Category Archives: change

Are councils short of money? Only for public services

By Tony Collins

Councils are short of money for public services – but not for senior officers’ pay-offs or botched deals.

A recent case is highlighted by Somerset’s County Gazette.

It says that restructuring costs for a newly-created council – in which two local authorities merged to save money by way of a “digital revolution” – are likely to double after more people than expected took redundancy.

The new council is expected to pay about £6m in redundancies instead of the target figure of £3m.

According to Somerset’s County Gazette, the pay-outs include £343,000 to the former chief executive of one of the two councils in the merger, Taunton Deane Borough Council, which was a founder member of the failed Somerset One joint venture with IBM.

The Southwest One enterprise cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds more than it saved.

Now it emerges that five other senior officers involved in the Somerset merger plans have received pay-offs of more than £100,000 each; and although 191 council staff were laid off last year as part of the merger plans, the new council is now considering recruiting dozens of much-needed extra staff.

Campaigner David Orr, a former IT professional at Somerset County Council, has written to the chief executive of newly-created Somerset West and Taunton Council, to express concerns about pay-offs, consultancy costs involved in the merger and what he called the “failed transformation”.

Somerset West and Taunton Liberal Democrat councillor Mike Rigby said,

This [the merger] is a spectacular failure. An uncontrolled exodus of staff, walking away with tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, in advance of a “digital revolution” that never arrived.

The council thought it could lose 120 staff as 250 council services went online. The problem is that 191 staff left while fewer than 20 services are available online.

“No consideration as to whether any of those 191 staff were carrying out essential duties so now we’re having to fill many of the redundant roles.

“An utter shambles … It’ll take some time to put this all back together.”

The new chief executive of Somerset West and Taunton Council, told the BBC,

“We’ve overshot that target (£3m), mainly because people put their hands up for voluntary redundancy…

“I think ultimately, people who were eligible to apply for voluntary redundancy decided to take that opportunity.” He said there had been no limit on the number of employees eligible for voluntary redundancy.

“There was an acceptance that if people wanted to take voluntary redundancy, they could do – that’s the way it was set up.

Short of money?

Although councils are said to be short of money for public services – it was reported in 2017 that many were facing bankruptcy – the Taxpayers’ Alliance said last month that, across the country, 2,441 council officers  — a four-year high – earned at least £100,000 a year with 607 of those receiving at least £150,000 in 2017-18.

A total of 28 local authority employees received remuneration in excess of a quarter of a million pounds in 2017-18.

One council has 55 employees earning more than £100,000.

Councils say they need to pay the equivalent of private sector salaries to attract the right people to run large and complex local authorities.

A Local Government Association spokesperson said councils are  “large, complex organisations” that make a “huge difference” to people’s lives.

The spokesperson added: “Senior pay is always decided by democratically elected councillors in an open and transparent way.”

Comment

IT-led transformations are fun. They are a break from routine and great for the CV.

The supplier gains. Those at the council working on the transformation gain. A win-win. Even the public may gain if anyone can ascertain from a complicated deal whether any savings have been made.

If the deal fails,  nobody is constitutionally accountable except the volunteer councillors.

And councils seem to follow the principle that every overtly botched IT-led transformation needs to be followed by a new IT-led transformation. If that doesn’t succeed, a third may make up for the other two.

All the while, senior council officers continue to receive no-risk salaries of £100,000 + and/or large pay-offs.

Large amounts of money paid to senior officers does a disservice to the mass of lower or middle grade council officers who earn appropriate sums and bear the same risks of losing their jobs as anyone in the private sector.

Why do councils exist?

Botched deals leave less for public services. And the more senior council officers continue to receive large sums of money whether their councils succeed or not,  the more they will reinforce the fat cat stereotype and convince people that councils exist for their own benefit rather than the public’s.

As more public services disappear while the cost of the council payroll soars, the more people will wonder whether their local council would prefer not to offer any services at all.

A Yes Minister episode had officials boasting of the efficiency of a newly-built and fully-equipped NHS hospital that had no patients.

The hospital was fully staffed with 500 administrators and ancillary workers but had no money left for any nurses or doctors.

Is this where councils’ public services are headed?

Thank you to campaigner David Orr who seeks to hold those in power in Somerset to account.

 

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Central buying of IT and other services is a bit of a shambles – just what Sir Humphrey wants?

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office entrance

Cabinet Office entrance

Like the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service was set up as a laudable attempt to cut the huge costs of running central government.

The Cabinet Office under Francis Maude set up the Crown Commercial Service [CCS] in 2014 to cut the costs of buying common products and services for Whitehall and the wider public sector including the NHS and police.

It has a mandate to buy commodity IT, other products and services and whatever can be bought in bulk. It has had some success – for example with negotiating lower prices for software licences needed across Whitehall. The skills and knowledge of its civil servants are well regarded.

But, like the Government Digital Service, CCS has had limited support from permanent secretaries and other senior officials who’d prefer to protect their autonomy.

It has also been hindered by unachievable promises of billions of pounds in savings. Even CCS’s own managers at the time regarded the Cabinet Office’s plans for huge savings as over-optimistic.

Yesterday [13 December 2016] the National Audit Office published a report that questioned whether CCS has paid its way, let alone cut public sector costs beyond what civil and public servants could have achieved without it.

CCS employed 790 full-time equivalent staff in 2015/16 and had operating costs in one year alone of £66.3m

This was the National Audit Office’s conclusion:

“CCS has not achieved value for money. The Cabinet Office underestimated the difficulty of implementing joint buying for government. With no business case or implementation plan CCS ran into difficulties. Net benefits have not been tracked so it cannot be shown that CCS has achieved more than the former Government Procurement Service would have.

“However, the strategic argument for joint buying remains strong and CCS is making significant changes to improve future services.”

Some of the NAO’s detailed findings:

  • The public sector spends £2.5bn directly with CCS – £8bn less than originally forecast.
  • Seven departments buy directly through CCS – 10 fewer than originally forecast
  • The forecast of £3.3bn net benefits from the creation of CCS over the four years to 2017-18 are  unlikely to materialise.
  • The National Audit Office says the actual net benefits of CCS to date are “unknown”.
  • The Cabinet Office did not track the overall benefits of creating CCS.
  • Most of the planned transfers of procurement staff from central departments and the wider public sector to CCS haven’t happened.
  • Where some of the workforce has transferred, some departments have rehired staff to replace those who transferred.
  • Departments continue to manage their own procurement teams, although they use CCS’s frameworks.
  • CCS was set up with the power to force central departments to use its bulk buying services. But that power wasn’t enforced.
  • The National Audit Office says it is “no longer clear whether CCS has a clear mandate that requires all departments to use it for direct buying… it no longer has a clear timetable or expectation that further departments will transfer staff or buying functions to CCS”.

It’s all a far cry from the expectations set by a Cabinet Office announcement in 2013 which said that CCS will “ensure maximum value for the taxpayer is extracted from every commercial relationship”.

The then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the time,

“The new Crown Commercial Service will ensure a step change in our commercial capability, giving government a much tighter grip on all aspects of its commercial performance, from market engagement through to contract management.”

Comment

Why CCS has failed so far to make much difference to Whitehall’s costs is not clear. It seems to have been hit by a combination of poor management at the outset, a high turnover of senior officials and ludicrously high expectations, combined with a civil service reluctance in central departments and the wider public sector to cede control over procurement to CCS –  even when it comes to common products and services.

The NAO report is a reminder of a fundamental flaw in the way government works: central departments can’t in practice be forced to do anything. They are a power unto themselves. The Cabinet Office has powers to mandate a change of practice and behaviour in central departments – to which Sir Humphrey can shrug his shoulders and change nothing

Even the Prime Minister is, in practice, powerless to force departments to do something they don’t want to do (except in the case of the miscarriage of justice that involved two Chinook pilots who were eventually cleared of gross negligence because the then defence secretary Liam Fox, through a series of manoeuvres, forced the MoD to set the finding aside).

The CCS may be doomed to failure unless the Cabinet Office rigorously enforces its mandate to make government departments use its buying services.

If the Cabinet Office does not enforce its power, Sir Humphrey will always protect his turf by arguing that the products and services his officials buy – including IT in general – are specific and are usually tailored to the department’s unique and complex needs.

Much to the relief of Sir Humphrey, Francis Maude, the battle-hardened enforcer at the Cabinet Office, has left the House of Commons. He has no comparable replacement.

Are all central initiatives aimed at making  a real dent in the costs of running Whitehall now doomed to failure?

Sir Humphrey knows the answer to that; and he’s wearing a knowing grin.

Crown Commercial Service – National Audit Office report

 

A great speech in praise of the Public Accounts Committee

By Tony Collins

Margaret Hodge spoke incisively this week about her five years as chairman of the 160 year-old Public Accounts Committee.

It’s assumed that civil servants answer to ministers who are then accountable to Parliament when things go wrong. Hodge mentioned failed IT projects several times.

But she painted a picture of senior officialdom as a force independent and sometimes opposed to Parliament. She said some senior officials had a “fundamental lack of respect for Parliament”. She had come up against an opposition that was “akin to a freemasonry”.

She said:

“With accountability comes responsibility. I can’t think how often we ask whether those responsible for dreadfully poor implementation are held to account for their failures.

“It rarely happens. People rarely lose their job. Those responsible for monumental failures all too often show up again in another lucrative job paid for by the taxpayer…”

Some excerpts from Hodge’s “Speaker’s Lecture” are worth quoting at length …

“… I have been truly shocked by the extent of the waste we have encountered. This is not a party political point. It’s not that this Conservative- Lib-Dem Coalition is worse or better than the previous Labour Government.

“It’s not that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector.

“It’s not about questioning the dedication of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers wanting to do their best… for me personally, sitting on the left of the political spectrum, I passionately believe in the power of public spending and public services to transform and equalise life chances.

“Yet if I am to ask other people to give up their money so that we can use it to secure greater equality, then I must earn their trust that I will use that money well.

“From £700m which I believe is likely to be written off with the botched attempt to introduce a politically uncontroversial benefit change with Universal Credit, to £1.6bn extra cost incurred by the previous Government in signing the contract for the Aircraft Carriers without any money in the Defence budget and then delaying its implementation; from the failure of successive Governments to tackle the many billions lost through fraud and error or IT investment, to the inability of successive Governments to deport foreign nationals who have committed crimes and ended up in our prisons, the failures are too many, they occur too often and they occur with persistent and unbroken regularity.”

Media shuns “good news” stories

“Of course we do things well. I think of recent positive reports on the Troubled Families programme, the Prison buildings programme or the implementation of the Crossrail contract. And trying to get proper recognition of these successes is well-nigh impossible. …

“I remember being rung up by a researcher on the Today programme who wanted me to go on to speak about education for 16-18 year olds. She asked what I would be minded to say and I told her that it was a good report and I would be complimentary. ‘I thought you would be critical’ she responded. No it’s a positive report I replied. Well, she said, I’d better go away and read it, She  rang me half an hour later to tell me they had dropped the item from the programme.

“But despite acknowledging the good things that are done, I remain frustrated and angry at so much wasted expenditure and poor value for money.”

Grandstanding

“… If we do want to ensure public attention is drawn to something, it may involve the occasional bit of grandstanding. I don’t apologise for that, for I have very few tools available which I can use to get purchase and have an impact.

“If a bit of grandstanding is the only way to stop something happening again and again, we will use it – with big corporations, top civil servants and any establishment figure whom we believe has a case to answer…”

PAC versus a civil service freemasonry?

“I received a letter from the departing Cabinet Secretary which was widely circulated around Whitehall and to officials of the House accusing the Committee of treating officials unfairly and reminding me that civil servants are bound by duties of honesty and integrity and therefore should only be asked to give evidence on oath as ‘an extremely unusual step’.

“Then a researcher from the Institute of Government came to see me, armed with a report of interviews she had undertaken with senior civil servants. She was just the messenger, but her message from senior civil servants was blunt. I quote:

‘The NAO/PAC are modeled on the red guards – not a convincing grown up model of Government… the chair is an abysmal failure… the worst chair I have ever seen….. MH is informed by friends in the media… PAC profile is seen to be bashing senior officials and determined to get media soundbites.’ ‘It is under appreciated how important dull committees are.’

And then the final shot…  ‘Should the PAC be broken up?’

“Basically, the explicit threat relayed to me was that if we did not change how we held civil servants to account, we would be closed down. Shut up or we’ll shut you down.

“The story sounds like something from Yes Minister, but more seriously demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for Parliament that I find deeply worrying.

‘How dare you MPs touch us’ was what they were saying. It felt like we were up against something akin to a freemasonry.

“Now that was January 2012 and things have moved on… but have they?

Civil servants unaccountable?

“The sad truth is that in that struggle between civil servants and politicians, the civil servants are most likely to win, because whereas we are here today and gone tomorrow, they are there for the long term.

“There remains a deep reluctance among too many senior civil servants to be accountable to Parliament and through us, to the public. The senior civil servants hide behind the traditional convention that civil servants are accountable to ministers who in turn are accountable to Parliament.

“That principle worked when it was first invented by Haldane after the First World War and the Home Secretary worked with just 28 civil servants in the Home Office. Today there are over 26,000.

“It worked when the public did not demand transparency. Today they do.

“It worked when public spending was primarily funneled through large departments running large contracts. In today’s world with a plethora of autonomous health trusts and academy schools, in a world where  private providers are providing public services in a range of fragmented contracts, delivering everything from welfare to work, healthcare and now probation services, in today’s world the old accountability framework with the minister being responsible for everything is plainly a nonsense.

“And whilst we, of course, want to maintain an impartial civil service, that is not inconsistent with the need to modernize accountability to Parliament and the public.

“There is a fundamental problem at the heart of the traditional accountability system. How can civil servants be accountable to ministers if the ministers do not have the power to hire and fire them?

“It is the accountability framework that is broke and in need of reform – not the Public Accounts Committee…

Need for reform

“The promise to reform the Civil Service has produced a few welcome changes, like a Major Projects Academy to train people to manage big projects, but the change has been too little, too piecemeal and too marginal, not fundamental.

“We just need to build different skills and do it, not talk about it.

“We may need to pay more so that working in and staying in the public sector becomes a more attractive proposition for more talented people. Trumpeting success in keeping public sector salaries down is not sensible if you end up wasting money or hiring in expensive consultants to clear up the mess or do the work for you.

“We need to transform the way people get promoted. At the moment, you’re a success if you leave your post after two years in the job and move on.

“When I was Children’s Minister, after two years I had a better institutional memory than any of the civil servants with whom I was working.

“And when the PAC reviewed the Fire Control Programme, which aimed at reducing costs by rationalising how 999 calls were dealt with, but ended up costing nearly £1/2 bn when it was written off as a failure; we found that there had been 10 different responsible officers in charge of the project over a five year period.

“I know some projects take longer than the Second World War, but continuity of responsibility is critical to securing better value.

Centre of government “not fit for purpose”

“It is also clear to me that the way the centre of Government works is not fit for purpose. We have three departments Treasury, Cabinet Office and Number 10 all competing for power, rather than working together.

“And all of them seem to be completely unable to use their power to drive better value.  Treasury carves up the money and then does little to ensure it is spent wisely.

“They only worry whether the departments keep within their totals. This is not a proper modern finance function at the heart of Government that you would see in any other complex organisation.

“So, for instance we all know that early action saves money, be it in health, education, welfare spending or the criminal justice system. Treasury knows this too, but they are doing nothing to force a change in the way money is spent.”

Lessons unlearnt

“There is little learning across Government. The mistakes in the early PFI contracts are being repeated in the energy contracts negotiated by DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change]…

“Nobody at the centre seems to think through the impact of decisions in one area on another. So of course cuts in local authority spending, where nearly 40% of their money goes on community care services, will impact on hospitals and bed blocking.”

“Too much thinking is short-term.  PFI, to which the current Government is as wedded as past governments, is building up a huge bill for future generations; assets worth £30bn today will cost £151bn over time. And using PFI locks us into ways of delivering services which quickly become outdated – like large district hospitals when we now want to care for people outside hospitals in the community.”

Price of fish 

“None of this is rocket science. So why doesn’t change happen? Why is there such resistance? Radically transforming the culture must be at the heart of securing better value.

“If the machinery of Government is so resistant, we need to take that challenge outside party politics. Only by working together across parties and over time will we be able to secure the culture, capability and organisation that we all need to deliver on our different political priorities.

“When I first took this job I read the IPPR study which said that whilst officials dreaded their appearance before the Public Accounts Committee, they were confident that it would never ‘change the price of fish’.

“I am determined to change the price of fish.

That is why we have instituted new ways. We now have regular recall sessions, calling back people to tell us why they haven’t accepted our recommendations, or why they haven’t implemented them. We bring back people after they have moved jobs to hold them to account for what they did in post.

“That caused a minor revolution when we first did it. I wanted Helen Gosch, who had moved from DEFRA to the Home Office to come back and account for the mess she had made administering the rural payments agency, paying farmers late, paying them the wrong amounts and having to send money back to Brussels because of the errors. She refused our invitation and only caved in when I ordered her to appear.”

More protection for whistleblowers please

“We try to use our analysis of past expenditure to improve spending in the future; understanding problems with past rail investment can help improve the delivery of future projects. We take regular evidence on the big change programmes, like Universal Credit or the Probation service.

“And I take seriously the material I get from whistleblowers. My time on the PAC has strengthened my respect for whistleblowers. Without them, we would have been less effective on tax avoidance and on the performance of private companies receiving taxpayer’s money to deliver public services.

“A major regret for me is that I was unable to prevent the treatment meted out to Osita Mba by HMRC. He was the official who sent us the documents on the Goldman Sachs affair. The department used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, designed to get terrorists, to get into not just his emails and phone calls, but into his wife’s phone records. In the end he couldn’t stand it any more and quit HMRC. We clearly need to do more to protect whistleblowers.”

Investigative journalism

“I am also probably one of very few MPs who has a good word to say about journalists. From  eye Eye to the Times and from the Guardian to Reuters, their fantastic investigative work (when they do it properly) has helped us uncover abuse, malpractice and waste in a way we just couldn’t have done without them.

“For despite the excellent work produced by the National Audit Office, they are constitutionally separate from and different to the Parliamentary Committee. So we need our independent sources of help.”

My goal

“Unlike our American counterparts, who have 120 staff working to their committee, 80 working for the majority party and 40 for the minority party, we have a small committee staff who focus purely on process.

“If select committees are to increase their effectiveness they need to be better resourced. It’s partly about people, although I would hate to mirror our American colleagues because their system is very much more partisan.

“But it is also absurd that when we wanted to hold an international conference on tax avoidance we were told we had no money. It is just plain wrong that when we wanted to test whether a parliamentary committee should have access to company tax files to hold HMRC properly to account, we were unable to fund legal advice to support our case that HMRC should be accountable to us.

“Both the NAO and HMRC paid for expensive legal advice to oppose us. We had no money to secure our own advice.

“Select committees should have clear statutory powers to call for all papers and people to help them hold the Executive to account. We still don’t know whether Vodafone should have paid £6bn or £2bn with an interest free staging of the payments when they settled their tax bill with the Revenue. We should know and you should too…

“Reflecting on what I have said may leave you thinking everything is wrong. I know that there are many brilliant public sector workers and many stunning public services.

“Inevitably our work focuses on the problems and the challenges. But I come at it with a determination to seek and secure improvements. Because I care about public service and because I passionately believe in the power of public services to transform people’s life chances and to create greater equality in our society. That is my goal.”

Comment

One of the striking things about the PAC is the way it leaves crude tribal party politics at the door. That’s one of the reasons it’s quietly disliked by some senior officials: they cannot condemn the committee’s partisanship. It produces 60 unanimous reports a year. But do they make any difference?

One irony is that senior officials cite the PAC as a key Parliamentary device holding them to account. They lasso and rope in the PAC for their own purpose.

The work of the PAC in holding the civil service to account is cited by lawyers for the Department for Work and Pensions in repeatedly refusing to release four old Universal Credit documents.

In reality the PAC does not make much difference to the way Whitehall departments are run. But waste would probably be much greater if it didn’t exist.

What’s not in doubt is that Hodge is a great chairman of the PAC. If anyone can change the price of fish she will.

Governup

Universal Credit and its IT – an inside track?

By Tony Collins

An excellent BBC Radio 4 “Inside Welfare Reform” Analysis broadcast yesterday evening gave an insider’s view of the IT-based Universal Credit programme from its beginnings to today.

It depicted Iain Duncan Smith as a courageous reformer who’s kept faith with important welfare changes that all parties support. If they work, the reforms will benefit taxpayers and claimants. The broadcast concludes with an apparent endorsement of IDS’s very slow introduction of UC.

“When real lives and real money are at stake, being cautious is not the worst mistake you can make.”

So says the BBC R4 “Analysis” guest presenter Jonathan Portes who worked on welfare spending at the Treasury in the 1980s and became Chief Economist at the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002. He left the DWP in 2011 and is now director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The BBC broadcast left me with the impression that UC would today be perceived as meeting expectations if DWP officials and ministers had, in the early days:

– been open and honest about the complexities of IT-related and business change

– outlined the potential problems of implementing UC as set out in internal reports and the minutes of programme team meetings

– explained the likelihood of the UC programme taking more time and money than initially envisaged

– urged the need for extreme caution

– made a decision at the outset to protect – at all costs – those most in genuine need of disability benefits

– not sold UC to a sceptical Treasury on the basis it would save billions in disability claims  – for today thousands of disability claimants are in genuine need of state help, some of whom are desperately sick, and are not receiving money because of delays.

Instead UC is perceived as a disaster, as set out in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary last night.

A £500m write-off on IT?

Other noteworthy parts of the BBC R4 Analysis broadcast:

– The Department for Work and Pensions gave selective responses to the BBC’s questions. Portes: “We did ask the Department for Work and Pensions for an interview for this programme but neither Iain Duncan  Smith nor any minister was available. We sent a detailed list of questions and have had answers to some.”

– Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, gave her view that the next government will have to write off £500m on IT investment on Universal Credit – about £360m more than the Department for Work and Pensions has stated publicly.

Hodge told the BBC: “We are now on our fourth or official in charge of the project and the project has only been going four or five years. Anyone who knows about project management will tell you that consistency of leadership is vital. I don’t think there has been ownership of the project by a senior official within DWP.  I think they and ministers have only wanted to hear the good news. Management of the IT companies has been abysmal.

“I still believe, though I haven’t t got officials to admit to this, that after the general election we will probably be writing off in excess of half a billion  pounds on investment in IT that had failed to deliver… The investment in IT that they are presently saying they can re-use in other ways is not fit for purpose. The system simply cannot cope.”

The BBC asked the DWP for its comment on the scale of the write-offs. “No answer,” said Portes.

Parliament told the truth?

Stephen Brien, who has been dubbed the architect of Universal Credit, gave his first broadcast interview to Analysis. He worked with IDS at the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank set up by IDS in 2004. Brien saw IDS on a nearly daily basis.

Portes asked Brien when IDS first realised things were going off track. “The challenge became very stark in the summer of 2012,” said Brien.

Portes: What was your relationship with IDS?

“My office was across the corridor from his.  I would join him for all the senior meetings about the programme. I would keep him updated as a result of the other meetings I was addressing within the programme team. When it became materially obvious we had to change plans it was over that summer [2012].

Portes: But that was not the public line. In September 2012 this is what IDS said (in the House of Commons):

“We will deliver Universal Credit on time, as it is, on budget, right now.”

IDS appears to have given that assurance while being aware of the change to UC plans.

UC oversold to Treasury?

Portes: “The really big savings were supposed to come from disability benefit. And here trouble was brewing. The problem was the deal IDS had done with the Treasury. The Treasury never liked UC. It thought it was both risky and expensive. And the Treasury, faced with a huge budget deficit, wanted to save not spend.

“With pensions protected disability benefits were really the only place savings could be made.  The previous government had contracted ATOS to administer a new medical test – the Work Capability Assessment – to all 2.5 million people on Incapacity Benefit but only a few pilots had started.

“IDS and the Treasury agreed to press ahead.  Some claimants would be moved to new Employment and Support Allowance but the plan was that several hundred thousand would lose the benefit entirely – saving about £3bn a year.

“Disability living allowance which helps with the extra cost of disability would also be replaced with the new, saving another £2bn…

But …

“By now the new work capability assessment was supposed to have got more than 500,000 people off incapacity benefits. Instead they are stuck in limbo waiting for an assessment.

“By now the new Personal Independence Payment should have replaced disability living allowance saving billions of pounds more. Instead it too has been dogged by delay.

“Just a few days ago the Office for Budget Responsibility said delays in these benefits are costing taxpayers close to £5bn a year. This dwarfs any savings made elsewhere and leaves a potential black hole in the next government budget.”

How many people left stuck in the system?

The BBC asked the Department of Work and Pensions’ press office how many claimants, and for how long, they have been waiting for claims to be resolved. Portes: “They didn’t answer. But their own published statistics suggest it is at least half a million.

“One aim of the reforms was to cut incapacity benefit and the numbers had been on a long slow decline between 2003 and 2012 but now it is rising again. So much for the Treasury saving.”

Who is at fault?

Publicly IDS talks about a lack of professionalism among civil servants and that he has lost faith with their ability to manage the UC-related problems. Rumours in the corridors of Westminster are that behind the scenes IDS has attempted to blame his permanent secretary Robert Devereux.  On this point, again, the DWP refused the BBC’s request for a comment.

Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service, who appointed Devereux, told the BBC that tensions between IDS and Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office did not help. “Robert [Devereux] was in a very difficult position. He was in a world where Francis Maude was trying to deliver, efficiently, programmes for government and on the other hand IDS was seeing the centre as interfering and criticising whereas he knew best: it was his project; he was living it every day. There was a lot of tension there. Really what we need to do is get everyone sitting round a table trying to work out how we can deliver outcomes that matter.”

Was Devereux set up to fail?

O’Donnell: “With hindsight one can say this is a project that could not be delivered to time and cost.”

Were DWP officials to blame?

Stephen Brien said: “There was a real desire from the very beginning to get this done. I think there was a desire within DWP to demonstrate that it could again do big programmes. The DWP had not been involved in very large transformation programmes over the previous decade. There was a great enthusiasm to get back in the saddle,  a sense that it [UC] had to get underway and it had to be well entrenched through Parliament.

“These forces – each of them – contributed to a sense of ‘we have got to get this done and therefore we will get this done.’”

Too ambitious?

Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, told the BBC: “If you know what it is you want to do and you understand what is required to get there, then what’s wrong with being ambitious?

“The trouble is that when you get into the detail you find you are bruising people, damaging people, people who genuinely will always need our help. Taxpayers, our constituents, expect us to implement things so that they work, rather than see project after project go wrong and money squandered.

“There may come a point where we say: ‘we have spent so much money on this and achieved so little, is the game worth the candle?’”

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Dispatches documentary. 

Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports should be published

By Tony Collins

A freedom of information tribunal has ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions should disclose four internal documents on the Universal Credit programme.

The documents give an insight into some of the risks, problems and challenges faced by DWP directors and teams working on UC.

They could also provide evidence on whether the DWP misled Parliament and the public in announcements and press releases issued between 2011 and late 2013.

The DWP and ministers, including the secretary of  state Iain Duncan Smith, declared repeatedly that the UC scheme was on time and on budget at a time when independent internal reports – which the DWP has refused to publish – were highly critical of elements of management of the programme.

Some detail from the internal reports was revealed by the National Audit Office in its Universal Credit: early progress in September 2013.

The FOI tribunal, under judge David Farrer QC, said in a ruling on Monday that in weighing the interest in disclosure of the reports “we attach great importance not only to the undisputed significance of the UC programme as a truly fundamental reform but to the criticism and controversy it was attracting by the time of FOI requests for the reports in March and April 2012”.

It added:

“We are struck by the sharp contrast [of independent criticisms of elements of the UC programme]  with the unfailing confidence and optimism of a series of press releases by the DWP or ministerial statements as to the progress of the Universal Credit programme during the relevant period.”

A measure of the importance of the tribunal hearing to the DWP was its choice of Sarah Cox to argue against disclosure.

Cox is now the DWP’s Director, Universal Credit, Programme Co-ordination.

She led business planning and programme management for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Despite Cox’s arguments Judge Farrer’s tribunal decided that the DWP should publish:

– A Project Assessment Review of Universal Credit by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. The Review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.

– A Risk Register of Universal Credit. It included a description of the risk, the possible impact should it occur, the probability of its occurring, a risk score, a traffic light [Red/Green Amber] status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialises, and a summary of the risk mitigation.

– An Issues Register for Universal Credit. It contained a short list of problems, the dates when they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.

– A High Level Milestone Schedule for Universal Credit. It is described in the tribunal’s ruling as a “graphic record of progress, measured in milestones, some completed, some missed and others targeted in the future”.

Campaign for openness

Campaigners have tried unsuccessfully for decades to persuade Whitehall officials to publish their independent reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled projects and programmes.

So long as the reports remain confidential, ministers and officials may say what they like in public about the success of the programme without fear of authoritative contradiction.

This may be the case with the Universal Credit. The tribunal pointed out that media coverage of the problems with the scheme was at odds with what the DWP and ministers were saying.

The ruling said:

 “Where, in the context of a major reform, government announcements are so markedly at odds with current opinion in the relatively informed and serious media, there is a particularly strong public interest in up-to-date information as to the details of what is happening within the [Universal Credit] programme, so that the public may judge whether or not opposition and media criticism is well-founded.”

The tribunal quoted a DWP spokesperson in 2012 as refuting criticism from the shadow secretary of state. The spokesperson said:

Liam Byrne is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on            budget. To suggest anything else is wrong.”

 Sarah Cox implied that the DWP might have regarded a programme as on schedule, even if milestones were not achieved on time, provided that punctual fulfillment of the whole project was still contemplated. In reply to this, the Tribunal said:

 “If that was, or indeed is, the departmental stance, then the public should have been made aware of it, because prompt completion following missed interim targets is not a common experience.”

DWP abuse of the FOI Act?

Under the FOI Act ministers and officials are supposed to regard each request on its own merits, and not have a blanket ban on, say, disclosure of all internal reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes.

The tribunal in this case questioned whether the DWP had even read closely the Project Assessment Review in question. The tribunal had such doubts because the DWP, some time after the tribunal’s hearing, found that it had mistakenly given the tribunal a draft of the Project Assessment Review instead of the final report.

The tribunal said:

“…the DWP discovered that the version of the Project Assessment Review supplied to the Tribunal was not the final version which had been requested. It was evidently a draft. How the mistake occurred is not entirely clear to us.

“ Whilst the differences related almost entirely to the format, it did raise questions as to how far the DWP had scrutinised the particular Project Assessment Review requested, as distinct from forming a generic judgement as to whether PARs should be disclosed.”

DWP’s case for non-disclosure

The DWP argued that disclosure would discourage candour, imagination [which is sometimes called creative or imaginative pessimism] and innovation – known together as the “chilling effect”.

It also said that release of the documents in question could divert key staff from their normal tasks to answering media stories based on a misconception, willful or not. These distractions would seriously impede progress and threaten scheduled fulfillment of the UC programme.

Disclosure could embarrass suppliers that participated in the programme, damage the DWP’s relationship with them, and cause certain risks to come closer to being realised. The DWP gave the tribunal further unpublished – closed – evidence about why it did not want the Project Assessment Review released.

My case for disclosure

In support of my FOI request – in 2012 – for the UC Project Assessment Review, I wrote papers to the tribunal giving public interest reasons for disclosure. Some of the points I made:

– the DWP made no acknowledgement of the serious problems faced by the UC programme until the National Audit Office published its report in September 2013: Universal Credit: early progress.

– Large government IT-enabled projects have too often lacked timely, independent scrutiny and challenge to improve performance. Publication of the November 2011 Project Assessment Review would have been a valuable insight into what was happening.

– The NAO report referred to the DWP’s fortress mentality” and a “good news culture” which underlined the public interest in early publication of the Project Assessment Review.

Part of John Slater’s case for disclosure

At the same time as dealing with my FOI request for the PAR, the tribunal dealt with FOI requests made by John Slater who asked for the UC Issues Register, Risk Register and High Level Milestone Schedule.

In his submission to the tribunal Slater said that ministerial statements and DWP press releases, which continued from 2011 to late 2013, to the effect that the Universal Credit Programme was on course and on schedule, demanded publication of the documents in question as a check on what the public was being told.

Information Commissioner’s case for disclosure

The Information Commissioner’s legal representative Robin Hopkins made the point that publishing the Project Assessment Review would have helped the public assess the effectiveness of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority as a monitor of the UC programme.

A chilling effect?

The tribunal found that there is no evidence to support the “chilling effect” –  the claim that civil servants will not be candid or imaginatively pessimistic in identifying problems and risks if they know their comments will be published.

If a chilling effect exists, said the tribunal, “then government departments have been in the best position over the last ten years to note, record and present the evidence to prove it.

“Presumably, a simple comparison of documents before and after disclosure demonstrating the change, would be quite easy to assemble and exhibit,” said the tribunal’s ruling.

In her evidence to the tribunal Ms Cox did not suggest that the revelation by a third party of the “Starting Gate Review” [which was published in full on Campaign4Change’s website] had inhibited frank discussion within the UC programme, the tribunal said.

The tribunal also pointed out that the public is entitled to expect that senior officials will be, when helping with internal reports, courageous, frank and independent in their advice and assessments of risk.

“We are not persuaded that disclosure would have the chilling effect in relation to the documents before us,” said the tribunal. It also found that the DWP would not need to divert key people on UC to answering media queries arising from publication of the reports. The DWP needed only to brief PR people.

On whether the Issues Register should be published the tribunal said:

“The problems outlined in the Issues Register are of a predictable kind and “unlikely to provoke any public shock, let alone hostility, perhaps not even significant media attention. On the other hand, the public may legitimately ask whether other problems might be expected to appear in the register.”

On the chilling effect of publishing the Risk Register the tribunal said that any failure of a civil servant to speak plainly about a risk and hence to conceal it from the UC team would be more damaging to UC than any blunt declaration that a certain risk could threaten the programme.

“We acknowledge that disclosure of the requested information may not be a painless process for the DWP,” said the tribunal. ““There may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP, though not, we believe, of the order that it claims.

“We have no doubt, however, that the public interest requires disclosure, given the nature of UC programme, its history and the other factors that we have reviewed,” said the Tribunal.

The DWP may appeal the ruling which could delay a final outcome by a year or more.

Comment

The freedom of information tribunal’s ruling is, in effect, independent corroboration that Parliament can sometimes be given a PR line rather than the unvarnished truth when it comes to big IT-based programmes.

Indeed it’s understandable why ministers and officials don’t want the reports in question published.  The reports could provide concrete evidence of the misleading of Parliament. They could refer to serious problems, inadequacies in plans and failures to reach milestones, at a time when the DWP’s ministers were making public announcements that all was well.

Those in power don’t always mind media speculation and criticism. What they fear is authoritative contradiction of their public statements and announcements. Which is what the reports could provide. So it’s highly likely the DWP will continue to withhold them, even though taxpayers will have to meet the rising legal costs of yet another DWP appeal.

One irony is that the DWP’s ministers, officials, managers, technologists and staff probably have little or no idea what’s in the reports the department is so anxious to keep confidential.  On one of my FOI requests it took the DWP several weeks to find the report I was seeking – after officials initially denied any knowledge of the report’s existence.

This is a department that would have us believe it needs a safe space for the effective conduct of public affairs. Perhaps the opposite is the case, and it will continue to conduct some of its public affairs ineffectively until it benefits from far more Parliamentary scrutiny, fewer safe spaces and much more openness.

FOI Decision Notice Universal Credit March 2014

George Osborne gives mixed messages over UC deadline

Universal Credit now at 10 job centres – 730 to go. 

DWP finds UC reports after FOI request

UC – new claimant figures

How to cost-justify the NPfIT disaster – forecast benefits a decade away

By Tony Collins

To Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, the NPfIT was a failure. In an interview with the FT, reported on 2 June 2013, Hunt said of the NPfIT

“It was a huge disaster . . . It was a project that was so huge in its conception but it got more and more specified and over-specified and in the end became impossible to deliver … But we musn’t let that blind us to the opportunities of technology and I think one of my jobs as health secretary is to say, look, we must learn from that and move on but we must not be scared of technology as a result.”

Now Hunt has a different approach.  “I’m not signing any big contracts from behind [my] desk; I am encouraging hospitals and clinical commissioning groups and GP practices to make their own investments in technology at the grassroots level.”

Hunt’s indictment of the NPfIT has never been accepted by some senior officials at the DH, particularly the outgoing chief executive of the NHS Sir David Nicholson. Indeed the DH is now making strenuous attempts to cost justify the NPfIT, in part by forecasting benefits for aspects of the programme to 2024.

The DH has not published its statement which attempts to cost justify the NPfIT. But the National Audit Office yesterday published its analysis of the unpublished DH statement. The NAO’s analysis “Review of the final benefits statement for programmes previously managed under the National Programme for IT in the NHS” is written for the Public Accounts Committee which meets next week to question officials on the NPfIT. 

A 22 year programme?

When Tony Blair gave the NPfIT a provisional go-ahead at a meeting in Downing Street in 2002, the programme was due to last less than three years. It was due to finish by the time of the general election of 2005. Now the NPfIT  turns out to be a programme lasting up to 22 years.

Yesterday’s NAO report says the end-of-life of the North, Midlands and East of England part of the NPfIT is 2024. Says the NAO

“There is, however, very considerable uncertainty around whether the forecast benefits will be realised, not least because the end-of-life dates for the various systems extend many years into the future, to 2024 in the case of the North, Midlands and East Programme for IT.”

The DH puts the benefits of the NPfIT at £3.7bn to March 2012 – against costs of £7.3bn to March 2012.

Never mind: the DH has estimated the forecast benefits to the end-of-life of the systems at £10.7bn. This is against forecast costs of £9.8bn to the end-of-life of the systems.

The forecast end-of-life dates are between 2016 and 2024. The estimated costs of the NPfIT do not include any settlement with Fujitsu over its £700m claim against NHS Connecting for Health. The forecast costs (and potential benefits) also exclude the patient administration system Lorenzo because of uncertainties over the CSC contract.

The NAO’s auditors raise their eyebrows at forecasting of benefits so far into the future. Says the NAO report

“It is clear there is very considerable uncertainty around the benefits figures reported in the benefits statement. This arises largely because most of the benefits relate to future periods and have not yet been realised. Overall £7bn (65 per cent) of the total estimated benefits are forecast to arise after March 2012, and the proportion varies considerably across the individual programmes depending on their maturity.

“For three programmes, nearly all (98 per cent) of the total estimated benefits were still to be realised at March 2012, and for a fourth programme 86 per cent of benefits remained to be realised.

There are considerable potential risks to the realisation of future benefits, for example systems may not be deployed as planned, meaning that benefits may be realised later than expected or may not be realised at all…”

NPfIT is not dead

The report also reveals that the DH considers the NPfIT to be far from dead. Says the NAO

“From April 2013, the Department [of Health] appointed a full-time senior responsible owner accountable for the delivery of the [the NPfIT] local service provider contracts for care records systems in London, the South and the North, Midlands and East, and for planning and managing the major change programme that will result from these contracts ending.

“The senior responsible owner is supported by a local service provider programme director in the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

“In addition, from April 2013, chief executives of NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts became responsible for the realisation and reporting of benefits on the ground. They will also be responsible for developing local business cases for the procurement of replacement systems ready for when the local service provider contracts end.”

The NAO has allowed the DH to include as a benefit of the NPfIT parts of the programme that were not included in the original programme such as PACS x-ray systems.

Officials have also assumed as a benefit quicker diagnosis from the Summary Care Record and text reminders using NHSmail which the DH says reduces the number of people who did not attend their appointment by between 30 and 50 per cent.

Comment

One of the most remarkable things about the NPfIT is the way benefits have always been – and still are – referred to in the future tense. Since the NPfIT was announced in 2002, numerous ministerial statements, DH press releases and conference announcements have all referred to what will happen with the NPfIT.

Back in June 2002, the document that launched the NPfIT, Delivering 21st Century IT for the NHS, said:

“We will quickly develop the infrastructure …”

“In 2002/03 we will seek to accelerate the pace of development …

“Phase 1 – April 2003 to December 2005 …Full National Health Record Service implemented, and accessible nationally for out of hours reference.”

In terms of the language used little has changed. Yesterday’s NAO report is evidence that the DH is still saying that the bulk of the benefits will come in future.

Next week (12 June) NHS chief Sir David Nicholson is due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions on the NPfIT. One thing is not in doubt: he will not concede that the programme has been a failure.

Neither will he concede that a fraction of the £7.3bn spent on the programme up to March 2012 would have been needed to join up existing health records for the untold benefit of patients, especially those with complex and long-term conditions.

Isn’t it time MPs called the DH to account for living in cloud cuckoo land? Perhaps those at the DH who are still predicting the benefits of the NPfIT into the distant future should be named.

They might just as well have predicted, with no less credibility, that in 2022 the bulk of the NPfIT’s benefits would be delivered by the Flower Fairies.

It is a nonsense that the DH is permitted to waste time on this latest cost justification of the NPfIT. Indeed it is a continued waste of money for chief executives of NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts to have been made responsible, as of April 2013, for reporting the benefits of the NPfIT.

Jeremy Hunt sums up the NPfIT when he says it has been a huge disaster. It is the UK’s biggest-ever IT disaster. Why does officialdom not accept this?

Instead of wasting more money on delving into the haystack for benefits of the NPfIT, it would be more sensible to allocate money and people to spreading the word within Whitehall and to the wider public sector on the losses of the NPfIT and the lessons that must be learnt to discourage any future administrations from embarking on a multi-billion pound folly.

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.

Does a Mid Staffs culture still pervade the NHS?

By Tony Collins

The Francis report on Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust highlighted appalling record-keeping among other problems.

One of the case studies in the report was that of an insulin-dependent diabetic, Gillian Astbury,  who entered Cannock Hospital for a urinary tract infection, had a fall in the hospital, was discharged, and later admitted to Stafford Hospital on 1 April 2007 because of bones she damaged in the fall. She died ten days later, probably after not being given insulin.

Francis highlights the lack of records on her need for insulin. There was a “failure to keep nursing records adequately or at all … there was a failure to comply with professional guidelines on note taking …”

Astbury’s partner Ron Street told hospital staff that she was diabetic, a point which went into her medical notes – initially.  But, said Francis,  nursing records for Astbury were almost non-existent.

“There is no evidence of what care took place … during interview nursing staff admitted that they did not check or read the notes regularly (if at all) and there was no linkage with notes from other wards …” 

Francis’s recommendations included a call for trust staff and managers to be open and accountable when things that go wrong.

This isn’t happening.

Campaign4Change picked an NHS trust to test whether the pre-Francis culture still prevails: whether there is the same old secrecy and defensiveness over standards of record-keeping, and whether positive news suffocates real and potential problems in trust board reports.

North Bristol NHS Trust

North Bristol NHS Trust has a chronic problem with record-keeping. It installed the Cerner Millennium electronic patient record system in December 2011, prompting a “crisis”.

Later the trust’s PR officer said in response to an FOI request that there had been 16 clinical incidents in two months relating to the new electronic patient record system. “These were all clinical incidents where the new system was cited as a causal factor, such as wrong patient wrong notes, lack of notes, incorrect clinic list,” she said.

She added:  “However our robust safeguarding processes, as well as additional checks and balances in all departments, ensured that clinical safety was not compromised and no patients were put at risk. Our priority is always patient safety and there is no indication that this has been affected.”

Last year North Bristol asked PWC to review the Cerner implementation. In its report PWC claimed that the “Trust is now beginning to move out of the crisis and return to normal operations”. That was in July 2012.

The Trust has still not returned to normal operations. Last month the Department of Health singled out North Bristol as one of only two trusts in England that failed to submit to the DH “incomplete RTT” pathway data. Incomplete pathway data refers to patients still waiting for consultant-led treatment. RTT means referral to treatment.

In August and September 2012 North Bristol was the only trust in England that failed to submit to the DH “incomplete RTT” pathway data.

Trust’s “numerous difficulties”

With little explanation, a North Bristol trust board paper in January this year referred to numerous difficulties relating to IT systems. This was in the context of an increasing number of overdue responses to complaints from patients. Said the board paper:

“Difficulties with appointment bookings and notification letters are still numerous. These are all reported to IM&T.” Again with little explanation another North Bristol board report, in November 2012, referred to “ongoing pressure in Cerner recovery …”.

So what are the Cerner problems, why have they continued for more than a year and has the North Bristol Trust’s board of directors been properly informed about them?

To test North Bristol’s openness on its Cerner problems I asked the Trust’s press officer and its media relations manager whether they could send me any trust report on the problems with the Cerner implementation.

Two days later they said that “some patience would be appreciated” but declined to say when they would respond to my question, so I asked it under FOI. The Trust gave no acknowledgement.

Perhaps North Bristol is too busy to deal with external questions and challenges on its record keeping. But that was one of the big problems highlighted by Francis in his report on Mid Staffs: that the Trust did not respond to external questions and challenges.

Worryingly, North Bristol’s reporting culture seems to prefer the positive over the negative.  This was one of its replies to an FOI request in 2012:

“With respect to inpatients, during November (before the implementation of Cerner) 40 patients were cancelled on the same day as admission for non-clinical reasons. During December (after the implementation of Cerner) 33 patients were cancelled on the same day as admission for non-clinical reasons – 7 fewer than in November.”

This reply – and others  – gave the impression, without giving contextual evidence,  that things were better since the Cerner implementation than before.

Francis in his report on Mid Staffs said,

“… for all the fine words printed and spoken about candour, and willingness to remedy wrongs, there lurks within the system an institutional instinct which, under pressure, will prefer concealment, formulaic responses and avoidance of public criticism.”

This would, it seems, apply to North Bristol – and every one of the other NHS trusts that have had electronic patient record implementations go wrong.

Indeed it is unfair to pick on North Bristol. The positive tone of its board reports is standard practice for trust board reporting across the NHS in England.

Francis said the NHS needs to change. In his letter to Jeremy Hunt on his report, Francis referred to an “institutional culture which ascribed more weight to positive information about the service than to information capable of implying cause for concern”.

But can NHS boards change in the absence of compulsion?

Audits of trust board reports?

One thing Francis did not suggest was that trust boards should have their board reports audited independently for honesty and openness.  An audit would detect an overly buoyant tone that downplayed concerns.  “There were 5 serious falls in December an increase of 3 from November. There were 185 falls in December compared to 139 falls in November, which had the lowest number of falls in one month this year.”

This was from a North Bristol board report that gave no explanation of the five serious falls. But the report made the point that November (2012) had the lowest number of falls in one month this year. If you were among the five who’d had a serious fall in hospital – and in Gillian Astbury’s case a fall in Stafford Hospital led to her death – you would probably want the trust’s board to focus on an analysis of the five serious falls, rather than be told how good a month November was for falls.

Board reports are a window on the culture of a public sector organisation. In the NHS nobody in authority seems not to have noticed that an American corporate positivism pervades many NHS board reports.  It’s within this culture that needless deaths such as those at Mid Staffs went unnoticed.

Until NHS trust board reports become more business-like and deal with concerns and potentially serious problems as would a private sector board – instead of giving the impression that they are trying to celebrate so-called achievements – the Francis report may make little difference.

North Bristol’s apparent unwillingness to disclose any detail of its Cerner problems – perhaps to its own board – is to be expected; but that natural reluctance to disclose may be symptomatic of one of the NHS’s biggest problems. The unnecessary deaths at Mid Staffs will be for nothing if the NHS does not change in the light of the Francis report. Complacency, arrogance, a preoccupation with good news and a culture of downplaying or even trying to ignore bad news are the enemy. Unless a board approach of honesty and openness is independently audited and enforced, Francis’s recommendations may bring little lasting change.

Frustrated with the system – Govt CIOs, executive directors, change agents

By Tony Collins

Today The Times reports, in a series of articles, of tensions in Whitehall between ministers and an “unwilling civil service” over the pace of change.

It says a “permanent cold war” is being conducted with the utmost courtesy. It refers to Downing Street’s lack of control.

In one of the Times articles, Sir Antony Jay, co-creator of the “Yes Minister” TV series, writes that the civil service is more prepared to cut corners than in the 1970s  but hasn’t really changed. “If a civil servant from the 1970s came back today they would probably slot in pretty easily,” says Jay.

Politicians want “eye-catching” change while civil servants “don’t want to be blamed for cock-ups”, he says.

Separately, Mike Bracken, Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office, has suggested that a frustration with the system extends to CIOs, executive directors to corporate change agents.

Bracken created the Government Digital Service which is an exemplar of digital services.  His philosophy is it’s cheaper and better to build, rent or pull together a new product, or at least a minimum feasible product, than go through the “twin horrors of an elongated policy process followed by a long procurement”.

Bracken has the eye of an outsider looking in. Before joining the Cabinet Office in July 2011 he was Director of Digital Development at the Guardian.

Bracken’s blog gives an account of his 18 months in office and why it is so hard to effect change within departments. I’ve summarised his blog in the following bullet points, at the risk of oversimplifying his messages:

Collective frustration

–  After joining the Cabinet Office in 2011 Bracken made a point of meeting senior officials who’d had exalted job titles, from CIOs and executive directors to corporate change agents. “While many of them banked some high-profile achievements, the collective reflection was frustration with and at the system,” says Bracken.

Civil service versus citizen’s needs

–  “I’ve lost count of the times when, in attempting to explain a poorly performing transaction or service, an explanation comes back along the lines of ‘Well, the department needs are different…’ How the needs of a department or an agency can so often trump the needs of the users of public services is beyond me,” says Bracken.

– Policy-making takes priority over delivery, which makes the civil service proficient at making policy and poor at delivery. “Delivery is too often the poor relation to policy,” says Bracken. Nearly 20,000 civil servants were employed in ‘policy delivery’ in 2009. Each government department produces around 171 policy or strategy documents on average each year. Bracken quotes one civil servant as saying: “The strategy was flawless but I couldn’t get anything done.”

Are citizen needs poisonous to existing suppliers?

– Departmental needs take priority over what the public wants. Bracken suggests that user needs – the needs of the citizen – are poison to the interests of policymakers and existing suppliers. “Delivery based on user need is like kryptonite to policy makers and existing suppliers, as it creates rapid feedback loops and mitigates against vendor lock-in,” says Bracken.

– “When it comes to digital, the voices of security and the voices of procurement dominate policy recommendations. The voice of the user [citizen] barely gets a look-in. ( Which also explains much of the poor internal IT, but that really is another story.)”

A vicious circle

Bracken says that new IT often mirrors clunky paper-based processes. [It should usually reflect new, simplified and standardised processes.] “For digital services, we usually start with a detailed policy. Often far too detailed, based not just on Ministerial input, but on substantial input from our existing suppliers of non-digital services. We then look to embed that in current process, or put simply, look for a digital version of how services are delivered in different channels. This is why so many of our digital services look like clunky, hard-to-use versions of our paper forms: because the process behind the paper version dictates the digital thinking.”

Then things take a turn for the worse, says Bracken. “The policy and process are put out to tender, and the search for the elusive ‘system’ starts. Due to a combination of European procurement law and a reliance on existing large IT contracts, a ‘system’ is usually procured, at great time and expense.

“After a long number of months, sometimes years, the service is unveiled. Years after ‘requirements’ were gathered, and paying little attention to the lightning-quick changes in user expectation and the digital marketplace, the service is unveiled to all users as the finished product.

“We then get the user feedback we should have had at the start. Sadly it’s too late to react. Because these services have been hard-wired, like the IT contract which supplied them, our services simply can’t react to the most valuable input: what users think and how they behave.

“As we have found in extreme examples, to change six words the web site of one of these services can take months and cost a huge amount, as, like IT contracts, they are seen as examples of ‘change control’ rather than a response to user need.

“If this 5-step process looks all too familiar that’s because you will have seen it with much of how Government approaches IT. It’s a process which is defined by having most delivery outsourced, and re-inforced by having a small number of large suppliers adept at long-term procurement cycles.

“It is, in short, the opposite of how leading digital services are created, from Amazon to British Airways, from Apple to Zipcar, there is a relentless focus on, and reaction to, user need…”

GOV.UK the civil service exemplar?

Bracken says: “In the first 10 days after we released the full version of GOV.UK in October 2012, we made over 100 changes to the service based on user feedback, at negligible cost. And the final result of this of this approach is a living system, which is reactive to all user needs, including that of policy colleagues with whom we work closely to design each release.”

Bracken says long procurements can be avoided.  “When we created GOV.UK, we created an alpha of the service in 12 weeks … We made it quickly, based on the user needs we knew about… As we move towards a Beta version, where the service is becoming more comprehensive, we capture thousands of pieces of feedback, from user surveys, A/B testing and summative tests and social media input.

“This goes a long way to inform our systems thinking, allowing us to use the appropriate tools for the job, and then replace them as the market provides better products or as our needs change. This of course precludes lengthy procurements and accelerates the time taken for feedback to result in changes to live services.”

Comment:

More big government projects could follow GOV.UK’s example, though some officials in their change-resistant departments would say their systems are too complex for easy-to-reach solutions. But a love of complexity is the hiding place of the dull-minded.

The Times describes the conflicts between the civil servants and ministers as a “crisis”. But conflicts between civil servants and ministers are a good thing. The best outcomes flow from a state of noble tension.

It’s natural for some senior civil servants to oppose change because it can disrupt the smooth running of government, leading potentially to the wrong, or no payments, to the most vulnerable.  It’s up to ministers like Francis Maude to oppose this argument on the basis that the existing systems of administration are inefficient, partly broken and much too costly.

A lazy dependence on the way things are will continue to enfeeble the civil service. Ministers who push for simplicity will always come into conflict with civil servants who quietly believe that simplicity demeans the important work they do. To effect change some sensible risks are worth taking.

The reports of a covert and courteous war between parts of the civil service and ministers are good news. They are signs that change is afoot. Consensus is far too expensive.