories ministers, supported by the civil service, want to feel free to publish.
For it’s a Whitehall convention that the civil service will support ministerial statements whether they are accurate or not, balanced or not.
Therefore, with review reports being kept secret and the obsession with good news being wholly supported by the civil service, government’s reputation for delivering successful IT-based programmes is likely to remain tarnished.
And taxpayers, no doubt, will continue to lose billions of pounds on failed schemes. All because governments and the civil service cannot bring themselves to give Parliament and the media – or even those in charge of multi-billion pound programmes – the other side of the story.
Home Office’s “unhealthy good news culture” blamed for Emergency Services Network Delays – Civil Service World
Emergency Services Network is an emergency now – The Register
Home Office not on top of emergency services programme – Public Accounts Committee report, July 2019