Category Archives: capacity building

Large suppliers still dominate government IT

By Tony Collins

In 2012, the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, lamented the high costs of government IT and spoke of an “oligopoly” of large suppliers. He suggested things would change.

“… contracts were consistently awarded to a limited number of very large suppliers on long-term exclusive contracts.

“As a result there was inadequate competition and an abdication of control. The concept of having one supplier, aggregated supply, increased project risk and removed competitive tension.

“The Government repeatedly found itself paying large amounts for systems that were delivered late, over budget and which often did not fully meet the original policy requirement.  If indeed, they were delivered at all. There are plenty of well-documented disasters – such as DH’s now terminated National programme for IT.

“Ultimately, the last Government lost control of IT – it outsourced not only delivery, but its entire strategy and ability to shape the future of our public services.

“At the same time smaller, more innovative and efficient suppliers were finding themselves locked out of the supply of services to Government because of what was described by Parliament as a powerful “oligopoly” of large suppliers.

“Procurements took so long only the big companies could absorb the cost – which they naturally passed on to us.

“All in all, we had an approach that was bad for users, bad for the taxpayer and bad for growth.”

Public sector IT spending was up to £20bn a year, he said, adding that “public sector productivity was actually declining”.  He outlined how things were changing.

What has happened since?

A report published today by the National Audit “Digital Transformation in Government” raises a question of how much has changed.

Efforts to boost the SME share of government IT business “have had some impact”, says the National Audit Office, but it adds that “most government procurement with digital and technology suppliers continues to be with large organisations”.

“In 2015-16, 94% of such spending was with large enterprises, a fall of less than one percentage point since 2012-13.”

Today’s NAO report is mainly about the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service – GDS. It points out GDS’s strengths and weaknesses but in general does not give any advice on the sensitive point of whether it should have more or less influence on government IT.

On digital transformation, it says that the work of the NAO shows that attempts to transform government have had mixed success.

“Many public services appear increasingly unsustainable. Those responsible for major programmes have continued to exhibit over-optimism and make slow progress towards their objectives.”

It adds,

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs.

“GDS has also struggled to demonstrate the value of its own flagship initiatives such as Verify, or to set out clear priorities between departmental and cross-government objectives.

“GDS’s renewed approach aims to address many of these concerns as it expands and develops into a more established part of government. But there continues to be a risk that GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities.

“To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

Comment

The National Audit Office report is strong on facts and quality of research but avoids the big question of how GDS can bring about change when the top brass in departments prefer autonomy to what they see as GDS’s interference.

GDS’s existence goes to the heart of how the civil service runs. It is one part of the civil service trying to bring about change in other parts of the civil service.

And the evidence so far is that the civil service doesn’t like change.

The NAO report disappoints because it doesn’t address how government IT is to change if departments are to continue to run empires unchallenged by GDS or the heads of the civil service. Sir Humphrey is still king.

GDS scrutinises departmental IT spending – spending applications are reviewed by a team of eight people within GDS’s Standards Assurance team – but, much to Sir Humphrey’s delight, GDS’s influence seems to be waning.

When Jack Straw was Justice secretary, he told MPs in 2007 that when he abandoned projects there was a fuss at first and soon nobody noticed the project did not exist.

“There is always the option to abandon things. I did that in the Foreign Office with much complaint that the world might end.

“What happened was that we saved a lot of money and no one ever noticed the fact that that scheme did not exist…it is very frustrating that so many people, including the private sector, are taken in by snake oil salesmen from IT contractor who are not necessarily very competent and make a lot of money out of these things. I am pretty intolerant of this.”

How much has changed? Outsiders including Jack Straw and Francis Maude, together with insiders such as Chris Chant have pointed to the need for major changes in the way departments manage huge IT budgets and there have been some improvements: HMRC’s is breaking up its monolithic “Aspire” contract, citizens may notice that it is possible now to renew passports and driving licences online and GDS has had an impact in making departments think hard about whether they really need to spend the amounts they do on major IT contracts.

But major change in the costs of government IT seems not just a long way off but unattainable while the dominance of Sir Humphrey remains unchallenged.

Digital Transformation in Government – NAO report

Southwest One – a positive postscript

By Tony Collins

somerset county council2IBM-led Southwest One has had a mostly bad press since it was set up in 2007. But the story has a positive postscript.

Officials at Somerset County Council now understand what has long been obvious to ICT professionals: that the bulk of an organisation’s savings come from changing the way people work – and less from the ICT itself.

Now that Somerset County Council has the job of running its own IT again – its IT-based relationship with Southwest One ended prematurely in December 2016 – the council’s officials have realised that technology is not an end in itself but an “enabler” of headcount reductions and improvements in productivity.

A 2017 paper by the county council’s “Programme Management Office”  says the council has begun a “technology and people programme” to “contribute to savings via headcount reduction by improving organisational productivity and process efficiency using technology as the key enabler”.

Outsourcing IT a “bad mistake” 

It was in 2007 that Somerset County Council and IBM launched a joint venture, Southwest One. The new company took over the IT staff and some services from the council.

In the nine years since then the council has concluded that outsourcing ICT – thereby separating it from the council’s general operations – was not a good idea.

The same message – that IT is too integral and important to an organisation  to be outsourced – has also reached Whitehall’s biggest department, the Department for Work and Pensions.

Yesterday (8 February 2017) Lord Freud,  who was the Conservative minister in charge of Universal Credit at the Department for Work and Pensions, told MPs that outsourcing IT across government had proved to be a “bad idea”.  He said,

“What I didn’t know, and I don’t think anyone knew, was how bad a mistake it had been for all of government to have sent out their IT…

“You went to these big firms to build your IT. I think that was a most fundamental mistake, right across government  and probably across government in the western world …

” We talk about IT as something separate but it isn’t. It is part of your operating system. It’s a tool within a much better system. If you get rid of it, and lose control of it, you don’t know how to build these systems.

” So we had an IT department but it was actually an IT commissioning department. It didn’t know how to do the IT.

“What we actually discovered through the (Universal Credit) process was that you had to bring the IT back on board. The department has been rebuilding itself in order to do that. That is a massive job.”

Task facing Somerset officials

Somerset County Council says in its paper that the council now suffers from what it describes as:

  • Duplicated effort
  • Inefficient business processes
  • A reliance on traditional ways of working (paper-based and meeting-focused).
  • Technology that is not sufficient to meet business needs
  • Inadequate data extraction that does not support evidence based decision making.
  • “Significant under-investment in IT”.

To help tackle these problems the council says it needs a shift in culture. This would enable the workforce to change the way it works.  

From January 2017 to 2021, the council plans “organisation and people-led transformational change focused on opportunities arising from targeted systems review outcomes”.

The council’s officers hope this will lead to

  • Less unproductive time in travelling and  attending some statutory duties such as court proceedings.
  • Fewer meetings.
  • Reduced management time because of fewer people to manage e.g. supervision, appraisal, performance and sickness.
  • Reduced infrastructure spend because fewer people will mean cuts in building and office costs, and IT equipment. Also less training would be required.
  • Reduction in business support process and roles.
  • Reduction in hard copy file storage and retention.

 The council has discovered that it could, for instance, with changes in working practices supported by the right technology,  conduct the same number of social services assessments with fewer front- line social workers or increase the level of assessments with the same number of staff.

Southwest One continues to provide outsourced services to Avon and Somerset Police. The contract expires next year.

Comment

Somerset County Council is taking a bold, almost private sector approach to IT.

Its paper on “technology and people” says in essence that the council cannot  save much money by IT change alone.

Genuine savings are to be found in changing ways of working and thus reducing headcount. This will require very close working – and agreement – between IT and the business end-users within the council.

It is an innovative approach for a council.

The downside is that there are major financial risks, such as a big upfront spend with Microsoft that may or may not more than pay for itself.

Does outsourcing IT ever make sense?

Somerset County Council is not an international organisation like BP where outsourcing and standardising IT across many countries can make sense.

The wider implication of Somerset’s experience – and the experience of the Department for Work and Pensions – is that outsourcing IT in the public sector is rarely a good idea.

Thank you to Dave Orr, who worked for Somerset County Council as an IT analyst and who has, since the Southwest One contract was signed in 2007, campaigned for more openness over the implications of the deal.

He has been more effective than any Somerset councillor in holding to account the county council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police, over the Southwest One deal.  He alerted Campaign4Change to Somerset’s “Technology and People Programme” Somerset paper.

One of Orr’s recent discoveries is that the council’s IT assets at the start of the Southwest One contract were worth about £8m and at hand-back in December 2016 were worth just £0.32m, despite various technology refreshes.

Somerset County Council’s “Technology and People Programme” paper

Whitehall’s outsourcing IT a “bad mistake” – and other Universal Credit lessons, by a former DWP minister

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 – gov.uk – 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.”

Recovery?

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”.

Comment

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”.

NPfIT

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.

Victims

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

 

EC probes IBM CIO secondment at the Met Office

By Tony Collins

A part of the European Commission is investigating a decision by the Met Office to appoint an IBM executive as CIO while he worked at the same time for IBM, the organisation’s main IT supplier.

The investigation was prompted by concerns of campaigner Dave Orr who wrote to the EC about the Met Office’s appointment of an IBM secondee David Young as CIO for two years between 2010 and December 2012.

Now Michel Barnier, the EC Commissioner responsible for internal market and services, says in a letter to Orr’s MEP Sir Graham Watson that the EC’s Directorate-General for Internal Market and Financial Services has been carrying out “an in-depth analysis” of the facts presented by Orr.

As part of this, the EC has written to the UK government seeking clarification on a number of points.

Some of Orr’s concerns arise from the Met Office’s responses – and non-responses – to his freedom of information requests. One of his concerns is of a potentially cosy relationship between the Met Office as a publicly-funded organisation and its principal IT supplier IBM; and he has wanted to know why the job of Met Office CIO was not openly advertised in a competitive recruitment process and whether its appointment of an IBM secondee had the potential for a possible conflict of interest.

Orr said that the secondment had the potential to confer a unique and significant intelligence and relationship advantage for IBM that other supercomputer suppliers could not hope to match. “In my view, that is anti-competitive and may in spirit at least, fail the EU procurement rules,” said Orr.

Barnier said that the existence of a conflict of interest would “depend on a number of factors such as the precise role and responsibilities the position entails, in particular whether it includes formulating and preparing technical specifications or tender documents for future IT contracts that the Met Office may put out to tender”.

It is also relevant, said Barnier, whether the terms and conditions of the secondment “impose any obligations or restrictions on the head of the department to prevent conflicts of interest, both during the secondment and afterwards”. He also wanted to know if internal rules were in place to prevent conflicts of interest in the course of tendering procedures.

The Met Office and ministers said that Young was not involved in procurement decisions relating to existing supercomputer facilities. Norman Lamb, then minister at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, said last year:

“Any potential conflicts of interest regarding David Young’s appointment were fully considered prior to his appointment and his terms of engagement specifically cover these …

“David Young had no involvement in the procurement process for existing supercomputing facilities, either for IBM or the Met Office, and he will have completed his secondment and left the Met Office prior to the selection of replacement supercomputer facilities.”

A wise decision?

The decision to second an IBM employee to run the 300-strong IT department, which is based at the Met Office’s supercomputer site in Exeter, raises questions that may go beyond the potential for a conflict of interest.

As Young was unable to be involved in some buying decisions and was unable to attend the technology strategy board to avoid any potential for a conflict of interest, did the Met Office restrict itself unnecessarily in hiring a CIO who faced these constraints?

Did the Met Office waste money – and a precious two years – hiring a lifeguard whose terms of employment required him to wear handcuffs?

The secondment of Young came at a difficult time for the Met Office – and some of the main difficulties it faced in 2010 are largely the same today.

Responses to Orr’s FOI requests and a report by the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee highlight some of the Met Office’s challenges:

– A need for modernised software that will take advantage of next-generation supercomputers.

– A need for a replacement supercomputer that has twice the power of the existing one which operates close to one petaflop (one thousand million million floating point operations per second).

– Funding a new supercomputer (with optimised software) at a time of cut-backs in government spending.

A Met Office Executive Board paper said that its executives have had “soft” negotiations with various suppliers about next generation supercomputer technology. They spoke to Bull, Cray, Microsoft, NEC and SGI.

“Vendor presentations indicate that performance increases will come from increasing the number of processors and/or adding co processors designed to process arrays of data efficiently, rather than increasing the speed of individual processors,” said the Met Office paper.

The Met Office says that “significant optimisation work will be needed [on the code] and, if this is not completed around 2014, a delay in the launch of the procurement may be unavoidable.” It has been seeking software engineers with experience of Fortran (which was originally developed by IBM) or C, Unix or Linux and Perl.

A House of Commons report in 2012 emphasised the need for new technology at the Met Office. The report of the Science and Technology Committee “Met Office Science” said in February 2012:

“It is of great concern to us that these scientific advances in weather forecasting and the associated public benefits (particularly in regard to severe weather warnings) are ready and waiting but are being held back by insufficient supercomputing capacity. We consider that a step-change in supercomputing capacity is required in the UK.”

MPs acknowledged that “affordability is an issue.”

The Met Office declined to answer Orr’s FOI requests about the cost to the taxpayer of employing Young.

Since Young’s  secondment ended in December 2012 the Met Office has hired one of its own employees as CIO. Charles Ewen has worked for the Met Office since 2008. He works with science teams to operate the Met Office’s high performance computing facilities. He is responsible for the development and implementation of the Met Office’s ICT Strategy and for the internal technical teams within the Technology Information Services Directorate.

Comment:

The Met Office hired Young for the best of reasons: after a succession of internal management changes it wanted a highly professional, stabilising CIO. But did it need a CIO from IBM, its principal IT supplier?

That the Met Office was sheepish about the appointment of an IBM secondee was, perhaps, revealed by its website which, in giving a profile of Young, did not mention – at first – that he was seconded from IBM. After Dave Orr’s FOI requests the Met Office corrected its website omission, making clear that Young was on secondment from IBM.

The Met Office has been in existence nearly 16o years. It was founded by Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy in 1854 as the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade. It is highly regarded internationally. A testament to the quality of its computer models  – which are used for daily forecasts – is that its “Unified Model” is licensed in Norway, Australia, South Korea, South Africa, India, New Zealand and the US Air Force.

Scientists say that a three-day forecast today is as accurate as a one-day forecast was 20 years ago. But in the UK the Met Office gets a bad press – not always unjustifiably.  There is a perception that the accuracy of forecasting is not improving. Sometimes it seems poor.

The algorithms that form the basis of weather and climate models place huge demands on supercomputing architectures. The models produce exceptionally large volumes of data. Although the Met Office had a new IBM supercomputer in 2008 it soon needed more powerful hardware and modernised software.

So was it a good idea, with all the challenges the Met Office faced in 2010 – including the need to persuade the government of the need to fund  new supercomputer facilities – to appoint a CIO for two years who, because he was an IBM secondee, had understandable restrictions on his freedom to do his job, restrictions the Met Office has been reluctant to reveal, despite Dave Orr’s FOI requests?

Hole in the head

The Met Office may regard an EC inquiry into its appointment of an IBM secondee as the last thing it needs now. But accountability should not be left to the occasional scrutiny by a Commons committee – or to Dave Orr’s FOI requests.

Whitehall to lose its best troubleshooter

By Tony Collins

David Pitchford, who is arguably the civil service’s most able troubleshooter, is to quit the civil service in September and return to his native Australia for undisclosed family reasons. The FT broke the story yesterday.

Pitchford is Executive Director at the understaffed Major Projects Authority. It aims to work in partnership with permanent secretaries and senior civil servants to improve the success rate of major departmental IT and other large projects. 

In practice some senior civil servants in central departments resent the intrusion of the Cabinet Office. They do not like having to present their big schemes to the Major Projects Authority, particularly as it has David Cameron’s mandate to stop or re-scope failing projects.

Fighting intransigence? 

One unanswered question about Pitchford’s quitting is: has his morale been beaten down by departmental intransigence and even ill-will? Has the system defeated Pitchford and the taxpayer – the same system that confronted other Cabinet Office reformers John Suffolk, Chris Chant and Andy Tait?

It is possible that Pitchford feels his work is done now that the Major Projects Authority has finally, and after some departmental resistance, produced its first annual report.

The report’s key feature is its “traffic light” status on the projects it is keeping an eye on. In a foreword to the report, Pitchford wrote:

“April 2013 marks two years of the Major Projects Authority… For the first time, the country’s biggest and most high-risk projects are scrutinised so problems are exposed before they spiral out of control. Over two-thirds of major projects are predicted to deliver their promises on time and on budget, more than double the historic success rate. However, the MPA has studied carefully what goes on in every department, and we have uncovered some weaknesses which we are continuing to address.

“The MPA was established following a landmark report by the National Audit Office in 2010, which recommended a wholesale shift in the administration of major projects. It works closely with individual departments’ project teams and Permanent Secretaries to monitor and improve the management of major projects…the MPA’s Government Major Projects Portfolio has improved the rate of successful project delivery from under 30% to over 70%.

“Our success has been achieved by focusing intensively on the three core elements of successful project management: improving leadership; improving the operating environment; and looking closely at the past lessons.”

Pitchford is a much-valued executive in part because he can see why projects are failing and is straight-talking. He joined the Cabinet Office in November 2009 and in 2010 told a conference what he had discovered so far about the reasons for the failure of UK government projects:

– Political pressure

– No business case

– No agreed budget

– 80% of projects launched before 1,2 & 3 have been resolved

– Sole solution approach (options not considered)

– Lack of Commercial capability – (contract / administration)

– No plan

– No timescale

– No defined benefits

Since then Pitchford has been a little more guarded now about what he says in public. Campaign4Change said in February 2013 that the longer he stays in the innately secretive civil service the more guarded he seems to become but he is still one the best assets the Cabinet Office has. His main advantage is his independence from government departments.

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, said he would “much miss David’s sharp wit and impressive leadership”.

Is Pitchford’s departure a sign that the non-reformers in Whitehall departments are winning the battle against major change?

 

Francis Maude boasts of £10bn savings but …

By Tony Collins 

This morning Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude held a press conference with his senior officials to announce that civil servants have radically changed the way they work to save £10bn in 2012/13.

The savings are nearly £2bn higher than originally planned and, according to the Cabinet Office, have been “reviewed and verified” by independent auditors.

With a little journalistic licence Maude says: “…we are on the way to managing our finances like the best-run FTSE100 businesses.”

The breakdown of the £10bn savings:

Procurement   £3.8bn
Centralisation of procurement for common goods and services  £1.0bn
Centrally renegotiating large government contracts  £0.8bn
Limiting expenditure on marketing and advertising, consultants and temporary agency staff   £1.9bn
Transformation savings   £1.1bn
IT spend controls and moving government services and transactions onto digital platforms  £0.5bn
Optimising the government’s property portfolio  £0.6bn
Project savings   £1.7bn
Reviewing performance of major government projects  £1.2bn
Taking waste out of the construction process  £0.4bn
Workforce savings   £3.4bn
Reducing the size of the Civil Service   £2.2bn
Increasing contributions to public sector pensions   £1.1bn

Comment

It’s good news and the figures don’t seem plucked out of thin air which sometimes happens when central government announces savings.

The big question is whether the savings are sustainable. Maude has inspired the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group to be motivated and hard-working. But bringing about long-term change in Whitehall – as opposed to restricting consultancy contracts and cutting annual costs of supplier contracts by reducing what’s delivered – is like peddling uphill. How long can you do it without losing motivation and energy? It’s not just parts of the civil service that are resistant to the savings agenda – it is also some IT suppliers, according to Government Computing.

It’s likely that only profound changes in central government operations and working practices will outlast the next general election. At the moment the civil service is like a rubber band that has been stretched a little. It wants to return to its standard shape, which the next government may allow it to do.

The National Audit Office said in its report in April 2012 on the Efficiency and Reform Group in 2011/12:

“Savings to date have differing degrees of sustainability.”

The NAO also said this:

“It is not fully clear how ERG intends to make the reforms necessary to secure enough savings over the rest of the spending review. ERG has yet to translate its ambition for saving £20 billion by 2014-15 into more detailed plans.

“ERG has made progress in developing strategies across its wide range of responsibilities, and is focusing on core activities likely to produce savings. However, until recently ERG’s focus has mainly been on the savings themselves, with less emphasis on delivery of the longer-term changes and improvement in efficiency necessary to make them sustainable.”

And this:

“Departments have still tended to lack a clear strategic vision of what they are to do, what they are not, and the most cost-effective way of delivering it. Much of departments’ 2014-15 savings are likely to come from further reductions in staff. Sustainability of these savings will depend on developing skills and working in new ways while maintaining staff motivation and engagement.”

But the NAO was generally positive about the ERG’s contribution to savings.

“ERG’s actions to date, particularly its spending controls, have helped departments deliver substantial spending reductions.”

We hope the Cabinet Office’s diligent efforts continue  – sustainably.

Efficiency and Reform 2012/13 savings. Summary report.

Some suppliers still resistant to change? – Government Computing.

Is Major Projects annual report truly ground-breaking?

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, describes as “nothing short of groundbreaking” a report of the Major Projects Authority which gives the RAG (Rred/Amber/Green) status of more than 100 major projects.

That the report came out late on Friday afternoon as most journalists were preparing to go home, some of them for the whole bank holiday weekend, suggests that the document was a negotiated compromise: it would be published but in such a way as to get minimal publicity.

Indeed the report is a series of compromises. It has the RAG status of projects but not the original text that puts the status into context.

Another compromise: senior civil servants in departments have persuaded Maude to publish the RAG decisions when they are at least six months old.

This enables departmental officials to argue their case in the “narrative” section of the MPA annual report that a red or amber/red decision is out-of-date and that there has been significant improvement since. This is exactly the DWP’s justification for the amber/red status on Universal Credit.

The DWP says in the MPA report: “This rating [amber/red] dates back to September 2012, more than seven months ago. Since then, significant progress has been made in the delivery of Universal Credit. The Pathfinder was successfully launched and we are on course both to expand the Pathfinder in July 2013 and start the progressive national roll-out of Universal Credit in October.”

That the Pathfinder was launched successfully might have nothing to do with Universal Credit’s amber/red status which could be because of uncertainties over how the IT will perform at scale, given the complexities and interdependencies.  The MPA report says nothing about the uncertainties and risks of Universal Credit.

More compromises in the MPA annual report: the Cabinet Office appears to have allowed departments to hide their cost increases on projects such as HMRC’s Real-time Information [RTI] in the vague phrase “Total budgeted whole life costs (including non-government costs).”

The Cabinet Office has also allowed departments to write their own story to accompany the RAG status. So when HMRC writes its story on RTI it says that “costs have increased” but not by how much or why. We know from evidence that HMRC gave to the Public Accounts Committee that RTI costs have risen by “tens of millions of pounds”. There is nothing to indicate this in the MPA annual report.

Another compromise in the MPA annual report: there are no figures to compare the original forecast costs of a project with the projected costs now. There are only the 2012/13 figures compared with whole-life projected costs (including non-government projected spend).

And the MPA report is not comprehensive. It came out on the same day the BBC announced that it was scrapping its Digital Media Initiative which cost the public £98m. The MPA report does not mention the BBC.

The report is more helpful on the G-Cloud initiative, showing how cheap it is – about £500,000. But there is little information on the NHS National Programme for IT [NPfIT] or the Summary Care Record scheme. 

Yet the MPA annual report is ground-breaking. Since Peter Gershon, the then head of the Office of Government Commerce, introduced Gateway reviews of risky IT projects about 12 years ago with RAG decisions, they have remained unpublished, with few exceptions. The Cabinet Office is now publishing the RAG status of major departmental projects for the first time. Maude says

“A tradition of Whitehall secrecy is being overturned. And while previous Governments buried problems under the carpet, we are striving to be more open. By their very nature these works are high risk and innovative.

“They often break new ground and dwarf anything the private sector does in both scale and complexity. They will not always run to plan. Public scrutiny, however uncomfortable, will bring about improvement. Ending the lamentable record of failure to deliver these projects is our priority.”

Comment

The MPA annual report is a breath of fresh air.

Nearly every sentence, nearly every figure, represents compromise. The report reveals that the Universal Credit project was last year given an amber/red status – but it doesn’t say why. Yet the report has the DWP’s defence of the amber/red decision. So the MPA report has the departmental defences of the RAG decisions, without the prosecution evidence. That’s a civil service parody of openness and accountability: Sir Humphrey is allowed to defend himself in public without the case against him being heard.

But it’s still useful to know that Universal Credit is at amber/red.  It implies well into the project’s life that the uncertainties and risks are great. A major project at amber/red at this stage, a few months before go-live, is unlikely to turn green in the short term, if ever.

Congratulations

The Cabinet Office deserves congratulations for winning the fight for publication of the RAG status of each major project. Lord Browne, the government’s lead non-executive director and a member of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform group, has said  that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being frittered away because of “worryingly poor” management of government projects.

“Nobody ever stops or intervenes in a poor project soon enough. The temptation is always to ignore or underreport warning signs,” he says.

The management of some large projects – usually not the smaller ones – is so questionable that departments ignore advice to have one senior responsible owner per major project, says the MPA.

The MPA annual report will not stop the disasters. Its information is so limited that it will not even enable the public – armchair auditors – to hold departments to account. Senior civil servants have seen to that.

But the report’s publication is an important development: and it provides evidence of the struggle within Whitehall against openness. Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, have had to fight to persuade departmental officials to allow the RAG status of projects to be published. The Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour says of the MPA annual report

“Publication led to fierce infighting in Whitehall as government departments disputed the listings and fought to prevent publication.”

Large-scale change

If Maude and Kerslake struggled to get this limited distance, and there is still so much left to reform, will large-scale change ever happen?

Maude and his officials have as comprehensive mandate for change from David Cameron as they could hope for. Yet still the Cabinet Office still seems to have little influence on departments. When it comes to the big decisions, Sir Humphrey and his senior officials hold onto real power. That’s largely because the departments are responsible to Parliament for their financial decisions – not the Cabinet Office.

Maude and his team have won an important battle in publishing the MPA annual report. But the war to bring about major change is still in its very early stages; and there’s a general election in 2015 that could halt Maude’s reform plans altogether.

The Major Projects Authority Annual Report.

Informatics in a post-Francis era

 Jean Roberts has been involved in health informatics since the early 70s; in the NHS, for solution and service providers, academia and now as the Director (Standards), UK Council for Health Informatics Professions (www.ukchip.org).  In a  guest blog she writes on the importance of informatics and informaticians in the light of the Francis report.

There are significant areas where health informaticians can help with appropriate information in the right context to support ongoing decision making and monitoring post-Francis.

I was delighted that an informatics-competent professional was recognised in the Francis report as a necessary asset at Board level. I hope it happens. To make the most of such a Board asset, the professional’s capability, capacity and professional principles will need to be understood.

The current focus on the faster introduction of electronic health records [EHRs] is only one area; there is a risk that the politicians and the NHS per se fall into the trap that if the systems exist all will be well -they in fact need to be designed, developed, delivered and operated by professionals who understand the health domain in all its idiosyncratic ways. Patient safety is paramount but the front-line staff need to have good decision support and that will need extraction and interpretation in the light of specific contexts.

For example looking at an ‘average’ mortality normal range is inappropriate if certain hospitals are ‘on take’ for the more complex challenging cases as well as a ‘normal mix’ of cases – sadly a larger proportion of the very sick will die than normal, but specialist locations with excellent staff and appropriate resources will save more than would have otherwise died, but it takes a skilled analyst to build and present that case, even if they have the ear of the Board.  Hence I continue to repeat that business intelligence analysts and health informaticians need to be professional, domain-sensitive and domain-literate…. and their patch will get more complex as it starts to include social care interventions and medical tourism.

Chief Procurement Officer quits for private sector

Tony Collins

John Collington has resigned as Government Chief Procurement Officer after little more than a year in the post.

Collington’s resignation is reported by Peter Smith of Spend Matters. Smith says that Collington is to become Chief Operating Officer of Alexander Mann Solutions, a leading “Recruitment Process Outsourcing” firm.

“We might have expected consultancy, or software, but Collington has been involved in shared services in recent months and has a track record in outsourcing from his time at Accenture and I believe even before that.

“He’s got strong operational skills which should play to the COO role …” says Smith.

“Francis Maude gave Collington a glowing testimonial, as we might expect…But then Cabinet Office have to spoil it by talking nonsense …”

The Cabinet Office said Collington has reduced overall spend on goods and services from £51bn to £45bn and spend with SMEs is estimated to have doubled to £6bn, along with a 73 per cent reduction in spend on consultancy and contingent labour.

“We accept he has helped to reduce spend but, given he has no budget of his own, it’s a bit much to say he ‘has reduced overall spend’…” says Smith.

“And as Cabinet Office themselves know very well, they have no clue whether spend with SMEs has doubled, given the robustness (or lack of) around the data …”

It appears that Collington was a believer in incremental reform. He was not a Chris Chant who spoke of the need for radical reform. Chant argued with force  that high costs, present ways of working and the dominance of a few major suppliers were unacceptable.

Collington reported to Ian Watmore who was Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. Watmore has also resigned.

**

Nigel Smith, formerly head of the Office of Government Commerce [now subsumed into the Cabinet Office], was one the harshest critics of the way government bought goods and services.

Smith said in June 2010 that up to £220bn – nearly a third of everything government spent – was on procurement. But there were 44,000 buying organisations in the public sector which bought “roughly the same things, or similar things, in basic commodity categories” such as IT and office supplies. There were 42 professional buying organisations in public sector.

He said there was “massive duplication” of activity. We wonder how much has changed since then.

Spend Matters

Collington appointed Chief Procurement Officer

How CIOs and IT suppliers view GovIT change

By Tony Collins

CIOs and IT suppliers give their views on Government ICT in an authoritative report published today by the Institute for Government

Inside the wrapper of generally positive words, a report published today on government ICT by the Institute for Government suggests that major change is unlikely to happen, despite the best efforts of  CIOs and the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

The report “System upgrade? The first year of the Government’s ICT strategy”  says progress has been made. But its messages suggest that reforms are unlikely to  amount to more than tweaks.

These are some of the key messages in the report:

If the minister and CIOs cannot direct change who can?

–          “… while the Minister for the Cabinet Office and government CIO are viewed as being responsible for delivering the ICT strategy (for example by the Public Accounts Committee) they currently lack the full authority to direct change.”

Not so agile

–           “While just over half of government departments may be running an agile project, there were concerns that these were often very minor projects running on the fringe of the departments.”

–          “We heard concerns from the supplier community and those inside government that in some areas projects may be being labelled as ‘agile’ without having really changed the way in which they were run.”

–          “CIOs should question whether they are genuinely improving the ways that they are working in areas such as agile, or whether they are just attaching a label to projects to get a tick in the box,” says the Institute for Government.

Savings not real?

–          “There was also an element of challenge to the savings figures provided by government. For example, some from government and the supplier community questioned whether the numbers represented genuine savings or just cuts in the services provided or deferred expenditure. “

–          “Others … cautioned that project scope creep or change requests could reduce actual savings in time. It was pointed out that the NAO [National Audit Office] will scrutinise whether savings have been achieved in future, which was seen as a clear incentive for accuracy – but there were, nonetheless, concerns that pressure to provide large savings figures meant that inadequate attention might be paid to verifying the savings …”

CIOs want faster ICT progress

–          “Among the CIOs we interviewed, there was a clear recognition that government ICT needed to improve.  ‘You expect an Amazon experience from a government department…’ ”

Lack of money good for change

–          “As one ICT lead noted, a lack of money was ‘always helpful’ in driving change as it promoted cross-government solution-sharing and led to more rigour in approving new spend.”

–          “Both ICT leaders and suppliers felt that the ICT moratorium had been a helpful stimulus for increased focus on value for money.”

–          “Though some of the larger suppliers felt bruised by the ‘smash and grab’ of initial interactions with the Coalition government, there was a recognition that the moratorium had been about ‘stopping things which were inappropriate’”.

GDS challenges norms

–          “New ways of working in the new Government Digital Service and the opening up of government through the Transparency agenda were also seen as providing a challenge to existing norms.”

–          The new Government Digital Service (GDS) is providing an example of a new way of doing things, and was pointed to by those inside and outside of government as embodying mould-breaking attitudes, using innovative techniques and … delivering results on very short timescales. Several interviews mentioned being invigorated by the positive approach of the GDS and their focus on delivering services to meet end-user needs.

ICT so poor staff circumvent it

–          “Public servants are increasingly frustrated that the ICT they use in their private lives appears to be far more advanced than the tools available to them at work. Indeed, there are already examples of employees circumventing the ICT that government provides them as they attempt to perform their job more effectively: creating what is known as a system of ‘shadow ICT’ that creates significant challenges for maintaining government security, collaborative working and government knowledge management.”

Joined-up Govt impossible?

–          “The possibility that departmental incentives continue to trump corporate contributions is further suggested by our survey results. Individuals do not yet feel that corporate contributions are valued or rewarded … elements of the [ICT] strategy call for departments to give up an element of autonomy and choice for the ‘greater good’. Several CIOs expressed concerns that by adopting elements of the strategy that were being developed or delivered by another department, they would end up having to accept a service that had been designed  around the needs of a different department.”

–          “Similarly, there were concerns that the host department would be at the top priority in the event of any problems or opportunities to develop services further. This speaks to a strongly department-centric culture. Suppliers noted, for example, that certain parts of government were still happy to ‘pay a premium for their autonomy’.”

–          “… the vast majority of those we spoke to suggested that departmental interests would almost always ultimately trump cross-government interests in the current government culture and context.”

–          “CIOs felt that they would be rewarded for delivery of departmental priorities – not pan-government work …”

CIO Council frustrations

“CIOs noted that there could be a discrepancy between what got agreed at the old CIO Council meetings and what people actually went away and did. Larger department CIOs also expressed frustration that – despite holding the largest budgets and carrying the largest delivery risks – their voices could easily be outweighed by the multitude of other people round the table.”

“The delivery board model [which has superseded CIO Council] has been recognised by both big and small departments as pragmatically dealing with both sides of this issue. Larger departments now form part of an inner-leadership circle, but with this recognition of their clout comes additional responsibility to own and drive through parts of the strategy… the challenge will now be to ensure that the ICT strategy doesn’t become a ‘large department-only’ affair and that other ICT leads can be effectively engaged.”

Canny suppliers?

–          The majority of ICT leads …stated that they believed the ICT strategy would benefit their department and government as a whole. This confidence was less apparent in the attitudes of suppliers who were, on the whole, more sceptical of government’s ability to drive change, though again generally supportive of the direction of travel.

A toothless ICT Strategy is of little value?

–          “…There was also a lack of clarity on how different elements of the [ICT] strategy would be enforced. As one ICT leader commented … ‘Is this a mandatable strategy or a reference document?’ ”

–          … “there are risks that the strategy could be delivered in a way that still doesn’t transform ICT performance.”

Francis Maude an asset

–          “Government ICT has also been a priority of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude – giving the [change] agenda unprecedented ministerial impetus. He has been a visible face of ICT to many inside and outside of government, from demanding departmental data on ICT to being heavily involved in negotiations with ICT suppliers. Though few of his ministerial colleagues appear as passionate about improving government ICT, the CIOs we interviewed overwhelmingly expressed confidence that they would receive the support they needed to implement the changes in ICT.”

Smaller-budget CIOs out of the loop?

–          “With the CIO Council in hiatus for most of the last year, the CIOs of smaller departments felt out of the loop …”

Most ICT spending is outside SW1

–          “Suppliers and other ICT leaders pointed out, rightly, that the vast majority of ICT expenditure happens outside SW1 – with agencies, local government and organisations like primary care trusts and police forces still determining much of the citizen and workforce experience of ICT.”

SMEs still left out?

–          “Smaller suppliers … were generally encouraged that government was trying to use more contractual vehicles which would be open to them – but noted that it was ‘still extremely difficult to get close to government as an SME’.”

Who knows if use of ICT is improving?

–          “Government still lacks the information it needs to judge whether use of ICT across government is improving.”

System upgrade? The first year of the Government’s ICT Strategy.

Too early to claim success on GovIT – Institute for Government