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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s PAC report says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are more excerpts from the report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Public Accounts Committee report Universal Credit, progress update

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

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

 

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FOI hearing today on DWP’s refusal to publish Universal Credit reports

By Tony Collins

External lawyers acting for the Department for Work and Pensions are due to appear before an FOI Upper Tribunal judge in London today to argue why four reports on Universal Credit should not be published.

It’s the latest step in a costly legal battle that has lasted two years so far.

A first-tier FOI tribunal judge in 2014 ordered the four reports to be published. The DWP asked for permission to appeal that decision and lost its case.  The DWP then asked an Upper Tribunal for permission to appeal and lost that case as well.

Then it asked a different Upper Tribunal judge for permission to appeal .  As a result, a 1 day hearing is taking place today.

The case takes in evidence from the DWP, the Information Commissioner, John Slater who requested 3 of the reports in question and me. Slater requested in 2012 a Universal Credit risks register, milestone schedule and issues register (which set out problems that had materialised with the Universal Credit programme).  I requested a project assessment review carried out in 2011 on the Universal Credit programme by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

The DWP has refused to publish the four reports – and millions of pounds worth of other similar reports.

Today the DWP will argue that the judge in an earlier Upper FOI Tribunal did not fully consider the “chilling effect” that disclosure of the reports would have on the behaviours of civil servants or consultants who helped to write the reports in question.

In essence the DWP’s lawyers are asking the judge to accept the arguments put forward against disclosure by Sarah Cox, the DWP’s main witness in the case. Cox is a former programme assurance director for Universal Credit.

Cox submitted 49 pages of evidence – plus secret evidence during a closed hearing – on why the UC reports should not be published.  She said that civil servants must be able to think the unthinkable and record the outcome of these thoughts without hesitation or fear of disclosure.

If contributors feared the reports would be routinely disclosed the documents could become “bland records” prepared with half an eye to how they would be received in the public domain.

She said the danger of damage to the public interest cannot be overstated.

Disclosure could adversely affect management of the Universal Credit programme – and “failure of proper programme management may be catastrophic”.

Emphasising the importance of effective management of risk, she referred to the banking system prior to the credit crunch and the stability of the Bank of England in that period.

“Inappropriate or premature disclosure of the information in the risk registers or the issues registers could lead to those failures occurring in government risk management with broader parallels for other project management tools.”

She then referred to “disaster myopia” – a phenomenon she said was well established in cognitive psychology.  It referred to “an underestimation of the likelihood of low frequency but high risk damage risks”.

She added: “This can result in a lack of appropriate mitigating actions, increasing the likelihood of the risk becoming an issue. In this case fear of disclosure and misinterpretation can exacerbate this myopia, leading to the toning down of the direct and forceful language used to describe risks, or worse, risks not being identified at all”.

If civil servants or consultants writing reports on projects were to downplay the risks because of a fear of disclosure, problems may be overlooked, solutions not found, or not found promptly. “Such an outcome would be seriously detrimental to the delivery of major projects.”

Cox’s evidence could appear to some to suggest the DWP was preoccupied with its image, and the image of the Universal Credit programme, in the media, and among MPs and the public. She said routine disclosure of such reports as those in question “will distract civil servants from their tasks at a crucial point in the process of programme management.

“Instead of concentrating on implementing the changes, they will be required to address stakeholder, press or wider public concerns which have been provoked by the premature disclosure of material.”

It would be unhelpful if “attention is focused on clarifying positions with stakeholders and addressing the concerns of media, opposition and interest groups in order to correct the often misleading impression created by premature disclosure”.

This issue is “magnified in a programme with as many delivery partners as Universal Credit, covering both central and local government, with implications for all territories in the UK”.

That is because of the “implications of issues for different partners are often slightly different, so that each partner may need to be given a slightly different, and tailored, response”.

This concern should not be understated, she said.

“From my experience of high profile matters which emerge with little warning, I can say that ministers and senior officials are likely to be forced to clear their diaries, cancelling planned meetings, events and other important engagements, to attend rapidly-convened meetings to discuss the handling of the premature disclosure.

“Officials in the relevant policy areas (and lawyers as appropriate) would need to set aside other essential and pressing work to prepare briefings on the likely impact of disclosure and options for next steps. ‘Lines to take’ and a stakeholder and media-handling strategy would need to be discussed, agreed and signed off by ministers.

“Ministers could also be called to respond to urgent questions tabled in Parliament, especially where the disclosure  is made in respect of a high-profile policy area. The media might press for interviews with ministers and/or senior officials, which require careful preparation…”

But, as the Information Commissioner has pointed out, disclosure of the documents under FOI is not the same as a leak to the media.

And the reports in question are now four years old and so massive media interest is unlikely. Any media interest could be managed by DWP press officers without distracting project managers.

Cox said disclosure could harm rather than assist public debate.

“Material that requires civil servants to think the unthinkable, or to consider unusual or highly unlikely events, using intentionally vivid and forceful language, at a single point in time, potentially pre-dating attempts to mitigate the position could easily distort the public perception of the real or likely situation and encourage sensationalist rather than responsible and balanced reporting.”

She said that officials may have to release further information to counteract any misunderstandings (from a misreading of the disclosed reports). But the “world of media” may ignore this further information.

Lawyers for the Information Commissioner, in their submission to today’s hearing, will argue that an earlier tribunal had not found any existence of a “chilling effect” in this case. The tribunal had not been persuaded by what the DWP had said.

The earlier tribunal had not dismissed all of the DWP’s concerns as entirely without merit. It accepted that disclosure of the documents in question “may not be a painless process for the DWP” and that there “may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP”. The tribunal was simply unpersuaded by the extent of those prejudices.

The Commissioner’s lawyers will say the earlier tribunal gave due weight to the evidence of Ms Cox but it was not obliged to agree with her.

There was no observable chilling effect from disclosures in the past where a chilling effect had been envisaged. The DWP had not provided any evidence that a chilling effect existed.

Indeed a Starting Gate Review on the Universal Credit project had been published (by Campaign4Change) after the DWP refused to release the document under FOI. The DWP had refused to publish the Starting Gate Review because of the chilling effect it would have on the contributors to such reports.

But there was no chilling effect in consequence of publication of the Starting Gate review, say the Information Commissioner’s lawyers.

The incident “illustrates that it is perfectly within the bounds of reason to be sceptical about the DWP’s assertions about the chilling effect and the like,” says the Information Commissioner’s submission to today’s hearing.

On Ms Cox’s point that disclosure of the reports in question would change behaviours of civil servants and consultants compiling the documents, the earlier tribunal had concluded that the public was entitled to expect from senior officials – and no doubt generally gets – a large measure of courage, frankness and independence in their assessments of risk and provision of advice.

The Information  Commissioner’s lawyers will today ask the judge to dismiss the DWP’s appeal.

Comment

The DWP’s evidence suggests that the reports in question today are critical to the effective delivery of Universal Credit. The reality is that excessive secrecy can make bureaucracies complacent and, in the the DWP’s case, somewhat chaotic.

When Campaign4Change asked the DWP under FOI for two Universal Credit reports – an end to end technical review carried out by IBM at a cost of £49,240 and a “delivery model assessment phases one and two” carried by McKinsey and Partners at a cost of £350,000 – the DWP mistakenly denied that the reports existed.

When we provided evidence the reports did exist the DWP said eventually that it had found them.  The DWP said in essence that the documents had been held so securely nobody knew until searching for them that they existed.

So much for the DWP’s argument that such reports are critical to the effective management of major projects.

And when Campaign4Change asked the DWP, under FOI, to supply a project assessment review report on the Universal Credit programme, officials mistakenly supplied an incorrect version of the report (a draft) to an FOI tribunal.  Officials later apologised for their mistake.

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit do little to portray the DWP as a professional, competent and well-managed organisation.

Which all suggests that excessive secrecy within the DWP has made officials complacent and disorganised.

Continued excessive secrecy within the department could reinforce a suspicion, justified or not, that the department may not be in a strong position to run a programme as large and complex as Universal Credit.

 

 

More IT-based megaprojects derail amid claims all is well

By Tony Collins

If one thing unites all failing IT-based megaprojects in the public sector it is the defensive shield of denial that suppliers and their clients hold up when confronted by bad news.

It has happened in the US and UK this week. On the Universal Credit  project, the minister in charge of the scheme, Lord Freud, accepted none of the criticisms in a National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: early progress”.   In a debate in the House of Lords Lord Freud quoted from two tiny parts of the NAO report that could be interpreted as positive comments.

“Spending so far is a small proportion of the total budget … and it is still entirely feasible that [universal credit] goes on to achieve considerable benefits for society,” said Lord Freud, quoting the NAO report.

But he mentioned none of the criticisms in the 55-page NAO report which concluded:

“At this early stage of the Universal Credit programme the Department has not achieved value for money. The Department has delayed rolling out Universal Credit to claimants, has had weak control of the programme, and has been unable to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300 million to develop.

“These problems represent a significant setback to Universal Credit and raise wider concerns about the Department’s ability to deal with weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales, and a lack of openness about progress.”

And a shield of denial went up in the US this week where newspapers on the east and west coast published stories on failing public sector IT-based megaprojects.  The LA [Los Angeles] Times said:

As many as 300,000 jobless affected by state software snags

“California lawmakers want to know why Deloitte’s unemployment benefits system arrived with major bugs and at almost double the cost estimate. The firm says the system is working.”

The LA Times continued:

“Problems are growing worse for the state’s Employment Development Department after a new computer system backfired, leaving some Californians without much-needed benefit cheques for weeks.”

The Department said the problems affected 80,000 claims but the LA Times obtained internal emails that showed the software glitches stopped payment to as many as 300,000 claimants.

Now lawmakers are setting up a hearing to determine what went wrong with a system that cost taxpayers $110m, almost double the original estimate.

Some blame the Department’s slow response to the problems. Others point the finger at a Deloitte Consulting.

The LA Times says that Deloitte has a “history of delivering projects over budget and with problematic results”. Deloitte also has been blamed, in part, for similar troubles with upgrades to unemployment software in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida, says the paper.

“We keep hiring the same company, and they keep having the same issues,” said Senator Anthony Cannella.  “At some point, it’s on us for hiring the same company. It’s faulty logic, and we’ve got to get better.”

In 2003 California planned to spend $58m upgrading its 30-year-old unemployment benefits system. By the time the state awarded Deloitte the contract in 2010  the cost estimate had grown by more than $30m.

The Department handed out $6.6bn to about 1 million unemployed Californians in 2012. The software was expected to ease the agency’s ability to verify who was eligible to receive benefits.

Problems began when the Department transferred old unemployment data to the new system. The software flagged claims for review — requiring state workers to manually process them.

The LA Times says that officials thought initially the workload would be manageable, but internal emails showed the agency was quickly overwhelmed. Phone lines were jammed. For weeks, the Department’s employees have been working overtime to clear the backlog.

A poor contract?

In a contract amendment signed two months ago California agreed to pay Deloitte $3.5m for five months of maintenance and operations costs. Those costs should have been anticipated in the contract said Michael Krigsman, a software consultant who is an expert on why big IT-based contracts go awry. He told the LA Times:

“It’s a striking oversight that maintenance was not anticipated at the beginning of the contract when the state was at a much stronger negotiation position.”

By the time the middle of a project is reached, the state has no choice but to stick with Deloitte to work out bugs that arise when the system goes live, he said.

System works

Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the Department, said the system is working, processing 80% of claims on time. As for the troubles, she said, “There is a period of transition or adjustment with any large infrastructure upgrade like this one.”

Deloitte spokeswoman Courtney Flaherty said the new California system is working and that problems are not the result of a “breakdown or flaw in the software Deloitte developed”.

System not working?

While there seems to be no project disaster in the eyes of the Department and Deloitte Consulting, some of the unemployed see things differently. One wrote:

“I am a contract worker who had to fight for my unemployment benefits. I won my case and yet they still cannot pay me… It’s been more than 3 weeks since I won my appeal and as of this moment, I am owed 13 weeks of back payments. To add insult to injury, they cannot send me current weeks to certify and they refuse to even try to help me to get back into the online system.

“I blame Deloitte, but it is California that carries the heaviest burden of fault… We’re nearing November and they still haven’t fixed an issue that began over Labor Day? Nonsense!

“This is untenable for everyone affected …We are owed reparations as well as our money at this point. It’s a funny word, affected. That means families and individuals are going hungry but can’t get food stamps or welfare. It means evictions and repossessed cars. It means destroyed credit, late fees, years of turmoil and shame for people already dealing with unemployment. Shame on you California.”

Another wrote:

“ … Not communicating is NOT an answer. Unemployed individuals caught up in the nightmare were told to be patient.  Rents and other expenses were still accumulating.  But [when you] add on additional fees: late fees, restoral fees, interest fees, etc…….you get the picture.

“Dear Governor Brown,

“Please reimburse me for all additional fees I’ve had to absorb to survive this fiasco.  You are going to make me payback any overpayments, but ignore the cost to the unemployed taxpayer.  This is  appears to unfair.  Perhaps Deloitte should pay us back from their contracted funds before they receive their final payment.  I am saving all of my receipts to deduct from my 2013 tax return.

“BTW Gov Brown – I am still waiting on additional payments as of today and DMV registration for my vehicle was due on 10/20/13.  Are you going to waive the penalty for late payment? Am I the only one with this question?”

Scrutiny

California’s state Assembly has set a date of 6 November 2013 for a hearing into the Department’s system upgrade.

“We’re going to look at EDD, the contractors and others to see how the system broke down so we can avoid this in the future,” said Henry Perea, chair of the Assembly’s Insurance Committee, which has oversight over the jobless benefits program.

On its website Deloitte says:

“Deloitte continues to help EDD [Employment Development Department] transform the level of service it provides to unemployed workers and improve the quality of information collected by EDD. The next time unemployment spikes, California should be ready to meet the increased demand for services.”

Massachutsetts IT disaster?

On the opposite coast the Boston Globe reported on an entirely separate debacle (which also involved Deloitte):

          None admit fault on troubled jobless benefits system

“… even with the possibility that unemployed workers could face months more of difficulties and delays in getting benefits, officials from the Labor Department and contractor, Deloitte Consulting of New York, testified before the Senate Committee on Post Audit that the rollout of the computer system was largely a success.

“‘I am happy with the launch,’ said Joanne F. Goldstein, secretary of Labour and Workforce Development, noting that she would have liked some aspects to have gone better.

“Mark Price, a Deloitte principal in charge of the firm’s Massachusetts business, acknowledged that software has faced challenges during the rollout, but insisted, ‘We have a successful working system today. ‘’’

NPfIT shield

A shield of denial was up for years at the Department of Health whose CIOs and other spokespeople repeatedly claimed that the NPfIT was a success.

Comment

If you didn’t know that Universal Credit IT wasn’t working, or that thousands of people on the east and west coasts of the US hadn’t been paid unemployment benefits because of IT-related problems, and you had to rely on only the public comments of the IT suppliers and government spokespeople, you would have every reason to believe that Universal Credit and the jobless systems in Massachusetts and California were working well.

Why is it that after every failed IT-based megaproject those in charge can simply blow the truth gently away like soap bubbles?

When confronted by bad news, suppliers and their customers tend to join hands behind their defensive shields. On the other side are politicians, members of the public affected by the megaprojects and the press who have all, according to suppliers and officials, got it wrong.

Is this why lessons from public sector IT-based project disasters are not always learned? Because, in the eyes of suppliers and their clients, the disasters don’t really exist?

None admit fault on troubled jobless benefit system

State fired Deloitte

Complaints continue despite claims system is under control

As many as 300,000 affected by California’s software problems

California’s predictable fiasco?

New York’s new CIO to create centre of excellence to prevent failing IT projects

By David Bicknell

New York’s recent problems with IT projects have been well documented.

Its latest solution: appoint a new CIO, with a wide remit that includes innovation and the setting up of a ‘centre of excellence’  to nail down failing projects.

Rahul Merchant joins with a background served at US mortgage and housing specialist Fannie Mae and at financial services company Merrill Lynch.

He will become the first Citywide Chief Information and Innovation Officer and Commissioner of the Department of Information, Technology and Telecommunications reporting to New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg.

His role will involve overseeing New York’s information technology development and management, with a focus on delivering technology projects on-time and on-budget.

Merchant will succeed Carole Post, who recently announced she will be leaving for a position at New York Law School.

“By bringing the City’s IT infrastructure and development under one office, we can ensure we are using best practices across agencies, leveraging the City’s enormous IT infrastructure to our maximum advantage and holding contractors accountable for delivering results,” said Bloomberg. “Rahul is a seasoned executive who has proven himself time and again as a leader and an innovator in the industry.  He is going to do an outstanding job as New York City’s first Chief Information and Innovation Officer and we are excited to add him to our talented team.”

Merchant will be responsible for New York City’s IT infrastructure, as well as oversight of the implementation of key technology initiatives that enable the City’s various agencies to serve 8.4 million New Yorkers.

What will be worth watching is seeing how he tackles New York’s reputation for troubled IT projects by creating a Centre of Excellence that will  “standardise business processes for the implementation of large technology projects, institute a system of vendor evaluation to hold contractors accountable for meeting project milestones, and update the City’s technology contracts to focus on the delivery of established milestones to meet agency business needs.”

According to Bloomberg, Merchant will work closely with agency commissioners and chief information officers “to ensure that IT projects leverage existing infrastructure and software to the maximum possible extent, and that the City’s overall IT budget meets core agency business needs and the City’s overall technology objectives.”

He will also spearhead the New York’s efforts to remain a leader in technology innovation, by leveraging its  technology assets and partnerships with academic institutions, technology firms, and entrepreneurs.

He won’t be short of people to help. Merchant will lead a 1,200-strong staff responsible for managing the City’s information technology infrastructure as well as serving the information technology needs of 45 mayoral agencies, dozens of other governmental entities, and nearly 300,000 employees.

Here’s how local sites reported Merchant’s appointment:

Crain’s New York Business: Major taps Merrill Lynch vet to tame tech projects

Tech President: New York City just radically changed who manages its IT projects

Government Technology: NYC names Rahul Merchant to CIO and Innovation role