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Hundreds of IT-related deaths in the NHS every year? … why the full truth will never emerge

By Tony Collins

Two academics have given talks in London about the number of NHS patients who might have died because of IT-related problems.

Their comments come almost exactly five years after the Francis report into the “appalling suffering” of patients at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The Francis report criticised an NHS culture that lacked candour and openness. Has that culture changed?

One of the academics was Martyn Thomas, a visiting professor in software engineering at Oxford, Aberystwyth and Bristol universities. The other academic was Harold Thimbleby, professor emeritus of geometry at Gresham College in London and professor of computer science at Swansea University.

IT is used in nearly every area of hospital activity, from storing and retrieving medical record to making appointments. Technology is also embedded in devices hat include MRI scanners and dialysis machines.

Speaking at a briefing before a lecture, Thimbleby said: “If you go into a hospital there isn’t a good word to describe how bad stuff in a hospital is and how unaware people are in hospitals of the low quality: they’re stuck with it. They’re over-worked, they’ve got a job to do and understanding the computer systems isn’t part of their job …”

He added that NHS computer-related deaths each year of between 100 and 900 people could be a big underestimate.

“Piper Alpha had 167 deaths and there was a public inquiry; Ladbroke Grove, the rail crash in Paddington had 31 deaths and there was a public inquiry; Grenfell, the fire last year had 71 years, and there is a public inquiry. Why don’t we have a public inquiry in the safety of hospital software?”

Thomas described how research in the USA has shown that 8% of all deaths are caused by errors in hospitals. In the UK, this could equate to tens of thousands of preventable adverse events in hospitals, he said.

He added that a significant proportion of clinical negligence claims in the NHS are due to poor and buggy computer systems that lead professionals into making mistakes – which are blamed on the professionals.

“That’s a lot of money going into liability claims; it’s a lot of trauma to patients and their families and it is a lot of trauma for staff because the staff get blamed and it really isn’t their fault.”

Thimbleby and Thomas called for better regulation of healthcare computers and more research into the implications of errors.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman told the Press Association,  “Patient safety is our priority, and our £4.2 billion investment in technology will help eliminate avoidable harm.”

But do hospitals generally report IT-related incidents that cause – or are suspected to have caused – harm?

Bath’s Royal United Hospital

Three year-old Samuel Starr died in the arms of his parents as his they read him his favourite stories at the local hospital.

At an inquest in 2014, his parents, and specialists, raised questions about whether long delays in arranging appointments on a new Cerner Millennium system at Bath’s Royal United Hospital, which replaced an old “TDS” patient administration system, was a factor in his death.

Ben Peregrine, the speciality manager for paediatrics at the RUH in Bath,  told the inquest:

“Samuel’s appointment request must have fallen through the cracks between the old and new system.”

After successful heart surgery at 9 months, Samuel should have had regular scans to see if his condition had worsened. But he didn’t have any scans for 20 months, in part because of difficulties in organising the appropriate appointments on Bath’s new Millennium systems.

Though there is no certainty, Samuel may be alive today if he’d had the scans.


A year after the inquest, one of the supplier’s announcements on its website was about the success of its go-live at the Royal United Hospital, Bath.

“Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust and Cerner have been working together to implement Cerner Millennium Maternity functionality in a RECORD TIME! It took only three months from the start of the project to its “go-live”! This is a first in the UK!

“The success of this implementation was mainly due to the very strong collaboration between Cerner and the Trust’s team…”

The success was in maternity – not paediatrics where Samuel Starr was being treated – but there was no reference to any Cerner-related implementation problems at the Royal United Hospital.

Has anything changed?

As the Francis report into Mid-Staffordshire trust’s failings found in 2013, the NHS has its own “house style” for how it handles the reporting of its not-so-good news – or suspected harm – to patients.

The Royal United Hospital Bath has a “normal” NHS way of reporting IT-related matters. It has an NHS-specific “good news” house style that hasn’t changed in decades.

One Royal United board paper reported that it had “only” 14 breaches that month [November 2017] of its target for treating patients with suspected cancer within 62 days of urgent referral by a GP.

And anyone looking in the hospital’s board papers for details of its recent IT-related problems would have no answer to any of these basic questions:

  •  how many patients were affected?
  •  in what way were they affected?
  • what was done about it?
  • why did it happen?

On 7 November 2017, Royal United Hospital implemented what it called the “Big 3”. The first of the Big 3 was the “Cerner Millennium EPMA”. There was no explanation in the board papers, at least for the benefit of non-executive directors, of what EPMA meant (electronic prescribing and medicines administration).

The second of the big three was “First Net”. Again no explanation that it is a Cerner product that helps to support triage and tracking, ordering tests and recording results, integrating documents into the patient’s electronic medical record, providing discharge plans along with GP follow-up instructions and prescriptions and management reporting.

The third of the Big 3 was “order comms” which, again, had no explanation. Order comms replaces paper by allowing doctors and nurses to order things electronically such as x-rays and receive updates on their systems.

More importantly, the Royal United Hospital’s board papers omit to give any context of the Big 3 go-live. What will it provide that numerous go-lives and past updates haven’t provided? No answer.

The RUH was one of the first computerised large hospitals in the UK. It bought into the controversial Regional Information System Plan of Wessex Regional Health Authority. The Plan wasted millions in the early 1990s.

Subsequently Tony Blair introduced the ill-fated NHS IT programme – the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] in the NHS. In  2002, the Royal United Hospital bought into that too. It replaced its Wessex “TDS” system with the Cerner electronic patient system from BT, one of the NPfIT suppliers.

The NPfIT was dismantled in 2011 with losses of billions of pounds, though some hospitals including Royal United, continue to use updated NPfIT systems.

The new Big 3 go-live went well, according to a report to the Royal United Hospital board. It said the “systems went live within the proposed project timescales” and the go-live “was successful overall”. But there’s no explanation of what didn’t go well, merely a brief mention that a “unified focus was required to complete the project”.

If you look carefully amid the graphs, bar charts, diagrams and statistics of the board papers, it’s possible to see that not everything went well. There’s a chart that shows a significant fall in emergency patients seen within the target of four hours when the Cerner systems went live. The fall is shown on a chart that looks at first as if it’s positive news: it reports the results of a “4-hour maximum wait in ED (Emergency Department) – improvement trajectory”:

And the last paragraph of text that accompanies an obscure chart in a different part of the board papers says that the trust’s four-hour wait remains the “trust’s most significant performance issue”.

But “normal” NHS house style still unofficially requires an obscure use of language when things go wrong, as if patients are not involved. Hence there’s no mention in the hospital’s board papers of any patients that might have been affected by problems with the Big 3 implementation.

These are some extracts from the Royal United Hospital’s board papers:

  • “Negative impact due to Big 3 go live on the 7th November 2017 specifically affecting early flow, time to assessment and time to treatment. Improvement plan in place.”
  •  “Due to the Big 3 Go Live on 7th November, the ED Clinical Quality timing indicators are under review pending ED clinical validation and a workflow investigation. Upon successful data quality review, the ED clinical quality indicators will be reinstated in the Performance Report.”
  • RTT incomplete pathways in 18 weeks at 88.2% below the Trusts Improvement Trajectory and the 92% national standard. This is slightly improved performance from October.
  • Overall 4 hour performance not achieved for Majors or Minors.
  • The Board are asked to discuss November performance, noting the impact on performance from the ‘Big 3’ go-live. Some performance metrics are not shown for November on the scorecard as data is being validated following the ‘Big 3’ go-live. IT and BIU are working to resolve this.”


Thimbleby and Thomas refer to an unknown number of deaths in the NHS because of a variety of IT-related problems. Nobody has any real idea of the numbers.

That the truth is obscured is not the fault of NHS IT people. They deserve much understanding, even sympathy. They often have poor work environments – sometimes in grim pre-fabricated huts or decaying buildings overlooking the car park – that have the usual hospital disinfectant smells and equipment that would be welcomed by IT museum curators. This post is not directed at them.

It’s directed at the NHS culture of  board reporting that turns up the volume on good news and buries in impenetrable NHS house style bad news.

Thimbleby and Thomas are to be applauded for drawing attention to NHS IT-related deaths. The circumstances of Samuel Starr’s death show that NHS administrative problems can have fatal consequences – yet the NHS generally categorises administrative IT systems as having no patient safety implications.

Earlier this month the National Audit Office reported that thousands of clinical notes went astray under an NHS outsourcing contract with Capita. We were told that nobody was harmed.

Despite the Francis report into unnecessary deaths and suffering at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in 2013, the NHS trust board culture, at least when it comes to reporting on IT-related problems, has not changed. These were some of the Francis report’s findings that are relevant to IT reporting to NHS boards today:

  • A culture focused on doing the system’s business – not that of the patients;
  • An institutional culture which ascribed more weight to positive information about the service than to information capable of implying cause for concern;
  • Standards and methods of measuring compliance which did not focus on the effect of a service on patients;
  • A failure to tackle challenges to the building up of a positive culture.

One of the main recommendations of the Francis has certainly not been implemented.

“Ensure openness, transparency and candour throughout the system about matters of concern.”

Thank you to Zara Pradyer for alerting me to articles about the NHS and IT-related deaths. Thank you also to a local newspaper journalist who alerted me to the trust board papers.

A tragic outcome for Cerner Millennium implementation at Bath.

NHS computer problems could be responsible for hundreds of deaths, academics claim

Francis report into Mid Staffordshire’s failings – executive summary

Deaths and electronic medical records


Government Digital Service loses “genius” and “national treasure”. Is Sir Humphrey winning campaign to dismember GDS?

,By Tony Collins

The dismembering of the Government Digital Service is underway, says Andrew Greenway, a former programme manager working on digital projects for the Cabinet Office. He now works as an independent consultant.

His comments in Civil Service World came, coincidentally, as another top GDS official prepared to leave.

Paul Downey, GDS’s Technical Architect – who is described by former colleagues as a “legend” and “national treasure” – has left to join the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Downey is the latest in a long line of leading government technologists to leave GDS, which will confirm in the minds of many that Sir Humphrey has won the campaign to stop GDS interfering in the 100 year-old autonomy of individual government departments.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox set up GDS in 2011 to break down departmental silos and have a “single version of the truth” for everything that government touches.

Former prime minister David Cameron said the creation of GDS “is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament”

Downey helped departments to create new digital services. He represented GDS on the UK government Open Standards Board. Formerly he was BT’s Chief Web Services Architect.

In reply to Downey’s tweet announcing his departure, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, former Executive Director of GDS, tweeted, “When people talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, they were talking about you.”

Mike Bracken, Foreshew-Cain’s predecessor as head of GDS, tweeted about Downey’s departure, “You’re a legend, my friend”.

Tom Loosemore, founder of GDS who, in 2012, wrote the Government Digital Strategy for GDS, also tweeted praise for Downey.

Loosemore left GDS in 2015 for the Co-op group. In an interview shortly after leaving, Loosemore said, “The shape of government needs to change … Businesses don’t run on siloed departments any more and neither should government.”

Liam Maxwell, National Technology Adviser at HM Government who used to be the government’s chief technology officer and who ran teams at GDS, tweeted,”You have been total inspiration to me and hundreds of others”.


Greenway said GDS retains people, prestige and power.  “There is no question that the civil service is in a much stronger position on digital than it was six years ago. Some of the work going on in government, including the teams in GDS building digital platforms, remains world-leading”.

Despite bleeding skills elsewhere, GDS has not experienced a terminal brain drain, says Greenway. “Many of those who have stayed are doing a heroic job in trying circumstances.”

But he added that officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral.

 It now looks as if the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will take over from GDS. But Greenway warns against replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort.

“The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. Increasingly, it has neither of these.

“The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre — the Treasury and Sir Jeremy Heywood — have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot …

“The dismembering of GDS is underway.”


GDS was a great idea. But Sir Humphries tend not to like great ideas if they mean internal change. Permanent secretaries are appointed on the basis that they are a safe pair of hands.  Safe in this context means three things:

  • not spilling the beans however rancid they may be
  • valuing  department’s unique heritage, administrative traditions, staff and procedures
  • talking daily of the need for large-scale “transformative” change while ensuring it doesn’t happen.

Thus, for the past few years, GDS professionals have found that top civil servants want central government departments to continue to be run as separate bureaucratic empires with their uniqueness and administrative traditions preserved.

GDS technologists, on the other hand, want to cut the costs of running Whitehall and the wider public sector while making it easier for the public to interact with government. This puts GDS at odds with Whitehall officials who believe that each departmental board knows best how to run its department.

In the long run GDS cannot win – because it was set up by politicians who wanted change but whose stewardship was temporary while the will to dismember GDS comes from the permanent secretariat who do not welcome change and have the power to resist it.

More’s the pity because taxpayers will continue to spend a fortune on preserving departmental silos and huge, unnecessarily-complex technology contracts.

Andrew Greenway on the dismembering of GDS – Civil Service World

GDS deserves credit for its successes – Government Computing

GDS to lose some policy control? – Computer Weekly

Government Digital Service blog

Government Digital Service being “dismembered”

Capita’s problems were “preventable” says Royal London

By Tony Collins

Royal London, a Capita investor, said yesterday it has been “raising concerns about Capita’s weak governance with the firm for a number of years, and voting against many resolutions on director re-elections and pay consistently since 2014.”

Royal London is the UK’s largest mutual life, pensions and investment company. It managed £113bn of funds as of 31 December 2017. It owns a 0.44% stake in Capita.

Ashley Hamilton Claxton, Royal London Asset Mananagement’s Head of Responsible Investment, said in a statement,

“We welcome the honesty and transparency with which Capita’s new CEO has accepted the company’s past failings, and put a plan in place to simplify and improve the business. However, we believe this was preventable and have been privately raising concerns about Capita’s weak governance with the firm for a number of years, and voting against many resolutions on director re-elections and pay consistently since 2014.

“Until recently, Capita’s board flouted one of the basic rules of the corporate governance code, with a small board primarily comprised of management insiders. The result was a board that lacked the independent spirit to rigorously assess whether the company was making the right long-term decisions.

“Our concerns about governance were compounded by the complexity of the underlying business and the company’s acquisition strategy. Capita’s approach to remuneration also left something to be desired, with major losses in 2013 being excluded from the profit figures used to assess the bonuses paid to executives at the firm.

“The sea change in the board over the past 18 months has been welcome and has addressed the key issue of independence. It will be up to the new Chairman and the Board to ensure that Capita does not repeat the mistakes of the past, and that its strategy is fit for purpose during a particularly turbulent time for the outsourcing sector.”

Last week Capita issued a profits warning and announced plans to raise £700m from investors to reduce debts.

With Capita seeking to raise money and cut costs, where will this leave local government customers that are reliant on the supplier to cut the costs of running local services?

Barnet Council has, controversially, contracted out a large chunk of its services to Capita – and also gives the company tens of millions in advance payments in return for a discount on the supplier’s fees.

By becoming a “commissioning council”, Barnet has made itself wholly reliant on Capita, say critics of the outsourcing deal. Among other responsibilities, Capita produced the council’s latest annual accounts – including a financial account of its own services to the council. The accounts were not produced on time which created extra chargeable work for the council’s auditors BDO.

Capita has run into problems on a number of its major outsourcing deals. The National Audit Office is investigating its work on GP support services.

Councillor Barry Rawlings, leader of the Labour group in Barnet, said the profits warning and Capita’s low share price raised questions about how it may respond to further troubles.

He told The Guardian that Capita may be looking to cut back services it supplies.

“Capita handles all of the back office, enforcement, planning, environmental health, trading standards, estates, payroll and so on. Will that be part of their core services? We might be one of the only places they do some things. If they narrow their scope, what is going to happen to these services?

Conservative leader of  Barnet council, Councillor Richard Cornelius, said,  “Capita currently runs approximately 10 per cent of our services by value. They do not run the entire council as some reports have suggested.

“The council regularly reviews the financial status of its major suppliers as part of its contract management and contingency planning arrangements. This is what any responsible local authority would do.”

Capita’s share price has more than halved in the last month – from about 400p to a low on 1 February 2018 of 158p – but today rose by about 10% to 196.


When an outsourcing giant is looking to cut its costs and raise money to cover debts, how does that square with local government customers that also want to cut costs – which is why they outsourced to Capita?

Outsourcing can make good sense – when for example a global company like BP wants to standardise IT services across the world. It doesn’t always make sense when an organisation wants a service transformation while also cutting costs. Something usually has to give which, perhaps, Barnet Council and its taxpayers are slowly finding out.

Ministers told of major problem on Capita NHS contract more than a year later

By Tony Collins

Today’s Financial Times and other newspapers cover a National Audit Office report into GP clinical notes and correspondence, some of it urgent, that was not directed to the patient’s GP.

The correspondence was archived by Capita under its contract to provide GP support services. But patient notes were still “live”. They included patient invitation letters, treatment/diagnosis notes, test results and documents/referrals marked ‘urgent’.

What isn’t well reported is that ministers were left in the dark about the problems for more than a year. The National Audit Office does not blame anyone – its remit does not include questioning policy decisions – but its report is impressive in setting out of the facts.

Before NHS England outsourced GP support services to Capita in 2015, GPs practices sent correspondence for patients that were not registered at their practice to local primary care services centres, which would attempt to redirect the mail.

By the time Capita took over GP support services on 1 September 2015, GPs were supposed to “return to sender” any correspondence that was sent to them incorrectly – and not send it to primary care services centres that were now run, in part, by Capita.

But some GPs continued to send incorrectly-addressed correspondence to the primary care services centres. Capita’s contract did not require it to redirect clinical correspondence.

An unknown number of GP practices continued to send mail to the centres, expecting the centre’s staff to redirect it. A further complication was that Capita had “transformation” plans to cut costs by closing the primary care services support centres.

Capita made an inventory of all records at each site and shared this with NHS England. The inventories made reference to ‘clinical notes’ but at this point no one identified these notes as live clinical correspondence. Capita stored the correspondence in its archive.

In line with its contract, Capita did not forward the mail. It was not until May 2016 – eight months after Capita took over the primary care services centres – that Capita told a member of NHS England’s primary care support team that there was a problem with an unquantified accumulation of clinical notes.

It was a further five months before Capita formally reported the incident to NHS England. At that time Capita estimated that there was an accumulation of hundreds of thousands of clinical notes. When the National Audit Office questioned Capita on the matter, it replied that, with hindsight, it believes it could have reported the backlog sooner.

In November 2016, Capita and NHS England carried out initial checks on the reported backlog of 580,000 clinical notes. It wasn’t until December 2016 that ministers were informed of problems – more than a year after Capita took over the contract.

Even in December 2016 ministers were not fully informed. Information about a backlog of live clinical notes was within in a number of items in the quarterly ministerial reports. NHS England did not report the matter to the Department of Health until April 2017 – about two years after the problems began.

Even then, officials told ministers that clinical notes had been sampled and were considered “low clinical and patient risk”. But a later study by NHS England’s National Incident Team identified a backlog of 1,811 high priority patient notes such as documents deemed to be related to screening or urgent test results.

The National Audit Office says, “NHS England expects to know by March 2018 whether there has been any harm to patients as a result of the delay in redirecting correspondence. NHS England will investigate further where GPs have identified that there could be potential harm to patients. The review will be led by NHS England’s national clinical directors, with consultant level input where required.”

Last month Richard Vautrey, chairman of British Medical Association’s General Practitioners Committee, wrote to the NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens criticising a lack of substantial improvement on Capita’s contract to run primary care service centres.

In December, the GP Committee surveyed practices and individual GPs on the Capita contract. The results showed a little improvement across all service lines, when compared to its previous survey in October 2016, but a “significant deterioration” in some services. Vautrey’s letter said,

“While any new organisation takes time to take over services effectively, the situation has gone from bad to worse since Capita took over the PCSE [Primary Care Support England] service almost two and a half years ago …

“This situation is completely unacceptable. As a result of the lack of improvement in the service delivery of PCSE we are now left with no option but to support practices and individual doctors in taking legal routes to seek resolution. While this is taking place, we believe it is imperative that NHS England conducts a transparent and comprehensive review of all policy, procedures and processes used by PCSE across each service line.”


It’ll be clear to some who read the NAO report that the problems with urgent patient notes going astray or being put mistakenly into storage, stems from NHS England’s decision to outsource a complex range of GP support services without fully considering – or caring about – what could go wrong.

It’s not yet known if patients have come to harm. It’s clear, though, that patients have been caught in the middle of a major administrative blunder that has complex causes and for which nobody in particular can be held responsible.

That ministers learned of a major failure on a public sector outsourcing deal over a year after live patient notes began to be archived is not surprising.

About four million civil and public servants have strict rules governing confidentiality. There are no requirements for civil and public service openness except when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act which many officials can – and do – easily circumvent.

Even today, the fourth year of Capita’s contract to run GP support services, the implications for patients of what has gone wrong are not yet fully known or understood.

It’s a familiar story: a public sector blunder for which nobody will take responsibility, for which nobody in particular seems to care about, and for which the preoccupation of officialdom will be to continue playing down the implications or not say anything at all.

Why would they be open when there is no effective requirement for it? It’s a truism that serious problems cannot be fixed until they are admitted. In the public sector, serious problems on large IT-related contracts are not usually fixed until the seriousness of the problems can no longer be denied.

For hundreds of years UK governments have struggled to reconcile a theoretical desire for openness with an instinctive and institutional need to hide mistakes. Nothing is likely to change now.

National Audit Office report – Investigation into clinical correspondence handling in the NHS.

Companies nervous over HMRC customs IT deadline?

By Tony Collins

This Computer Weekly article in 1994 was about the much-delayed customs system CHIEF. Will its CDS replacement that’s being built for the post-Brexit customs regime also be delayed by years?

The Financial Times  reported this week that UK companies are nervous over a deadline next year for the introduction of a new customs system three months before Brexit.

HMRC’s existing customs system CHIEF (Customs Handling of Import Export Freight) copes well with about 100 million transactions a year. It’s expected a £157m replacement system using software from IBM and European Dynamics will have to handle about 255 million transactions and with many more complexities and interdependencies than the existing system.

If the new system fails post-Brexit and CHIEF cannot be adapted to cope, it could be disastrous for companies that import and export freight. A post-Brexit failure could also have a serious impact on the UK economy and the collection of billions of pounds in VAT, according to the National Audit Office.

The FT quoted me on Monday as calling for an independent review of the new customs system by an outside body.

I told the FT of my concern that officials will, at times, tell ministers what they want to hear. Only a fully independent review of the new customs system (as opposed to a comfortable internal review conducted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority) would stand a chance of revealing whether the new customs system was likely to work on time and whether smaller and medium-sized companies handling freight had been adequately consulted and would be able to integrate the new system into their own technology.

The National Audit Office reported last year that HMRC has a well-established forum for engaging with some stakeholders but has

“significant gaps in its knowledge of important groups. In particular it needs to know more about the number and needs of the smaller and less established traders who might be affected by the customs changes for the first time”.

The National Audit Office said that the new system will need to cope with 180,000 new traders who will use the system for the first time after Brexit, in addition to the 141,000 traders who currently make customs declarations for trade outside the EU.

The introduction in 1994 of CHIEF was labelled a disaster at the time by some traders,  in part because it was designed and developed without their close involvement. CHIEF  was eventually accepted and is now much liked – though it’s 24 years old.

Involve end-users – or risk failure

Lack of involvement of prospective end-users is a common factor in government IT disasters. It happened on the Universal Credit IT programme, which turned out to be a failure in its early years, and on the £10bn National Programme for IT which was dismantled in 2010. Billions of pounds were wasted.

The FT quoted me as saying that the chances of the new customs system CDS [Customs Declaration Service) doing all the things that traders need it to do from day one are almost nil.

The FT quotes one trader as saying,

“HMRC is introducing a massive new programme at what is already a critical time. It would be a complex undertaking at the best of times but proceeding with it at this very moment feels like a high stakes gamble.”

HMRC has been preparing to replace CHIEF with CDS since 2013. Its civil servants say that the use of the SAFe agile methodology when combined with the skills and capabilities of its staff mean that programme risks and issues will be effectively managed.

But, like other government departments, HMRC does not publish its reports on the state of major IT-related projects and programmes. One risk, then,  is that ministers may not know the full truth until a disaster is imminent.

In the meantime ministerial confidence is likely to remain high.

Learning from past mistakes?

HMRC has a mixed record on learning from past failures of big government IT-based projects.  Taking some of the lessons from “Crash”, these are the best  things about the new customs project:

  • It’s designed to be simple to use – a rarity for a government IT system. Last year HMRC reduced the number of system features it plans to implement from 968 to 519. It considered that there were many duplicated and redundant features listed in its programme backlog.
  • The SAFe agile methodology HMRC is using is supposed to help organisations implement large-scale, business-critical systems in the shortest possible time.
  • HMRC is directly managing the technical development and is carrying out this work using its own resources, independent contractors and the resources of its government technology company, RCDTS. Last year it had about 200 people working on the IT programme.

These are the potentially bad things:

  • It’s not HMRC’s fault but it doesn’t know how much work is going to be involved because talks over the post-Brexit customs regime are ongoing.
  • It’s accepted in IT project management that a big bang go-live is not a good idea. The new Customs Declaration Service is due to go live in January 2019, three months before Britain is due to leave the EU. CHIEF system was commissioned from BT in 1989 and its scheduled go-live was delayed by two years. Could CDS be delayed by two years as well? In pre-live trials CHIEF rejected hundreds of test customs declarations for no obvious reason.
  • The new service will use, at its core,  commercially available software (from IBM) to manage customs declarations and software (from European Dynamics) to calculate tariffs. The use of software packages is a good idea – but not if they need large-scale modification.  Tampering with proven packages is a much riskier strategy than developing software from scratch.  The new system will need to integrate with other HMRC systems and a range of third-party systems. It will need to provide information to 85 systems across 26 other government bodies.
  • If a software package works well in another country it almost certainly won’t work when deployed by the UK government. Core software in the new system uses a customs declaration management component that works well in the Netherlands but is not integrated with other systems, as it would be required to do in HMRC, and handles only 14 million declarations each year.
  • The IBM component has been tested in laboratory conditions to cope with 180 million declarations, but the UK may need to process 255 million declarations each year.
  • Testing software in laboratory conditions will give you little idea of whether it will work in the field. This was one of the costly lessons from the NHS IT programme NPfIT.
  • The National Audit Office said in a report last year that HMRC’s contingency plans were under-developed and that there were “significant gaps in staff resources”.


HMRC has an impressive new CIO Jackie Wright but whether she will have the freedom to work within Whitehall’s restrictive practices is uncertain. It seems that the more talented the CIO the more they’re made to feel like outsiders by senior civil servants who haven’t worked in the private sector.  It’s a pity that some of the best CIOs don’t usually last long in Whitehall.

Meanwhile HMRC’s top civil servants and IT specialists seem to be confident that CDS, the new customs system, will work on time.  Their confidence is not reassuring.  Ministers and civil servants publicly and repeatedly expressed confidence that Universal Credit would be fully rolled by the end of 2017. Now it’s running five years late.  The NHS IT programme NPfIT was to have been rolled out by 2015.  By 2010 it was dismantled as hopeless.

With some important exceptions, Whitehall’s track record on IT-related projects is poor – and that’s when what is needed is known. Brexit is still being negotiated. How can anyone build a new bridge when you’re not sure how long it’ll need to be and what the many and varied external stresses will be?

If the new or existing systems cannot cope with customs declarations after Brexit it may not be the fault of HMRC. But that’ll be little comfort for the hundreds of thousands of traders whose businesses rely, in part, on a speedy and efficient customs service.

FT article – UK companies nervous over deadline for new Customs system

Judge in Post Office Horizon case calls for a “change of attitude”

By Tony Collins

The Law Society Gazette reports that the High Court judge in the Post Office Horizon case has called for a “change of attitude”.

At a case management conference, the judge Sir Peter Fraser listed some of the problems already reported during the group litigation:

  • Failure to lodge required documents with the court
  • Refusing to disclose obviously relevant documents
  • Threatening ‘pointless’ interlocutory skirmishes.
  • Failure to respond to directions for two months
  • Failure to even consider e-disclosure questionnaires

The case involves a class action – called a Group Litigation Order – against the Post Office brought by more than 500 mostly sub-postmasters.

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance seeks damages related to the introduction of the Horizon computer system about  17 years ago, which is alleged to have caused financial distress and in some cases bankruptcy.

According to the Law Society Gazette, the judge said the behaviour of legal advisers in the case “simply does not begin to qualify as either cost-effective, efficient, or being in accordance with the over-riding objective”. He added,

“A fundamental change of attitude by the legal advisers involved in this group litigation is required. A failure to heed this warning will result in draconian costs orders.”

The court has heard of problems trying to establish a timetable for the litigation. The claimants sought a substantive hearing for October 2018, while the Post Office argued the case could be managed for another entire year without any substantive hearing being fixed. Under this proposal, the hearing would not happen until at least 2019.

Fraser noted that to describe this approach as ‘leisurely, dilatory and unacceptable in the modern judicial system would be a considerable understatement’.

The day after a trial was ordered for November 2018, the Post Office asked for a change because its leading counsel already had a commitment at the Companies Court.

The judge suggested it was a ‘clear case of the tail wagging the dog’ if clerks were allowed to dictate hearing date. He said there was reasonable notice to arrange for a replacement counsel.

Fraser added: ‘Fixing hearings in this group litigation around the diaries of busy counsel, rather than their fixing their diaries around this case, is in my judgment fundamentally the wrong approach.’


It appears that the judge did not single out the claimants or the Post Office as the main target for his irritation. He was impartial. But his no-nonsense approach might have surprised some at the Post Office.

The Post Office is familiar with control. When the Horizon system has shown a shortfall in the accounts of a local branch, the Post Office has required the sub-postmasters to pay whatever amount is shown, in order to return the balance to zero.

Even when paying the shown amount has led to bankruptcy and destruction of the family life of the sub-postmaster, the Post Office has pursued the case.

It has had control.

It supplied the contract that sub-postmasters signed; it supplied the Horizon branch accounting system; it required payment of what the system showed as a deficit; it investigated complaints by sub-postmasters that the shown deficits might have been incorrect;  it was able to decide what information to release or withhold – the “known errors” Horizon log being one piece of information not disclosed – and it was the prosecuting authority.

It has also been free to rebut public criticisms, as when BBC’s Panorama and forensic accountants Second Sight focused on the concerns of sub-postmasters.

Now it’s a High Court judge who is questioning, among other things, a failure to lodge required documents with the court and refusing a to disclose obviously relevant documents.

The judge’s comments are refreshing. Since 2009, when Computer Weekly first reported on the concerns of sub-postmasters, control has been one-sided.

Now at last it is on an even keel.

We hope the Post Office will reappraise whether it should be using public funds at all to fight the case.

If the case does drag on for years – postponing a judicial decision – who will benefit? Certainly not the sub-postmasters.

Law Society Gazette article

Has goodnewspeak gone too far when a mother whose allowance was blocked dies?

By Tony Collins

Yesterday’s post on goodnewspeak mentioned that officials at the Department for Work and Pensions had been celebrating the rollout of Universal Credit, not obviously mindful of the problems and delays in payments and the fact that some failed claimants had been on the brink of suicide.

Now Metro has reported that a 38 year-old mother of four who had mental health problems and an eating disorder died cold and alone after her benefits were cut because she was too ill to attend an Employment Support Allowance meeting.

Elaine Morrall was found dead in her home wearing a coat and scarf, her family said.  She’d had her benefits stopped because she failed to attend a meeting while in a hospital intensive care unit, they said.

Her family say wouldn’t put her heating on, because of the cost, until her children arrived home from school. The dead woman’s mother Linda Morrall blamed the Department of Work and Pensions for her death.

In an open letter on Facebook, Linda Morrall wrote: [My daughter] died on the afternoon of 2 November 2017 at home on her own … in the cold with her coat & scarf on…”

He daughter, she said, was in and out of intensive care but was “deemed not ill enough for ESA”. She had her benefits stopped numerous times, which in turn stopped her housing benefit. Being in intensive care was deemed insufficient reason for failing to attend a Universal Credit interview, said Linda Morrall.

“I went to the job centre to inform them that she couldn’t attend. But benefits stopped again.” Her daughter was due to go to court on Monday. “Is being dead now enough reason [not to attend court],” said Linda Morrall.  “How many people have got to die before this government realises they are killing vulnerable people?”

A spokesperson for the DWP told Metro, ‘Our thoughts are with Ms Morrall’s family at this difficult time. We understand that people can’t always attend appointments, which is why we will re-arrange alternative times.

“Assessment decisions are made with consideration of all the information provided, including supporting evidence from a GP or medical specialist.

“Anyone who disagrees with a decision can appeal.”

Metro article

Goodnewspeak and its Orwellian dark side

Goodnewspeak and its Orwellian dark side

By Tony Collins

Orwell made no mention of goodnewspeak. But maybe today it’s an increasingly popular descendant of  Newspeak – a language devised by Orwell to show how the State could use words and phrases to limit thought.

This week, as a statue of Orwell was unveiled outside the BBC, a local council in Sussex made an announcement that was a fine example of goodnewspeak.

This was Horsham District Council’s way of not saying that it was scrapping weekly rubbish collections.

This was the benign side of goodnewspeak. The dark side is a growing acceptance in Whitehall, local authorities and the wider public sector that nothing negative can be thought of let alone expressed at work.

This suppression of negative thoughts means that the rollout of Universal Credit can be said officially to be going well and can be speeded up  despite the clamour from outsiders, including a former Prime Minister (John Major), for a rethink to consider the problems and delays.

[Labour MP Frank Field said last month that the DWP was withholding bad news on Universal Credit.]

It means that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy can continue to praise all aspects of its smart meters rollout while its officials keep silent on the fact that the obsolescent smart meters now being installed do not work properly when the householder switches supplier.

It means that council employees can think only good about their major IT suppliers – and trust them with the council’s finances as at Barnet council.

[Nobody at Barnet council has pointed out the potential for a conflict of interest in having outsourcing supplier Capita reporting on the council’s finances while having a financial interest in those finances. It took a local blogger Mr Reasonable to make the point.]

Goodnewspeak can also mean that public servants do their best, within the law, to avoid outside scrutiny that could otherwise lead to criticism, as at Lambeth council.

Last month Private Eye reported the results of a “People’s Audit” in which local residents asked questions and scrutinised the authority’s accounts. The audit found that:

 – The number of managers earning between £50,000 and £150,000 has increased by 88, at a cost of more than £5.5m year.
-Spending on Lambeth’s new town hall has gone from a projected £50m to £140m.
– The council “invested” a total of £57,000 on its public libraries last year – closing three of them – while spending £13m on corporate office accommodation.
-£10.3m was spent making people redundant.

These disclosures (and there are many more of them) raise the question of what Lambeth is doing to dispel the impression that it manages public money badly and that its decisions could be routine in the world of local authorities.

Lambeth council’s reaction to the audit was to denounce it and issue its own goodnewspeak statement; and it is considering a proposal to lobby the government to allow councils to ban such People’s Audits in future.

Lambeth’s website, incidentally, is entitled “Love Lambeth”. Which, perhaps, shows that its leaders have, at least, a deep sense of irony.


The following lists of announcements on the websites of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Transport are examples of how goodnewspeak manifests itself in Whitehall:

And the Department of Transport’s website:

Ministry of Truth

Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four of the Ministry of Truth whose expertise was lying, the Ministry of Peace which organised wars and the Ministry of Plenty which rationed food.

Some of the Party’s slogans were:

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

And Orwell, whose wife worked at the Ministry of Information at Senate House, London (Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth) said,

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”


Of course goodnewspeak doesn’t exist as a policy anywhere. But its practice is all-pervasive in the public sector. And it seems to change the way people think when they’re at work.

It blocks out any view other than the official line.

In Nineteen Eight-four, Orwell created “Newspeak” as a language of the Party to coerce the public to shape their thoughts around the State’s beliefs. Its much-reduced vocabulary stopped people conceiving of any other point of view.

Not using Newspeak was a thoughtcrime. The Party advocated Duckspeak – to speak without thinking – literally quack like a duck.

Has this already happened in a minor way at Barnet? A council document on the benefits of its outsourcing policies was peppered with abstractions that could have been constructed by software-driven random-phrase generators:

“Ahead of the game”
“Top to bottom organisational restructure”
“Flexibility to meet future challenges whilst ensuring we provide excellent services to residents today.”
“Root of our success”
“New solutions to complex problems”
“Pioneering partnerships”
“Investing for the future”
“Protect what makes Barnet such a great place to live”
“Increasing resident satisfaction”
“Paying dividends”
“Prepared for the future”
“Great strides”
“A radical, ‘whole place’ approach to designing and providing services”
“We have not been backwards in coming forwards”
“Pursuing alternatives to the norm”
“Vision into reality”
“Frame our future strategic direction”
“Future Shape”
“Drivers for change”
“Genuine innovation in Local Government”
“Bold in its decision making”
“Forward looking change strategy”
“A new relationship with citizens”
“A one public sector approach”
“A relentless drive for efficiency”
“Focus on stimulating the market”
“Best in class’ range of tradable services to win and deliver work for other authorities.”
‘Form follows function’.
“Clear roles and responsibilities”
“An internal escalation model”
“Renewed focus on improving engagement”
“Increasing transparency, and developing trust”
“Connect with people and build relationships of trust”
“A steep demand line to climb”

Dark side

One worrying consequence is that Whitehall civil servants and public servants and ruling councillors at, say Barnet and Somerset councils (and even at Cornwall), made the assumption that their IT suppliers shared the public sector’s goodnewspeak philosophy.

But suppliers are commercially savvy. They don’t exist purely to serve the public. They have to make a profit or they risk insolvency.

For years, goodnewspeak at Somerset County Council led to officers and councillors regularly praising the successes of a joint venture with IBM while covering up the problems and losses, in part by routine refusals of FOI requests.

Goodnewspeak at Liverpool Council meant that its officials had nothing but praise for BT when they ended a joint venture in 2015. They said that ending the joint venture would save £30m. But the joint venture itself was supposed to have saved tens of millions.

Somerset County Council made a similar good news announcement when it terminated its joint venture Southwest One with IBM.

Such announcements are consistent with Newspeak’s “Doublethink” – the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.


Outsiders can find goodnewspeak shocking. The Daily Mirror reported on how the DWP celebrated the rollout of Universal Credit at Hove, Sussex, with a cake. Were managers mindful of the fact that some failed UC claimants have been driven to the brink of suicide?


Francis Maude, when minister for the Cabinet Office, was almost universally disliked in the civil service. He was an outsider who did not accept the Whitehall culture.  Even though he believed the UK had the best civil service in the world, he did not always show it.

He tried to reduce Whitehall spending on IT projects and programmes that could not be justified. He spoke an IT supplier oligopoly.

Now he has left government, most of his civil service reforms (apart from the Government Digital Service) have settled back to how they were before he arrived in 2010.

In a speech last month, Maude spoke of a “distressing” disillusionment with the civil service culture. He said:

“Based on my experience as a Minister in the eighties and early nineties my expectations (of the civil service) were high. And the disillusionment was steep and distressing.

“It remains my view that we have some of the  very best civil servants in the world … But the Civil Service as an institution is deeply flawed, and in urgent need of radical reform.

” And it is civil servants themselves, especially the younger ones, who are most frustrated by the Service and its culture and practices.”

World’s best civil service

He added that, as the new minister responsible for the civil service, every draft speech or article presented to him started: ‘The British Civil Service is the best in the world.’

But complaints by ministers in all parties about the lack of institutional capability, inefficiency and failed implementation were legion, he said.

“When we queried the evidential basis for this assertion, it turned out that the only relevant assessment was a World Bank ranking for ‘government effectiveness’, in which the UK ranked number 16.”

Speaking the unsaid

Perhaps more than any former minister, Maude has expertly summarised the civil service culture but in a way that suggests it’s unredeemable.

“I and others have observed that all too often the first reaction of the Civil Service when something wrong is discovered is either to cover it up or to find a scapegoat, often someone who is not a career civil servant and who is considered dispensable.
“There seems to be an absolute determination to avoid any evidence that the permanent Civil Service is capable of failure.
“Another indicator is that if a Minister decides that a Civil Service leader is not equipped for his or her task, this has to be dressed up as “a breakdown in the relationship”, with the unspoken suggestion that this is at least as much the fault of the Minister as of the civil servant.
“It can never be admitted that the mandarin was inadequate in any way.
“When I suggested that there might be room for improvement, the distinguished former Civil Service Head, Lord Butler, accused me of a failure of leadership. Actually the leadership failure is to pretend that all is well when no one, even civil servants themselves, really believes that.

The good news

All is not lost – thanks to a vibrant and investigative local press in some areas and resident auditors such as Mr Reasonable, Mrs Angry, David Orr, Andrew Rowson and the people’s auditors in Lambeth.

Along with the National Audit Office and some MPs, these resident auditors are the only effective check on goodnewspeak. They are reminder to complacent officialdom that it cannot always hide behind its barrier of unaccountability.

Long may these dogged protectors of the public interest continue to highlight financial mismanagement, excess and self-indulgent,wasteful decisions.

Earlier this year Nineteen Eight-Four hit the No 1 spot in Amazon’s book sales chart.

Perhaps copies were being scooped up by shortlisted candidates for top public sector jobs as vital homework before falling in with the culture at their interviews.


Outside the BBC, Orwell’s new statute is inscribed with a quotation from a proposed preface to Animal Farm that was never used:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Thank you for David Orr, one of the dogged local resident auditors referred to above, for drawing my attention to some of the articles mentioned in this post.

DWP good news announcements


Whitewashing history in education


Capita under fire again over GP support contract – but NHS England praises “improvements”

By Tony Collins

Hundreds of trainee GPs have not received their salaries from Capita, which is under contract to pay them, reports The Guardian.

Some of the trainees have applied for emergency funds from The Cameron Fund, a charity for the prevention of hardship among GPs and their dependents.

Capita administers training grants for GPs under its wide-ranging £1bn contract with NHS England to provide primary care services.

In November 2016 the then Health minister Nicola Blackwood described failings on Capita’s GP support contract as “entirely unacceptable”. 

She said Capita had inadequately prepared for delivering a “complex transition”.

In response,  Capita said it adding the full-time equivalent of 500 extra staff on the contract.

But in February 2017, after continuing complaints,  the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would be prepared to end Capita’s contract if necessary.

Since then, though, NHS England has praised “improvements” in the contract, according to Pulse.

Yesterday The Guardian reported extracts from a letter the British Medical Association sent to NHS England on 30 October 2017.

It said some GP practices were “having to pay trainees out of already overstretched practice budgets, or trainees are going months without being paid if the practice cannot cover the shortfall”.

Capita confirmed it had outstanding payments to some trainee GPs but was unable to say how many it is responsible for paying, or how many it has not paid.

It said that it had not received all the information it needed to pay salaries from the relevant employers. A Capita spokesperson told The Guardian that the problems were an inevitable part of “a major transformation project to modernise a localised and unstandardised service”.

It added: “We have made significant investment to deliver improvements and these have been recognised by NHS England and demonstrated through improved service performance and improved customer satisfaction.”

The Cameron Fund’s treasurer Dr David Wrigley described the outsourcing of GP support services as a “botched privatisation”.

“NHS England has commissioned out what was a very efficient service run within the NHS, and now Capita runs this contract in what I’d call another botched privatisation.”

One trainee GP went unpaid two consecutive months.  At the end of October she posted on a private message board for GPs: “Anyone know of how I access hardship funds (quickly) to feed children/pay nursery/mortgage (quickly)?”

Her surgery gave her a loan last month to tide her over but did not have enough surplus funds to do the same thing again.

She said that in the last 24 hours partners have stepped forward and have all taken a pay cut to provide a loan “to get me through the month as they were worried about my family”.

An NHS England spokesperson said it was “holding Capita’s feet to the fire on needed improvements”.

It added: “In the meantime, the lead employer for Health Education England or the GP practice are responsible for paying their GP trainee salaries and are subsequently reimbursed for this. Backlogs are being prioritised by Capita.”

The BMA’s letter to the NHS chief executive Simon Stevens criticises Capita.

“We are disappointed at the lack of progress that has been made … These issues have been ongoing since NHS England commissioned Capita … and it is unacceptable that more progress has not been made to getting these resolved …

Wrigley wants the House of Commons’ public accounts committee to investigate the contract.

“NHS England have known about this for a while and the BMA has been putting constant pressure on, and it’s all promises that it’ll get better but it doesn’t.”

New systems for cervical screening and GP payments and pensions that are also contracted out to Capita are due to go live next July. The BMA has told NHS England that it has “no confidence” in Capita’s ability to deliver the services.


It’s possible to have some sympathy for Capita which has the daunting task of trying to standardize a wide range of systems for supporting disparate GP support services.

But, as Campiagn4Change has reported many times on Barnet Council’s Capita outsourcing contract, it can be difficult if not impossible to make huge savings in the cost of running services (£40m in the case of the GP support contract), deliver an IT-based transformation based on new investment and provide a healthy profit for the supplier’s shareholders while at the same time making internal efficiency savings.

Capita’s share price is relatively low and under continuing pressure but is holding up reasonably well given the company’s varied problems.

Still, we wonder whether the company can afford to put large sums into sorting out problems on the GP support contract, at Barnet Council and on other well-publicised contracts?

The MoD has ended a Capita contract early, the company faces litigation from the Co-op and its staff are staging nine days of strikes over pensions.

Who’s to blame?

If anyone is to blame in this NHS saga it is NHS England for not fully understanding the scale and complexity of the challenges when it outsourced to Capita.

The first rule of outsourcing is: Don’t outsource a problem.

Doctors warned NHS England against signing the contract. Under financial pressure to do so – it needed the promised savings  – NHS England’s public servants signed the deal.

Those public servants will not be held accountable for their decision. In which case, what’s to stop public and civil servants making the wrong decisions time and again?

Two further questions:

Is NHS England too close to Capita to see the faults?

Do public servants have a vested interest in not criticising their outsourcing suppliers, in case opprobrium falls on both parties? 

Thank you to Zara Pradyer for drawing my attention to the Guardian article.

Hundreds of trainee GPs facing hardship as outsourcing firm Capita fails to pay – The Guardian.


A proposed Bill and charter that could change the face of Whitehall IT and save billions

By Tony Collins

A government-commissioned review yesterday backed a Bill that could, if enacted and applied to Whitehall generally, prevent billions of pounds being lost on wasteful projects.

The Public Authority Accountability Bill – known informally as the Hillsborough Law – would establish an offence of intentionally or recklessly misleading the public, media or court proceedings.

It would also impose a legal requirement on public authorities to act with candour, transparency and frankness when things go wrong.

Although the Bill was a reaction, in part, to the cover up by public authorities of their failings in the light of Hillsborough, it could, if enacted, deter public authorities from covering up failings generally – including on major IT programmes.

For decades public authorities have had the freedom – unrestricted by any legislation – to cover up failures and issue misleading statements to the public, Parliament and the media.

In the IT sphere, early problems with the Universal Credit IT programme were kept secret and misleadingly positive statements issued. The National Audit Office later criticised a “good news” culture on the Universal Credit programme.

And still the DWP is fighting to block the disclosure of five project assessment reviews that were carried out on the Universal Credit IT programme between 2012 and 2015.

It could be argued that billions of pounds lost on the NPfIT – the National Programme for IT in the NHS – would have been avoided if the Department of Health had been open and candid at the start of the programme about the programme’s impractically ambitious aims, timescales and budgets.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently keeping secret its progress reports on the £111bn smart meters rollout – which independent experts have said is a failing programme.  The department routinely issues positive statements to the media on the robust state of the programme.

The Public Authority Accountability Bill was drafted by lawyers who had been involved with representing bereaved Hillsborough families. It is aimed mainly at government inquiries, court proceedings and investigations into lapses of public services.

But it would also enshrine into law a duty on public authorities, public servants, officials and others to act within their powers with “transparency, candour and frankness”.

Lawyers who drafted the Bill refer on their website to “institutional defensiveness and a culture of denial” when things go wrong. They say,

“In 2017 we expect public authorities and individuals acting as public servants to be truthful and act with candour. Unfortunately, repeated examples have shown us that this is not generally the case.

“Instead of acting in the public interest by telling the truth, public authorities have tended to according to narrow organisational and individual motives by trying to cover up faults and deny responsibility …”

Backing for the Bill came yesterday from a 117-page report on the Hillsborough disaster by Bishop James Jones. The government commissioned him to produce a report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families so that their “perspective is not lost”.

Jones’ impressive report refers to institutions that “closed ranks, refused to disclose information, used public money to defend its interests and acted in a way that was both intimidating and oppressive”

His report refers to public bodies in general when it points to a “cultural condition” and “mindset” that features an “instinctive prioritisation of the reputation of an organisation over the citizen’s right to expect people to be held to account for their actions”. This, says the report, “represents a barrier to real accountability”.

It adds,

“As a cultural condition, this mindset is not automatically changed, still less dislodged, by changes in policies or processes. What is needed is a change in attitude, culture, heart and mind.”

The report urges leaders of “all public bodies” to make a commitment to cultural change by publicly signing a new charter.

The charter commits public bodies to:

  •  Place the public interest above its own reputation.
  • Approach forms of scrutiny with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts.
  • Learn from the findings of external scrutiny and from past mistakes.
  • Avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where the organisation has fallen short.
  • When falling short, apologise straightforwardly and genuinely.
  • Not knowingly mislead the public or the media.

The report says that institutional defensiveness and a culture of denial are “endemic amongst public institutions as has been demonstrated not only by the Hillsborough cover up but countless other examples.”

Stuart Hamilton, son of Roy Hamilton who died at Hillsborough, is quoted in the report as saying,

“Police, officials and civil servants should have a duty of revealing the full facts and not merely selecting some truths to reveal but not others. Not lying or not misleading is simply not good enough. Without this, future disasters cannot be averted and appropriate policies and procedures cannot be developed to protect society.

“Such selective revealing of information also results in the delay of justice to the point where it cannot be served”.

He added,

“I believe that without a change not only in the law but also in the mindset of the public authorities (which a law can encourage) then very little exists to stop the post-event actions happening again.”

IT-enabled projects

Whitehall departments and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority publish their own narratives on the progress on major IT-enabled projects and programmes such as Universal Credit and smart meters.

But their source reports aren’t published.

Early disclosure of failings could have prevented hundreds of millions of pounds being lost on FireControl project, BBC’s Digital Media Initiative, the Home Office Raytheon e-borders and C-Nomis national offender management information projects and the Rural Payments Agency’s CAP delivery programme (which, alone, contributed to EU penalties of about £600m).


Yesterday’s beautifully-crafted report into the Hillsborough disaster – entitled “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power” – is published on the website.

It has nothing to do with IT-enabled projects and programmes. But, in an unintentional way, it sums up a public sector culture that has afflicted nearly every Whitehall IT-based project failure in the last 25 years.

A culture of denial is not merely prevalent today; it is pervasive. All Whitehall departments keep quiet about reports on their failings. It is “normal” for departments to issue misleadingly positive statements to the media about progress on their programmes.

The statements are not lies. They deploy facts selectively, in a way that covers up failings. That’s the Whitehall culture. That’s what departments are expected to do.

According to Bishop Jones’ Hillsborough report, one senior policeman told bereaved families that he was not obliged to reveal the contents of his reports. He could bury them in his garden if he wished.

It’s the same with government departments. There is no legal duty to keep programme reports, still less any requirement to publish them.

If Bishop Jones’ charter is signed by leaders of public authorities including government departments, and Andy Burnham’s Bill becomes law,  the requirement for candour and transparency could mean that IT programme progress reports are made available routinely.

If this happened – a big if – senior public officials would have to think twice before risking billions of pounds on a scheme that held out the prospect of being fun to work on but which they knew had little chance of success within the proposed timescales, scope and budget.

It’s largely because of in-built secrecy that the impossibly impractical NPfIT was allowed to get underway. Billions of pounds was wasted.

Some may say that the last thing ministers and their permanent secretaries will want is the public, media and MPs being able to scrutinise what is really happening on, say, a new customs IT project to handle imports and exports after Brexit.

But the anger over the poor behaviour of public authorities after Hillsborough means that the Bill has an outside chance of eventually becoming law. Meanwhile public sector leaders could seriously consider signing Jones’ charter.

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 (On Liberty and The Subjection of Women) that the “only stimulus which can keep the ability of the [public] body itself up to a high standard is liability to the watchful criticism of equal ability outside the body”.