Category Archives: Agile

Long may Government Digital Service bring about “creative tension” in Whitehall

By Tony Collins

In a report published yesterday (25 October 2016) the National Audit Office said it will shortly be undertaking a review of the Government Digital Service.

It will study GDS’s “achievements and the  challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is  supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government”.

It mentioned its review of GDS in a report on Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. Among other things the report looked at the IT that is supposed to support payments of farmer subsidies.

With GDS’s help Defra’s Rural Payments Agency adopted an agile approach to paying subsidies but the two parties fell out and GDS stopped working on the programme.

The NAO’s report suggests that the Rural Payments Agency is glad to be rid of GDS.

“The GDS no longer has significant involvement in the Programme and the Rural Payments Agency told us it has not sought any further support.

“Its distance from the Programme has allowed the Department [DEFRA] to shift from a focus on agile and digital delivery to an approach that combines agile software development with programme management and governance arrangements with which the RPA is more familiar.”

Government Computing has a good analysis of the NAO report.

Mandarin power

Francis Maude, meanwhile, has warned that the work of GDS, which has helped to “stop the wrong things happening”, is being undermined, reports Public Finance.

Maude, who set up GDS in 2011, blamed mandarins who were trying to reassert their autonomy.

Maude said that developments such  as controls on spending and improvements in service standard assessment processes do not happen spontaneously.

“You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.

“Just at the moment when the UK has just recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well,” said Maude.

“This is, for me, a pity – there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”

He said there was a “continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening.”

Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said any dismantling of GDS illustrated “government’s extraordinary propensity to self harm”.

He said it was very odd that GDS was being “scaled back and unwound at just the moment that it appears to be successful”.

In August 2016 Maude warned that it would be a “black day” if GDS were dismantled.

That said, GDS has its critics.


A clash of cultures between GDS and the Rural Payments Agency made it almost inevitable that the two sides would fall out. This is also what happened between GDS and the DWP.

Agile-wedded idealists?

If some senior civil servants had their way, particularly at the DWP, GDS would slowly lose its identity and its staff gradually dispersed throughout the civil and public services.

Clearly civil servants at the Rural Payments Agency looked at GDS  as comprising mostly agile-wedded idealists obsessed with technological innovation rather than paying subsidies to farmers.

But long before the arrival of GDS, the RPA had a history of IT failure. Perhaps the RPA would rather be left on its own to fail without GDS’s help?

The latest NAO report is a little more positive about the RPA’s achievements than some past reports.

But this week’s Farmers Weekly, which has reported extensively on delays of correct subsidy payments to farmers, quoted the National Farmers Union as saying that problems from 2015 claims were still far from over.

The future of GDS?

How easy is it for senior officials in any large central department to work closely with the Government Digital Service?

Departments – particularly HMRC and the DWP – cherish their autonomy, so GDS is seen by some permanent secretaries as an unnecessary interference.

And when it comes to the IT of central departments, GDS has no clear role.

But GDS’s creation was a good idea. Without it, departments will be left alone to continue IT spending on a vast scale.

GDS’s admittedly brief challenge at the Rural Payments Agency and at the DWP on the Universal Credit IT programme has, arguably, slightly modernised IT approaches within those departments.

And even if the costs of big Whitehall IT contracts have not changed much, there’s no doubt that the public face of government IT has improved noticeably (eg using digital passport photos for online driving licence renewals),

The more its people are resented by high-ranking civil servants, the better job GDS is probably doing on behalf of the public.

Consensus can sometimes mean complacency. Long may GDS’s relationship with departments be characterised by a state of creative, noble tension.

National Audit Office report “Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme”.

GDS’s departure from CAP programme leads RPA to ditch agile approach – Government Computing

Is Sir Humphrey trying to kill off GDS and the innovations it stands for?


Excellent reports on lessons from Universal Credit IT project published today – but who’s listening?

By Tony Collins

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening.”

The Institute for Government has today published one of the most incisive – and revelatory – reports ever produced on a big government IT project.

It concludes that the Universal Credit IT programme may now be in recovery after a disastrous start, but recovery does not mean recovered. Much could yet floor the programme, which is due to be complete in 2022.

The Institute’s main report is written by Nick Timmins, a former Financial Times journalist, who has written many articles on failed publicly-funded IT-based projects.

His invaluable report, “Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?” – includes interviews with David Pitchford, a key figure in the Universal Credit programme, and Howard Shiplee who led the Universal Credit project.

Timmins also spoke to insiders, including DWP directors, who are not named, and the former secretary of state at the Department for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP’s welfare reform minster Lord Freud.

Separately the Institute has published a shorter report “Learning the lessons from Universal Credit which picks out from Timmins’ findings five “critical” lessons for future government projects. This report, too, is clear and jargon-free.

Much of the information on the Universal Credit IT programme in the Timmins report is new. It gives insights, for instance, into the positions of Universal Credit’s major suppliers HP, IBM, Accenture.

It also unearths what can be seen, in retrospect, to be a series of self-destructive decisions and manoeuvres by the Department for Work and Pensions.

But the main lessons in the report – such as an institutional and political inability to face up to or hear bad news – are not new, which raises the question of whether any of the lessons will be heeded by future government leaders – ministers and civil servants – given that Whitehall departments have been making the same mistakes, or similar ones, for decades?

DWP culture of suppressing any bad news continues

Indeed, even as the reports lament a lack of honesty over discussing or even mentioning problems – a “culture of denial” – Lord Freud, the minister in charge of welfare reform, is endorsing FOI refusals to publish the latest risk registers, project assessment reviews and other Universal Credit reports kept by the Department for Work and Pensions.

More than once Timmins expresses his surprise at the lack of information about the programme that is in the public domain. In the “acknowledgements” section at the back of his report Timmins says,

“Drafts of this study were read at various stages by many of the interviewees, and there remained disputes not just about interpretation but also, from some of them, about facts.

“Some of that might be resolvable by access to the huge welter of documents around Universal Credit that are not in the public domain. But that, by definition, is not possible at this stage.”

Churn of project leaders continues

Timmins and the Institute warn about the “churn” of project leaders, and the need for stable top jobs.

But even as the Institute’s reports were being finalised HMRC was losing its much respected chief digital officer Mark Dearnley, who has been in charge of what is arguably the department’s riskiest-ever IT-related programme, to transfer of legacy systems to multiple suppliers as part of the dismantling of the £8bn “Aspire” outourcing venture with Capgemini.

Single biggest cause of Universal Credit’s bad start?

Insiders told Timmins that the fraught start of Universal Credit might have been avoided if Terry Moran had been left as a “star” senior responsible owner of the programme. But Moran was given two jobs and ended up having a breakdown.

In January 2011, as the design and build on Universal Credit started, Terry Moran was given the job of senior responsible owner of the project but a few months later the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux took the “odd” decision to make Moran chief operating officer for the entire department as well. One director within the DWP told Timmins:

“Terry was a star. A real ‘can do’ civil servant. But he couldn’t say no to the twin posts. And the job was overwhelming.”

The director claimed that Iain Duncan Smith told Moran – a point denied by IDS – that if Universal Credit were to fail that would be a personal humiliation and one he was not prepared to contemplate. “That was very different from the usual ministerial joke that ‘failure is not an option’. The underlying message was that ‘I don’t want bad news’, almost in words of one syllable. And this was in a department whose default mode is not to bring bad news to the top. ‘We will handle ministers’ is the way the department operates…”

According to an insider, “Terry Moran being given the two jobs was against Iain’s instructions. Iain repeatedly asked Robert [Devereux] not to do this and Robert repeatedly gave him assurances that this would be okay” – an account IDS confirms. In September 2012, Moran was to have a breakdown that led to early retirement in March 2013. He recorded later for the mental health charity Time to Talk that “eventually, I took on more and more until the weight of my responsibilities and my ability to discharge them just grew too much for me”.

Timmins was told, “You cannot have someone running the biggest operational part of government [paying out £160bn of benefits a year] and devising Universal Credit. That was simply unsustainable,”

Timmins says in his report, “There remains a view among some former and current DWP civil servants that had that not happened (Moran being given two jobs), the programme would not have hit the trouble it did. ‘Had he been left solely with responsibility for UC [Universal Credit], I and others believe he could have delivered it, notwithstanding the huge challenges of the task,’ one says.”

Reviews of Universal IT “failed”

Timmins makes the point that reviews of Universal Credit by the Major Projects Authority failed to convey in clear enough language that the Universal Credit programme was in deep trouble.

“The [Major Projects Authority] report highlighted a lack of sufficient substantive action on the points raised in the March study. It raised ‘high’ levels of concern about much of the programme – ‘high’ being a lower level of concern than ‘critical’. But according to those who have seen the report, it did not yet say in words of one syllable that the programme was in deep trouble.”

Iain Duncan Smith told Timmins that the the Major Projects review process “failed me” by not warning early enough of fundamental problems. It was the ‘red team’ report that did that, he says, and its contents made grim reading when it landed at the end of July in 2012.

Train crash on the way

The MPA [Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority] reviewed the programme in March 2011. “MPA reports are not in the public domain. But it is clear that the first of these flagged up a string of issues that needed to be tackled …

” In June a member of the team developing the new government’s pan-government website – – was invited up to Warrington [base for the Universal Credit IT team] to give a presentation on how it was using an agile approach to do that.

“At the end of the presentation, according to one insider, a small number from the audience stayed behind, eyeing each other warily, but all wanting to talk. Most of them were freelancers working for the suppliers. ‘Their message,’ the insider says, ‘was that this was a train crash on the way’ – a message that was duly reported back to the Cabinet Office, but not, apparently, to the DWP and IDS.”

Scared to tell the truth

On another occasion when the Major Projects Authority visited the IT team at Warrington for the purposes of its review, the review team members decided that “to get to the truth they had to make people not scared to tell the truth”. So the MPA “did a lot of one-on-one interviews, assuring people that what they said would not be attributable. And under nearly every stone was chaos.

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening.

” There was one young lad from one of the suppliers who said: ‘Just don’t put this thing [Universal Credit] online. I am a public servant at heart. It is a complete security disaster.’

IBM, Accenture and HP

“Among those starting to be worried were the major suppliers – Accenture, HP and IBM. They started writing formal letters to the department.

‘Our message,’ according to one supplier, ‘was: ‘Look, this isn’t working. We’ll go on taking your money. But it isn’t going to work’.’ Stephen Brien [then expert adviser to IDS] says of those letters: ‘I don’t think Iain saw them at that time, and I certainly didn’t see them at the time.”

At one point “serious consideration was given to suing the suppliers but they had written their warning letters and it rapidly became clear that that was not an option”.

Howard Shiplee, former head of the project, told Timmins that he had asked himself ‘how it could be that a very large group of clever people drawn from the DWP IT department with deep experience of the development and operation of their own massive IT systems and leading industry IT suppliers had combined to get the entire process so very wrong? Equally, ‘how could another group of clever people [the GDS team] pass such damning judgement on this earlier work and at the stroke of a pen seek to write off millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money?’

Shiplee commissioned a review from PwC on the work carried out to date and discovered that the major suppliers “were genuinely concerned to have their work done properly, support DWP and recover their reputations”.

In addition, when funding had been blocked at the end of 2012, the suppliers “had not simply downed tools but had carried on development work for almost three months” as they ran down the large teams that had been working on it.

“As a result, they had completed the development for single claimants that was being used in the pathfinder and made considerable progress on claims for couples and families. And their work, the PwC evaluation said, was of good quality.”

On time?

When alarm bells finally started ringing around Whitehall that Universal Credit was in trouble,  IDS found himself under siege. Stephen Brien says IDS was having to battle with the Treasury to keep the funding going for the project. He had to demonstrate that the programme was on time and on budget.

‘The department wanted to support him in that, and didn’t tell him all the things that were going wrong. I found out about some of them, but I didn’t push as hard as I should have. And looking back, the MPA [Major Projects Authority] meetings and the MPA reports were all handled with a siege mentality. We all felt we had to stand shoulder to shoulder defending where we were and not really using them to ask: ‘Are we where we should be?’

‘As a result we were not helping ourselves, and we certainly were not helping others, including the MPA. But we did get to the stage between the end of 2011 and the spring of 2012 where we said: ‘Okay, let’s get a red team in with the time and space to do our own challenge.’”

The DWP’s “caste” system

A new IT team was created in Victoria Street, London – away from Warrington but outside the DWP’s Caxton Street headquarters. It started to take a genuinely agile approach to the new system. One of those involved told Timmins:

“It had all been hampered by this caste system in the department where there is a policy elite, then the operational people, and then the technical people below that.

“And you would say to the operational people: ‘Why have you not been screaming that this will never work?’ And they’d say: ‘Well, we’re being handed this piece of sh** and we are just going to have to make it work with workarounds, to deal with the fact that we don’t want people to starve. So we will have to work out our own processes, which the policy people will never see, and we will find a way to make it work.’

Twin-track approach

IBM, HP and Accenture built what’s now known as the “live” system which enabled Universal Credit to get underway, and claims to be made in jobcentres.

It uses, in part, the traditional “waterfall” approach and has cost hundreds of millions of pounds. In contrast there’s a separate in-house “digital” system that has cost less than £10m and is an “agile” project.

A key issue, Shiplee told Timmins, was that the new digital team “would not even discuss the preceding work done by the DWP and its IT suppliers”. The digital team had, he says, “a messiah-like approach that they were going to rebuild everything from scratch”.

Rather than write everything off, Shiplee wanted ideally to marry the “front-end” apps that the GDS/DWP team in Victoria Street was developing with the work already done. But “entrenched attitudes” made that impossible. The only sensible solution, he decided, was a “twin-track” approach.

“The Cabinet Office remained adamant that the DWP should simply switch to the new digital version – which it had now become clear, by late summer, would take far longer to build than they anticipated – telling the DWP that the problem was that using the original software would mean ‘creating a temporary service, and temporary will become permanent’.

“All of which led to the next big decision, which, to date, has been one of the defining ones. In November 2013, a mighty and fraught meeting of ministers and officials was convened. Pretty much everyone was there. The DWP ministers, Francis Maude (Cabinet Office minister), Oliver Letwin who was Cameron’s policy overlord, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the home civil service, plus a clutch of DWP officials including Robert Devereux and Howard Shiplee as the senior responsible owner along with Danny Alexander and Treasury representatives.

“The decision was whether to give up on the original build, or run a twin-track approach: in other words, to extend the use of the original build that was by now being used in just over a dozen offices – what became dubbed the ‘live’ service – before the new, and hopefully much more effective, digital approach was finished and on stream.

“It was a tough and far from pleasant meeting that is etched in the memories of those who were there…

“One of those present who favoured the twin-track approach says: There were voices for writing the whole of the original off. But that would have been too much for Robert Devereux [the DWP’s Permanent Secretary] and IDS.

” So the twin-track approach was settled on – writing a lot of the original IT down rather than simply writing it off. That, in fact, has had some advantages even if technically it was probably the wrong decision…

“It has, however, seen parts of the culture change that Universal Credit involves being rolled out into DWP offices as more have adopted Universal Credit, even if the IT still requires big workarounds.

“More and more offices, for example, have been using the new claimant commitment, which is itself an important part of Universal Credit. So it has been possible to train thousands of staff in that, and get more and more claimants used to it, while also providing feedback for the new build.”

Francis Maude was among those who objected to the twin-track approach, according to leaked minutes of the project oversight board at around this time.

Lord Freud told Timmins,

‘Francis was adamant that we should not go with the live system [that is, the original build]. He wanted to kill it. But we, the DWP, did not believe that the digital system would be ready on anything like the timescales they were talking about then …But I knew that if you killed the live system, you killed Universal Credit…”

In the end the twin-track approach was agreed by a majority. But the development of the ‘agile’ digital service was immediately hampered by a spat over how quickly staff from the GDS were to be withdrawn from the project.

Fury over National Audit Office report

In 2013 the National Audit Office published a report Universal Credit – early progress –  that, for the first time, brought details of the problems on the Universal Credit programme into the public domain. Timmins’ report says that IDS and Lord Freud were furious.

“IDS and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Lord Freud were furious about the NAO report; and thus highly defensive.”

IDS tried to present the findings of the National Audit Office as purely historical.

In November 2014, the NAO reported again on Universal Credit. It once more disclosed something that ministers had not announced – that the timetable had again been put back two years (which raises further questions about why Lord Freud continues to refuse FOI requests that would put into the public domain – and inform MPs – about project problems, risks and delays without waiting for an NAO report to be published)..

Danny Alexander “cut through” bureaucracy

During one period, the Treasury approval of cash became particularly acute. Lord Freud told Timmins:

“We faced double approvals. We had approval about any contract variation from the Cabinet Office and then approvals for the money separately from the Treasury.

“The Government Digital Service got impatient because they wanted to make sure that the department had the ability to build internally rather than going out to Accenture and IBM, who (sic) they hate.

“The approvals were ricocheting between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury and when we were trying to do rapid iteration. That was producing huge delays, which were undermining everything. So in the end Danny Alexander [Lib-dem MP who was chief secretary to the Treasury] said: ‘I will clear this on my own authority.’ And that was crucial. Danny cut through all of that.”

Optimism bias

So-called optimism bias – over-optimism – is “such a common cause of failure in both public and private projects that it seems quite remarkable that it needs restating. But it does – endlessly”.

Timmins says the original Universal Credit white paper – written long before the start of the programme – stated that it would involve “an IT development of moderate scale, which the Department for Work and Pensions and its suppliers are confident of handling within budget and timescale”.

David Pitchford told Timmins,

“One of the greatest adages I have been taught and have learnt over the years in terms of major projects is that hope is not a management tool. Hoping it is all going to come out all right doesn’t cut it with something of this magnitude.

“The importance of having a genuine diagnostic machine that creates recommendations that are mandatory just can’t be overstated. It just changes the whole outcome completely. As opposed to obfuscation and optimism bias being the basis of the reporting framework. It goes to a genuine understanding and knowledge of what is going on and what is going wrong.”

Sir Bob Kerslake, who also identified the ‘good news culture’ of the DWP as being a problem, told Timmins,

“All organisations should have that ability to be very tough about what is and isn’t working. The people at the top have rose-tinted specs. They always do. It goes with the territory.

And unless you are prepared to embrace people saying that ‘really, this is in a bad place’… I can think of points where I have done big projects where it was incredibly important that we delivered the unwelcome news of where we were on that project. But it saved me, and saved my career.”


Timmins makes good arguments for his claim that the Universal Credit programme may be in recovery – but not recovered – and that improvements have been made in governance to allow for decisions to be properly questioned.

But there is no evidence the DWP’s “good news” culture has changed. For instance the DWP says that more than 300,000 people are claiming Universal Credit but the figure has not been audited and it’s unclear whether claimants who have come off the benefit and returned to it – perhaps several times – are being double counted.

Timmins points out the many uncertainties that cloud the future of the Universal Credit programme  – how well the IT will work, whether policy changes will hit the programme, whether enough staff will remain in jobcentres, and whether the DWP will have good relations with local authorities that are key to the delivery of Universal Credit but are under their own stresses and strains with resourcing.

There are also concerns about what changes the Scots and Northern Irish may want under their devolved powers, and the risk that any ‘economic shock’ post the referendum pushes up the volume of claimants with which the DWP has to deal.

 Could Universal Credit fail for non-IT reasons?

Timmins says,

“In seeking to drive people to higher earnings and more independence from the benefits system, there will be more intrusion into and control over the lives of people who are in work than under the current benefits system. And there are those who believe that such an approach – sanctioning people who are already working – will prove to be political dynamite.”

The dire consequences of IT-related failure

It is also worth noting that Universal Credit raises the stakes for the DWP in terms of its payment performance, says Timmins.

“If a tax credit or a Jobseeker’s Allowance payment or any of the others in the group of six go awry, claimants are rarely left penniless in the sense that other payments – for example, Housing Benefit in the case of Jobseeker’s Allowance or tax credits, – continue.

“If a Universal Credit payment fails, then all the support from the state, other than Child Benefit or disability benefits not included within Universal Credit, disappears.”

This happened recently in Scotland when an IT failure left hundreds of families penniless. The DWP’s public response was to describe the failure in Scotland as “small-scale”.


What a report.

It is easy to see how much work has gone into it. Timmins has coupled his own knowledge of IT-related failure with a thorough investigation into what has gone wrong and what lessons can be learned.

That said it may make no difference. The Institute in its “lessons” report uses phrases such as “government needs to make sure…”. But governments change and new administrations have an abundance – usually a superfluity – of confidence and ambition. They regard learning lessons from the past as putting on brakes or “nay saying”. You have to get with the programme, or quit.

Lessons are always the same

There will always be top-level changes within the DWP. Austerity will always be a factor.  The culture of denial of bad news, over-optimism about what can be achieved by when and how easily it can be achieved, over-expectations of internal capability, over-expectation of what suppliers can deliver, embarking on a huge project without clearly or fully understanding what it will involve, not listening diligently to potential users and ridiculously short timescales are all well-known lessons.

So why do new governments keep repeating them?

When Universal Credit’s successor is started in say 2032, the same mistakes will probably be repeated and the Institute for Government, or its successor, will write another similar report on the lessons to be learned.

When Campaign4Change commented in 2013 that Universal Credit would probably not be delivered before 2020 at the earliest, it was an isolated voice. At the time, the DWP press office – and its ministers – were saying the project was on budget and “on time”.


The National Audit Office has highlighted similar lessons to those in the Timmins report, for example in NAO reports on the NPfIT – the NHS IT programme that was the world’s largest non-military IT scheme until it was dismantled in 2011. It was one of the world’s biggest IT disasters – and none of its lessons was learned on the Universal Credit programme.

The NPfIT had an anti-bad news culture. It did not talk enough to end users. It had ludicrous deadlines and ambitions. The politicians in charge kept changing, as did some of programme leaders. There was little if any effective internal or external challenge. By the time it was dismantled the NPfIT had lost billions.

What the Institute for Government could ask now is, with the emasculation of the Government Digital Service and the absence of a powerful Francis Maude figure, what will stop government departments including the DWP making exactly the mistakes the IfG identifies on big future IT-enabled programmes?

In future somebody needs the power to say that unless there is adequate internal and external challenge this programme must STOP – even if this means contradicting a secretary of state or a permanent secretary who have too much personal and emotional equity in the project to allow it to stop. That “somebody” used to be Francis Maude. Now he has no effective replacement.


It’s also worth noting in the Timmins report that everyone seems to be a victim, including the ministers. But who are perpetrators? Timmins tries to identify them. IDS does not come out the report smelling of roses. His passion for success proved a good and bad thing.

Whether the direction was forwards or backwards IDS  was the fuel that kept Universal Credit going.  On the other hand his passion made it impossible for civil servants to give him bad news – though Timmins raises questions about whether officials would have imparted bad news to any secretary of state, given the DWP’s culture.

Neither does the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux emerge particularly well from the report.

How it is possible for things to go so badly wrong with there being nobody to blame? The irony is that the only people to have suffered are the genuine innocents – the middle and senior managers who have most contributed to Universal Credit apparent recovery – people like Terry Moran.

Perhaps the Timmins report should be required reading among all involved in future major projects. Competence cannot be made mandatory. An understanding of the common mistakes can.

Thank you to FOI campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to the Institute’s Universal Credit reports.

Thanks also to IT projects professional John Slater – @AmateurFOI – who has kept me informed of his FOI requests for Universal Credit IT reports that the DWP habitually refuse. 

Update 18.00 6 September 2016

In a tweet today John Slater ( @AmateurFOI ) makes the important point that he asked the DWP and MPA whether either had held a “lessons learned” exercise in the light of the “reset” of the Universal Credit IT programme. The answer was no.

This perhaps reinforces the impression that the DWP is irredeemably complacent, which is not a good position from which to lead major IT projects in future.

Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?

Learning the lessons from Universal Credit


Is Sir Humphrey trying to kill off GDS and the innovations it stands for?

Tony Collins

After much progress in recent years, Government IT is at risk of going into reverse. But a return to ways of the past, and routine costly failures of big technology projects, is not inevitable.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see what has been happening at, and to, the Government Digital Service.

Much has been achieved by GDS. Some of its best work has been to encourage thousands of civil servants across government – mainly aged under 40 – to believe it’s possible to simplify their work, and do it better and more cheaply.

GDS is far from perfect but its philosophy when it makes mistakes is to fail cheaply. Its culture of always questioning, always challenging runs counter to Whitehall’s hierarchical traditions.

Since the creation of GDS it has become possible for the citizen to interact with government in ways that were not possible before. For example it’s possible to replace an old paper driving licence and update your address entirely online, once your photo has been digitised as part of, say, a (largely online) passport renewal.

trust-picIndeed the influence of GDS has been a breeze of fresh air blowing through fusty Whitehall corridors. A GDS rule is to put the interests of citizens, rather than the interests of departments and agencies, at the centre of its activities.

Weird hippies

But it is becoming clear that the old guard in Whitehall still see GDS people as “weird hippies”. That’s how some in government have regarded GDS people, according to former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

Something similar was said by Mike Bracken, former executive director of GDS. In a conversation last month with the Centre for Public Impact, Bracken said the civil service old guard saw GDS people as “insurgent, incoming rule-breakers”.

Maude and Bracken’s recent comments suggest that Sir Humphrey has an unshakeable belief that government administration is a smooth-running machine that needs the occasional service but no major repairs. GDS favours pervasive reform.


Maude created GDS in 2011. He was an ardent reformer of Government IT and the civil service. But since he left last year Sir Humphrey appears to be regaining the control that he ceded temporarily to Maude and GDS’s innovators. This is some of what has happened since Maude’s departure:

  • GDS has lost Mike Bracken its highly-regarded executive director. He has gone to the Co-op as CIO.
  • GDS has just lost Bracken’s successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain who has fanned the breeze of fresh air referred to above. Foreshew-Cain said in his blog in June 2016 that cultures and behaviours in central government are “years behind the rest of the world”. He said, “At GDS, we’re fortunate because we’re a relatively new organisation. We were able to build our own culture from scratch.”
  • Mark DearnleyHMRC is to lose its plain-speaking reformer Mark Dearnley. His continued role in replacing the department’s “Aspire” contract was seen by public accounts MPs as vitally important. Attempts to renew his three-year CIO contract when it expires in September 2016 appear to have failed, or perhaps have not been earnest enough.
  • The department whose introspective, defensive and secretive culture has remained largely intact since the days when it was called the Department for Social Security – and whose main systems have been run by the same big IT suppliers for decades – is gaining influence in the Government IT field in the post-Maude era.
  • Maude said in his Centre for Public Impact interview that some senior bureaucrats were capable of “sabotage” if they disapproved strongly of an externally-imposed development in their department – such as a Cabinet Office “shared service” initiative. Maude said.

“Things like shared services – we struggled getting departments to give up their shared services, even when there had been a collective policy agreement that it should happen. What you then get is sniping. You get the different bits of government who want it to fail, who will sometimes, actually sabotage things, which is pretty disgraceful. That’s pretty outrageous, but it did happen; and it does happen; and that won’t be over yet.”

  • GDS lost Tom Loosemore, its deputy director, who initially led      the development of the website and tweeted on 1 August 2016 – the date of Fanshew-Cain’s announced departure – about “a day of the long digital knives”.

tom loosemore tweets


Digital chiefs evicted?

Derek Du Preez at Diginomica suggests that, according to his sources, “digital chiefs at the Home Office, DWP and HMRC have either been evicted by their permanent secretaries or are leaving their posts”.

UKAuthority reports rumours of “sustained resistance to the work of GDS in some Whitehall departments. Several departments were resisting GDS’s Government as a Platform programme in favour of working on their own digital solutions.

The article said that John Manzoni, as head of the civil service, “has not been in favour of it [GDS] setting a strong lead for other parts of Whitehall”.

Andrew Greenway, formerly of GDS, says the loss of two GDS leaders in less than a year “feels like a victory for those who believe a government organised along Victorian lines is fit for fixing today’s problems”.

Greenway writes:

“What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre; on the other big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding.

“That’s OK if everyone is on the path towards improvement. Whitehall’s watchers are not saying this.

“Meanwhile, GDS is following the course charted by other successful centralised reformers in government. Icarus-like soaring for a few years. The occasional flutter of feathers. Then a headlong dive into the timeless, inky depths of the bureaucratic abyss. The sun always rises, Whitehall always wins.

“The defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni. This is perplexing.

“The Civil Service’s CEO is there to drive big institutional priorities past departmental parochialism. Digital is one of these, giving it a seat at the top table. Yet as GDS’ influence has degraded. Chief Digital Officer roles in departments are also disappearing. Kevin’s departure comes hard on the heels of the Home Office scrapping their own CDO role.

“Manzoni came in to manage relations between the centre and the departments from a position of strength. From the outside, it now looks like he is being toyed with by the Civil Service’s most experienced turf warriors in HMRC and DWP.

“Permanent secretaries are gleefully reclaiming their territory…”

Fizzle out?

Does all this mean that Maude’s reforms of Government IT will soon fizzle out, heralding the return of the “powerful oligopolies” that Maude referred to when speaking of IT suppliers that presided over large costly IT project failures?


Leading bureaucrats approve of changes when it means more money is spent on policy implementation that brings with it a commensurate increase in power and influence of their department.

What some leading officials deeply resent is change that diminishes the power and influence of the department, especially if the change is instigated by people outside the department. It’s understandable, therefore, that some but not all permanent secretaries and their senior officials will resent any interference in their IT affairs by the Cabinet Office and GDS.

But interference there has to be. Chris Chant, former CIO at DEFRA, said in 2011 that the vast majority of Government IT was “outrageously expensive”. He said, “Things have changed and we haven’t.”

Under Maude, Bracken and GDS’s influence, things have gradually changed for the better.

But if Sir Humphrey now succeeds to getting GDS broken up it will show that, when it comes to the administration of central government, it is the leading civil servants who are in charge, not short-term ministers. Bracken says that if departmental and agency bureaucrats strongly disapprove of a centrally-agreed initiative they should debate it or leave.

Says Bracken,

“When you have a chief executive who says: ‘I don’t accept the rule of the government of the day and I am just not accepting it’, then you can’t tolerate that. You can have a debate around it but to just [drop] anchor and go ‘I am not moving’ is just not on. If you feel that strongly you should leave in my opinion. You should say, ‘I can’t tolerate this so I’ll do something else’.”

But who is going to persuade Sir Humphrey to leave or take early retirement?

When, as prime minister,  David Cameron said,

“I believe the creation of the Government Digital Service is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament.”

he was speaking as a politician who has a temporary job. On the other hand, bureaucratic resistance to change – the Whitehall culture – will last forever unless intervention is deep, effective and continual. That type of intervention cannot be expected of any short-term minister, not even a prime minister.

The hope now is that GDS’s influence within departments  and agencies has been far-reaching enough to encourage thousands of younger civil servants to try and effect change themselves – make the running of government simpler and much cheaper – at least for the sake of taxpayers.

As Maude says,

“You need people who are passionate about it (genuine transformation); and who don’t mind pissing people off frankly – don’t mind annoying people and upsetting the system.”

Sir Humphrey will oppose any change that diminishes his power base – but could his innate defence of old traditions be drowned out by an overwhelming chorus of reasoned sensibleness from thousands of GDS advocates?

Even when Sir Humphrey eventually retires and is replaced by another old crock (an arch defender of the status quo), some of GDS’s work will endure.  Bracken said in his Centre for Public Impact interview last month,

“Where I am hugely optimistic is that we left a way of working that will not revert. When we got there [GDS], there were pockets of people all over government who would struggle for years to do good digital stuff… they would be blocked at every turn and were absolutely fed up.

“What we did was give them validity; you can do it this way. Now there is a manual. There are guides; there are networks; there are communities. Treasury’s rules are published rules on how you do technology services and we wrote them.

“People saw us as insurgent, incoming rule-breakers. That’s how the old guard of the civil service would present itself. It’s hugely disrespectful because we put a great degree of intellectual thought into writing the new rules… Those Treasury rules on how you fund and build an agile technology service is the new norm.

“That’s not going to get changed anytime soon. In that system now there are, I suspect, 10,000 to 15,000 people probably under 40 who are all committed to working in an agile, open way.

“The point about working that way is you can’t go back. [If someone suggests] spending a year writing some requirements down and then outsourcing that to a third party, they are never going to do that. And they are the leaders of the future.

” I am not quite sure of the bumps along the road, the trajectories. It may wax and wane for a bit, but committed public servants will be working this way for the rest of their career. That will be our legacy.”

 Thank you to Derek Du Preez whose Diginomica article prompted this post.

Inside Universal Credit IT – analysis of document the DWP didn’t want published

dwpBy Tony Collins

Written evidence the Department for Work and Pensions submitted to an FOI tribunal – but did not want published (ever) – reveals that there was an internal “lack of candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit IT] Programme and publicly”.

It’s the first authoritative confirmation by the DWP that it has not always been open and honest when dealing with the media on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme.

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP's written submission

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP’s written submission

According to the DWP submission, senior officials on the Programme became so concerned about leaks that a former member of the security services was brought in to lead an investigation. DWP staff and managers were the subjects of “detailed interviews”. Employee emails were “reviewed”, as were employee access rights to shared electronic areas.

Staff became “paranoid” about accidentally leaving information on a printer. Some of the high-security measures appear still to be in place.

Unpublished until now, the DWP’s written legal submission referred, in part, to the effects on employees of leak investigations.

The submission was among the DWP’s written evidence to an FOI Tribunal in February 2016.

The Government Legal Service argued that the DWP’s written evidence was for the purposes of the tribunal only. It should not be published or passed to an MP.

The Legal Service went further: it questioned the right of an FOI Tribunal to decide on whether the submission could be published. Even so a judge has ruled that the DWP’s written evidence to the tribunal can be published.

Excerpts from the submission are here.

Analysis and Comment

The DWP’s submission gives a unique glimpse into day-to-day life and corporate sensitivities at or near the top of the Universal credit IT programme.

It reveals the lengths to which senior officials were willing to go to stop any authoritative “bad news” on the Universal Credit IT programme leaking out. Media speculation DWP’s senior officials do not seem to mind. What appears to concern them is the disclosure of any credible internal information on how things are progressing on Universal Credit IT.


Despite multiple requests from IT suppliers, former government CIOs and MPs, for Whitehall to publish its progress reports on big IT-based change programmes (some examples below), all central departments keep them confidential.

That sensitivity has little to do with protecting personal data.

It’s likely that reviews of projects are kept confidential largely because they could otherwise expose incompetence, mistakes, poor decisions, risks that are likely to materialise, large sums that have been wasted or, worst of all, a project that should have been cancelled long ago and possibly re-started, but which has been kept going in its original form because nobody wanted to own up to failure.

Ian watmore front cover How to fix government IROn this last point, former government CIO and permanent secretary Ian Watmore spoke to MPs in 2009 about how to fix government IT. He said,

“An innovative organisation tries a lot of things and sometimes things do not work. I think one of the valid criticisms in the past has been when things have not worked, government has carried on trying to make them work well beyond the point at which they should have been stopped.”

Individual accountability for failure?

Oblivious to MPs’ requests to publish IT progress reports, the DWP routinely refuses FOI requests to publish IT progress reports, even when they are several years old, even though by then officials and ministers involved will probably have moved on. Individual accountability for failure therefore continues to be non-existent.

Knowing this, MPs on two House of Commons select committees, Public Accounts and Work and Pensions, have called for the publication of reports such as “Gateway” reviews.

This campaign for more openness on government IT projects has lasted nearly three decades. And still Whitehall never publishes any contemporaneous progress reports on big IT programmes.

It took an FOI campaigner and IT projects professional John Slater [@AmateurFOI] three years of legal proceedings to persuade the DWP to release some old reports on the Universal Credit IT programme (a risk register, milestone schedule and issues log). And he had the support of the Information Commissioner’s legal team.

universal creditWhen the DWP reluctantly released the 2012 reports in 2016 – and only after an informal request by the then DWP secretary of state Stephen Crabb – pundits were surprised at how prosaic the documents were.

Yet we now know, thanks to the DWP’s submission, the lengths to which officials will go to stop such documents leaking out.


Some at the DWP are likely to see the submission as explaining some of understandable measures any government department would take to protect sensitive information on its largest project, Universal Credit. The DWP is the government largest department. It runs some of the world’s biggest IT systems. It possesses personal information on nearly everyone in Britain. It has to make the protection of its information a top priority.

Others will see the submission as proof that the DWP will do all it can to honour a decades-old Whitehall habit of keeping bad news to itself.

Need for openness

It’s generally accepted that success in running big IT-enabled change programmes requires openness – with staff and managers, and with external organisations and agencies.

IT-based change schemes are about solving problems. An introspective “good news only” culture may help to explain why the DWP has a poor record of managing big and successful IT-based projects and programmes. The last time officials attempted a major modernisation of benefit systems in the 1990s – called Operational Strategy – the costs rose from £713m to £2.6bn and the intended objective of joining up the IT as part of a “whole person” concept, did not happen.

Programme papers“watermarked”

The DWP’s power, mandate and funding come courtesy of the public. So do officials, in return, have the right to keep hidden mistakes and flawed IT strategies that may lead to a poor use – or wastage – of hundreds of millions of pounds, or billions?

The DWP’s submission reveals that recommendations from its assurance reports (low-level reports on the state of the IT programme including risks and problems) were not circulated and a register was kept of who had received them.

Concern over leaks

The submission said that surveys on staff morale ceased after concerns about leaks. 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”. For added security, Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

When a former member of the security services was brought in to conduct a leaks investigation, staff and mangers were invited by the DWP’s most senior civil servant to “speak to the independent investigator if they had any information”. This suggests that staff were expected to inform on any suspect colleagues.

People “stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the [Universal Credit IT] Programme,” said the submission. “People became suspicious of their colleagues – even those they worked closely with.

“There was a lack of trust and people were very careful about being honest with their colleagues…

“People felt they could no longer share things with colleagues that might have an honest assessment of difficulties or any negative criticism – many staff believed the official line was, ‘everything is fine’.

“People, even now, struggle to trust colleagues with sensitive information and are still fearful that anything that is sent out via email will be misused.

“For all governance meetings, all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings included, whether or not they contain sensitive information.”


dwpLines to take with the media were added to a “Rolling Brief”, an internal update document, that was circulated to senior leaders of the Universal Credit IT programme, the DWP press office and special advisors.

These “lines to take” were a “defensive approach to media requests”. They emphasised the “positive in terms of progress with the Programme without acknowledging the issues identified in the leaked stories”.

This positive approach to briefing and media management “led to a lack of candour and honesty through the Programme and publically …”

How the DWP’s legal submission came about is explained in this separate post.

Were there leaks of particularly sensitive information?

It appears not. The so-called leaks revealed imperfections in the running of the Universal Credit programme; but there was no personal information involved. Officials were concerned about the perceived leak of a Starting Gate Review to the Telegraph (although the DWP had officially lodged the review with the House of Commons library).

The DWP also mentioned in its statement a leak to the Guardian of the results of an internal “Pulse” survey of staff morale – although it’s unclear why the survey wasn’t published officially given its apparent absence of sensitive commercial, personal, corporate or governmental information.


The greater the openness in external communications, the less likely a natural scepticism of new ways of working will manifest in a distrust of the IT programme as a whole.

The NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT) – then the UK’s biggest IT programme costing about £10bn – was dismantled in 2011 after eight fraught years. One reason it was a disaster was the deep distrust of the NPfIT among clinicians, hospital technologists, IT managers, GPs and nurses. They had listened with growing scepticism to Whitehall’s oft-repeated “good news” announcements.

Ex-Government CIO wanted more openness on IT projects

When MPs have asked the DWP why it does not publish reports on the progress of IT-enabled projects, it has cited “commercial confidentiality”.

But in 2009, Ian Watmore (the former Government CIO) said in answer to a question by Public Account Committee MP Richard Bacon that he’d endorse the publication of Gateway reviews, which are independent assessments of the achievements, inadequacies, risks, progress and challenges on risky IT-based programmes.

“I am with you in that I would prefer Gateway reviews to be published because of the experience we had with capability reviews (published reports on a department’s performance). We had the same debate (as with Gateway reviews) and we published them. It caused furore for a few weeks but then it became a normal part of the furniture,” said Watmore.

Capability reviews are no longer published. The only “regular” reports of Whitehall progress with big IT programmes are the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual reports. But these do not include Gateway reviews or other reports on IT projects and programmes. The DWP and other departments publish only their own interpretations of project reviews.

In the DWP’s latest published summary of progress on the Universal Credit IT programme, dated July 2016, the focus is on good news only.

But this creates a mystery. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave the Universal Credit programme an “amber” rating in its annual report which was published this month. But neither the DWP nor the Authority has explained why the programme wasn’t rated amber/green or green.

MPs and even IT suppliers want openness on IT projects

Work and Pensions Committee front coverIn 2004 HP, the DWP’s main IT supplier, told a Work and Pensions Committee inquiry entitled “Making IT work for DWP customers” in 2004 that “within sensible commercial parameters, transparency should be maintained to the greatest possible extent on highly complex programmes such as those undertaken by the DWP”.

The Work and Pensions Committee spent seven months investigating IT in the DWP and published a 240-page volume of oral and written in July 2004. On the matter of publishing “Gateway” reviews on the progress or otherwise of big IT projects, the Committee concluded,

“We found it refreshing that major IT suppliers should be content for the [Gateway] reviews to be published. We welcome this approach. It struck us as very odd that of all stakeholders, DWP should be the one which clings most enthusiastically to commercial confidentiality to justify non-disclosure of crucial information, even to Parliament.”

The Committee called for Gateway reviews to be published. That was 12 years ago – and it hasn’t happened.

Four years later the Committee found that the 19 most significant DWP IT projects were over-budget or late.

DWP headline late and over budget

In 2006 the National Audit Office reported on Whitehall’s general lack of openness in a report entitled “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”.

The report said,

“The Public Accounts Committee has emphasised frequently the need for greater transparency and accountability in departments’ performance in managing their programmes and projects and, in particular, that the result of OGC Gateway Reviews should be published.”

But today, DWP officials seem as preoccupied as ever with concealing bad news on their big IT programmes including Universal Credit.

The costs of concealment

The DWP has had important DWP project successes, notably pension credits, which was listed by the National Audit Office as one of 24 positive case studies.

But the DWP has also wasted tens of millions of pounds on failed IT projects.

Projects with names such as “Camelot” [Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks] and Assist [Analytical Services Statistical Information System) were cancelled with losses of millions of pounds. More recently the DWP has run into problems on several big projects.


On 3 November 2014 the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge spoke on Radio 4’s Analysis of the DWP’s ‘abysmal’ management of IT contracts.”


As long ago as 1984, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee called for the civil service to be more open about its progress on major computer projects.

Today there are questions about whether the Universal Credit IT will succeed. Hundreds of millions has already been spent. Yet, as mentioned earlier, current information on the progress of the DWP’s IT programmes remains a state secret.

It’s possible that progress on the Universal Credit IT programme has been boosted by the irregular (but thorough) scrutiny by the National Audit Office. That said, as soon as NAO reports on Universal Credit are published, ministers and senior officials who have seen copies in advance routinely dismiss any criticisms as retrospective and out-of-date.

Does it matter if the DWP is paranoid about leaks?

A paper published in 2009 looks at how damaging it can be for good government when bureaucracies lack internal challenge and seek to impose on officials a “good news” agenda, where criticism is effectively prohibited.

The paper quoted the then Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev as saying, in a small meeting with leading Soviet intellectuals,

“The restructuring is progressing with great difficulty. We have no opposition party. How then can we control ourselves? Only through criticism and self-criticism. Most important: through glasnost.”

Non-democratic regimes fear a free flow of information because it could threaten political survival. In Russia there was consideration of partial media freedom to give incentives to bureaucrats who would otherwise have no challenge, and no reason to serve the state well, or avoid mistakes.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, was not acknowledged by Soviet officials for two days, and only then after news had spread across the Western media.

The paper argued that a lack of criticism could keep a less democratic government in power. But it can lead to a complacency and incompetence in implementing policy that even a censored media cannot succeed in hiding.

As one observer noted after Chernobyl (Methvin in National Review, Dec. 4, 1987),

“There surely must be days—maybe the morning after Chernobyl—when Gorbachev wishes he could buy a Kremlin equivalent of the Washington Post and find out what is going on in his socialist wonderland.”

Red team

Iain DuncanSmithA lack of reliable information on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme prompted the then secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith to set up his own “red team” review.

That move was not known about at the time. Indeed in December 2012 – at a point when the DWP was issuing public statements on the success of the Universal Credit Programme – the scheme was actually in trouble. The DWP’s legal submission said,

“In summary we concluded (just before Christmas 2012) that the IT system that had been developed for the launch of UC [Universal Credit] had significant problems.”

One wonders whether DWP civil servants kept Duncan Smith in the dark because they themselves had not been fully informed about what was going on, or because they thought the minister was best protected from knowing what was going on, deniability being one key Whitehall objective.

But in the absence of reliable internal information a political leader can lose touch completely, said the paper on press freedom.

“On December 21, 1989, after days of local and seemingly limited unrest in the province of Timi¸ Ceausescu called for a grandiose meeting at the central square of Bucharest, apparently to rally the crowds in support of his leadership. In a stunning development, the meeting degenerated into anarchy, and Ceausescu and his wife had to flee the presidential palace, only to be executed by a firing squad two days later.”

Wrong assumptions

Many times, after the IT media has published articles on big government IT-based project failures, TV and radio journalists have asked to what extent the secretary of state was responsible and why he hadn’t acted to stop millions of pounds being wasted.

But why do broadcast journalists assume ministers control their departments? It is usually more likely that ministers know little about the real risks of failure until it is too late to act decisively.

Lord Bach, a minister at DEFRA, told a House of Commons inquiry in 2007 into the failure of the IT-based Single Payment Scheme that he was aware of the risks but still officials told him that systems would work as planned and farmers would receive payments on time. They didn’t. Chaos ensued.

Said Lord Bach,

“I do think that, at the end of the day, some of the advice that I received from the RPA [Rural Payments Agency] was over-optimistic.”

Lord WhittyAnother DEFRA minister at the time Lord Whitty, who was also party in charge of the Single Payment Scheme, told the same inquiry,

“Perhaps I ought also to say that this was the point at which I felt the advice I was getting was most misleading, and I have used the term ‘misleading’ publicly but I would perhaps prefer to rephrase that in the NAO terms …”

Even the impressive Stephen Crabb – who has now quit as DWP secretary of state – didn’t stand much of chance of challenging his officials. The department’s contracts, IT and other affairs, are so complex and complicated – there are bookcases full of rules and regulations on welfare benefits – that any new ministers soon find themselves overwhelmed with information and complexity.

They will soon realise they are wholly dependent on their officials; and it is the officials who decide what to tell the minister about internal mistakes and bad decisions. Civil servants would argue that ministers cannot be told everything or they would be swamped.

But the paper on press freedom said that in order to induce high effort within a bureacucracy, the leader needs “verifiable information on the bureaucrats’ performance”.

The paper made a fascinating argument that the more complacent the bureaucracy, the more aggressively it would control information. Some oil-rich countries, said the paper, have less media freedom than those with scarcer resources.

“Consistent with our theory, [some] non-democratic countries … have vast resources and poor growth performance, while the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), while predominantly non-democratic in the 1970s and 1980s, have high growth rates and scarce natural resource.”

In an apparent opening up of information, the government in China passed a law along the lines of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (“China Sets Out to Cut Secrecy, but Laws Leave Big Loopholes,” New York Times, Apr. 25, 2007). But was this law self-serving? It, and the launch of local elections, provided the central government with relatively reliable information on the performance of provincial bosses.

These stories from less democratic countries may be relevant in Britain because politicians here, including secretaries of state, seem to be the last to know when a big IT-based programme is becoming a disaster.

Bad news

Whtehall’s preoccupation with “good news only” goes well beyond the DWP.

T auditors Arthur D Little, in a forensic analysis of the delays, cost over-runs and problems on the development of a huge air traffic control IT project for National Air Traffic Services, whose parent was then the Civil Aviation Authority, which was part of the Department for Transport, referred to an “unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news”.

Ministers helpless to force openness on unwilling officials?

Francis Maude came to the Cabinet Office with a reforming zeal and a sophisticated agenda for forcing through more openness, but the effects of his efforts began to evaporate as soon as he left office. Even when he was at the height of his power and influence, he was unable to persuade civil servants to publish Gateway reviews, although he’d said when in opposition that he intended to publish them.

His negotiations ended with central departments agreeing to publish only the “traffic light” status of big projects – but only after a minimum delay of at least six months. In practice the delay is usually a year or more.


Brexit campaigners argue that the EC is undemocratic, that decisions are taken in Brussels in secret by unelected bureaucrats. But the EC is at least subject to the scrutiny, sometimes the competing scrutiny, of 29 countries.

Arguably Whitehall’s departments are also run by unelected bureaucrats who are not subject to any effective scrutiny other than inspections from time to time of the National Audit Office.

Yes Minister parodied Sir Humphrey’s firm grip on what the public should and should not be told. Usually his recommendation was that the information should be misleadingly reassuring. This was close enough to reality to be funny. And yet close enough to reality to be serious as well. It revealed a fundamental flaw in democracy.

Nowhere is that flaw more clearly highlighted than in the DWP’s legal submission. Is it any surprise that the DWP did not want the submission published?

If officials had the choice, would they publish any information that they did not control on any of their IT projects and programmes?

That’s where the indispensable work of the National Audit Office comes into the picture – but it alone, even with the help of the Public Accounts Committee, cannot plug the gaping hole in democracy that the DWP’s submission exposes.

These are some thoughts I am left with after reading the legal submission in the light of the DWP’s record on the management of IT-based projects …

  • Press freedom and the free flow of information cannot be controlled in a liberal democracy. But does Whitehall have its own subtle – and not so subtle – ways and means?
  • In light of the DWP’s track record, the public and the media are entitled to distrust whatever ministers and officials say publicly about their own performance on IT-related programmes, including Universal Credit.
  • More worryingly, would the DWP’s hierarchy care a jot if the media and public didn’t believe what the department said publicly about progress on big projects such as Universal Credit?
  • Is the DWP’s unofficial motto: Better to tell a beautiful lie than an ugly truth?
  • AL Kennedy mentioned the “botched” Universal Credit programme  when she gave a “point of view” on Radio 4 last week. Not referring specifically to Universal Credit she said facts can be massaged but nature can’t be fooled. A girder that won’t hold someone’s weight is likely to fail however many PR-dominated assurance reports have gone before. “Facts are uncompromising and occasionally grim. I wish they weren’t. Avoiding them puts us all at increased risk,” she said.

 Excerpts from the DWP submission

Some Twitter comments on this post:





Crabb’s momentous FOI decision on Universal Credit IT?

By Tony Collins

Some of the DWP legal "bundles" in its protracted and pointless FOI case to try and stop Universal Credit reports being released.

Some of the DWP legal “bundles” in its protracted and pointless FOI case to try and stop Universal Credit reports being released.

Stephen Crabb, the new DWP secretary of state who replaces IDS, has started to make a difference.

On 3 April 2016 the Sunday Times reported that Crabb had ordered officials to stop refusing FOI requests and come clean with him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.

Five days later (8 April 2016) the DWP released three reports under FOI on the Universal Credit programme: a risk register, an issues register and a Major Projects Authority project assessment review.

DWP FOI bundles2

The DWP fought for years at FOI tribunals and appeal hearings to stop the reports being published. Officials were expected to instigate a further appeal after an FOI tribunal ruled last month that the reports be published.

But it now appears that Stephen Crabb refused to sign off further public money for an appeal and officials were left with little choice but to release the reports.

The reports show the extent to which the DWP was economical with the truth in its self-praising departmental press releases and ministerial statements on the state of the Universal Credit programme in 2012 and 2013.


Indeed, how can we trust any DWP press statement on Universal Credit given that officials are still keeping hidden from Parliament and the public the risk registers, issues registers and project assessment reviews carried out on the UC programme since 2012.

Stephen Crabb

Stephen Crabb

Crabb’s appointment and the release of the three reports dated 2011 and 2012 are, from an FOI point of view, a good start.

But will the DWP become more open in the future about the state of its big IT-enabled change programmes?

Probably not. In a statement to Computer Weekly last week, a DWP spokesperson dismissed the released reports as “nearly five years old and out-of-date” and went on to praise the Universal Credit programme (which involves a waterfall approach and separate much cheaper, and to some extent competing, agile-based project).

This statement suggests that the DWP’s “no bad news” culture is still pervasive; that it is prepared to denigrate its own reports as out of date when they convey messages that conflict with officialdom’s good news culture.

A mass of DWP paperwork and legal bundles on the FOI appeals and hearings related to the documents show how earnest were the reasons for the DWP’s refusal to release the reports until this month.

It is likely that Crabb personally ordered their release. But, probably unknown to Crabb, the DWP has just refused an FOI request to release an Integrated Assurance and Approval Plan (IAAP) on the Universal Credit programme.

IT projects professional John Slater had requested the IAAP. He’d also made the original request for the UC risk register and issues register, and had campaigned long and hard for their release.

Some people may be surprised by the DWP’s refusal to release the IAAP, given that it is another very old Universal Credit report, dating back to the start of the programme. It may even pre-date the released risk register, issues register and project assessment review.

But the IAAP’s release could embarrass the DWP. IAAPs have been mandatory for all major projects since 1 April 2011. They show how well officials have planned a project or programme.

UC assumptions

The Treasury will not normally approve funding without a satisfactory IAAP. It is likely the DWP made a range of over-optimistic assumptions about the UC roll-out in its IAAP.

The DWP’s refusal to release it was under section 36 of FOI legislation. This requires sign off by a minister. In this case it is likely to have been signed off by Lord Freud, the welfare and pensions minister.

He was the minister who originally refused the FOI requests for the Universal Credit risk register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review.

It is unlikely that Crabb knows anything about Slater’s request for the IAAP.

No Whitehall department has yet released contemporaneously – under FOI or outside it – any reports on the performance, progress or otherwise of its big IT-enabled projects or programmes, including Universal Credit.

Arguably it is the continued secrecy on the way officials manage big and costly schemes that contributes more than anything else to the poor record of central government when it comes to understanding and implementing IT-related change.

Out of control?

John Slater said of the released reports,

“Whilst the information disclosed relates to the UCP as it was back in 2012 it is still important and relevant to the programme today.

“The information shows a programme that appears to have been running at breakneck pace and was out of control.

“The normal checks and balances that a professional organisation should have had in place, especially cost control, simply weren’t there. Whilst these problems were recognised in the risks and issues there was no sense that the senior leadership team were willing or able to do anything about them.

“Having read the information it is not a surprise that the Major Projects Authority had no other option but to stop and restart the programme via the now infamous reset.

“The released information also raises questions about the validity of the Universal Credit business case that might explain why it still hasn’t been signed off by the Treasury.”


Well done to Stephen Crabb. He has given the culture of secrecy at the DWP a gentle shake. But can he make a lasting difference?

As we saw in “Yes Minister” it is difficult for a new minister – or any minister – to have any permanent influence on officialdom. And it remains the case that neither the DWP nor any other department has ever released contemporaneously reports on its own performance or the progress on a big IT-related change programme.

The nearest thing to it is a National Audit Office report, but these are usually retrospective and they are almost always dismissed by departmental press offices and ministers as out of date, whether they are or not.

It is abundantly clear that the DWP is pre-occupied – maybe paranoid – about negative media coverage of the Universal Credit programme.

The same thing happened at the Department of Health over media coverage of the NPfIT NHS IT programme: officials even issued written instructions to NHS staff on the tone of voice they should use with journalists and others when discussing the programme.

Many of the legal reasons the DWP gave to FOI tribunals and appeal judges revolved around the fear of releasing information that could fuel a negative response by the media to the Universal Credit programme.

dwpWhitehall’s war on FOI

Crabb has won an FOI battle but his officials are winning the pro-secrecy war. For Crabb to make a lasting difference he will need to persuade Lord Freud – and any of his successors – of the virtues of openness.

Until officials willingly publish contemporaneous reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes, government will probably continue to have a poor record when managing these schemes.

Success in government IT requires openness because IT-enabled projects and programmes are about solving problems; and if the problems cannot be admitted let alone discussed widely they are unlikely to be solved,as we saw with the initial problems on the Universal Credit programme.

Universal Credit involves many external organisations such as local authorities and housing associations. The DWP could start to embrace media coverage as giving healthy challenge to its decisions – challenges that may help to resolve a range of problems that are inevitable when the benefit system is being simplified.

Keeping reports such as the IAAP secret – even after five years – will continue to fuel the internal paranoia against open and constructive debate.

After decades of secrecy over the contemporaneous release of project and performance reports it is time for lasting change.

Universal Credit shows it’s time to make all major government projects open and transparent – Computer Weekly Editor’s Blog.

Judge orders Universal Credit reports must be published – The Register

Victory for campaigners as DWP finally publishes Universal Credit reports –

DWP “evasive” and “selective” with information on Universal Credit programme

By Tony Collins

Has the Department for Work and Pensions put itself, to some extent, beyond the scrutiny  of Parliament on the Universal Credit IT programme?

Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee Universal Credit progress update was drafted by the National Audit Office. All of the committee’s reports are effectively more strongly-worded NAO reports.

If the Department for Work and Pensions cannot be open with its own auditors – the National Audit Office audits the department’s annual accounts – are the DWP’s most senior officials in the happy position of being accountable to nobody on the Universal Credit IT programme?

The National Audit Office and the committee found the Department for Work and Pensions “selective or even inaccurate” when giving some information to the committee.

In answering some questions, the committee found officials “evasive”.

Today’s PAC report says:

“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays. The Department’s response to the previous Committee’s recommendations in the February 2015 report Universal Credit: progress update do not convince us that it is committed to improving transparency about the programme’s progress.”

On the basis of the limited information supplied by the DWP to Parliament the committee’s MPs believe that the Universal Credit has stabilised and made progress since the committee first reported on the programme in 2013, but there “remains a long way to go”.

So far the roll-out has largely involved the simplest of cases, and the ineligibility list for potential UC claimants is long.  By 10 December 2015, fewer than 200,000 people were on the DWP’s UC “caseload” list.

The actual number could be far fewer because the exact number recorded by the DWP by 10 December 2015 (175, 505)  does not include people whose claims have terminated because they have become ineligible by for example having capital more than £16,000 or earning more so that their benefits are reduced to zero.

The plan is to have more than seven million on the benefit, and the timetable for completion of the roll-out has stretched from 2017 originally to 2021,  although some independent experts believe the roll-out will not complete before 2023.

Meanwhile the DWP appears to be controlling carefully the information it gives to Parliament on progress. The committee accuses the DWP in today’s report of making it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the department to account. Says the report,

“The programme’s lack of clear and specific milestones creates uncertainty for claimants, advisers, and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the Department to account.”

These are more excerpts from the report:

“In February 2015 the previous Committee of Public Accounts published Universal Credit: progress update … The Department accepted the Committee’s recommendations.

“However, we felt that the Department’s responses were rather weak and lacked specifics, and we were not convinced that it is committed to ensuring there is real clarity on this important programme’s progress.

“As a result, we recalled both the Department and HM Treasury to discuss a number of issues that concerned us, particularly around the business case, the continuing risks of delay, and the lack of transparency and clear milestones.

“Recommendation: The Department should set out clearly how it is tracking the costs of continuing delays, and who is responsible for ensuring benefits are maximised.

“The Department does not publish accessible information about plans and milestones and we are concerned by the lack of detail in the public domain about its expected progress.

“For proper accountability, this information should be published so that the Committee, the National Audit Office and the general public can be clear about progress…

“… the Department did not acknowledge that the slower roll-out affects two other milestones, because it delays the date when existing claimants start to be moved onto Universal Credit and reduces the number of Universal Credit claimants at the end of 2019.

“The flexible adaptation of milestones to circumstances is sensible, but the Department should be open about when this occurs and what the effects are. Instead, the Department’s continued lack of transparency makes it very difficult for us and the public to understand precisely how its plans are shifting.

“Claimants need to know more than just their benefits will change ‘soon’; local authorities need time to prepare additional support; and advisers need to be able to help people that come to them with concerns…

“Recommendation: By May 2016, the Department should set out and report publicly against a wider set of clearly stated milestones, based on ones it currently uses as internal measures, including plans for different claimant groups, local authority areas and for the development and use of new systems. We have set out the areas we expect these milestones to cover in an appendix to this report…

“The Department was selective or even inaccurate when highlighting the findings of its evaluation to us.”

The DWP has two IT projects to deliver UC, one based on its existing major suppliers delivering systems that integrate the simplest of new claims with legacy IT.

The other and more promising solution is a far cheaper “digital service” that is based on agile principles and is, in effect, entirely new IT that could eventually replace legacy systems. It is on trial in a small number of jobcentres.

The DWP’s slowly slowly approach to roll-out means it is reluctant to publish milestones, and it has reached only an early stage of the business case. The final business case is not expected before 2017 and could be later.

The committee has asked the DWP to be more transparent over the business case. It wants detail on:

  • Projected spending, including both investment and running costs for:
  • Live service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
  • Digital service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
  • Rest of programme (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘External supplier costs’)
  • Net benefits realised versus forecasts.

Meanwhile the DWP’s response to those who criticise the slow roll-out is to give impressive statistics on the number of jobcentres now processing UC claims, without acknowledging that nearly all of them are processing only the simplest of claims.


To whom is the DWP accountable on the Universal Credit IT programme? To judge from today’s report it is not the all-party Public Accounts Committee or its own auditors the National Audit Office.

No government has been willing to force Whitehall departments to be properly accountable for their major IT-enabled projects or programmes. Sir Humphrey remains in control.

The last government with Francis Maude at the helm at the Cabinet Office came close to introducing real reforms (his campaign began too forcefully but settled into a good strategy of pragmatic compromise) but his departure has meant that open government and greater accountability for central departments have drifted into the shadows.

The DWP is not only beyond the ability of Parliament to hold it accountable it is spending undisclosed of public money sums on an FOI case to stop three ageing reports on the Universal Credit IT programme being published. The reports are nearly four years old.

Would that senior officials at the DWP could begin to understand a connection between openness and Lincoln’s famous phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public Accounts Committee report Universal Credit, progress update

DWP gives out “selective” information on welfare reform even to its auditors (a similar story in 2015)

Department for Work and Pensions “evasive” – Civil Service World (This article is aimed at its readers who are mostly civil servants. It is likely it will find favour with senior DWP IT staff who will probably mostly agree with the Public Accounts Committee’s view that the DWP hierarchy is, perhaps because of culture, evasive and selective with the information it gives to Parliament and the public.)


Yet another NHS IT mess?

By Tony Collins

Last week the National Audit Office reported on the failure of the GP Extraction Service. Health officials  had signed off and paid for a contract even though the system was unfit for use.

The officials worked for organisations that have become part of the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

An unapologetic HSCIC issued a statement on its website in response to the Audit Office report. It said, in essence, that the problems with the GP Extraction Service were not the fault of the HSCIC but rather its predecessor organisations (ignoring the fact that many of the officials and contractors from those defunct organisations moved to the HSCIC).

Now it transpires that the HSCIC may have a new IT-related mess on its hands, this time one that is entirely of its own making – the e-Referral Service.

Last month the HSCIC went live with its e-Referral service without testing the system properly. It says it tested for thousands of hours but still the system went live with 9 pages of known problems.

Problems are continuing. Each time in their routine bulletins officials suggest that an upgrade will solve e-Referral’s problems. But each remedial upgrade is followed by another that does not appear to solve the problems.

The system went live on 15 June, replacing Choose and Book which was part of an earlier NHS IT disaster the £10bn National Programme for IT.

Problems more than teething?

Nobody expects a major new IT system to work perfectly first time but regular outages of the NHS e-Referral Service may suggest that it has more than teething problems.

It’s a common factor in IT-based project failures that those responsible have commissioned tests for many hours but with inadequately designed tests that did not always reflect real-world use of the system. They might also have underestimated loads on the available hardware and networks.

This means that after the system goes live it is brought down for regular hardware and software fixes that don’t solve the problems.  End-users lose faith in the system – as many GPs did with the Choose and Book system – and a misplaced optimism takes the place of realism in the thinking of managers who don’t want to admit the system may need a fundamental redesign.

On the day the e-Referral Service launched, a Monday, doctors had difficulties logging in. Software “fixes” that day made little difference. By the next day HSCIC’s optimism has set in. Its website said:

“The NHS e-Referral Service has been used by patients and professionals today to complete bookings and referrals comparable with the number on a typical Tuesday but we were continuing to see on-going performance and stability issues after yesterday’s fixes.

“We suspend access to the system at lunchtime today to implement another fix and this improved performance and stability in the afternoon.”

The “fix” also made little apparent difference. The next day, Wednesday 17 June, the entire system was “unavailable until further notice” said the HSCIC’s website.

By early evening all was apparently well. An HSCIC bulletin said:

“The NHS e-Referrals Service is now available again. We apologise for the disruption caused to users and thank everyone for their patience.”

In fact, by the next day, Thursday 18 June, all was not well. Said another bulletin:

“Yesterday’s outage enabled us to implement a number of improvements and hopefully this is reflected in your user experience today.

“This morning users reported that there were ongoing performance issues so work has now taken place to implement changes to the configuration to the NHS e-Referral Service hardware and we are currently monitoring closely to see if this resolved the issue.”

About 2 weeks later, on 30 June, HSCIC’s officials said there were ongoing problems, because of system performance in provider organisations that were processing referrals.

Was this HSCIC’s way of, again, blaming other organisations – as they did after the NAO report’s on the failure of the GP Extraction Service project? Said a statement on the HSCIC’s website on 30 June 2015:

“Since transition to the NHS e-Referral Service on Monday 15th June, we have unfortunately experienced a number of problems… Although most of the initial problems were related to poor performance of the system, some residual functional and performance issues persist and continue to affect some of our colleagues in their day-to-day working.

“Most of these on-going problems relate to the performance of the system in provider organisations that are processing referrals, though this does of course have a knock-on effect for referrers.

“Please be assured that the team are working to identify root causes and fixes for these issues.”

By last week – 2 July 2015 – HSCIC warned that it will require a “period of planned downtime on the NHS e-Referral Service tonight which is currently scheduled for between 21:00 and 23:00 for some essential maintenance to fix a high priority functional Incident.”

The fix worked – or did it? HSCIC told Government Computing: “An update was applied to the system overnight from Thursday (July 2) into Friday (July 3) which was successful.”

But …

Monday 6 July 2015 4.15pm. HSCIC e-Referral Service bulletin:

“We would like to apologise for the interruption to service between 13:15 and 13:54 today.  This was not a planned outage and we are investigating the root cause.  If any remedial activity is required we will give notice to all users. Once again please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience this caused.”

Why was testing inadequate?

Did senior managers go live without testing how the system would work in the real world, or did they select as test end-users only IT enthusiasts?

Perhaps managers avoided challenging the test system too much in case it gave poor results that could force a redesign.

We probably won’t know what has gone wrong unless the National Audit Office investigates. Even then it could be a year or more before a report is published. A further complicating factor is that the HSCIC itself may not know yet what has gone wrong and may be receiving conflicting reports on the cause or causes of the problems.

An IT failure? – change the organisation’s name

What’s certain is that the NHS has a history of national IT project failures which cause organisational embarrassment that’s soon assuaged by changing the name of the organisation, though the officials and contractors just switch from one to the next.

NHS Connecting for Health, which was largely responsible for the NPfIT disaster, was blended into the Department of Health’s informatics function which was then blended into the HSCIC.

Similarly the NHS Information Centre which was largely responsible for the GP Extraction Service disaster was closed in 2013 and its staff and contractors blended into the HSCIC.

Now, with the e-Referral Service, the HSCIC at least has a potential IT project mess that can be legitimately regarded as its own.

When will a centrally-run national NHS IT-based turn out to be a success? …


Meanwhile NHS England is looking for a senior responsible owner for e-Referral Service on a salary of up to £98,453.

Usually in central government, SROs do the job as an adjunct to their normal work. It’s unusual for the NHS to employ a full-time project SRO which the NAO will probably welcome as a positive step.

But the job description is vague. NHS England says that the SRO for NHS e-Referrals programme will help with a switch from paper to digital for 100% of referrals in England by March 2018.

“The SRO … will have responsibility for the strategic and operational development of the digital journey, fulfilment of the patient and clinical process and the performance of the service. Plans to achieve the strategy will be underpinned by the delivery of short to medium term objectives, currently commissioned from HSCIC and other third party suppliers.”

Key aspects of this role will be to:-

– Ensure the strategy is formulated, understood by all stakeholders and is delivered utilising all available resources efficiently and effectively.

– Ensure the development and management of plans.

– Ensure appropriate system and processes are in place to enable the uptake and on-going use of digital referrals by GP’s, hospitals, patients and commissioners.

– Proactively manage the key risks and issues associated with ensuring appropriate actions are taken to mitigate or respond.

– Monitor and establish accountability on the overall progress of the strategy to ensure completion within agreed timescales.

– Manage the budgetary implications of activity.

– Avoid the destabilisation of business as usual.

– Manage and actively promote the relationships with key stakeholders.

The job will be fixed-term until 31/03/2017 and interviews will be held in London on the 20th July 2015.

The big challenge will be to avoid the destabilisation of business as usual – a challenge beyond the ability of one person?

Government Computing. 

Another fine NHS IT mess

Why was e-Referral Service launched with 9 pages of known problems?

National e-Referral Service unavailable until further notice


New national e-Referral Service “unavailable until further notice”

By Tony Collins

The NHS e-Referral Service which launched nationally on Monday was “unavailable until further notice”, the Health and Social Care Information Centre said at 9.30am today.

“Due to issues experienced overnight the NHS e-Referral Service is unavailable until further notice while essential maintenance is performed. If you have local business continuity processes available, we recommend that you consider invoking them,” says the HSCIC on its website.

“We are working hard to resolve these issues as quickly as possible and to keep disruption to a minimum… We apologise for the disruption caused to some users and thank everyone for their patience.”

Late yesterday afternoon the Health and Social Care Information Centre warned GPs and other users of its e-Referral Service that technical problems were continuing.

The difficulties have aggravated cynicism in the GP community about the ability of centrally-based officials to implement national IT systems.

Is it too soon to question whether e-Referrals is the first IT disaster of the new government? There is also the question of whether GPs have been used as guinea pigs to test for problems with the new system.

Until the service went down GPs were in any case unable to log in or were experiencing long delays in arranging referrals. Some reverted to sending letters by post – or always did use the post and avoided the NPfIT Choose and Book system which e-Referral is replacing.

Fewer than 60% of GPs used Choose and Book to hospital appointments for patients.

On its website at 17.30 yesterday the HSCIC said:


“The NHS e-Referral Service has been used by patients and professionals today to complete bookings and referrals comparable with the number on a typical Tuesday but we were continuing to see on-going performance and stability issues after yesterday’s fixes.

“We suspend access to the system at lunchtime today to implement another fix and this improved performance and stability in the afternoon.

“We are continuing to monitor the service and will implement further fixes if required. If users notice any further issues they should log them with their local service desk in the usual way…

“We apologise for the disruption caused to some users and thank everyone for their patience.

Update 14.00 17 June

The Health and Social Care Information Centre said the e-Referral Service was still down.

“HSCIC are completing the final stage of testing a number of fixes to the NHS e-Referrals Service. It is hoped that the service will be available again later today. A further update will be issued at 15:00 today.”

Update 18.00 17 June

Said the HSCIC:

“The NHS e-Referrals Service is now available again. We apologise for the disruption caused to users and thank everyone for their patience.

Update 15.00 18 June – ongoing problems

“Yesterday’s outage enabled us to  implement a number of improvements and hopefully this is reflected in your user experience today,” said HSCIC’s website.

“This morning users reported that there were ongoing performance issues so work has now taken place to implement changes to the configuration to the NHS e-Referral Service hardware and we are currently monitoring closely to see if this resolved the issue.”

Why was NHS e-Referral service launched with 9 pages of known problems?

By Tony Collins

Were GPs guinea pigs for live testing of the new national NHS e-Referral Service?

Between 2004 and 2010 the Department of Health marked as confidential its lists of problems with national NPfIT systems, in particular Choose and Book.

So the Health and Social Care Information Centre deserves praise for publishing a list of problems when it launched the national “e-Referrals” system on Monday. But that list was 9 pages long.

The launch brought unsurprised groans from GPs who are used to new national systems going live with dozens of known problems.

The e-Referral Service, built on agile “techniques” and based on open source technology, went live early on Monday to replace “Choose and Book” for referring GP patients to hospitals and to other parts of the NHS.

Some GPs found they could not log on.

“As expected – cannot refer anything electronically this morning. Surprise surprise,” said one GP in a comment to “Pulse” on its article headlined “Patient referrals being delayed as GPs unable to access e-Referrals system on launch day.”

A GP practice manager said: “Cannot access in south London. HSCIC debacle…GPs pick up the pieces. Changing something that wasn’t broken.”

Another GP said: “I was proud never to have used Choose and Book once. Looks like this is even better!”

Other GPs said they avoided using technology to refer patients.

“Why delay referral? Just send a letter. (Some of us never stopped).”

Another commented: “I still send paper referrals – no messing, you know it has gone, no time wasted.”

Dr Faisal Bhutta, a GP partner in Manchester, said his practice regularly used Choose and Book but on Monday morning he couldn’t log in. “You can’t make a referral,” he said.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre has apologised for the disruption. A statement on its website says:

“There are a number of known issues, which are currently being resolved. It is not anticipated that any of these issues will pose a clinical safety risk, cause any detriment to patient care or prevent users from carrying out essential tasks. We have published the list of known issues on our website along with details of how to provide feedback .”

But why did the Centre launch the e-Referral Service with 9 pages of known problems? Was it using GPs as guinea pigs to test the new system?


The Health and Social Care Information Centre is far more open, less defensive and a better communicator than the Department of Health ever was when its officials were implementing the NPfIT.

But is the HSCIC’s openness a good thing if it’s accompanied by a brazen and arrogant acceptance that IT can be introduced into the NHS without a care whether it works properly or not?

In parts of the NHS, IT works extraordinarily well. Those who design, test, implement and support such systems care deeply about patients. In many hospitals the IT reduces risks and helps to improve the chances of successful outcomes.

But in other parts of the NHS are some technology enthusiasts – at the most senior board level – who seem to believe that all major IT implementations will be flawed and will be improved by user feedback.

The result is that IT that’s inadequately designed, tested and implemented is foisted on doctors and nurses who are expected to get used to “teething” troubles.

This is dangerous thinking and it’s becoming more and more prevalent.

Many poorly-considered implementations of the Cerner Millennium electronic patient record system have gone live in hospitals across England with known problems.

In some cases, poor implementations – rather than any faults with the system itself – have affected the care of patients and might have contributed to unnecessary deaths when records needed urgently were not available, or hospitals lost track of urgent appointments.

A CQC report in March 2015 said IT was a possible factor in the death of a patient because NHS staff were unable to access electronically-held information.

In another incident a coroner criticised a patient administration system for being a factor in the death of three year-old Samuel Starr whose appointment for a vital scan got lost in the system.

Within NHS officialdom is a growing cultural acceptance that somehow a poor IT implementation is different to a faulty x-ray machine that delivers too high a dose of radiation.

NHS officials will always brush off IT problems as teething and irrelevant to the care and safety of patients. Just apologise and say no patient has come to any harm.

So little do IT-related problems matter in the NHS that unaccountable officials at the HSCIC have this week felt sufficiently detached from personal accountability to launch a national system knowing there are dozens of problems with the use of it.

Their attitude seems to be: “We can’t know everything wrong with the system until it’s live. So let’s launch the system and fix the problems as GPs give us their feedback.”

This is a little like the NHS having a template letter of regret to send to relatives and families of patients who die unexpectedly in the care of the NHS. Officials simply fill in the appropriate name and address. The NHS can then fix the problems as and when patients die.

It’s surely time that bad practice in NHS IT was eradicated.  Board members need to question more. When necessary directors must challenge the blind positivism of the chief executive.

Some managers can learn much about the culture of care at the hospitals that implement IT successfully.

Patients, nurses and doctors do not exist to tell hospital managers and IT suppliers when electronic records are wrong, incomplete, not available or are somebody else’s record with a similar name.

And GPs do not exist to be guinea pigs for testing and providing feedback on new national systems such as the e-Referral Service.

e-Referral Service “unavailable until further notice”

Hundreds of patients lost in NPfIT systems

Hospital has long-term NPfIT problems

An NPfIT success at Croydon? – Really?

Physicians’ views on electronic patient records

Patient record systems raise some concerns, says report

Electronic health records and safety concerns

Universal Credit: some highlights of today’s NAO report

By Tony Collins

Excerpts from today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update”

Not complete by 2020 

“Not all legacy benefit claimants will have moved to Universal Credit by the end of 2019.”

 Assumptions are changing massively

“Universal Credit impacts depend on policy assumptions. For example, there was a £30 billion movement between 2011 and 2012 in the Department’s estimate of benefit spending, which went from a £19.7 billion cost to a £10.8 billion saving. The Department changed its methodology over this time but the size of this movement was largely due to changes in benefit entitlement and conditionality.”

Spending on existing UC systems questionable?

“HM Treasury has expressed concerns about the value for money of further investment in live service systems.”

What if the digital system fails?

“ Following the Major Projects Authority’s review, HM Treasury requested, in April 2014, the Department provide it with contingency plans should the digital service be delayed or fail. The Department is due to update HM Treasury at the end of November 2014 on its progress in developing such plans.”

The small print

You can claim Universal Credit if you:

– fall into one of the accepted groups

– do not own or part own your home;

– have a bank or building society account;

– do not live in temporary accommodation;

– are not pregnant or given birth within the last 15 weeks;

– are not a carer;

– are not self-employed;

– are unemployed or have household earnings of less than £330 per month if over 25 or £270 if under 25;

– are not challenging or awaiting a decision on Jobseekers Allowance, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support or tax credits;

– are not staying away from your main home;

– are not responsible for a child or young person who is: adopted, fostered, being looked after, registered blind or have a disability benefit.

UC security

“In June 2012, CESG [the IT security arm of GCHQ) found that security had not been properly considered from the start. The [UC] systems were developed by multiple suppliers without an overarching plan for how it would work as a whole.

“A Red Team review concluded that the programme lacked appropriate detail around the security measures it needed because of: ineffective links between design and security teams; invalid assumptions being made by technical teams about what was acceptable to the business; a lack of balance between usability and security; poor understanding of dependencies between components; and little consideration of the technical implications of business design activities. The Department was unable to address these concerns prior to the reset in February 2013.”

A good approach to agile

“Since the reset (in 2013), the Department has concentrated its use of agile on developing digital service using a co-located, mixed-skill team. In June 2014, consultants commissioned by the programme board reported that a good agile approach is in place, and that a strong agile culture and organisation has been found inside the digital service.

“The consultants also found that a focus on long-term planning and effective communication of progress is required to drive scale and delivery, and that adjustments to the team structure will be required to ensure scalability…

“To remain on track, the Department will have 18 months to increase functionality to create a fully integrated service eventually capable of handling up to 10 million claimants. It will use an agile approach to do this. The Department plans to trial new systems in spring 2015, when it intends to start testing efficiencies and delivery against policy intent. It then plans to test increased capacity from November 2015.”

Not so agile

“…The Department will continue to use traditional approaches for buying and maintaining systems supplied commercially, such as existing Department‑wide systems and cloud hosting…”

Inaccurate payments

In April 2014, a software update [from a major supplier] created new problems for [UC] calculations and inaccuracy increased again. Between April and June 2014, over 10% of payments made to claimants were incorrect. This damaged staff and stakeholder confidence in the system and the Department had to reintroduce 100% manual checking of payments in June 2014 …

“… At present the Department is undertaking 100% checking of all payments before they go out.”

Better leadership

Confidence in the leadership team has improved despite continuing difficulties and the heavy demands on the programme director through 2014 caused by the limited availability of the senior responsible owner. A follow-up survey found a large increase in the number of staff expressing confidence in the actions of senior leadership (from 30% in 2013 to 75% in 2014) and an increase in the number of staff who feel that senior management encourages challenge and welcomes their suggestions (from 30% in 2013 to 70% in 2014).

Do major suppliers have too much control of DWP IT?

“The Department’s management of suppliers has been tested by the problems that emerged following an IT update in April 2014 designed to enhance live service. A supplier made significant changes in addition to the work that had been commissioned by the Department. It did not fully inform the Department of this, therefore the update was not adequately tested before it went live.

“The release caused an increase in payment errors described in Part Three. The supplier agreed to rectify the coding at its own expense. This delayed the next release by 2 weeks because of constraints on departmental and supplier resources, and the need to implement further controls recommended in a review commissioned by the Department after the April release.

“In November 2014, the Department’s internal audit reported that the programme has built technical capability to challenge, monitor and review supplier performance, including challenge of the management information provided.”

Manual interventions

“As planned, many processes in live service and digital service areas currently remain dependent on manual interventions.”

Universal Credit: progress update

Universal Credit full business case “a long way from Treasury approval”