Slippery with the truth … government communications when major IT-based projects begin to fail

By Tony Collins

Last week Campaign4Change published a list of major IT projects where, when things went seriously wrong, Parliament was not told the whole truth and sometimes nothing like the truth.  

The article said that, among the systemic reasons for around £40bn worth of state IT-related failures, may be truth decay, excessive secrecy, no consequences for getting it wrong and the misleading of Parliament – a decades-old “conceal-and-deny” approach.

Part 2 – Slippery with the truth

Margaret Hodge, former minister and chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, wrote in her book “Called to account” about the slipperiness of some witness evidence on IT and other projects.

In one case, a whistle-blower sent her committee a brown package of papers, including departmental documents, which directly contradicted evidence given to the committee by a senior Whitehall official. 

About two decades before, a senior civil servant had told the Scott inquiry that truth is a “very difficult concept“. He was referring to the information (or rather the misinformation) given to Parliament over the so-called Matrix Churchill affair.

All of which raises a question of how it is possible for most big state IT-related projects to succeed when their leaders work under cover of state secrecy, are not held responsible when large programmes fail and are working within a Whitehall system that encourages the omission of key facts in Parliament statements, replies and evidence to committees.

Disinformation, which implies an intent to deceive, is rare. But civil servants draft ministerial speeches and Parliamentary replies on IT-related projects with, it seems, a loyal intent to desensitize, or cushion the effect, of what ministers tell MPs and peers when things go wrong. Negatives are turned into positives – what the National Audit Office has calls a “good news” culture or a “bunker mentality”.

On the £9.3bn Emergency Services Network [ESN] project, which is £3.1bn over budget, the Public Accounts Committee said in 2019,

“An unhealthy, ‘good news’ culture in the Department [Home Office] meant it failed to heed warning signs that the programme was undeliverable. Many of the issues with the Department’s original approach were foreseeable and should have been challenged earlier…

 “We have been warning that ESN is a high-risk programme since 2016, but only now does the Department accept that it was too optimistic about how long it would take to build ESN. The Department admits that where problems had been identified, they were not escalated properly, which meant the Department missed opportunities to correct its approach earlier.”

Home Office secrecy was such that even the departmental head of the ESN project, the senior responsible owner, was not shown a key internal report on some of the issues and risks with programme including an unclear approach to managing the scheme’s several suppliers.

It meant that the UK senior responsible owner of one of the biggest IT-related programmes in Europe was kept in the dark by his own staff on a key report about the project’s difficulties.

Subsequently, the Home Office sought a new senior responsible owner (at a salary of £140,000) for the ESN programme.

This job search negated the whole point of having a senior responsible owner as a senior civil servant who saw a major project through from start to finish.

Problem? What problem?

Officially, the Emergency Services Network is on course to be a transformative success. This was a glowing Home Office account of the project on GOV.UK,

ESN will transform emergency services’ mobile working, especially in remote areas and at times of network congestion. It will create a single platform for sharing data and imagery and enable faster adoption of successful mobile applications. ESN also represents value for money for the taxpayer through delivering steady state savings of over £200 million per year.”

Indeed, GOV.UK currently has a 1,500-word account of the project and not a sentence hints that the project has been beset by seven years of delays, an overspend of £3.1bn, the use of technology that may be obsolete by the time it is due to roll out in 2024, or a dependence meanwhile on a 22 year-old “Airwave” communications system that costs £1.7m a day to run.

It is perfectly possible a new government will pull the plug on the whole programme, in part because, by 2024, police, ambulance or fire services may not want to pay for the rising costs of the system.

Unreassuringly, the GOV.UK website on the ESN programme has not been updated for a year. Also, as is routine on big IT-related programmes, the government and Whitehall have published no internal progress reports on the scheme.

Tensions are known to exist between the Home Office and at least one of the scheme’s main suppliers. But in Parliament ministers continue to give an impression all is well. Indeed the then policing minister denied last year that the programme was in trouble.

He told the House of Commons last year,  “The programme continues to make steady progress, and confidence in the technical viability of the solution continues to increase. The core network has been built, and much of the ultimate functionality has already been demonstrated. We are working hard to demonstrate the emerging product and agree realistic plans with users for the final stages of delivery and deployment.”

The obvious contrast between ministerial assurances on the Emergency Services Network programme and its potentially fatal problems suggests that the state’s implicit decades-old strategy of “conceal and deny” on major IT-based programmes remains active.     

As a footnote to the minister’s assurances on the programme, he told Parliament that the cost of the Emergency Service Network “is actually only – ‘only’ – £4.2 billion”. But two years before this assertion the National Audit Office put the cost at £9.3bn. Above is a screenshot of a part of an NAO report on the Emergency Services Network that confirms the cost.

The minister’s statement, therefore, suggested to MPs that £9.3bn figure was a myth. In fact the National Audit Office and the minister’s officials were giving the projected costs over different time periods.

But how were MPs who questioned the scheme’s costs in Parliament to know this?  

(More on the Emergency Services Network is in the last post in this series.)

World-beating track and trace system

The prime minister told MPs a “world-beating” Covid track and trace system would be ready by 1 June 2020 but his statement had little to do with reality. 

No world-beating track and trace system was ready by 1 June. Or even a working one. Contract tracers struggled to log onto the system and had error messages they didn’t understand and nobody explained. When they were able to log in, there was nobody to trace, according to BBC’s Panorama.

A centralised database for a contract tracing app was fatally flawed, unnecessarily complicated and phones failed to communicate via bluetooth. Multi-million pound IT contracts came to nothing.  But when ministers updated Parliament, their statements turned truth on its head.  A minister, when asked about the track and trace app, told Parliament on 18 June 2020 of “terrific progress”. He also spoke of the track and trace programme as a “remarkable national asset that protects us from the virus …”

But Reuters reported in June 2020 …

Sky News told a similar story:

The whole truth?

When ministers assure Parliament of progress on a big IT project in their department, they may not know the whole truth. In Parliament, they sometimes read out statements drafted by their civil servants word for word. 

Former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the Financial Times,

“There were a lot of failures in DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] and it isn’t good that it took a review commissioned . . . by the secretary of state to disclose what was going on…

“You’ll find a lot of ministers don’t know a lot of things going on in the department because there’s no way you’ll find out.”

A general lack of openness and transparency is not helped by a government-wide ban on central departments publishing internal reports on the progress or otherwise of IT-based projects. This thin-skinned approach is summed up by the then Justice minister who told Parliament in 2019 that his ministry would not publish the results of a review into what had been described as an IT meltdown in the courts.

The meltdown happened  in 2019 when multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems failed at one time. Trials were delayed, jurors were unable to enrol and lawyers were prevented from confirming attendance that enabled them to get paid.

But the minister said the review report would not be made public in order to “protect the department’s security and commercial interests”.

Bob Neill MP, then chairman of the Commons justice select committee, was concerned about what he saw as unnecessary secrecy. He said,

“This [refusal to publish] is a troubling decision which could set a dangerous precedent. “Commercial confidentiality” should not be a used as a blanket reason for withholding information from proper scrutiny, and if there are legitimate security concerns, there are well-established precedents for publishing reports in a redacted form. The government should consider doing that in this case.”

But the justice minister used a familiar Whitehall technique for responding publicly to IT failures: he told Parliament what was not the case rather than what was: his Parliamentary reply said there was no evidence of foul play and no data was lost during the incident – although nobody had suggested either of these things had happened.

Indeed, the government kept its review report into the courts IT meltdown secret. This meant there was little or no incentive for the department to avoid IT-related chaos again and the wider public sector was denied an opportunity to learn from what happened.     

Part 3 –  “Whitehall’s alternative reality” to follow

Part 1 – 43 years of state IT project disasters – and they’re still happening – Campaign4change

Troubling secrecy after IT meltdown in the courts – Law Society Gazette

Track and Trace – BBC Panorama

The Great Post Office Scandal – Nick Wallis’ book

Post Office received £1bn subsidy as part of IT scandal compensation – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly

Barrister Paul Marshall on the Post Office scandal – the intersection of law, ethics and politics

One response to “Slippery with the truth … government communications when major IT-based projects begin to fail

  1. Pingback: Repost: Slippery With the Truth | Think Different

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