Category Archives: culture

Horizon IT scandal: has Goliath won?

By Tony Collins

Have Post Office officials, despite a series of highly critical High Court judgements against them, escaped masterfully from what Boris Johnson called a “scandal”?

BBC Radio Wales has broadcast an excellent documentary on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. It features Noel Thomas who had devoted his life to the Post Office, first as a postman for 32 years and then as a postmaster for 12 years.

He worked his way up since the age of 17. But one Thursday morning at 7.30am the life he’d built up over decades began to fall apart. A Post Office investigations team wanted to interview him about “having his hands in the till”.

His denials counted for nothing. Investigators insisted he had taken money. The Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system supplied by Fujitsu showed shortfalls of £52,000. The Post Office prosecuted him and he was given a nine-month jail sentence in 2006.

After prison, Thomas was called a thief in the supermarket. His children suffered taunts that their father had been to prison.

An unsympathetic Post Office chased Thomas for debts shown on Horizon and he went bankrupt. He ended up losing £250,000; and all the while nobody at the Post Office told him that Horizon screens could show non-existent shortfalls without any fault on the part of the sub-postmaster.

In the years to come, as Thomas tried to come to terms with his new life as a family man who was now a convicted criminal, he learned that he was not alone: the Post Office had demanded hundreds of sub-postmasters make good inexplicable shortfalls shown on Horizon.

But for Thomas and other victims of the Horizon IT scandal things began to look up in March 2017 when, led by campaigning former  sub-postmaster Alan Bates, they won the consent of the High Court for a group litigation against the Post Office.

The litigation was a clear success for Bates, 550 other claimants and their legal team.  By the time the two sides sat around the mediation table late last year, the judge had made several rulings, largely in the favour of the sub-postmasters.

Would the judge’s criticisms put the Post Office on the defensive at the mediation? His main judgement had criticised the Post Office’s “oppressive” behaviour in its dealings with sub-postmasters.  Mr Justice Fraser also criticised the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation: given the high costs of the litigation, it was perhaps extraordinary that the Post Office was said by the judge to have “resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can …”

It was indeed obvious to the sub-postmasters that the more the publicly-funded Post Office delayed  the proceedings, the greater the risk its opponents would run out of litigation funding.

Was this fair?

The judge had also found that the Post Office tried to mislead the High Court and  keep relevant information from being heard.  The appeal court likened the Post Office to a Victorian mill-owner.

Now, as the two sides sat around the mediation table, the High Court was about to publish an entirely new ruling. It would say that sub-postmasters had been forced into paying shortfalls shown on a Fujitsu Horizon system that had hidden bugs and systemic weaknesses.

The Post Office had spent more than a decade denying that these faults existed and had given misleadingly reassuring statements to Parliament and the media. The Post Office had prosecuted dozens of sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon while not saying that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounts without the sub-postmasters’ knowledge.

The new ruling would find that the Post Office’s own expert witness was partisan, as were some of the other Post Office witnesses.

If all this was a cue for a contrite Post Office to make amends at mediation, there was little sign of it. It emerged from the mediation paying barely the sub-postmasters’ litigation costs.

Indeed, the £57.75m settlement figure would not have covered the sub-postmasters’ costs had there not been voluntary fee and other reductions on the part of the group’s legal team and a company that provided loans for the litigation.

These reductions, which were made out of sympathy for the former sub-postmasters,  allowed a fund of about £11.5m from the £57.75m to be distributed among the 550.

But the fund will pay only a small percentage of losses. And it doesn’t pay compensation for ruined lives.

“Scandal” says Boris Johnson

The prime minister refers to the whole matter as a scandal. He spoke in the House of Commons of the “disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers”.

But a Post Office statement to BBC Radio Wales offered no hope of any further money for the 550. It referred to its shortcomings as in the “past”. The statement said,

“A comprehensive final settlement was jointly agreed by the Post Office and the claimants in the group litigation last year. We apologise to those affected by our past shortcomings and we are continuing to address these directly…”

That the settlement leaves Thomas with only a fraction of the £250,000 he has lost – and nothing in compensation – is not the concern of the Post Office or its parent department BEIS. organisation.

How did the Post Office extricate itself relatively painlessly mid-way through an embarrassing  litigation, in which its competence, credibility and conduct were questioned repeatedly by a High Court judge?

Mediation

It may be  thought generally that, in mediation, the two sides enter talks to settle their differences on equal terms.

Not in this case.

On one side was a publicly funded institution. The other side comprised small businessmen and women who were funded by limited, expensive loans.

Worse for the sub-postmasters, the Post Office had already made decisions during the litigation that showed it was prepared to add to costs for both sides. Its decisions included applying for the removal of the judge near the end of a lengthy trial.  Had its application succeeded, it would have necessitated the costly trial being abandoned and a new one started under a different judge.

James Hartley of solicitors Freeths, which represented sub-postmasters in the litigation, gave  an interview to Computer Weekly shortly after the mediation settlement was announced in December last year.

He said that if his side had carried on with the litigation it was likely the sub-postmasters would have ended up with nothing. He said his side had obtained the best deal possible but sub-postmasters would not recover anything like their full losses.

“This was always understood by everyone because we knew the group action would have a lot of costs,” said Hartley. Had a settlement not been reached, the two further trials planned would have needed more funding.

“Even if we had got that funding, which is not certain, for every £1m we got from the case, £3m would have to go back to the funders. Every month that had gone on in the case, the value of damages available to claimants would have gone down, to the point where they would have got nothing even if we had won.”

The Post Office has made the point in its public statements that the settlement figure was agreed by both sides.  But mediation was not conducted on an equal financial footing.

In a different context, a few months before the mediation, Mr Justice Fraser had commented on the Post Office’s power when compared to the sub-postmasters.

He had said in his “Common Issues” judgement of March 2019,

“There is no doubt that the Post Office is in an extraordinarily powerful position compared to each and every one of its SPMs [sub-postmasters][. It appears to wield that power with a degree of impunity.”

Did the Post Office still wield power with impunity?

Convictions

At least Thomas, if he is not to recover his losses or receive any compensation,  can look forward to having his criminal record removed – his name cleared.

Or could even this be denied him?

There is no time pressure on the state to overturn wrongful convictions.  The simplest solution would be to set aside convictions en masse on the basis that all the prosecutions arose out of untrustworthy shortfalls shown on a computer system that was not as robust as prosecutors claimed.

But the state could, in theory, handle each wrongful conviction referred to appeal separately, review thousands of pages of documents in each case, and eventually overturn convictions when some of the falsely accused are no longer alive to see justice.

This may indeed be the state’s preferred route although there have already been years of delays in reviewing the cases.

Whether the P9st Office would prefer a group or individual review of convictions at appeal hearings is unclear. What is obvious, though, is that the longer it takes to quash convictions, the more it delays any civil claims for damages and compensation arising out of wrongful prosecutions.

A Houdini escape?

Nearly 20 years after Alan Bates had his contract to run a local post office in Wales terminated without reason when he queried apparent phantom shortfalls on Horizon, he is still seeking justice.

He has raised tens of millions in litigation funding, won the right to launch a group litigation order and his legal team has proved in the High Court that Horizon was not the robust system the Post Office had claimed.

His team could hardly have been more successful in exposing the inherent institutional failings that led to hundreds of miscarriages of justice.

Why then does  justice still elude him?

Comment

The Post Office says it is changing. It is learning lessons. It has a new CEO. But the judge’s comments suggested that the Post Office’s resentment of criticism and critics is deeply institutional.

The judge said the Post Office seems to act with impunity. The word “impunity” means acting as if exempt punishment, penalty of harm.

How can a public institution, however many new CEOs it has, change its spots?

Arguably the Post Office remains as financially powerful, dominating and secretive as ever. Recently, it is said to have reached secret settlements with Horizon victims who were not part of Bates’ group litigation.

For Bates and other sub-postmasters, their campaign or justice moves from the High Court to Westminster. But politicians may not, it appears, have the final say.

“Rats”

There is no provision in law to punish prosecuting authorities that prosecute wrongfully. But the public at least has a right to expect that elected politicians will be able to hold prosecuting institutions to account.

Boris Johnson wants an independent inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal, as do MPs, Alan Bates and many others.  But does the civil service and particularly the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Post Office’s parent?

Lord Arbuthnot, a long-time campaigner for justice, told BBC Radio Wales that he is heartened by the prime minister’s support for an inquiry.

“I was given enormous heart that the prime minister himself described this as a scandal and he said there would be an independent inquiry.

” Now the rats will try to get at that. They will try to make it less independent. They will try to bring it under the Department for Business and Enterprise and that is something I hope the Prime Minister, who seems to have a good deal of sway in this government will be able to resist”.

Noel Thomas, Alan Bates and other former sub-postmasters sued the Post Office seeking damages for financial loss, deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment.

But the civil service seems not to accept that any of these things merit an independent inquiry.

It is extraordinary that a publicly-owned institution has been established in the High Court to have been behind hundreds of grievous miscarriages of justice and yet the victims have not received a full refund of their losses let alone compensation. And those responsible have not been held to account.

Unless Parliament intervenes and orders the setting up of an independent inquiry, it is clear that Goliath, with the support of civil servants at BEIS, will win in the end.

**

Thank you to Tim McCormack whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Post Office affairs never ceases to surprise me.

**

BBC Panorama – scandal at the Post Office – Monday 23 March

Journalist Nick Wallis will present this documentary about when senior managers at the Post Office knew the truth. Did they continue to prosecute postmasters for stealing when they knew technology could be to blame?

Wallis investigates what the BBC says could be Britain’s biggest ever miscarriage of justice scandal and uncovers evidence of a cover-up at the Post Office.

Alan Bates – the details man

Secret Post Office deals cause fury – Computer Weekly

BBC Radio Wales – Post Office IT scandal

Postofficetrial website

Only a judge-led inquiry will change “rotten” Post Office as IT scandal continues, MPs told

By Tony Collins

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded legal action against the Post Office over its Horizon IT system, told MPs on Tuesday that the Post Office is “rotten underneath” and will not change without a judge-led inquiry.

Horizon victims Wendy Buffrey and Tracey Felstead also called for a judge-led inquiry at a hearing of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee.

The committee had its first hearing this week on the Post Office Horizon controversy. At its second hearing on  24 March, its MPs are expected to question the Post Office’s CEO Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a business minister and a representative from UK Government Investments which has a place on the Post Office board.

The scandal is, in part, over the Post Office’s decision to dismiss unjustly hundreds of business people who ran local post offices. They were dismissed  because of shortfalls shown on the Horizon branch accounting system which had many hidden defects.

While keeping faults hidden, the Post Office, pursued sub-postmasters for supposed debts based on “evidence” from Horizon. Dozens of sub-postmasters  were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence and many made bankrupt. Hundreds of lives were ruined.

Since a judge’s scathing criticism of the Post Office in rulings last year, the Post Office and Martin Callanan,  a business minister in the House of Lords, have said lessons will be learnt but Bates said he has “yet to be convinced things will change at the Post Office”.

He said the Post Office has promised to change its ways many times before but “it never happens”.

Bates said he had spoken briefly to Nick Read who took over the job as Post Office CEO in September last year. Bates said he wished Read well but described him to the BEIS committee as “very much like a new coat on old paintwork”.  He added that the wood underneath is “rotten” and called for a judge-led inquiry to “get to the bottom of things”.

Bates might have been referring, in part, to some of those within the corporate Post Office who chased sub-postmasters for questionable shortfalls and took legal actions against them.

Also giving evidence to MPs were Andy Furey of the Communication Workers Union and chartered accountants from 2nd Sight whom the Post Office paid to investigate sub-postmaster complaints. The Post Office dismissed 2nd Sight after their interim findings criticised aspects of the Horizon system.

What the witnesses told MPs indicates that many questions over the scandal remain unanswered:

  • Who on the Post Office board agreed to spend an estimated £100m or more, over time, on avoidable legal costs to fight the claims of sub-postmasters?
  • Does the civil service have a conflict of interest in deciding whether to support a judge-led inquiry, given that a judge may criticise officials for being a party to, or turning a blind eye, to the Horizon scandal as it unfolded?
  • Does the Horizon IT scandal continue?  It emerges that the Post Office maintains control over, and is dealing in secret with, an unknown number of sub-postmasters who were not part of Alan Bates’ High Court litigation but who have experienced problems with Horizon, including shortfalls. The Post Office has made no commitment to paying them compensation or returning their losses.
  • Why have people not been held to account although it is months since a High Court ruling was scathing in its criticism of the Post Office’s conduct and costs during the litigation, its dealings with sub-postmasters,  the inaccuracy of corporate statements to the media and Parliament and the withholding of relevant evidence from the court?
  • Could sub-postmasters continue to be blamed for shortfalls they know nothing about if nothing fundamentally changes?
  • Will the minutes of Post Office board meetings be published to enable scrutiny of the costly and a futile decision last year to try and remove the judge in the Horizon IT litigation?
  • Will those minutes, if published, reveal whether the civil service has been a party to Post Office board’s decisions?
  • In any dispute between he civil service and MPs, including Boris Johnson, over whether to hold a judge-led inquiry, who would win?

Asked whether the Post Office’s compensation of £57.75m to former sub-postmasters represented justice., Furey replied  “Absolutely not.”

He said it is “so important to get a judge-led inquiry”.” He added that the  vast majority of people operating local Post Office “want to provide a fabulous community service and are part of the fabric of society”. But when money went missing, the Post Office’s position was to “presume the sub-postmasters were guilty”.

He said the culture of the Post Office was to defend Horizon at all costs. “From the outset they could not have a position where Horizon could be questionable because that would jeopardise its business plan, its operating model and its ability to make profits”.  After accusing local businessmen and women of taking money that had been shown as shortfalls on Horizon, the Post Office escorted them out of their buildings and told them they could not visit their own post offices again even if their homes were above or at the back of them.

“This is a national scandal,” Furey told MPs, adding, “It has impacted on peoples’ reputations and the Post Office needs to be held to account”.  What is known about the scandal today has emerged only because of the litigation brought about by Alan Bates and other claimants, he said.

“The PO should hide its head in shame.”

Chartered accountant Ron Warmington of 2nd sight said his company only agreed to accept a contract with the Post Office to investigate the complaints of sub-postmasters on the basis that it wanted to establish the truth,

But the Post Office withheld information.  “Frankly,” he said,  “it was one of the worst and most difficult investigations I have ever carried out in terms of the client relationship.”

BBC Panorama is due to broadcast a documentary on the Horizon scandal on 23 March – how the Post Office covered up evidence of miscarriages of justice.

Comment:

Alan Bates called during the hearing for the “dead wood” within the Post Office to be cleared out. He referred to people who “knew the truth” but carried on with the actions against sub-postmasters.

But clearing out dead wood is not going to happen: the civil service and the Post Office do not want accountability or a judge-led inquiry.

Boris Johnson has suggested that he supports an inquiry but it is likely the civil service will have the final say.

Antony Jay, co-writer of “Yes minister”, said one thing he had learned in researching the TV series was that the civil service was the “real government”.  .

He told the Daily Telegraph that, deep in their hearts, most politicians respected civil servants but “deep in their hearts most civil servants despised politicians”. He said,

“After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”

Which raises the question: why would the civil service want a judge-led inquiry? By funding and sanctioning Post Office actions that led to the scandal, the civil service has much to lose by any inquiry and nothing to gain.

Indeed it is clear it failed in its role of scrutinising, challenging and not accepting at face value what it was told by the Post Office.

A judge-led inquiry may still happen though, if MPs, peers, committees and Parliament generally, keep campaigning for one.

Clearly, for the victims of the scandal, what the Post Office has done and what the state has sanctioned, knowingly or not,  can never be undone. But not having an inquiry, not paying fair compensation, not holding people to account and offering up a plate of platitudes instead makes things much worse.

As things stand, officials and business ministers seem happy to accept 20 years of injustice and hundreds of lives ruined in order to protect a public institution and the civil service.

Today, across the world, the UK has a reputation for justice and a sometimes grudging fairness. But the more the state tolerates the damage caused by the Horizon scandal, the more it openly and fragrantly repudiates those virtues of justice and fairness.

MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Horizon IT scandal

Falsely accused ex Post Office workers demand judge-led inquiry – New Statesman

PM commits to Post Office inquiry – Nick Wallis’ blog

BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Problems with Post Office Ltd blog

Accountability of the civil service? – Eleanor Shaikh’s research

Did Post Office chiefs get off lightly CWU, commnications union blog

 

Some of this state-sanctioned conduct would not be out of place in China or North Korea… the Horizon scandal in summary

By Tony Collins

  1. A knock on your mother-in-law’s front door at 3am. A state-sanctioned investigations team wants to interview you over stolen money you know nothing about.
  2. Your hands are bound and you are also handcuffed to one police officer on your left and another on your right. A state-owned institution says thousands of pounds is missing. It is confident you have taken it.
  3. You haven’t taken a penny but your protests count for nothing. The institution has the evidence from its computer system.
  4. You are not allowed to see your family. You are put in a vehicle and not told where you are going.
  5. You are taken to prison, kept in a cell all day and fed through a hatch. You see another prisoner who has committed suicide.
  6.  Before sending you to prison, a judge says you’ve stolen from pensioners. You are asked if you’ve used the stolen money for your recent holiday.
  7. In fact you are in prison because you had the misfortune to be a user of the institution’s computer system – called “Horizon” – at a time when it was showing discrepancies.
  8. Once a large and inexplicable shortfall appears on Horizon, more follow.  It’s the usual pattern.
  9. You are required to make good every shortfall now and in the future.  It is no excuse to say you haven’t stolen any money or made any mistakes. Evidence from Horizon is sacrosanct.
  10. If you cannot pay for the shortfalls, the institution, the Post Office, will make monthly deductions from your income, make you sell your home or make you bankrupt.
  11. You were given an impossible choice: a) accept the computer’s evidence at face value and agree to give to the Post Office any amount of money it requires you to pay now and in the future, or b) challenge the computer’s evidence and be prosecuted as dishonest.
  12. You challenged Horizon and ended up in court. Here, the denials of a branch counter clerk were unlikely to be believed against the evidence from a large and much-respected publicly-owned institution.
  13. The jury accepted that the computer was correct.  The computer seemed to work well for thousands of people every day. Why would it go wrong just in your case? But you didn’t realise then that, to everyone who complained about Horizon, the Post Office said they were the only one.
  14. You lose your job, cannot pay the mortgage and lose your home. You are traumatised, have an electronic tag, go on medication and try twice to commit suicide.
  15. Why have the courts and jury preferred the evidence from a computer system to your denials?
  16. Many years after prison has left an indelible mark on your mental well-being, it will emerge that thousands of reports on Horizon-related problems have been kept secret.
  17. The system’s problems are kept a secret for more than a decade while the Post Office, with apparent impunity, prosecutes and persecutes.
  18. To clear your name, the onus was on you and other accused to prove the system was flawed.
  19. But you had no right to see the system’s audit data. You had no way of proving whether the computer was showing non-existent shortfalls.
  20. Some families try to avoid the prosecution of a family member by raising tens of thousands of pounds to pay the Post Office for shortfalls they suspect are not real but cannot prove it. The Post Office still prosecutes.
  21. In one of the world’s most advanced nations, governments and civil service leaders turn a blind eye to a scandal that has been obvious for years to those not employed directly by the Post Office.
  22. Far from holding anyone accountable, the UK state appoints those ultimately responsible for running the Post Office and  Fujitsu, supplier of the Horizon system, to top jobs in the public sector.
  23. The Post Office has no close oversight because it is an “arm’s length body”. The state owns more than 100 ALBs. What is to stop any number of them turning on the public as the Post Office has turned on hundreds of Horizon users? In 2015, a committee of MPs found there was little understanding across government of how arm’s length bodies ought to work.
  24. It’s the job of state-funded auditors, non-executive directors, ministers and civil servants to challenge what they are told by the boards of arm’s length bodies.  If they accept assurances at face value, the governmental system of oversight breaks down. But in 2020 business minister Martin Callanan suggests that civil servants were unknowingly misled by the Post Office. Was this confirmation that the system of oversight has failed with appalling consequences?
  25. Since 2010, the media and Parliamentarians, particularly former defence minister James Arbuthnot (now Lord Arbuthnot) have tried to draw the attention of ministers to the Horizon scandal. But civil servants and postal services ministers have preferred the word of the Post Office to the pleadings of constituency sub-postmasters.
  26. After setting up a costly mediation scheme and hiring forensic accountants Second Sight to address the concerns about Horizon among MPs, particularly Arbuthnot, the Post Office ends the mediation scheme and summarily dismisses Second Sight whose report criticises Horizon.
  27. In totalitarian states, it may not be unusual for innocent people to be handcuffed and taken to prison because they questioned the output of a state-owned institution’s computer system. But in the UK?
  28. BBC Panorama reveals in 2015 that it is possible for engineers working for Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier,  to access Post Office branch accounting systems and alter lines of code, to fix bugs, without the local Horizon users knowing.
  29. These changes could affect the branch’s financial records as shown on Horizon.
  30. Panorama is correct. Fujitsu staff can alter branch Horizon systems remotely but the Post Office issues a lengthy public denial of Panorama’s correct disclosures. Ministers and civil servants accept the Post Office’s denial.
  31. In at least two families,  the misfortune of being a Horizon user at the time of a glitch or training-related issue becomes a factor in  suicide. In other families there are attempted suicides. A  sub-postmaster suffers a stroke shortly after the Post Office wrongly suspends him, claiming incorrectly that he owes £65,000.
  32. The Post Office had the power to enrol state resources in prosecuting sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon.
  33. Even after the extent of Horizon’s problems has come to light during High Court trials, the UK government continues to hold nobody to account.
  34. That the scandal was obvious to outsiders helped Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who was one of Horizon’s earliest victims, to obtain venture funding, via solicitors Freeths, of tens of millions of pounds for a High Court case against the Post Office.
  35. The Post Office tried to oppose Bates’ group litigation by claiming every individual case was different. The judge disagreed and the group litigation went ahead in 2017.
  36. Even after the first of a series of planned High Court trials started, the full extent of Horizon’s problems were kept hidden.
  37. Thousands of internal reports on Horizon’s problems were not given to the High Court until late 2019 – after several hearings and judgements in the case.
  38. In 2020, Kelly Tolhurst, the then Post Office minister, refused a request to pay a fair sum in compensation to former sub-postmasters.  She suggested in her letter that the compensation being paid by the Post Office (about £58m) was enough. Last week business minister Martin Callanan also refused state compensation. His words were almost identical to Tolhurst’s, implying that their words were drafted by civil servants at the Post Office’s parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which appears to see its role as defending the Post Office against outside criticism.
  39. To those who sold homes and lost businesses because of the Post Office’s demands for payment, under threat of criminal and civil action, the compensation being offered is no compensation at all  It will not, in the end, come close to covering their losses.
  40. Today, 10 years after a pregnant sub-postmistress fainted in the dock as she was sentenced to 15 months for stealing money she knew nothing about, and woke up in hospital in handcuffs she tried to hide, her criminal conviction has not yet been quashed. She considered taking her own life.  The state’s overriding duty to protect its citizens seems not to have applied to her.
  41. Another ordinary law-abiding Horizon user went to prison in handcuffs but her criminal conviction is still in place nearly 20 years later.
  42. Her conviction is likely to be quashed this year or next but she will have endured for much of her adult life being branded a criminal by the state. No amount of compensation can replace 20 lost years of being presumed guilty.
  43. Boris Johnson last week promised an inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal but it is likely to be resisted by civil servants. Officials may see anything other than a narrow inquiry into procedures, contracts and technical matters as not being in their interest.
  44. Last week BEIS confirmed it will not hold anyone accountable. Instead, the new business minister Lord Callanan offered Parliament a series of promises from Sir Humphrey’s phrasebook: a new framework … a working group … ministerial meetings …. cultural and organisational changes … learning lessons …  a major overhaul … strengthened relationships … productive conversations … close monitoring of progress … constant reviews … genuine commercial partnerships … direct addressing of past events … the delivery of support on the ground… accelerating a programme of improvement … engaging with stakeholders … seek evidence of real positive change. .. further accountability mechanisms.
  45. It is likely that some or most the above stock phrases will be used by every BEIS minister when giving a formal response to the Horizon IT scandal in letters, statements and Parliamentary debates.
  46. But those seeking justice will continue to campaign for fair compensation at a minimum.
  47. The campaigners in Parliament include Lord Arbuthnot, Lord Berkeley, Gill Furniss MP, Kate Osborne MP, Kevan Jones MP and Lucy Allan MP. For campaigners, the High Court rulings in favour of the sub-postmasters mark only the end of the beginning.
  48.  Some of the points below may add to grounds for the state to pay fair compensation.

Comment

A scandal perpetuated?

To be fair to the Post Office, it has acted as if it were answerable to nobody because it was indeed not answerable.

It had the very occasional polite tap on the knuckles by officials at its parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS]. But nothing more.

In effect the Post Office was untouchable. It received hundreds of millions of pounds from BEIS in state aid but not even the National Audit Office was able to investigate how the money was spent.

Again, to be fair to the Post Office, it was partly in the hands of Horizon’s supplier Fujitsu when it came to understanding faults in Horizon. Fujitsu kept its own central error logs and the reports of Horizon problems. It could charge the Post Office for access to data beyond a certain point.

Given the circumstances, the Post Office did what large institutions tend to do when things go badly wrong: they  blame the weakest links in the corporate chain, the human operators.

Fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max were, at first, blamed on the weakest inks – pilots – instead of on a poorly-designed onboard computer system.

Again, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, the plant’s human operators, the weakest links, were blamed, which initially helped to cover up the reactor’s design and construction deficiencies.

And after the crash of a military Chinook killed 25 VIPs on the Mull of Kintyre, the two dead pilots, the weakest links, were blamed while deficiencies with the helicopter’s computer systems were hidden.

In the case of the Horizon scandal, the weakest links when the system went wrong were the sub-postmasters. About 550 sub-postmasters took part in subsequent litigation but the Horizon shortfall scandal might have claimed another 500 or so victims who hadn’t realised at first that they weren’t alone.

That the Post Office’s parent department BEIS appears to have no interest in paying compensation or holding accountable anyone for the Horizon scandal is not a surprise given that it is part of the problem.

Indeed, it’ll be no surprise if its civil servants resist making good on Boris Johnson’s promise of an inquiry. There are already signs of this, according to Computer Weekly.

For years, BEIS and its successive postal services ministers have accepted the Post Office’s word when it was obvious to Computer Weekly and Parliamentarians that a scandal was taking place under the noses of those running the department.

The Post Office’s party line continues?

In their carefully-worded reactions to the Horizon IT scandal, the current Post Office CEO Nick Read, Post Office chairman Tim Parker, former Postal Services minister Kelly Tolhurst and a current business minister Lord Callanan, have all referred to wrongs as being “in the past”.

Perhaps unwittingly, they appear collectively to be following a party line – although Sir Peter Fraser QC, the High Court judge in the Horizon case, was particularly critical of Post Office witnesses who appeared to follow a party line.

Perhaps Read, Parker, the Post Office press office and Lord Callanan wish to consign the Horizon scandal to history.

-In its corporate apology the Post Office’s statement said,

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

In his apology, Tim Parker, Post Office chairman, said that the December 2019 High Court judgement,

“makes findings about previous versions of the [Horizon] system and past behaviours …”

In January 2020, the then postal services minister Kelly Tolhurst said in a letter to Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance that the Post Office accepted and recognised that,

“… in the past they had got things wrong…”

Last week, business minister Lord Callanan said at the end of a short debate in Parliament on the Horizon IT scandal,

“Post Office Ltd has accepted that, in the past, it got things badly wrong … ”

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

“the Post Office is also continuing to directly address past events for affected postmasters …”

Nick Read, the current Post Office CEO said there was a need to

“… learn lessons from the past.”

[My emphases]

But the scandal is not in the past. Far from it.

In February 2020, Mark Baker, a sub-postmaster and spokesman for the communications union CWU, told a BBC File on 4 documentary that he knows of Horizon shortfall incidents of nearly one a week continuing in one UK region alone this year.

File on 4 also raised the question of whether it is easier to blame “user error” than the Post Office’s having to fine Fujitsu for not fixing a bug within a pre-defined time limit.

Another reason the apologies of the Post Office and ministers for “past” wrongs are disingenuous is that they avoid any apology for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation.

In his High Court rulings, Sir Peter Fraser was prolific in his  criticisms of the Post Office’s dealings with sub-postmasters but he also attacked its conduct in the much more recent litigation.

It is this conduct that demeans the reputation of UK government and public sector institutions as a whole.

When ministers and the Post Office refer to such conduct as historic they are, in essence,  excusing it. By apologising for past events only, business ministers appear to have become apologists for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation … conduct such as this:

  • Several Post Office witnesses did not give accurate or impartial evidence to the High Court in 2018 and 2019.  That wasn’t in a past era.
  • A current Post Office director tried to mislead the High Court, as did a witness from IT supplier Fujitsu. This wasn’t in a past era.
  • The Post Office opposed the setting up of a group litigation order, sought to have no substantive trial listed at all and, when this failed, tried to strike out much of the evidence of sub-postmasters before the trials started.
  • During the first trial the Post Office, said the judge, seemed to try and put the court “in terrorem”  – which means serving or intended to threaten or intimidate.” None of this was in a past era.
  • The  judge said some Post Office costs were “extraordinarily high, unreasonable and disproportionate”.
  • In addition to the above costs, the Post Office hired four QCs and two firms on solicitors. It also fielded 14 witnesses against the six lead claimants for the sub-postmasters.
  • The publicly-funded Post Office appeared to be trying to rack up costs, perhaps to drain the funding of the former sub-postmasters and force them into submission.
  • The Post Office sought to have the judge removed – a highly unusual and costly approach to the litigation.  The judge expressed surprise that the Post Office applied to remove him near the end of a lengthy trial. If the judge had stood down, a re-trial would have happened, adding greatly to costs that were already tens of millions of pounds by this stage. It was only last year that the Post Office sought to have the judge removed –  not in a past era.

How many more business ministers will try to consign the Horizon scandal to the past?

That the scandal is one of the most serious group miscarriages of justice in decades is not in doubt.

But by not paying fair compensation, the state is, in essence, sending a signal to the public sector that if another group of innocent people are handcuffed, bundled into a van and taken into prison for doing nothing more than questioning the system, the state will care even less than it does today.

Holding nobody to account and not paying fair compensation also sends a message to the public and Parliament: that it is acceptable for a state-owned institution to conduct itself as if it were answerable to nobody.

One question that still remains unanswered is how a state-owed institution was able – perhaps is still able – to maintain a control and influence similar in status to that of a cult.

For more than two decades, the civil service and ministers accepted the Post Office’s criticisms of sub-postmasters. The courts and judges too.

The Post Office was also able to enlist the support of some the UK’s top QCs in litigation to fight sub-postmasters.

And the Post Office’s most senior witness in the case, whom the judge described as a very clever person,  seemed “entirely incapable of accepting any other view of the issues other than her own”, said the judge. She exercised her judgement to “paint the Post Office in the most favourable light possible, regardless of the facts”.

Other Post Office witnesses in the case were expected to give impartial evidence to the court but followed its party line. Even the Post Office’s expert witness who was professionally required to give impartial evidence to the court was, according to the judge, “partisan” in favour of the Post Office’s case.

The Post Office’s control extended to the sub-postmasters’ supposed trades union, the National Federation of Sub-postmasters: the Post Office secretly gave the Federation millions of pounds that could be clawed back if the Post Office disapproved of the Federation’s public criticisms.

Are BEIS civil servants and ministers, therefore, under the influence of a cult-like institution when they tell MPs the Horizon scandal is in the past and they refuse to apologise for conduct in the litigation, refuse compensation and refuse to hold anyone accountable?

Are the BEIS civil servants and ministers also remarkably naïve when they ask MPs and peers to accept a series of Sir Humphryisms instead of fair compensation for hundreds of damaged or ruined lives?  …  a new framework, ministerial meetings, a monitoring of progress… phrases that could be the output of platitude-generating software?

Do ministers really believe that the Post Office, after decades of control  and influence is able to change suddenly now that it has a new CEO and the Horizon scandal is acknowledged at the top of government?

If ministers want to convince us that the Post Office, BEIS and the government are genuinely contrite, they will pay fair compensation to former sub-postmasters  and hold to account those responsible for the scandal and the failure to put an early stop to its all-too-obvious traumatic consequences.

Acknowledgements:

Alan Bates

Karl FindersNick Wallis, Tim McCormack, Mark Baker, James Arbuthnot, Eleanor Shaikh,  Private Eye, File on 4, Panorama, Christopher Head

Civil servant in charge of £9.3bn IT project is not shown internal review report on scheme’s failings.

By Tony Collins

“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary, Yes Minister, episode 1, Open Government.

Home Office officials kept secret from the man in charge of a £9.3bn project a report that showed the scheme in serious trouble.

The Emergency Services Network is being designed to give police, ambulance crew and firemen voice and data communications to replace existing “Airwave” radios.  The Home Office’s permanent secretary Philip Rutnam describes the network under development as a “mission-critical, safety-critical, safety-of-life service”.

But Home Office officials working on the programme did not show an internal review report on the scheme’s problems to either Rutnam or Stephen Webb, the senior responsible owner. They are the two civil servants accountable to Parliament for the project.

Their unawareness of the report made an early rescue of the Emergency Services Network IT programme less likely. The scheme is now several years behind its original schedule, at least £3.1bn over budget and may never work satisfactorily.

The report’s non circulation raises the question of whether Whitehall’s preoccupation with good news and its suppression of the other side of the story is killing off major government IT-based schemes.

With the Emergency Services Network delayed – it was due to start working in 2017 – police, ambulance and fire services are having to make do with the ageing Airwave system which is poor at handling data.

Meanwhile Motorola – which is Airwave’s monopoly supplier and also a main supplier of the Emergency Services Network – is picking up billions of pounds in extra payments to keep Airwave going.

Motorola may continue to receive large extra payments indefinitely if the Emergency Services Network is never implemented to the satisfaction of he emergency services.

EE is due to deliver the network component of the Emergency Services Network. Motorola is due to supply software and systems and Kellogg Brown & Root is the Home Office’s delivery partner in implementing the scheme.

Has Whitehall secrecy over IT reports become a self-parody?

The hidden report in the case of the Emergency Services Network was written in 2016, a year after the scheme started. It said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, did not start until after the effective delivery dates. Integration is still the main programme risk.

MP SIr Geoffrey Clifton Brown has told the Public Accounts Committee that the report highlighted an absence of clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, which caused something of an impasse.

He said the report “alluded to the fact that that [a lack of clarity around integration] remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution”.

Stephen Webb has been in charge of the project since its start but he is the business owner, the so-called “senior responsible owner” rather than the programme’s IT head.

In the private sector, the IT team would be expected to report routinely to a scheme’s business owner.

But in central government, secrecy over internal assurance reports on the progress or otherwise of major IT-related projects is a Whitehall convention that dates back decades.

Such reports are not published or shared internally except on a “need-to-know” basis. It emerged during legal proceedings over the Universal Credit IT programme that IT project teams kept reports secret because they were “paranoid” and “suspicious” of colleagues who might leak documents that indicated the programme was in trouble.

As a result, IT programme papers were no longer sent electronically and were delivered by hand. Those that were sent were “double-enveloped” and any that needed to be retained were “signed back in”; and Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

The secrecy had no positive effect on the Universal Credit programme which is currently running 11 years behind its original schedule.

Webb has told MPs he was “surprised” not to have seen review report on the Emergency Services Network. He discovered the report’s existence almost by accident when he read about it in a different report written a year later by Simon Ricketts, former Rolls Royce CIO.

This month the Public Accounts Committee criticised the “unhealthy good news” culture at the Home Office. The Committee blamed this culture for the report’s not being shown to Webb.

The Home Office says it doesn’t know why Webb was not shown the “Peter Edwards” report. The following was an exchange at the Public Accounts Committee between MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Webb and Rutnam.

Clifton-Brown: When you did that due diligence, were you aware of the Peter Edwards report prepared in the fourth quarter of 2016?

Rutnam: No, I’m afraid I was not. The Peter Edwards report on what exactly, sorry?

Clifton-Brown: Into the problems with ESN [Emergency Services Network], in particular in relation to suppliers.

Rutnam: I do not recall it. It may have been drawn to my attention, but I’m afraid I do not recall it.

Webb: It was an internal report done on the programme. I have not seen it either.

Clifton-Brown: You have not seen it either, Mr Webb—the documents tell us that. Why have you not seen such an important report? As somebody who was in charge of the team—a senior responsible officer—why had you not seen that report?

Webb: I don’t know. I was surprised to read it in Simon’s report. [Simon Ricketts.]

Chair: Who commissioned it?

Webb: The programme leadership at the time.

Chair: That is the board?

Webb: The programme director. It was a report to him about how he should best improve the governance. I think he probably saw it as a bit of an external assurance. It probably would have been better to share it with me, but that was not done at the time.

Clifton-Brown: “Probably would have been better to share it”? That report said that dialogue between suppliers, notably EE and Motorola, only started after the effective delivery dates. The report highlighted that there was not clarity regarding dependency on the interface providers, and that caused something of an impasse. It also alluded to the fact that that remains one of the most serious issues and is not showing any signs of resolution. That was in 2016, in that report. Had that report been disseminated, would we still be in the position that we are today?

Webb: I think that we would have wanted to bring forward the sort of [independent] review that the Home Secretary commissioned, and we would have done it at an earlier date.

Clifton-Brown: Why did you need to? You would not have needed to commission another review. You could have started getting to the root of the problem there and then if you had seen that report.

Webb: Yes.

Comment:

Webb and Rutman seem highly competent civil servants to judge from the open way they answered the questions of MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.

But they did not design the Emergency Services Network scheme which, clearly, had flawed integration plans even before contracts were awarded.

With no effective challenge internally and everything decided in secret, officials involved in the design did what they thought best and nobody knew then whether they were right or wrong. With hindsight it’s easy to see they were wrong.

But doing everything in secret and with no effective challenge is Whitehall’s  systemically flawed way of working on nearly all major government IT contracts and it explains why they fail routinely.

Extraordinary?

It’s extraordinary – and not extraordinary at all – that the two people accountable to Parliament for the £9.3bn Emergency Services Network were not shown a review report that would have provided an early warning the project was in serious trouble.

Now it’s possible, perhaps even likely, the Emergency Services Network will end up being added to the long list of failures of government IT-based programmes over the last 30 years.

Every project on that list has two things in common: Whitehall’s obsession with good news and the simultaneous suppression of all review reports that could sully the good news picture.

But you cannot run a big IT-based project successfully unless you discuss problems openly. IT projects are about solving problems. If you cannot admit that problems exist you cannot solve them.

When officials keep the problems to themselves, they ensure that ministers can be told all is well. Hence, ministers kept telling Parliament all was well with the £10bn National Programme for IT in the NHS  – until the scheme was eventually dismantled in 2011.

Parliament, the media and the public usually discover the truth only when a project is cancelled, ends up in the High Court or is the subject of a National Audit Office report.

With creative flair, senior civil servants will give Parliament, the National Audit Office and information tribunals a host of reasons why review reports on major projects must be kept confidential.

But they know it’s nonsense. The truth is that civil servants want their good news stories to remain uncontradicted by the disclosure of any internal review reports.

Take the smart meters roll-out. Internal review reports are being kept secret while officials give ministers and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the good news only. Thus, the latest Whitehall report on smart meters says,

“Millions of households and small businesses have made the smart choice to get a smart meter with over 12.8 million1 operating in smart mode across Great Britain. This world leading roll out puts consumers firmly in control of their energy use and will bring an end to estimated bills.”

Nothing is said about millions of homes having had “smart” meters installed that are neither smart nor compatible for the second generation of smart meters which have a set of problems of their own.

The answer?

For more than 30 years the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have published seemingly unique reports that each highlight a different set of problems. But nobody joins the dots.

Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary said in “Yes Minister“, that open government is a contradiction in terms. “You can be open, or you can have government.

This is more than a line in a TV satire.  It is applied thinking in every layer of the top echelons of civil service.

Collective responsibility means civil servants have little to fear from programme failures. But they care about departmental embarrassment. If reviews into the progress or otherwise of IT-enabled programmes are published, civil servants are likely to be motivated to avoid repeating obvious mistakes of the past. They may be motivated to join the dots.

But continue to keep the review reports secret and new sets of civil servants will, unknowingly each time, treat every project as unique. They will repeat the same mistakes of old and be surprised every time the project collapses.

That the civil service will never allow review reports of IT programmes to be published routinely is a given. If the reports were released, their disclosure of problems and risks could undermine the good news stories ministers, supported by the civil service, want to feel free to publish.

For it’s a Whitehall convention that the civil service will support ministerial statements whether they are accurate or not, balanced or not.

Therefore, with review reports being kept secret and the obsession with good news being wholly supported by the civil service, government’s reputation for delivering successful IT-based programmes is likely to remain tarnished.

And taxpayers, no doubt, will continue to lose billions of pounds on failed schemes.  All because governments and the civil service cannot bring themselves to give Parliament and the media – or even those in charge of multi-billion pound programmes –  the other side of the story.

Home Office’s “unhealthy good news culture” blamed for Emergency Services Network Delays – Civil Service World

Emergency Services Network is an emergency now – The Register

Home Office not on top of emergency services programme – Public Accounts Committee report, July 2019

Government Digital Service loses “genius” and “national treasure”. Is Sir Humphrey winning campaign to dismember GDS?

,By Tony Collins

The dismembering of the Government Digital Service is underway, says Andrew Greenway, a former programme manager working on digital projects for the Cabinet Office. He now works as an independent consultant.

His comments in Civil Service World came, coincidentally, as another top GDS official prepared to leave.

Paul Downey, GDS’s Technical Architect – who is described by former colleagues as a “legend” and “national treasure” – has left to join the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Downey is the latest in a long line of leading government technologists to leave GDS, which will confirm in the minds of many that Sir Humphrey has won the campaign to stop GDS interfering in the 100 year-old autonomy of individual government departments.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox set up GDS in 2011 to break down departmental silos and have a “single version of the truth” for everything that government touches.

Former prime minister David Cameron said the creation of GDS “is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament”

Downey helped departments to create new digital services. He represented GDS on the UK government Open Standards Board. Formerly he was BT’s Chief Web Services Architect.

In reply to Downey’s tweet announcing his departure, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, former Executive Director of GDS, tweeted, “When people talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, they were talking about you.”

Mike Bracken, Foreshew-Cain’s predecessor as head of GDS, tweeted about Downey’s departure, “You’re a legend, my friend”.

Tom Loosemore, founder of GDS who, in 2012, wrote the Government Digital Strategy for GDS, also tweeted praise for Downey.

Loosemore left GDS in 2015 for the Co-op group. In an interview shortly after leaving, Loosemore said, “The shape of government needs to change … Businesses don’t run on siloed departments any more and neither should government.”

Liam Maxwell, National Technology Adviser at HM Government who used to be the government’s chief technology officer and who ran teams at GDS, tweeted,”You have been total inspiration to me and hundreds of others”.

Dismembering

Greenway said GDS retains people, prestige and power.  “There is no question that the civil service is in a much stronger position on digital than it was six years ago. Some of the work going on in government, including the teams in GDS building digital platforms, remains world-leading”.

Despite bleeding skills elsewhere, GDS has not experienced a terminal brain drain, says Greenway. “Many of those who have stayed are doing a heroic job in trying circumstances.”

But he added that officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral.

 It now looks as if the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will take over from GDS. But Greenway warns against replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort.

“The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. Increasingly, it has neither of these.

“The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre — the Treasury and Sir Jeremy Heywood — have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot …

“The dismembering of GDS is underway.”

Comment

GDS was a great idea. But Sir Humphries tend not to like great ideas if they mean internal change. Permanent secretaries are appointed on the basis that they are a safe pair of hands.  Safe in this context means three things:

  • not spilling the beans however rancid they may be
  • valuing  department’s unique heritage, administrative traditions, staff and procedures
  • talking daily of the need for large-scale “transformative” change while ensuring it doesn’t happen.

Thus, for the past few years, GDS professionals have found that top civil servants want central government departments to continue to be run as separate bureaucratic empires with their uniqueness and administrative traditions preserved.

GDS technologists, on the other hand, want to cut the costs of running Whitehall and the wider public sector while making it easier for the public to interact with government. This puts GDS at odds with Whitehall officials who believe that each departmental board knows best how to run its department.

In the long run GDS cannot win – because it was set up by politicians who wanted change but whose stewardship was temporary while the will to dismember GDS comes from the permanent secretariat who do not welcome change and have the power to resist it.

More’s the pity because taxpayers will continue to spend a fortune on preserving departmental silos and huge, unnecessarily-complex technology contracts.

Andrew Greenway on the dismembering of GDS – Civil Service World

GDS deserves credit for its successes – Government Computing

GDS to lose some policy control? – Computer Weekly

Government Digital Service blog

Government Digital Service being “dismembered”

Ministers told of major problem on Capita NHS contract more than a year later

By Tony Collins

Today’s Financial Times and other newspapers cover a National Audit Office report into GP clinical notes and correspondence, some of it urgent, that was not directed to the patient’s GP.

The correspondence was archived by Capita under its contract to provide GP support services. But patient notes were still “live”. They included patient invitation letters, treatment/diagnosis notes, test results and documents/referrals marked ‘urgent’.

What isn’t well reported is that ministers were left in the dark about the problems for more than a year. The National Audit Office does not blame anyone – its remit does not include questioning policy decisions – but its report is impressive in setting out of the facts.

Before NHS England outsourced GP support services to Capita in 2015, GPs practices sent correspondence for patients that were not registered at their practice to local primary care services centres, which would attempt to redirect the mail.

By the time Capita took over GP support services on 1 September 2015, GPs were supposed to “return to sender” any correspondence that was sent to them incorrectly – and not send it to primary care services centres that were now run, in part, by Capita.

But some GPs continued to send incorrectly-addressed correspondence to the primary care services centres. Capita’s contract did not require it to redirect clinical correspondence.

An unknown number of GP practices continued to send mail to the centres, expecting the centre’s staff to redirect it. A further complication was that Capita had “transformation” plans to cut costs by closing the primary care services support centres.

Capita made an inventory of all records at each site and shared this with NHS England. The inventories made reference to ‘clinical notes’ but at this point no one identified these notes as live clinical correspondence. Capita stored the correspondence in its archive.

In line with its contract, Capita did not forward the mail. It was not until May 2016 – eight months after Capita took over the primary care services centres – that Capita told a member of NHS England’s primary care support team that there was a problem with an unquantified accumulation of clinical notes.

It was a further five months before Capita formally reported the incident to NHS England. At that time Capita estimated that there was an accumulation of hundreds of thousands of clinical notes. When the National Audit Office questioned Capita on the matter, it replied that, with hindsight, it believes it could have reported the backlog sooner.

In November 2016, Capita and NHS England carried out initial checks on the reported backlog of 580,000 clinical notes. It wasn’t until December 2016 that ministers were informed of problems – more than a year after Capita took over the contract.

Even in December 2016 ministers were not fully informed. Information about a backlog of live clinical notes was within in a number of items in the quarterly ministerial reports. NHS England did not report the matter to the Department of Health until April 2017 – about two years after the problems began.

Even then, officials told ministers that clinical notes had been sampled and were considered “low clinical and patient risk”. But a later study by NHS England’s National Incident Team identified a backlog of 1,811 high priority patient notes such as documents deemed to be related to screening or urgent test results.

The National Audit Office says, “NHS England expects to know by March 2018 whether there has been any harm to patients as a result of the delay in redirecting correspondence. NHS England will investigate further where GPs have identified that there could be potential harm to patients. The review will be led by NHS England’s national clinical directors, with consultant level input where required.”

Last month Richard Vautrey, chairman of British Medical Association’s General Practitioners Committee, wrote to the NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens criticising a lack of substantial improvement on Capita’s contract to run primary care service centres.

In December, the GP Committee surveyed practices and individual GPs on the Capita contract. The results showed a little improvement across all service lines, when compared to its previous survey in October 2016, but a “significant deterioration” in some services. Vautrey’s letter said,

“While any new organisation takes time to take over services effectively, the situation has gone from bad to worse since Capita took over the PCSE [Primary Care Support England] service almost two and a half years ago …

“This situation is completely unacceptable. As a result of the lack of improvement in the service delivery of PCSE we are now left with no option but to support practices and individual doctors in taking legal routes to seek resolution. While this is taking place, we believe it is imperative that NHS England conducts a transparent and comprehensive review of all policy, procedures and processes used by PCSE across each service line.”

Comment:

It’ll be clear to some who read the NAO report that the problems with urgent patient notes going astray or being put mistakenly into storage, stems from NHS England’s decision to outsource a complex range of GP support services without fully considering – or caring about – what could go wrong.

It’s not yet known if patients have come to harm. It’s clear, though, that patients have been caught in the middle of a major administrative blunder that has complex causes and for which nobody in particular can be held responsible.

That ministers learned of a major failure on a public sector outsourcing deal over a year after live patient notes began to be archived is not surprising.

About four million civil and public servants have strict rules governing confidentiality. There are no requirements for civil and public service openness except when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act which many officials can – and do – easily circumvent.

Even today, the fourth year of Capita’s contract to run GP support services, the implications for patients of what has gone wrong are not yet fully known or understood.

It’s a familiar story: a public sector blunder for which nobody will take responsibility, for which nobody in particular seems to care about, and for which the preoccupation of officialdom will be to continue playing down the implications or not say anything at all.

Why would they be open when there is no effective requirement for it? It’s a truism that serious problems cannot be fixed until they are admitted. In the public sector, serious problems on large IT-related contracts are not usually fixed until the seriousness of the problems can no longer be denied.

For hundreds of years UK governments have struggled to reconcile a theoretical desire for openness with an instinctive and institutional need to hide mistakes. Nothing is likely to change now.

National Audit Office report – Investigation into clinical correspondence handling in the NHS.

A proposed Bill and charter that could change the face of Whitehall IT and save billions

By Tony Collins

A government-commissioned review yesterday backed a Bill that could, if enacted and applied to Whitehall generally, prevent billions of pounds being lost on wasteful projects.

The Public Authority Accountability Bill – known informally as the Hillsborough Law – would establish an offence of intentionally or recklessly misleading the public, media or court proceedings.

It would also impose a legal requirement on public authorities to act with candour, transparency and frankness when things go wrong.

Although the Bill was a reaction, in part, to the cover up by public authorities of their failings in the light of Hillsborough, it could, if enacted, deter public authorities from covering up failings generally – including on major IT programmes.

For decades public authorities have had the freedom – unrestricted by any legislation – to cover up failures and issue misleading statements to the public, Parliament and the media.

In the IT sphere, early problems with the Universal Credit IT programme were kept secret and misleadingly positive statements issued. The National Audit Office later criticised a “good news” culture on the Universal Credit programme.

And still the DWP is fighting to block the disclosure of five project assessment reviews that were carried out on the Universal Credit IT programme between 2012 and 2015.

It could be argued that billions of pounds lost on the NPfIT – the National Programme for IT in the NHS – would have been avoided if the Department of Health had been open and candid at the start of the programme about the programme’s impractically ambitious aims, timescales and budgets.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently keeping secret its progress reports on the £111bn smart meters rollout – which independent experts have said is a failing programme.  The department routinely issues positive statements to the media on the robust state of the programme.

The Public Authority Accountability Bill was drafted by lawyers who had been involved with representing bereaved Hillsborough families. It is aimed mainly at government inquiries, court proceedings and investigations into lapses of public services.

But it would also enshrine into law a duty on public authorities, public servants, officials and others to act within their powers with “transparency, candour and frankness”.

Lawyers who drafted the Bill refer on their website to “institutional defensiveness and a culture of denial” when things go wrong. They say,

“In 2017 we expect public authorities and individuals acting as public servants to be truthful and act with candour. Unfortunately, repeated examples have shown us that this is not generally the case.

“Instead of acting in the public interest by telling the truth, public authorities have tended to according to narrow organisational and individual motives by trying to cover up faults and deny responsibility …”

Backing for the Bill came yesterday from a 117-page report on the Hillsborough disaster by Bishop James Jones. The government commissioned him to produce a report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families so that their “perspective is not lost”.

Jones’ impressive report refers to institutions that “closed ranks, refused to disclose information, used public money to defend its interests and acted in a way that was both intimidating and oppressive”

His report refers to public bodies in general when it points to a “cultural condition” and “mindset” that features an “instinctive prioritisation of the reputation of an organisation over the citizen’s right to expect people to be held to account for their actions”. This, says the report, “represents a barrier to real accountability”.

It adds,

“As a cultural condition, this mindset is not automatically changed, still less dislodged, by changes in policies or processes. What is needed is a change in attitude, culture, heart and mind.”

The report urges leaders of “all public bodies” to make a commitment to cultural change by publicly signing a new charter.

The charter commits public bodies to:

  •  Place the public interest above its own reputation.
  • Approach forms of scrutiny with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts.
  • Learn from the findings of external scrutiny and from past mistakes.
  • Avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where the organisation has fallen short.
  • When falling short, apologise straightforwardly and genuinely.
  • Not knowingly mislead the public or the media.

The report says that institutional defensiveness and a culture of denial are “endemic amongst public institutions as has been demonstrated not only by the Hillsborough cover up but countless other examples.”

Stuart Hamilton, son of Roy Hamilton who died at Hillsborough, is quoted in the report as saying,

“Police, officials and civil servants should have a duty of revealing the full facts and not merely selecting some truths to reveal but not others. Not lying or not misleading is simply not good enough. Without this, future disasters cannot be averted and appropriate policies and procedures cannot be developed to protect society.

“Such selective revealing of information also results in the delay of justice to the point where it cannot be served”.

He added,

“I believe that without a change not only in the law but also in the mindset of the public authorities (which a law can encourage) then very little exists to stop the post-event actions happening again.”

IT-enabled projects

Whitehall departments and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority publish their own narratives on the progress on major IT-enabled projects and programmes such as Universal Credit and smart meters.

But their source reports aren’t published.

Early disclosure of failings could have prevented hundreds of millions of pounds being lost on FireControl project, BBC’s Digital Media Initiative, the Home Office Raytheon e-borders and C-Nomis national offender management information projects and the Rural Payments Agency’s CAP delivery programme (which, alone, contributed to EU penalties of about £600m).

Comment:

Yesterday’s beautifully-crafted report into the Hillsborough disaster – entitled “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power” – is published on the Gov.uk website.

It has nothing to do with IT-enabled projects and programmes. But, in an unintentional way, it sums up a public sector culture that has afflicted nearly every Whitehall IT-based project failure in the last 25 years.

A culture of denial is not merely prevalent today; it is pervasive. All Whitehall departments keep quiet about reports on their failings. It is “normal” for departments to issue misleadingly positive statements to the media about progress on their programmes.

The statements are not lies. They deploy facts selectively, in a way that covers up failings. That’s the Whitehall culture. That’s what departments are expected to do.

According to Bishop Jones’ Hillsborough report, one senior policeman told bereaved families that he was not obliged to reveal the contents of his reports. He could bury them in his garden if he wished.

It’s the same with government departments. There is no legal duty to keep programme reports, still less any requirement to publish them.

If Bishop Jones’ charter is signed by leaders of public authorities including government departments, and Andy Burnham’s Bill becomes law,  the requirement for candour and transparency could mean that IT programme progress reports are made available routinely.

If this happened – a big if – senior public officials would have to think twice before risking billions of pounds on a scheme that held out the prospect of being fun to work on but which they knew had little chance of success within the proposed timescales, scope and budget.

It’s largely because of in-built secrecy that the impossibly impractical NPfIT was allowed to get underway. Billions of pounds was wasted.

Some may say that the last thing ministers and their permanent secretaries will want is the public, media and MPs being able to scrutinise what is really happening on, say, a new customs IT project to handle imports and exports after Brexit.

But the anger over the poor behaviour of public authorities after Hillsborough means that the Bill has an outside chance of eventually becoming law. Meanwhile public sector leaders could seriously consider signing Jones’ charter.

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 (On Liberty and The Subjection of Women) that the “only stimulus which can keep the ability of the [public] body itself up to a high standard is liability to the watchful criticism of equal ability outside the body”.

 

What Google looks for when hiring staff … traits Whitehall’s culture abhors?

By Tony Collins

The contrast between what Google looks for when hiring staff and what Whitehall looks for when making some of its top appointments, could give clues as to why many government IT-based projects and programmes fail.

First, the strengths Google looks for.  These were set out yesterday on BBC R4 by Laszlo Bock,  human resources chief at Google for 10 years.

Google was named “Best Company to Work For” more than 30 times around the world and received over 100 awards as a top employer during Bock’s time.

In 2010, he was named “Human Resources Executive of the Year”. Under him, Google changed its clunky, arduous recruitment processes that relied on gimmicks like maths puzzles to those that helped the company grow to about 60,000 employees in less than two decades.

In 2015 he  published his first book, The New York Times bestseller Work Rules!, a practical guide to help people find meaning in work and improve the way they live and lead. He resigned from Google in 2016.

On the BBC  “Analysis” programme on Monday evening – which looked at intelligence and talent and what they mean, if anything, in job interviews –  Bock said the least important attribute Google screens for is whether someone knows about the job they are taking on. Crunching the data on successful hiring led Google instead to look for these characteristics:

  • Humility
  • Conscientiousness
  • A sense of responsibility not to quit until the job is done well
  • Comfort with ambiguity
  • A sense of fun
  • Courage

Why courage?

Bock said,

“It’s about the importance of people being able to raise their voices in organisations. One of the things that happens is, when organisations get large, people stop raising their voices and really bad things happen as a result. That’s where you get whistleblowing, insider trading, all kinds of things.

“Human beings are evolved, biologically, as social, hierarchy-seeking animals. We tend to conform. So courage is important because the really innovative, creative stuff comes from ‘I got this crazy idea’ and the bad problems get flagged by people who are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t think this is a good thing to do’.

“Without that you can’t do great things.”

Comment

It’s too easy to generalise about the hiring and appointment of senior civil servants. But it’s possible to understand a little about the hiring culture within Whitehall’s biggest department, the Department for Work and Pensions.

An insight into DWP culture and thinking can be gleaned from the many Lever arch folders of documents filed by the DWP as part of an FOI case in which it spent several years fighting to stop the release of documents about the Universal Credit IT programme.

The documents include DWP witness statements on the “harm” that would be caused if the IT documents in question were published.

The judge in the case, Chris Ryan, challenged most of the DWP’s arguments.

In one of his rulings, Judge Ryan described the DWP’s claims as:

  • alarming and surprising
  • overstated
  • unconvincing
  • close to fanciful

He said that public confidence in the Universal Credit IT programme had been maintained for some time “on a false basis”; and he raised the possibility that an “unhealthily collegiate relationship had developed” between the DWP and private sector IT suppliers. [Campaign4Change will publish a separate blog post on this ruling in the next few days.]

As well as the insight into DWP culture that one can gain from the FOI case, it’s possible to gauge culture and thinking within Whitehall departments from the talented, free-thinking IT individualists who have joined the top layer of the civil service, quit and returned to the private sector.

It would be invidious to pick out some names as there are so many.

What all this suggests is that Whitehall’s culture appreciates conformity and consensus and shuns boat-rocking.

When top IT professionals who joined HMRC and the DWP spoke publicly at conferences about institutional problems that needed to be tackled, mandarins reacted quickly – and such disclosures were never repeated.

And after a leak to the Guardian about the results of a DWP staff survey of morale on the Universal Credit IT programme, the department launched a formal leak inquiry headed by a senior member of the security services.

At the same time, Universal Credit IT programme documents were no longer emailed but transferred around in taxis.

This bout of nervous introspection (the judge described the DWP’s arguments in the FOI case as “defensive”) when taken together with what else we know, indicate that Whitehall’s culture is insular, distrustful and inimical to open challenge and problem-solving (though there are some within the senior Whitehall ranks who successfully defy that culture).

When Bock talks of conformity being a danger within large organisations he would not have had the DWP in mind – but he aptly describes its culture.

When he speaks about the “importance of people being able to raise their voices in organisations” he was probably unaware of the extent to which Whitehall culture abhors raised voices.

As Bock says, when people don’t raise their voices “really bad things happen as a result”. Perhaps the lack of internal challenge was one reason the NHS IT programme – NPfIT – lost billions of pounds, and the DWP’s Universal Credit programme went badly awry for several years.

When Bock says the “really innovative, creative stuff comes from ‘I got this crazy idea’, he could have been describing the culture of the Government Digital Service. But that refreshing GDS culture is being slowly choked by the conservatism of traditional Whitehall departments.

As Bock says, “the bad problems get flagged by people who are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t think this is a good thing to do’.”  But bad problems are things senior civil servants avoid talking about, even internally. A Disneyland”good news” culture pervades central departments.

A National Audit Office report on the Universal Credit programme referred to a “fortress mentality” within the DWP.

Maybe the consensus-seeking John Manzoni, head of the civil service, and his colleague Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary, could seek to employ Bock as an adviser on appointments and recruitment.

Bock’s brief? To turn around the senior civil service’s culture of conformity, groupthink, denial, selective use of “good news” facts and a lack of open challenge.

Recognising the destructiveness within a big organisation of having the wrong culture – as Bock does – could be the start of a genuine Whitehall transformation.

BBC R4 “Analysis” on talent, intelligence and recruitment

Laszlo Bock steps down

Southwest One – a positive postscript

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

Outsourcing IT a “bad mistake” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Task facing Somerset officials

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

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

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

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

The council’s officers hope this will lead to

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

It is an innovative approach for a council.

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

Does outsourcing IT ever make sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DWP culture of suppressing any bad news continues

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

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

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

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

Churn of project leaders continues

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

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

Single biggest cause of Universal Credit’s bad start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews of Universal IT “failed”

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

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

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

Train crash on the way

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

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

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

Scared to tell the truth

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

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

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

IBM, Accenture and HP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On time?

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

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

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

The DWP’s “caste” system

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

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

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

Twin-track approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Freud told Timmins,

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

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

Fury over National Audit Office report

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

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

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

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

Danny Alexander “cut through” bureaucracy

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

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

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

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

Optimism bias

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

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

David Pitchford told Timmins,

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

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

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

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

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

Recovery?

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

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

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

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

 Could Universal Credit fail for non-IT reasons?

Timmins says,

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

The dire consequences of IT-related failure

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

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

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

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

Comment

What a report.

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

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

Lessons are always the same

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

So why do new governments keep repeating them?

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

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

NPfIT

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

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

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

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

Victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 18.00 6 September 2016

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

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

Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?

Learning the lessons from Universal Credit