Category Archives: Campaign4Change

Will DWP board welcome today’s criticisms of Universal Credit programme?

By Tony Collins

A report of the Public Accounts Committee published today says that the Universal Department for Work and Pensions continues to have a culture of denial over problems with implementing Universal Credit.

Labour MP Meg Hillier who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, said in an interview on LBC this morning (26 October 2018) that the Department for Work and Pensions regards any comment or feedback on the Universal Credit programme as criticism and a political attack.

Her committee’s report said that local DWP offices are helpful and listen to criticism of the Universal Credit implementation programme but not DWP corporately.

DWP officials have criticised even the National Audit Office. The report says,

“Following the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which raised concerns over the implementation of Universal Credit, the Department repeatedly denied the substance of his findings both in the media and in Parliament and maintained that Universal Credit was working well.

” The Comptroller & Auditor General wrote an open letter to the Secretary of State to ‘clarify the facts’ and to confirm that the report had been fully agreed with senior officials in the Department.15 On 4 July 2018 the Secretary of State had to apologise for misleading Parliament regarding the content of the report. Such defensiveness was also evident throughout the evidence session.”

As a credit to the IT professionals and civil servants who have been involved in developing the Universal Credit systems, the Public Accounts Committee report is largely about the programme’s effects on claimants rather than the technology.

Comment:

DWP’s mandarins are likely to be comforted by criticisms of the Universal Credit implementation programme in today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee.

They  remain convinced that Universal Credit is working well and that criticisms are policy-related. To some extent they are right. In the past year, criticism of the programme has gradually moved away from the performance of the IT.

Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee is about the intricacies of the Universal Credit implementation programme but hardly mentions the IT. This is much to the credit of those developing the systems. Universal Credit replaces six systems that are each of labyrinthine complexity: housing benefit, employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowance, child tax credit, working tax credit and income support.

Many Universal Credit payments are wrong and late but these criticisms are not in the mainstream, eclipsed perhaps by legitimate criticisms of how Universal Credit works rather than whether it works.

Of concern, though, is the fact that the Universal Credit programme is years from being fully rolled out. The DWP claims that just over on million people are claiming it, which is a seventh of the total numbers expected to claim.

Whether the IT will work well at scale is not known. The DWP routinely keeps secret independent evaluations of the Universal Credit systems.

It is this culture of secrecy that makes the Department of Work and Pensions an organisation ill-suited to spending large sums of public money on IT-enabled programmes.  Universal Credit IT is, to some extent, working well in spite of the corporate culture. But we don’t know how well it will work when put under much more pressure.

Could the DWP’s defensive, dismissive and secretive culture end up sinking the Universal Credit programme when the number of claimants rise substantially?

What is worrying is that the DWP will probably not recognise that the boat is sinking until it is too late for rescue.

In its report published today, the Public Accounts Committee describes the  Department of Work and Pensions as a “department disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support”.

The PAC report adds that the DWP is in denial and cannot learn from its mistakes (which is a criticism of a departmental culture that goes back decades).

The DWP hierarchy may be pleased at this criticism because the more outsiders and particularly MPs criticise Universal Credit,  the more some senior Whitehall officials seem to have a settled belief that they are on the right track.

The only thing that deeply upsets DWP officialdom is a leak of authoritative information to outsiders in the media or to MPs.

Leaks have led in the past to internal inquiries led by the security services. Even a leak to the media of the results of an internal survey of staff morale on the Universal Credit programme prompted a top-level investigation.

This is what the PAC said,

Denial

“The Department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme.”

Blinkered

“The Committee has regularly commented on the Department’s blinkered approach to risks and problems with Universal Credit’s implementation.”

Unresponsive

“We are disappointed that this culture of denial remains firmly in place. Local organisations have found the Department unresponsive to issues they have raised, and told us that the Department is not learning lessons and applying them to the programme. In addition, when the Comptroller and Auditor General raised concerns over the implementation of the programme in his report, the Department repeatedly questioned the substance of the report both in the media and in Parliament.”

“The Department’s defensive approach was further evident in the way it responded to criticism during our evidence session, refusing to accept that Universal Credit causes hardship for many claimants, and believing that issues raised were reflecting the policy not the implementation.

“But unless the Department learns to listen, it will not be able to adapt the programme to make it a success.”

Perhaps the only solution is a secretary of state who would be willing to criticise the DWP. It has not happened yet except briefly when Stephen Crabb took over the role from Iain Duncan Smith for  few months in 2016.

Esther McVey the current secretary of state is what DWP mandarins would call a “safe pair of hands”.

For the DWP, the culture of denial, defensiveness and unresponsiveness will remain unconfronted. All of which bodes ill for the Universal Credit implementation programme when it is put under the pressure of having millions of claimants.

Thank you to campaigner David Orr for the Universal Credit links

Public Accounts Committee report – Universal Credit

Universal Credit DWP statistics

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Horizon IT High Court case could have a “material” effect on Post Office accounts.

By Tony Collins

Directors of the publicly-owned Post Office have said that an adverse outcome of a High Court dispute with former subpostmasters over the Horizon IT system could have a material impact on the consolidated accounts.

The directors also say that £3m was spent on legal costs in 2017/18 and “we expect costs to be more significant in 2018/19 and 2019/20”.

Hundreds of owners of local post offices are taking part in a Group Litigation case against the Post Office. They say their lives and finances have been ruined by problems related to the performance of the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.

The High Court case is to determine whether the Post Office was legally justified in taking the actions it did against the subpostmasters and whether the shortfalls shown on the Horizon system, for which subpostmasters were held personally liable, were genuine deficits or merely numbers generated by an unreliable system.

Three years ago the directors of the Post Office said in their annual report that the outcome of a High Court dispute with the former subpostmasters would not have a material adverse impact on the consolidated position of the Group.

This is from the Post Office’s 2015/16 annual report,

“A High Court claim has been issued on behalf of a number of postmasters against Post Office in relation to various legal, technical and operational matters. Full particulars of the claim (including as to quantum) have not yet been received by Post Office. The Directors do not consider the outcome of any current claim or action will have a material adverse impact on the consolidated position of the Group.”

The following year, the directors reported thatthey will “keep under review” whether the outcome of the case will have a material impact on the consolidated position of the Group.

 The Directors do not currently consider, but continue to keep under review whether, the outcome of any current claim or action will have a material adverse impact on the consolidated position of the Group,” – Post Office 2016/17 annual report.

Last month, in their 2017/18 annual report, the directors of the Post Office said that an adverse outcome of the case “could be material” to the consolidated position of the Group.

While the Directors recognise that an adverse outcome could be material, they are currently unable to determine whether the outcome of these proceedings would have a material adverse impact on the consolidated position of the Group, and are unlikely to be able to do so until the Court has made further determinations and the Claimants have provided the necessary information about the value of their claims. The Directors continue to keep this under close review. In 2017/18 the costs of £3 million included in operating exceptional items relate to Post Office defending the Post Office Group Litigation. These have been disclosed as operating exceptional items because we expect costs to be more significant in 2018/19 and 2019/20.”

Comment:

Whether concerns about the dependability of Horizon were being raised by MPs, by BBC’s Panorama or by Second Sight, the forensic accountants the Post Office commissioned to look into subpostmaster complaints, the Post Office’s board has always stood by its decisions and actions.

Do Post Office directors believe that the legal issues matter more in the case than the lives of hundreds of people who used to work for them?

Some subpostmasters have been jailed or declared bankrupt. Some have sold their homes to cover the shortfalls shown on the Horizon system. Most have lost their livelihoods. Do their lives matter more than proving the legal grounds of decisions and actions taken?

It is not as if the decisions and actions of the directors are infallible. Judge Fraser, in a pre-trial ruling earlier this month, rejected some of the Post Office’s legal arguments.

The Post Office could lose the case.  The judge could then order the Post Office (in other words taxpayers) to pay large sums in costs and compensation. As the directors recognise, an adverse outcome could have a material effect on the Post Office’s consolidated accounts.

It was the decision of the Post Office’s directors to, in effect, mount a High Court defence of their actions and the Horizon system.  It was their decision to spend millions of pounds of public money on lawyers rather than on settling the dispute and paying compensation to the subpostmasters. It’s clear that the directors remain convinced that there is no merit in the subpostmasters’ case.

If the Post Office loses the case (and any subsequent appeals) will its directors be held accountable for their decisions?

If they decide now to settle the dispute, will they be held accountable for the millions of pounds of public money already spent on legal fees?

Whatever the outcome of the case, lawyers will have to be paid.   With every week that goes by without a settlement, the legal costs are mounting. The amounts of public money at risk are increasing.

It is almost certain nobody in government will interfere with the Post Office’s decision to continue its defence of the subpostmasters’ actions. It is therefore the directors’ decision to continue to fight.

No doubt they are convinced their actions and decisions will be vindicated. But what if they are wrong? What will happen then? Who will be responsible for the millions of pounds of public money spent on a case that did not have to be fought?

If the current directors have left their jobs by the time of any appeals in 2020, will they still be held accountable if the Post Office loses?

Thank you to Tim McCormack, a former IT consultant and owner of local post offices in Scotland who has been a critic of the Horizon system and the Post Office’s actions aganst subpostmasters. He spotted what the Post Office was saying in its various annual reports about the High Court case and has written about it on his blog “Problems with POL [Post Office Limited)”.

Tim McCormack’s blog

Tim McCormack on Twitter:  @Jusmasel2015

Nick Wallis’s blog on the High Court case

High Court Horizon IT case has cost £10m – and the trial has yet to start

 

High Court Horizon IT case has cost £10m – and the trial has yet to start

bBy Tony Collins

vague threats” , “undoubtedly aggressive”, “dismissive”

These are words a judge has used in his pre-trial ruling on a High Court case between hundreds of subpostmasters and the Post Office over its Horizon IT system.

Judge Fraser used the words when referring to the Post Office.

Freelance journalist Nick Wallis, who has received crowdfunding to cover the trial, has written an excellent blog post on the ruling.

The trial of 600 subpostmasters and Crown Office employees versus the Post Office starts next month. Subpostmasters say the Horizon accounting system was defective at times and the shortfalls they were held responsible for did not really exist. The Post Office stands by the integrity of its Horizon system. It has persisted with recovering the shortfalls, which has left some subpostmasters bankrupt. The FT reported that attempts to recover the shortfalls could have contributed to one premature death and an attempted suicide.

The judge’s latest ruling on 10 October 2018 said the litigation is on a subject of “obvious public interest”.

The ruling reveals that both sides have together spent £10m on legal costs so far.

The costs of lawyers for the subpostmasters are being met by private funding.  On the other side, the Post Office has no private money at risk. The Post Office is owned by the government’s Department for Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

If each side has spent about the same on legal fees, it means the case has so far cost the Post Office more in legal fees than the whole organisation received in increased trading turnover (£4m) during 2017/18.

The subpostmasters say the Post Office unjustly pursued them for accounting shortfalls that were the result of software coding errors, bugs and defects and the way the Horizon accounting system operated.

The Post Office pursued the shortfalls “with vigour”, said Judge Fraser. He went further: he said the Post Office’s treatment of the subpostmasters was “highly controversial”.

He said some subpostmasters covered the shortfalls out of their own resources even though they did not accept that there was anything deficient in their accounting. Others found accounting irregularities in their favour. A few were convicted in the criminal courts of false accounting, fraud, theft or other offences. Some had their contracts with the Post Office terminated, “sometimes very abruptly”.

The judge said the subpostmasters are of the view that the Post Office, over time, came to know about difficulties with the Horizon system, but did not address them and did not publicise these problems.

The subpostmasters claim damages for financial loss and personal injury. They allege deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is reviewing the convictions of a “significant number” of the subpostmasters, said the judge.

The Post Office denies the subpostmasters’ claims and has produced many pages of legal evidence in defence of the Horizon system and the Post Office’s actions against the subpostmasters.

Post Office’s “supernatural” foresight?

The judge’s ruling contains some unflattering words about the Post Office pre-trial legal attempts to strike out some of the subpostmasters’ written factual evidence.

He urges the two sides’ legal teams to save time and money but says a  “counter-productive approach”  lurks in the background to the Post Office’s application to strike out “large parts of the factual evidence” served by the subpostmasters.

He said the Post Office had first raised concerns about the scope of the subpostmasters’ evidence in October 2017 – many months before the subpostmasters actually submitted their evidence.

“Given the [subpostmasters’] statements themselves were only served in August 2018, that shows considerable, if not almost supernatural, foresight on the part of the defendant [Post Office],” said the judge.

He added,

“There have been various proxy wars about the claimants’ witness statements in the period from October 2017 onwards, even though no such statements were in existence.

“Indeed, notwithstanding the high number of interlocutory appearances before me, it was a rare hearing when the subject was not mentioned.

“Given there were no witness statements available to be considered on the majority of these occasions (and indeed not at all prior to the short notice hearing on 11 September 2018), this was a highly unusual situation. All it did identify was that there was a major interlocutory battle looming. And so it has proved.”

He went on to say that the attempts by each side to outmanoeuvre one another in the litigation has led to constant interlocutory strife.

“This is an extraordinarily narrow-minded approach to such litigation,” said the judge.

The judge rejected the Post Office’s application to strike out parts of the subpostmasters’ statements. The judge said,

“The application by the [Post Office] to strike out this evidence appears to be an attempt to hollow out the Lead Claimants’ [subpostmasters’] case to the very barest of bones (to mix metaphors), if not beyond, and to keep evidence with which the defendant [the Post Office] does not agree from being aired at all.”

The judge suggested that, in the background to the Post Office’s application to strike out parts of the subpostmasters’ evidence, the Post Office was “simply attempting to restrict evidence for public relations reasons”.

Nick Wallis’ article has more on the judge’s  warnings about the “tenor of this litigation generally”.

All credit to Wallis [@nickwallis] for covering the case and obtaining crowdfunding to do so. He is reporting on the case at www.postofficetrial.com.

Computer Weekly was the first publication to report on the Horizon scandal (in 2009). It has a timeline of events.

Comment:

The Post Office’s decision to pay its lawyers millions of pounds to fight the subpostmasters rather than use that money to compensate the same subpostmasters, shows where the Post Office’s priorities are.

Public institutions in general care about managing their reputations and justifying their decisions. The Post Office’s directors could have chosen to be different. They could have chosen to care in the way institutions usually  do not.  How astonishing it would be if the directors now decided to say to their lawyers,

“Until now our legal teams have dealt with the subpostmaster cases. Now the Board is taking over responsibility. These cases are about the lives of the people who used to work for us and their families. The cases are no longer about proving the correctness of esoteric legal arguments.

“The subpostmasters have suffered enough. We are a large institution. We can afford to give them the benefit of the doubt. No computer system is infallible.

“We believed we were contractually entitled to take the actions we did but that did not make our actions right. Home Office officials said the Windrush deportations were legally justified but that didn’t make the deportations right.

As the barrister Sir Robert Morton said in “The Winslow Boy “, Terence Rattigan’s play about injustice, “Let right be done”.

Nick Wallis’ Post Office Trial blog

Civil servants exclude some major IT and other projects from proper oversight, finds National Audit Office

By Tony Collins

Civil servants are excluding some of the biggest and riskiest IT and other projects from oversight by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, the National Audit Office has found.

A report of the NAO, which is published today, raises questions about why officials are removing projects from oversight for no clear reason.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, calls for the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to exercise a “tougher discipline over the terms on which projects are included, or more to the point excluded from its oversight”.

The NAO report says that 29 major ICT projects costing about £10bn fall within the Authority’s remit, as well as a further 41 major projects worth £83bn that are described as “Government transformation and service delivery” projects. These 41 projects include the modernising of government “back office” activities.

Specific major projects that fall within the Authority’s remit include the Universal Credit IT programme, the separate Department for Work and Pensions “IT transformation” and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s smart meters roll-out.

The NAO criticises the “poor records and incomplete reporting of the process for projects entering or leaving” the Authority’s portfolio. This lack of transparency “increases the risk and perception that projects are removed inappropriately”, says the NAO.

Major IT projects such as the one that supports the roll-out of Universal Credit are not subject to independent oversight where the results are published, except when the National Audit Office investigates or when the projects are reported on in a general and vague sense by departments. Public Accounts MPs regard oversight by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as important because it reveals whether projects have had “red”, “amber” or “green” traffic light reviews.

But for years senior civil servants have resisted publication of the traffic light status of their major projects. A test case went to the High Court in 2008 when the civil service fought the publication of “Gateway Reviews” which included the traffic light status of the ID cards scheme.

Co-presenter of the BBC R4 Today programme John Humphrys covered the High Court case at the time. He began his interview with Computer Weekly by saying,

“The government does not want us to know how its big IT projects are going. It’s using an ancient law to keep these massive projects, most recently ID Cards, from public view…”

Thanks to the insistence of the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who introduced measures in 2011 to force departments to be more openness about major IT projects, the annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority contains short summaries of the status of major projects.

But the civil service continues to refuse FOI requests to publish the results of its reviews of the status of major projects such as Universal Credit and the smart meters roll-out.

And today’s NAO report – “Leaving the government major projects portfolio” – underlines the fact that departments close down some major IT and other projects without mentioning anything to Parliament or the public. The NAO calls on the civil service to “publish a statement on project closure that assesses what has been delivered”. The NAO says,

“Departments are responsible for delivering the benefits of projects and such a statement would close the gap in visibility of major projects…Publication of evaluations would help departments learn lessons from major projects, including the realism of expected benefits.”

The NAO finds that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority is agreeing to requests by departments to remove major projects from the Authority’s oversight.

The NAO goes further: it says it is not clear why some programmes were not included in the Authority’s portfolio of projects in the first place.

The NAO report also found that the civil service has:

  • Revised a project’s original plans and targets, then given the project a “green” traffic light status based on the revised baseline rather than the original plan. The NAO cited the Mobile Infrastructure Project to fill gaps in commercial mobile telephone coverage. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport worked in partnership with four mobile network operators. It initially committed to building 575 mobile telephone masts to expand coverage to 60,000 premises, at an estimated cost of £150m. But after approval, these targets proved over-optimistic and ultimately unattainable. It built 75 masts against a revised target of 40, reaching 7,199 premises at a cost of £36m. The Infrastructure and Project Authority’s exit review gave the project a “green” traffic light status against the new baseline. The subsequent evaluation used only the revised baselines and reported that they had been achieved.
  • Changed the scope of projects without reporting it.
  • Withdrawn projects from the Authority’s oversight without carrying out a final “Gate 5 Review” – or any other exit review – of whether the project has achieved the intended benefits. Sometimes departments are “not clear” what the withdrawn project has achieved”, said the NAO.
  • Withdrawn projects from the Authority’s scrutiny after they have obtained poor results during reviews (Par 14).
  • Withdrawn projects before they are complete or have achieved their objectives. “The Authority monitors benefits when a project is on the Portfolio but is not in a position to monitor whether they are realised once it leaves,” says the NAO.
  • Withdrawn projects from the Authority’s scrutiny without anyone knowing why. The NAO report said, “We saw very limited documentation to support the Authority’s agreement to remove a large number of projects from the Portfolio on three occasions. This reduces transparency. Similarly, departments often had difficulties in responding to our questions about sample projects when relevant people had moved on, indicating a lack of central record-keeping on projects within departments.”
  • Embarked on major projects without a dedicated project team, a clear end point or a business case. “Out of the 302 projects that left, the Authority recorded 48 as having no business case,” said the NAO.

Comment:

The NAO report is thorough. It suggests that little has changed in decades.

MPs and the public have no secure right to know if major IT projects are failing, have been cancelled or are going massively over their budget.

Francis Maude tried to force departments to be open about their major IT projects but since he left as Cabinet Office minister the civil service has returned to its old unaccountable ways.

Tens of billions of public money are being spent on major IT-related projects. Why would any government want information published on whether its major projects are failing?

As John Humphys of the BBC Today programme said in 2008, “The government does not want us to know how its big IT projects are going”. It’s up to public accounts MPs and the NAO to continue to campaign for this to change.

Projects leaving the government major projects portfolio – NAO report

 

Uupublished plan to throw another £13bn at the NHS’s IT problems?

By Tony Collins

The Health Service Journal yesterday revealed details of NHS IT investment plans that have been costed at about £12.9bn over the next five years.

The HSJ’s award-winning technology correspondent Ben Heather  says the sums currently involved – which could reduce as proposals are “reined in” – are on a par with the notorious National Programme for IT in the NHS.

He says that officials working on the plan have produced an estimate of between £10.9bn and £12.9bn for the cost of supporting proposals across 15 long-term plan “workstreams” ranging from creating personalised care to improving cancer survival.

The figures form part of the work of the digital and technology workstream for the long term plan, which is being developed by NHS England and NHS Improvement.

“The sum would be on par with the National Programme for IT, the most expensive push to improve IT systems in NHS history and an infamously costly and troubled project. It is likely to reduce substantially, however, as ambitions for the plan are negotiated and reined in over coming weeks.”

The plan is due to be published in late November or early December. The health secretary is known to be a keen advocate of new IT-related investments.

It is likely that a sizeable portion of the new £20bn planned for the NHS – which will be financed partly by tax increases that are due to be announced in the budget later this month – will go on NHS technology.

But the Health Service Journal suggests the investments will be controlled centrally, which may be a bad sign given that one of the major flaws in the failed £13bn NPfIT was that money was controlled centrally rather than by local groups of doctors and nurses.

Comment

On the face of it the current investment proposals bear no resemblance to the NHS IT programme NPfIT which was “dismantled” in 2011.

The NPfIT comprised a handful of specific major projects that were to be implemented nationally under the umbrella of “ruthless standardisation”.

The current proposals look very different. The investments fall into vague categories such as digitalising secondary care, improvements to IT infrastructure, data gathering and analytics.

The proposals have all the appearance of a different way the NHS has found to waste vast sums of public money.

It has never been acknowledged by the Treasury, NHS England or the Department of Health that the NPfIT wasted billions on spending that was invisible to the public, such as numerous consultants, years of globe-trotting by officials, first-class hotels across the world, sponsored conferences and unreported funds for marketing items that included DVDs and board games designed especially to promote the IT programme.

For officials, there’s nothing more exciting than going to work on a £13bn technology programme where money flows more freely than water. It’s no wonder officialdom is lobbying for the money.

No doubt it will be easy for officials to obtain the new billions. At any time in the recent history of the NHS it would have been easy on paper to justify £13bn for new NHS technology. Much of the £13bn could be justified simply enough by submitting plans to HM Treasury to modernise what already exists.

It was easy to justify the NPfIT. Tony Blair approved it at a Downing Street meeting that lasted 40 minutes. Computer Weekly obtained minutes of the Downing Street meeting after various FOI appeals.

But the NHS needs £13bn to be spent wisely on technology. The last thing the NHS needs is for Whitehall officials to be involved. History shows that Whitehall has the reverse Midas touch when it comes to major NHS IT investments. It is local groups of doctors and nurses who know how to spend the money wisely.

If either NHS England or the Department of Health and Social Care is involved in the new proposals for NHS IT investments – and they both are – it’s almost certain the new plans will end up as costly failures.

How would the public feel if they realised that a sizeable portion of their increased taxes for the NHS is almost certainly destined for the dustbin marked “mismanaged Whitehall IT schemes”.

Revealed: Officials’ £13bn funding ask to modernise NHS IT

Another NPfIT scandal in the making?

How widespread is undetected fraud and corruption in UK local government?

By Tony Collins

Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” has two stories in its current edition that seem unrelated but there may be a link.

One of the stories is about a £2m fraud at Tory-controlled Barnet Council. It was committed by a former council employee whose job was outsourced to Capita. He made use of his budget-holder status on Capita’s Integra financial system. He gave instructions for 62 payments, totalling £2,630,972, into his own bank accounts between July 2016 and December 2017.

Internal and external auditors failed to spot the fraud. Highly-paid local government officers did not spot it; and accounting controls were ineffective, in part because they were geared to highlighting irregularities of £15m or more. The fraud was detected by chance, by a query raised by the employee’s bank. This raises the question: could other frauds be happening now in local government across the country, unnoticed?

The other Private Eye story in the current edition is about attempts by various (Tory-controlled) councils, Harrogate, Nottinghamshire and Thurrock, to stifle reporting of their affairs. And at South Ayrshire Council the chief executive wanted councillors to attend mandatory re-education sessions on why they should not talk to journalists.

What does a fraud at Barnet have to do with attempts by councils to stop journalists looking too closely at what’s going on?

Comment:

Local reporters (and local bloggers) may turn out to be the only effective check on local councils exploiting local taxpayers. Is this one reason many councils seem to regard journalists’ scrutiny as an unnecessary evil?

It may be difficult for some in British society to imagine it but what if some local council officials and councillors found themselves operating in such a void of accountability that they realised that frauds and corruption were likely to go unnoticed?

Have the sums spent in local government – the plethora of multi-million contracts – become so vast that it’s easy for small amounts – say £2m – to go unnoticed? Does the lack of accountability in local government encourage some officials and councillors to look after their own interests?

Auditors are beholden to councils for future work. This may give them a disincentive to be too nosy when things don’t look right. They’ll investigate – but how deep will they want to dig? How much cooperation will they have if they dip too deep?

An incentive to stamp out fraud and corruption exists when council officers have a public service ethos which most undoubtedly have – but what when they don’t?

It could be said that the public service ethos went out the window years ago when departmental officers began receiving private sector-type salaries for jobs in which a failure to run the department properly was no drawback to a successful career in local government.

Failure matters only to taxpayers – and how much do they matter?

Some blame Capita and outsourcing for the Barnet fraud but it could have happened unnoticed whether or not the council had outsourced IT and other services to Capita. The point about the fraud is that it was spotted by chance. Could undetected fraud and corruption be prevalent in local government?

The uncomfortable truth is that nobody knows; and taxpayers will remain in the dark if councils continue to avoid the accountability and oversight provided by journalists (and local bloggers).

At least Barnet knows what to do to put robust controls in place, thanks to Grant Thornton’s in-depth report on the causes of the fraud. Will other councils have the slightest interest in Grant Thornton’s report? They have not the slightest incentive to read it let alone check whether they have the same weaknesses.

In 2013 Transparency International published a report funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Corruption in Local Government: the mounting risks”. It said that a “disturbing picture emerges”, and one on which experts and interviewees were agreed:

“On the one hand, the conditions are present in which corruption is likely to thrive – low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate, outsourcing of public services, significant sums of money at play and perhaps a denial that corruption is an issue at all.

“On the other hand, the system of checks and balances that previously existed to limit corruption has been eroded or deliberately removed. These changes include the removal of independent public audit of local authorities, the withdrawal of a universal national code of conduct, the reduced capacity of the local press and a reduced potential scope to apply for freedom of information requests. We have identified 16 areas in which we find a marked decline in the robustness of local government to resist corruption.”

Some will argue that the cases of fraud and corruption that have come to light, including the Barnet fraud, will represent the tip of the iceberg. Others will argue equally strongly that the relatively small number of obvious corruption and fraud cases is a sign that there is no iceberg.

But one point made by Transparency International is unarguable:

“When accountability is absent, public officials may exercise their power for private ends unchecked by scrutiny, complaint, or the threat of punishment. Clear opportunities exist for unethical officers and members to exploit public trust for private gain. In any sector, corruption tends to increase as oversight and enforcement are weakened.”

Private Eye reports regularly on attempts by councils to gag local reporters. Perhaps some councils are aware that in trying to escape journalistic scrutiny they are providing the perfect conditions in which fraud and corruption thrive.

Conclusion

Is fraud and corruption widespread in UK local government? The most obvious answer is that we don’t know. It could be. But it’s not the British way to force councils to act. In the circumstances, taxpayers have only one effective control against widespread fraud and corruption in UK local government: trust.

Thank you to openness campaigner David Orr for his help on this blog post.

Postscript

It’s tempting to praise Barnet Council for publishing Grant Thornton’s report on the fraud but a much-respected local blogger Mr Reasonable has provided the facts that show Barnet was, initially, less than open.

Mr Reasonable was aware of the fraud in February 2018 but nothing was mentioned publicly until April when a major fraud investigation was mentioned at an Audit Committee meeting, although no details were given. In July some councillors were given a draft copy of the Grant Thornton Report in private session. Mr Reasonable asked the council at the time why the public were not allowed to see this report. The reason?

Council officers/the report author determined that Appendix 1 (the Grant Thornton report) should be exempt. Capita has made a request for more time to respond on the accuracy of this document and this was considered”.

The Grant Thornton report was not published until September 2018 – by which time it was in its seventh draft.

Mr Reasonable has an excellent analysis of the GrantThornton report here.

Corruption in local government: the mounting risks

 

Ex Tory minister expresses “horror” at the way NHS IT money is allocated. But will anything change?

By Tony Collins

On Monday 29 October the Chancellor will announce his 2018 budget. Taxes are expected to go up to provide extra funds for the NHS.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has already said that part of £20bn extra for the NHS will be spent on making “making the NHS an ecosystem for the best technology available”.

But a former Conservative minister George Freeman – who is an advocate for more NHS IT spending – has expressed his “horror” at the way money has been allocated to NHS IT.

His comments suggest that no lessons have been learned from NPfIT, the disastrous £10bn NHS IT programme.

Freeman is no stranger to the world of IT. Before entering politics he ran a predictive toxicology business that created an algorithm to look at existing drugs and side effects and how drugs could be more effective.

When in government in 2014 he was Life Sciences minister with a responsibility for digitising the NHS. In 2016 he moved to head up the upcoming Prime Minister Theresa May’s policy board. He resigned from that role last year.

Now the BBC reports a talk by Freeman to the Taxpayers’ Alliance in which he described his “horror”, when he was Life Sciences minister, at being handed £4.2bn to create a “paperless” NHS in England by 2020 without a plan how to do it.

Although Freeman’s ministerial role was digitising the NHS, he had not been involved in the 2016 public spending talks. He said his civil servants were ordered to set out how they would spend the money only after it was allocated.

This is how things are done in government, said Mr Freeman. This is why schemes go wrong, he suggested.

“The deal was done between Jeremy (Hunt) and George (Osborne) – it was a good thing, a big chunk of money to digitalise the NHS,” he said. His civil servants were delighted to have secured the money, he said, but when they were asked to produce a delivery plan, involving 26 different “work streams”, the “system” proved incapable of doing it.

When he visited the team charged with designing a new digital health care system, he found the designers were “nice people” who had based their work on academic literature rather than the experiences of patients and clinicians.

Freeman wanted to make his point that “top down” solutions never work. He said,

“The Treasury should have said you are not even having a penny until we have got your delivery plan and until we know that you are not just going to buy a system off the shelf from some big company.”

Freeman said it was scandalous that the health service still relied on “paper and cardboard” – and 20 year-old computers – when doctors, nurses and patients all had smart devices that could be used to access records and online communities.

He said the answer was “lots of local digital solutions” designed by doctors – and he claimed the IT industry would “quickly” work out how to get the different systems to talk to each other.

“Hiring an off-the-shelf big package from one of the big companies has been proven time and again to fail,” he said.

NPfIT – in which big IT companies were given contracts worth billions of pounds – was “dismantled” in 2011 as a failed £10bn scheme.

As in Freeman’s time as Life Sciences minister, the NPfiT began as a generalised scheme without any clear or precise plan as to how the new billions would be spent.

Comment

It’s astonishing that after 30 years of repeated and costly IT failures in the NHS, little or nothing in Whitehall seems to have changed in the way policy-makers allocate central funds to NHS IT.

All governments want to digitise the NHS without knowing what that involves and without getting the basics right.

Today ministers will talk at every opportunity about the benefits of artificial intelligence and “building an ecosystem for the best technology available” rather than listening to what clinicians and nursing staff want. Clinicians and nurses do not want to spend 20 minutes or more every day logging into a plethora of different systems that don’t talk to each other.

Clinicians and doctors do not want to hear from ministers about how much is going to be spent on a paperless NHS, or on making the NHS world-class, when their existing systems are, for various reasons, unavailable.

It’s true that, apart from all GP practises and a small number of hospitals where impressive systems are part of the culture of the organisation, the NHS is still largely reliant on paper. Still, that does not justify spending £4.2bn without a clear idea of what clinicians and nurses want and need.

How many more governments will over the next 30 years continue the apparently hard-wired trend in Whitehall of professing to have learned lessons from past failures while overtly displaying a contempt for those same lessons?

As Freeman suggests, the best way to spend money on NHS IT is to allocate it to groups of local clinicians and nurses (and especially not hospital boards) to decide how to spend it within a coherent national plan for systems to talk to each other, over secure internet links if necessary.

This isn’t to the taste of senior Whitehall officials who’d rather have central control and a grand strategy to announce in ministerial statements.

Will anything change? Probably not. The likelihood is that we’ll all be paying increased taxes – to be announced on 29 October – for more NHS IT disasters.

Thank you to openness campaigner David Orr for alerting me to Freeman’s comments. 

MP’s horror at getting £4.2bn to spend on digitising the NHS without a plan – BBC

£20bn for the NHS … not spent like this please.

How much of NHS tax rise is destined for international IT companies?

By Tony Collins

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told the BBC’s “Today” programme yesterday that part of the £20bn a year extra funding for the NHS will pay for “vital” new technology.

“The money is coming,” said Hancock in reply to Today presenter Justin Webb who asked whether it was right for the £20bn to be spent on technology rather than, say, more GPs.

Webb asked, “This money [for new systems] comes out the money recently announced for the NHS that I think people will have thought was for patient care but a significant amount of it will be spent on IT?

“Improving the IT does improve patient care,” said Hancock, “You need the best technology to get the most out of that [£20bn] money.”

Hancock said lessons from the disastrous £10bn NPfIT have been learnt and it’s time to move on.

“One of the problems of the history of bad NHS IT decisions is that people have run away from this subject,” said Hancock, “Leadership has run away from this subject in too many cases. We must all embrace it [new  technology].”

He said the new approach to NHS IT will be markedly different to the NPfIT.

“The £10bn NPfIT imposed a top down solution on every trust in the land.” The new plan means “required standards – data protection, cyber security and crucially standards of interoperability – but you buy the kit and crucially it has got to be able to work with the rest of the NHS’s IT”.

He said the new money will go into much more than having systems talking to each other. “Clinicians are demanding the sorts of changes we are proposing.”

In the short term, more than £200m will be spent to make a “group of NHS trusts into internationally recognised centres for technological and digital innovation”.

Justin Webb said the Hancock plan sounds much like the NPfIT – which Hancock denied.

Comment

NPfIT was a disaster for taxpayers but not for all international IT companies.

About £10bn was spent, much of it with IT companies and on consultants. Perhaps for this reason parts of the private sector have good reason to take a pragmatic view of public sector IT disasters.

And behind the scenes, the lobbying of senior officials over new NHS IT plans has become routine, from the sponsoring of break-off groups at party conferences to off-the-record events and briefings.

It’s unlikely Hancock will have been in the job long enough to have been lobbied personally but it’s likely his officials have – and for the best of reasons: to ensure they are keeping up with what’sh on the market and what new technology is capable of achieving in the NHS.

To his credit, Hancock acknowledged this week that the biggest problem with NHS IT is that systems do not talk to each other.  Indeed, he is fond of the vogue word beloved of NHS IT suppliers – interoperability.

Matt Hancock’s Telegraph article 6 Sept 2018

But much of what he said this week in his Telegraph article and speech at NHS Expo in Manchester could have come from the press release of an international IT company. That same press release has been issued numerous times over the past 20 years: about the spending of more money on an IT-led transformation while learning lessons from the past.

What ministers and the press releases rarely say – if ever  – is that the NHS’s biggest IT-related problems could be solved with only little money. There’s no need for self-aggrandizing announcements. No need to buy warehouses of new systems from IT corporations. It’s simply a question of finding the best and cheapest way to allow existing NHS systems to talk to each other: perhaps using secure web links in the way banks enable customers to see their accounts and carry out banking transactions.

Why don’t NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care fund a joint practical study into the best and simplest way of linking existing systems – rather than spending money centrally on a new app for booking GP appointments – which sounds like a repeat of the NPfIT  “Choose and Book” system?

Too boring perhaps. No politician wants to announce a mere study, especially when one where there’s no big money involved, no guaranteed mention of either artificial intelligence or a new app and no mention of an IT-led transformation that will save the NHS hundreds of millions. And no mention of a paperless NHS by the end of 2018 or the use of leading-edge technologies for the benefit of officials’ CVs.

But, as Apple said, and Da Vinci was purported to have said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

Would that Hancock were lobbied to learn the main lesson from NHS IT disasters of the past 20 years: that the biggest reforms don’t have to be wrapped in big financial packages.

It won’t take much to make interoperability happen. But sorry – it’s a reform that doesn’t come with glory. No immortalised legacy for ministers.

Please Mr Hancock do not talk about artificial intelligence and new apps while people are dying because NHS systems don’t talk to each other.

For those who are faced with a tax rise to fund an extra £20bn a year for the NHS, “investment” in new IT from international suppliers will not be top of their list of priorities.

Given the pressures within the health service to meet increasing demands from an ageing population, perhaps the new maxim for central planning of NHS IT ought to be: do nothing other than what is absolutely necessary.

Nobody is inspired by technocratic talk. What inspires is the bringing about of a major common good at a surprisingly low cost.

BBC Today interview with Matt Hancock on NHS IT – 6 September 2018

£20bn for the NHS? – not spent like this please

Johnathan Lewis, CEO Capita (right) and Simon Stevens, Chief Executive, NHS England (left) at Monday’s Public Accounts Committee.

By Tony Collins

Capita apologies for working “blind” on NHS outsourcing contract – but no humility from NHS England

Capita’s CEO Johnathan Lewis was contrite and authoritative when he appeared before public accounts MPs in the House of Commons on Monday.

He apologised unreservedly for what the committee chairwoman Meg Hillier called “a shambles”, which was Capita’s £330 seven to ten-year contract to run a range of services for GPs, dentists and ophthalmologists, as well as handle invitations and test results for cervical screening.

Capita’s Primary Care Support Services contract began in 2015 and complaints about the service from medical practitioners began to flow months later.

Capita made mistakes, said Lewis who was supported by his colleague Stephen Sharp, who reports directly to Lewis on public sector contracts. One mistake was that Capita tried to save money too soon by folding the work of 47 local NHS offices with 1650 staff into three offices without fully understanding that each office had a different way of working and a different way of delivering NHS services.

[A similar mistake helped to floor the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT), where suppliers and Whitehall officials tried unsuccessfully to use computers to standardise working practices and services in hundreds of hospitals before they fully understood the widely-different approaches of each hospital.]

Lewis told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday,

“This was an extremely complex outsourcing of services that I think both parties would recognise were not fully understood when the work was outsourced – the volumes, the scope, the fact that the service was being delivered in different ways across the different regions that became NHS England. At the same time I recognise the pressure NHS England were under to reduce costs and hence the pressure on them to outsource.”

His colleague Stephen Sharp added,

“I think mistakes were made. During the bid stage, NHS England did say there were some inconsistencies and differences within the various operations. But once Capita got into all the offices and looked at it, the inconsistencies and differences were not inconsequential. It was more or less 45 different services being run from 45 different offices, so the closure programme, which we adhered to and carried on with, we maybe should have stopped. We just made the problem worse as we went along.”

Why didn’t you stop the office closures, asked Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris who added that “even the NHS said, ‘We think you need to stop’.”

Sharp replied,

“We were actually working blind for a period of time. It was only once the service had been running under our control for a few months that complaints started to come in and we started to see visibility that there were bigger issues than we thought there were.”

With hindsight he said he would not have closed offices “until we had got the procedures operating on a national basis”. He conceded that if NHS England and Capita had deferred closing offices, the first two years of savings of about £60m would not have been achieved.

Capita’s losses of £140m

Lewis said that Capita had invested £125m in the contract but, given the loss of profit margin, the losses would be closer to £140m. “We will not make money over the life of this contract,” said Lewis.

An MP asked: why not walk away?

Lewis replied, “Because we made a commitment to deliver this service and reputations depend on that commitment. We see the public sector as a segment of our market that helps us achieve a diversified revenue base. It is a segment where we have services and solutions, where we can create value for the taxpayer and that is why it is an attractive segment.”

Capita is now meeting 41 of the 45 KPIs and, though the company is making good progress against the remaining four KPIs, it doesn’t change the fact that “our initial execution on this contract was not good and for that we apologise unreservedly,” said Lewis.

There were failings on the part of NHS England too. Health officials were so anxious to achieve the savings from closing offices and replacing old IT that couldn’t be relied on that they failed to test new national, standardised working practices and services before they asked a supplier to implement this strategy.

The result was that officials at NHS England had no clear idea of how much work they were outsourcing. They left due diligence to Capita; and Capita admitted at the hearing it did not do enough due diligence at the bid stage. If it had understood how much work was involved it would have bid a higher price or not bid at all.

NHS England also failed to involve most of the potential end-users – GPs, dentists and ophthalmologists in the design and planning of new services that would directly affect them such as pensions and payments.

Lewis said.

“There are other stakeholders that have historically not been brought into this process to the extent that they should have been, such as the BMA [British Medical Association] in how we might implement the digitisation of pension payments and the management of its pensions, or the Confederation of Dental Employers with regard to ophthalmic payments.

“We want to bring them into the process in ways that they have not been historically because we think that that will ultimately lead to a more successful roll out of the technology… They rightly have influence over the process. If we are going to roll out a process for digitising the 20,000 paper documents that cover the process by which you get refunded for an ophthalmic prescription today, surely those people need to be involved in the final roll-out and configuration of that solution.”

Absence of humility?

When MPs questioned the top official at NHS England, Simon Stevens, there was little sign of humility, contrition or regret. He left an impression that the same problems could end up being repeated by a different supplier under a different contract. One Conservative MP Bim Afolami found himself “sticking up for Capita”.

Afolami said,

“Do you feel, Mr Stevens, that criticism of this contract is in any way unfair on Capita? The more I hear, the more I feel that Capita has taken the sharp end of this and NHS England, despite slight reputational difficulty, has saved £60 million. To what extent do you feel that you should take more of the blame here and Capita should take less of it?”

Stevens emphasised the £60m savings but made no mention any of the contract’s specific problems such as the thousands of patient records that went missing, dozens of women left off cancer-screening lists, the qualified GPs who were unable to work for months while the system delayed verifying their entitlement to go onto a “National Performers List”, the GPs who ran short of basic supplies or the GPs and ophthalmologists who suffered financial detriment because of delayed payments.

Said Stevens,

“First, let me say that this has clearly been a rocky road, and the National Audit Office accurately described the bumps along the way, which are regrettable. That should not obscure the fact that, notwithstanding the economic pain that Capita has experienced, the contract has saved taxpayers £60 million in lower administrative costs in the National Health Service over the first two years of its life … that £60 million of savings is not to be sniffed at; it is the equivalent of 30,000 operations.”

Comment:

Campaign4Change has repeatedly criticised Capita’s performance on Barnet’s outsourcing contract, in part because Capita and the council have been markedly defensive – thin-skinned.

It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Capita’s newish CEO Jonathan Lewis being openly contrite over highly-visible failings in the NHS contract. He gave the impression to public accounts MPs of being a CEO who is determined to put right the failings for the sake of Capita’s reputation. The cost of correcting the problems seemed a secondary consideration.

With Lewis at the helm, Capita’s share price has continued to rise in recent weeks.

Less impressive at Monday’s hearing was Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, who seemed to imply that NHS England had done nothing wrong.  It was a reaction we’ve come to expect from top civil servants after an IT-related programme disaster. It’s never the fault of officialdom.

The reality is that NHS England was almost as culpable as Capita. NHS England rushed the whole outsourcing exercise – which doomed it from the start. It didn’t listen to critics who warned that primary care support services were too locally diverse and inherently problematic to standardise as part of a national  outsourcing deal.

Instead of first piloting and agreeing with GPs, dentists and ophthalmologists fundamental changes in working practices that would be needed across the country, NHS England went ahead with signing a co-called transformation deal with Capita.

NHS England paid only lip service to engagement with the new system’s end-users in the medical professions. By its own admission Capita, because of its own internal shortcomings, went into the contract blind.

What’s worrying is the way civil servants blithely repeat mistakes of the past and later say they did everything right.

The National Programme for IT in the NHS – NPfIT – failed in part because it was rushed, the implications of “ruthless standardisation” were not fully understood at the outset and there was a lack of proper engagement with potential end-users in hospitals and GP practices. All these same mistakes were made by Capita and NHS England on the Primary Care Support Services contract.

When ordinary human beings become senior civil servants there seems to be a requirement that they lose at a cellular level the facility to express humility and contrition. That loss is replaced by an overly prominent complacency. Whatever goes wrong is not their fault.

Stevens said in essence that NHS England did everything right. Through its unpublished project reviews, the Major Projects Authority – now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority –  endorsed NHS England’ s plans. All the so-called experts gave the outsourcing deal what Stevens called a “thumbs-up”.

It would have been surprising if Stevens had said the public sector was in any way to blame.

At least Capita has learned the lessons. It has a financial interest in doing so.

Ministers can learn from Capita’s candid chief executive

NHS England’s management of Primary Care Support Services contract with Capita – National Audit Office report

Monday’s televised Public Accounts Committee hearing with Capita’s Jonathan Lewis and Simon Stevens of NHS England

£837m wasted on Universal Credit IT?

By Tony Collins

Is Universal Credit an IT disaster or a qualified success for the government’s biggest agile programme?

A less obvious part of today’s National Audit Office report “Rolling out Universal Credit” raises a question of whether taxpayers have paid £837m on a computer system that wasn’t essential.

The so-called “live service” system has been built in part by the DWP’s major IT suppliers Accenture, IBM, HP and BT. It will be decommissioned in July next year. Instead the DWP will continue to use an internally-supplied agile “full service” system to support Universal Credit claims.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, questions in today’s report whether Universal Credit is any better or more efficient than the decades-old benefit system it is supposed to replace. He says,

“Universal Credit has taken significantly longer to roll-out than intended, may cost more than the benefits system it replaces, and the Department for Work and Pensions will never be able to measure whether it has achieved its stated goal of increasing employment…

“Universal Credit has not delivered value for money and it is uncertain that it ever will.”

Whitehall officials and ministers including the then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith expected the roll out of Universal Credit to have finished by October last year. In fact only around 10% of the final expected caseload are currently claiming Universal Credit, says the report.

There are no plans to re-use most of the hardware or software that taxpayers paid for as part of the £837m “live service” system.

The “live service” was built on a foundation of existing DWP IT hardware and software. The new agile system which is called the “full service” is built largely from scratch. It’s the government’s largest ever agile development programme.

Simplify?

Universal Credit is supposed to simplify an overly complex benefits system. It  rolls six working-age benefits into one system but its current running costs are £699 per Universal Credit claim. Officials had expected it to cost £173 per claim by 2024-25.

The Department for Work and Pensions has spent a total of £1.9bn on administering the programme so far -and it’s at least five years from completion.

It looks likely that Universal Credit will take much longer than the 10 years it took originally to computerise the benefits system in the 1980s. That original benefits system, called “Operational Strategy” was supposed to cost £713m. It ended up costing £2.6bn.

In reply to its critics, the Department for Work and Pensions says the estimated savings of Universal Credit are much greater than the costs. But the National Audit Office has learned that the DWP keeps re-calculating its savings estimates upwards, sometimes for no sound reason.

Indeed the report finds that DWP officials are already overstating savings by “approximately £462 million each year”.

Other findings in the report suggest that:

  • The full business case was a piece of creative writing. The full business case is supposed to be a final check on whether the Treasury releases funds for a roll-out. But the Treasury had approved funds anyway, before the business case was signed off last month (May 2018). The report says the full business case was “produced at a time when the government was already committed to rolling out the programme using an agile approach”.
  • Officials have yet to fully understand the risks of fraudulent claims. DWP managers do not have the means to “enable them to identify potential fraud”. The report says DWP officials must “understand the causes of Universal Credit fraud and error identified to date and respond to these promptly”.
  • Officials are making up savings estimates as they go along. Savings estimates of introducing Universal Credit are put at £8bn a year but, says the report, “these benefits remain theoretical. We have significant doubt about the main benefits …”
  • The DWP has a cultural resistance to accepting criticism or bad news. It regards its critics as ill-informed. The DWP’s response to criticism is to say that “anecdote is stronger than management information”. The National Audit Office says that officials “often dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening”. The result, says the report, “has been a dialogue of claim and counter-claim and gives the unhelpful impression of a Department that is unsympathetic to claimants”.
  • A good news culture prevails. Says the National Audit Office, “The Department’s view of the success of Universal Credit contrasts sharply with those of the external organisations we spoke to.”
  • The roll-out is already six years behind its original schedule and is not due to complete until 2023 at the earliest. The report hints that the DWP ought to slow down even more. It says the DWP hshould “ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes”.
  • Five years into the roll-out the DWP has “enough functionality to run a basic system, but many processes are still manual and inefficient”.
  • The DWP “significantly overestimated the number of claimants that would be able to confirm their identity online”. Only 38% compared with its expected 90% succeeded in using Verify, the government’s online identity verification tool.

Comment

The National Audit Office has produced a superb, thoroughly-researched report.

It would be easy to conclude from its findings that Universal Credit IT has been a disaster.  In fact it’s a qualified success for the government’s biggest agile programme. A parallel “waterfall” project that was developed in case the agile system didn’t work is being decommissioned next year. The waterfall “live service” has cost £837m so far which appears to have been wasted.

Had the DWP and ministers not rushed Universal Credit in the early stages – which is what happened with the NHS National Programme for IT NPfIT – officials could have fully understood what they were doing and not needed to develop two completely separate systems in parallel.

The private sector would love the luxury of developing two completely different computers at the same time and adopting only the one it preferred. But having access to public funds, the DWP could afford to be profligate. And it has been – with impunity. In the public sector there is collective responsibility. No individual will be held responsible for spending £837m unnecessarily.

Indeed the DWP will tell MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that both systems were needed. The “Live Service” that will be decommissioned has enabled the DWP to obtain the benefits of Universal Credit earlier than would have been the case had it waited for an agile system to be rolled out.

But what benefits? The National Audit Office report questions the DWP’s benefit claims. Indeed the DWP’s poor record on accurate forecasting  of the costs and savings on IT programmes and the frequency with which its officials revise costs and savings figures on Universal Credit, are enough to cast doubt on the credibility of the DWP’s every public assertion or announcement.

Universal Credit IT is by no means a disaster story but with £837m of wasted spending and the numerous problems and risks the programme still faces, it can hardly be categorised as a success – unless you believe the DWP’s announcements, press releases and statements.

National Audit Office report – Rolling out Universal Credit