Category Archives: FOI

Why are councils hiding exit costs of outsourcing deals – embarrassment perhaps?

Tony Collins

Excerpt from Taunton Deane council’s confidential “pink pages”.
The last sentence contains a warning that IBM-owned SWO – Southwest One – may try to “maximise revenues” on exiting its joint venture with the council.

Somerset County Council has refused a Freedom of Information request for the costs of exiting its joint venture with IBM.

But a secret report written last year by officers at Taunton Deane Borough Council – which was a party to the IBM-owned joint venture company Southwest One  – warned that the supplier could attempt to “maximise revenues on exit”.

It said,

“… from experience anything slightly ambiguous within the contract is likely to be challenged by SWO [Southwest One] in order to push it into the chargeable category as they attempt to maximise revenues on exit”.

A separate section of the confidential report said,

“disaggregating from the SWO [Southwest One] contract will be complex and expensive …”

Taunton Deane Borough Council did not tell councillors what the exit turned out to be. The figures are also being kept secret by Somerset County Council which signed the “transformative” SWO joint venture deal with IBM in 2007.

Both councils have now brought back services in-house.

Secrecy over the exit costs is in contrast to Somerset’s willingness to talk in public about the potential savings when local television news covered the setting up of Southwest One in 2007.

The silence will fuel some local suspicions that exit costs have proved considerable and will have contributed to the justifications for Somerset’s large council tax rise this year.

£69m losses?

David Orr, a former Somerset County Council IT employee, has followed closely the costs of the joint venture, and particularly its SAP-based “transformation.

It was his FOI request for details of the exit costs that the council refused.

Orr says that Somerset has lost money as a result of the Southwest One deal. Instead of saving £180m, the joint venture has cost the council £69m, he says.

FOI

Under the Freedom of Information Act, Orr asked Somerset for the “total contract termination costs” including legal, consultancy, negotiation, asset valuations, audit and extra staffing.

He also asked whether IBM was paid compensation for early termination of the Southwest One contract. In replying, the council said,

“The Authority exited from a significant contract with Southwest One early, and the services delivered through this contract were brought back in-house in November 2016.

“The Authority expects the costs to fall significantly now it has regained control of those services.

“Somerset County Council made payment under the ‘Termination for Convenience’ provisions of the original contract. We do hold further information but will not be releasing it at this point as we believe to do so would damage the commercial interests of the County Council, in that it would prejudice the our negotiating position in future contract termination agreements in that it would give contractors details on what terms the Council was willing to settle …”

Orr will appeal. He says the Information Commissioner has already established a principle with Suffolk Coastal District Council that the termination costs of a contract with a third party should be disclosed. The commissioner told Suffolk Coastal council that, in opting out of FOI,

“there is no exemption for embarrassment”

Hidden costs

Taunton’s pink pages paper said that the Southwest One contract’s Exit Management Plan provided for a smooth transfer of services and data, and for access to staff to assess skills and do due diligence.

In practice, though, there were many exit-related complications and costs – potential and actual. The paper warned that Taunton would need to find the money for:

  • Exit programme and project management costs
  • Early termination fees
  • Contingency
  • ICT infrastructure disaggregation
  • Service transition and accommodation costs
  • Disaggregating SAP from Southwest One. Also the council would need to exit its SAP-based shared services with Somerset County Council because the estimated costs were lower when run on a non shared services basis. SAP covered finance, procurement, HR, payroll, website and customer relationship management.
  • Costs involved in a “soft” or “hard” (adversarial) exit.
  • Estimating council exit costs when IBM was keeping secret its own Southwest One running costs.
  • Staff transfer issues.

Comment

So much for open government. It tends to apply when disclosures will not embarrass local government officials.

In 2007 Somerset County Council enjoyed local TV, radio and newspaper coverage of the new joint venture with IBM. Officials spoke proudly on camera of the benefits for local taxpayers, particularly the huge savings.

Now, ten years later, the losses are stacking up. Former Somerset IT employee and FOI campaigner Dave Orr puts the losses at £69m. And local officials are keeping secret the further exit costs.

Suffolk Coastal District Council lost an FOI case to withhold details of how much it paid in compensation to a third party contractor to terminate a contract. But at least it had published its other exit costs.

Somerset is more secretive. It is withholding details of the sums it paid to IBM in compensation for ending the joint venture early; it also refuses to publish its other exit costs.

Trust?

Can anything said by councils such as Somerset or Barnet in support of major outsourcing/joint venture deals be trusted if the claimed savings figures are not audited and the other side of the story – the hidden costs – are, well, hidden?

In local elections, residents choose councillors but they have no say over the appointment of the permanent officials. It’s the officials who decide when to refuse FOI requests; and they usually decide whether the council will tell only one side of the story when public statements are made on outsourcing/joint ventures.

Across the UK, local councils employed 3,400 press and communications staff –  about double the total number in central government – in part to promote the authorities’ services and activities.

What’s the point if they publicise only one side of the story – the benefits and not the costs?

Somerset’s decision to refuse Orr’s reasonable FOI request makes, in its own small way, a mockery of open government.

It also gives just cause for Somerset residents to be sceptical about any council statement on the benefits of its services and activities.

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Another village post office closed over Horizon IT controversy?

By Tony Collins

“I really have to apologise for not being able to offer the Post Office service the village deserves.

“The worst thing is that I cannot get a full response from the Post Office for their suspension of the service.”

These are the words of Neil Johnson, owner of the village Post Office located inside the Mace convenience store, High Street, Boosbeck, near Skelton, North Yorkshire.

The local Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop says on his website that the reasons for the closure of the Boosbeck post office are unclear but are “connected to a long running and national issue with the computer system and software used by the Post Office called Horizon”.

The closure leaves the village without a post office.

Dozens of subpostmasters have been forced to quit their local post offices over Post Office allegations that they acted criminally following losses shown on the Horizon system.

The Post Office has made no allegations against Neil Johnson.

The Post Office has required more than 150 subpostmasters to repay losses of thousands of pounds and, in some cases, tens of thousands of pounds – money they say was not a genuine loss but an accounting discrepancy shown on the computer system.

Many of the 150 were made bankrupt, jailed, or had their lives ruined because of what they say are unexplained faults related to the Horizon system.

No evidence has yet emerged that the subpostmasters in question received any of the money they are alleged to have taken. In some cases village communities have pulled together to raise money for the Post Office to be paid the “losses”.

Blenkinsop said of the temporary closure of the Boosbeck Post Office,

It just isn’t good enough and leads to an honest shopkeeper being possibly branded with an unfair image or tarnished by rumours…

“I did write on Mr Johnson’s behalf to the Post Office’s parliamentary liaison office, but all I have had back so far is the standard response that this is ‘being looked at’, and advice as to where the nearest other offices are – which I know anyway!”

Interviewed by The Northern Echo, a Post Office spokeswoman did not elaborate on the reason for the temporary closure. She apologised for any inconvenience caused to local residents.

“We would like to reassure customers that we will restore the service to the community as soon as possible and are committed to maintaining services in the area.

“In the meantime, customers can access Post Office services at Lingdale, North Skelton or Skelton in Cleveland.”

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance is taking a group legal action against the Post Office on behalf of the subpostmasters who say their lives have been affected by losses shown on the Horizon system.

An initial High Court hearing is expected to take place in January 2017.

One of the campaigners for justice is Tim McCormack, who worked in IT and later became a subpostmaster.

Although he did not personally have experience of unexplained losses, he believes strongly that problems with Horizon could explain the complaints of the accused subpostmasters.

He has written a fascinating analysis of the Seema Misra crown court case.

Suicide threat?

A subpostmaster has – unsuccessfully – made an anonymous FOI request to the Post Office for its Horizon “known errors” log.

The subpostmaster wrote,

“I am a subpostmaster with a big problem.  Over the last few months my branch has run up a huge loss and I am at my wits end trying to find out what has happened.

“I have contacted the NBSC [Post Office’s Network Business Support Centre] when it first started but they said I had to pay the money back but now it is too much and I just don’t have that sort of money.

“I have been looking on the internet for help and I see that there might be problems with Horizon that could have caused it.

“On this site someone has asked for something called the known errors report but you haven’t let them see it. Please could you tell me what these known errors are so I can try and track down what has caused this loss as I haven’t taken any money.

“I can’t report this to you because I read about Seema Misra and how she ended up in prison even though she said she didn’t take any money.

“Please please please let me see the errors so I can find what went wrong… I don’t want to go to prison I would rather kill myself first.

“Thank you to this site for letting me do this anonymously.”

The Post Office’s Gagan Sharma of the Information Rights team replied,

“Firstly, before I turn to your request under the FOIA, I would like to respond to the personal issues raised in your email. I am naturally especially concerned by the final line of your email and urge you to seek professional help via your Doctor or an organisation such as the Samaritans…

“One of the Post Office senior colleagues, Angela Van-Den-Bogerd would be keen to speak with you in complete confidence and anonymously to see whether we can help in any way…” [Gagan Sharma supplied a phone number.]

On the matter of the losses, the reply said,

“Regrettably, there has been some very misleading and inaccurate information about the Horizon computer system reported in the media. It’s important that you please contact the NBSC [Network Business Support Centre] again and ask for your report to be escalated to a Team Leader so that they can look into your concerns.

“The information that you have requested under the FOIA cannot be provided to you for the reasons I set out below …”

The letter confirmed that the “Post Office does hold information related to your request. However we believe that the information is exempt from disclosure”. The letter said disclosure was likely to prejudice commercial interests.

“… software updates for the Horizon system are released on a regular basis to ensure that operational performance is maintained at optimal levels… such updates include, for example, upgrades and improvements to functionality; and the introduction of new business capabilities for products and services and are, therefore, considered to be commercially sensitive…”

But subpostmasters have pointed out that it’s difficult for them to support their claim that the Horizon system was at least partly to blame for apparent losses if they cannot see the known errors log.

Comment

As has always been the case, the Post Office owns the system; it has a contractual right to claim from subpostmasters any losses shown on the system; it is the prosecuting authority when it believes that subpostmasters have taken the money shown as losses on the system;  it is the investigating authority and it can decide what information to divulge.

What chance do subpostmasters stand – even if innocent – in the face of such overwhelming power?

And how much fun is it to run a village post office when the Post Office could close it suddenly and inexplicably and, in doing so, strike fear into the heart of the local subpostmaster?

Thank you to Tim McCormack for his work and help in relation to the Horizon system. 

Post Office email reveals known Horizon flaw

The Post Office Horizon system and Seema Misra trial

Tom Blenkinsop MP battles for village Post Office

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

 

 

Well done to Unite for challenging council’s joint venture “savings” claim

By Tony Collins

When councils make unexplained (and self-congratulatory) claims that they have made savings at the end of a joint venture, it will usually raise a series of questions.

So well done to Nigel Behan of the Unite union for putting a series of FOI questions to Taunton Deane Borough Council about its joint venture with IBM, as part of Southwest One.

In an “Efficiency Plan” published on its website last month, Taunton Deane
Borough Council announced that it was “part of the ground-breaking Southwest
One shared services joint venture partnership, between Somerset County
Council, Avon and Somerset Police and IBM”.

“This ten year partnership, which is now drawing to a close, has delivered significant savings to the Council and has made an important contribution to our finances.”

Unite is not so sure. Its officials believe the joint venture has, for Taunton Deane,  broken even at best. Its FOI questions to the council:

  • Please will you provide the unitary charge payable by TDBC to
    Southwest One/IBM for each financial year from 2007-2008 to date?
  •  For each financial year since 2007-2008 what was the cost of
    letting and managing the contract – including legal costs, procurement costs etc. etc.?
  • Re IT – software, hardware and peripherals. What was the value in 2007 of all IT (Hardware, software, peripherals and infrastructure) and what is the value of these assets now, ie what has been the depreciation on this asset class since 2007? What will cost of replacing these?
  • What are the net savings achieved by Southwest One for Taunton Deane Borough Council for each financial year since 2007-2008? Will you define “significant savings” (provide a measurable test)?

 Comment:

Taunton Deane Borough Council’s claim of savings was imperious, self-serving and unexplained. The council’s Efficiency Plan looks like a glossy commercial brochure that local residents have had no option but to pay for.

Were a newspaper to make a controversial claim without any explanation or justification, its readers would be entitled to question the article’s veracity.

Taunton Deane’s joint venture peripherally involved a costly legal action between the two main parties to the joint venture: IBM and Somerset County Council.

To make a claim of savings in such circumstances is like officials claiming a mission to space was a success even though the spacecraft blew up.

No rational judgement can be made without a detailed weighing up of the costs and benefits.

Even then the costs and benefits may be subjective. What costs have been excluded from the “savings” figure? What were the baseline costs on which the savings have been measured? And were those baseline figures audited as accurate  – or were they intelligent guesses? Have any benefits been double-counted? Are the benefits audited?

Without people like Nigel Behan and Somerset campaigner Dave Orr, and organisations like Unite, councils would get used to saying publicly whatever they liked, possibly without challenge.

 

 

 

DWP derides claimant complaints over digital rollout of Universal Credit

By Tony Collins

dwpLess than 24 hours after the Institute for Government criticised the DWP’s “tendency not to acknowledge bad news”, the department’s press office has poured scorn on complaints to an MP about problems with the rollout of Universal Credit’s “digital” system.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions has described as “anecdotal” complaints by the public about the “full” digital Universal Credit system in south London.

The DWP has declined to publish reports that would give a factual account of the performance of the Universal Credit digital system during rollout.  Its spokespeople can therefore describe claimant complaints as “anecdotal”.

Cheap

Ministers hope that the in-house and cheaply-developed “full”  digital system will ultimately replace a “live” service that has many workarounds, has cost hundreds of millions of pounds,  has been built by the DWP’s traditional IT suppliers, and deals with only limited groups of claimants.

But the agile-developed digital system has had its problems at a pilot site in Scotland – where the DWP described claimant complaints of being left penniless as “small-scale”.

Now similar problems with the digital system have emerged in south London.

Carshalton and Wallington Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake told the Guardian yesterday that “on a weekly basis I see residents who don’t receive payments or are forced to use a clunky system which is unusable and unsuitable for people with disabilities.”

He added,

“Every day new problems arise as a result of poor staff training, IT failures and poor IT systems.”  He said problems with a local pilot scheme of the digital system is having a serious effect on many people’s lives.

Problems highlighted by Brake include:

  • Flaws in the online system that prevent people from uploading copies of bank statements and other documents needed to secure payments for childcare places.
  • Long administrative delays and mix-ups over payments to claimants, frequently resulting in their running up arrears or being forced to turn to food banks.
  • Failure to pay, or abruptly ceasing without warning to pay, housing costs on behalf of vulnerable claimants, leaving them at risk of eviction.

A DWP spokesman told the Guardian, “It’s misleading to draw wider conclusions from the anecdotal evidence of a small number of people.

“The reality is people claiming universal credit are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system. We are rolling out the UC service to all types of benefit claimants in a safe and controlled way so we can ensure it is working effectively for everyone.”

universal creditNot accepting bad news

Yesterday the Institute for Government published two reports on Universal Credit, focusing on the political, managerial and IT aspects. One of the reports “Learning Lessons from Universal Credit” by Emma Norris and Jill Rutter referred to the DWP’s need to combat its ‘no bad news’ culture.

It said the DWP had a “tendency to not acknowledge bad news, or to acknowledge it insufficiently”. It said “good news culture that prevailed within the DWP, with a reluctance to tell ministers of emerging problems, was a real barrier to identifying and addressing them”. 

Two Parliamentary committees, the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions have criticised the DWP’s inability to face up to bad news, and its selective approach to the dissemination of information.

“Burst into tears”

The other Institute for Government report published yesterday on Universal Credit – Universal Credit, from disaster to recovery? –  quoted an insider as saying that some of those in the  DWP’s IT team at Warrington burst into tears, so relieved were they to discover that they could tell someone the truth about problems with Universal Credit’s digital system.

In a DWP paper that an FOI tribunal judge has ruled can be disclosed, the DWP conceded that officials lacked “candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit IT] Programme and publicly”.

Comment

Problems with the digital system are to be expected.

What’s not acceptable is the DWP’s patronising or scoffing attitude towards claimants who’ve experienced problems with the systems.

In describing the complaints to MP Tom Brake as “anecdotal” the DWP’s hierarchy is aware that it is keeping secret reports that give the facts on the performance of the digital system at pilot sites.

Indeed the DWP is habitually refusing FOI requests to publish reports on the performance of its IT systems. Which enables it to describe all clamant complaints as “anecdotal”.

Test and see

The DWP is taking a “test and see” approach to the roll-out of Universal Credit’s digital system. This means in essence it is using the public as test guinea pigs.

Harsh though this will sound, the DWP’s testing philosophy is understandable. Trying out the digital system on claimants may be the only practical way to bring to the surface all the possible problems. There may be too many complexities in individual circumstances to conduct realistic tests offline.

But why can’t the DWP be open about its digital test strategy? Are its officials – including press officers – locked forever into the culture of “no bad news”?

This denial culture, if it’s maintained, will require the DWP to mislead Parliamentary committees, MPs in general, the public and even stakeholders such as local authorities.

Two select committee reports have criticised the DWP’s prevarications and obfuscations. A chairwoman of the Work and Pensions Committee Dame Anne Begg referred to the DWP’s  tendency to “sweep things under the carpet”.

The Institute for Government referred to even ministers being kept away from bad news.

Other evidence emerged in July 2016 of the DWP’s deep antipathy to external scrutiny and criticism.

It seems that the DWP, with its culture of denial and accepting good news only, would be more at home operating in the government administrations of China, North Korea or Russia.

Isn’t it time the DWP started acknowledging complaints about Universal Credit systems, apologising and explaining what it was doing about resolving problems?

That’s something the governments of China, North Korea and Russia are unlikely to do when something goes wrong.

For decades the DWP has been defensive, introspective and dismissive of all external criticism. It has misled MPs.

And it has done so with an almost eager, cheerful willingness.

But it’s never too late to change.

Digital Universal Credit system is plagued with errors, says MP

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

Analysis of Universal Credit IT document the DWP didn’t want published

 

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

 

Inside Universal Credit IT – analysis of document the DWP didn’t want published

dwpBy Tony Collins

Written evidence the Department for Work and Pensions submitted to an FOI tribunal – but did not want published (ever) – reveals that there was an internal “lack of candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit IT] Programme and publicly”.

It’s the first authoritative confirmation by the DWP that it has not always been open and honest when dealing with the media on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme.

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP's written submission

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP’s written submission

According to the DWP submission, senior officials on the Programme became so concerned about leaks that a former member of the security services was brought in to lead an investigation. DWP staff and managers were the subjects of “detailed interviews”. Employee emails were “reviewed”, as were employee access rights to shared electronic areas.

Staff became “paranoid” about accidentally leaving information on a printer. Some of the high-security measures appear still to be in place.

Unpublished until now, the DWP’s written legal submission referred, in part, to the effects on employees of leak investigations.

The submission was among the DWP’s written evidence to an FOI Tribunal in February 2016.

The Government Legal Service argued that the DWP’s written evidence was for the purposes of the tribunal only. It should not be published or passed to an MP.

The Legal Service went further: it questioned the right of an FOI Tribunal to decide on whether the submission could be published. Even so a judge has ruled that the DWP’s written evidence to the tribunal can be published.

Excerpts from the submission are here.

Analysis and Comment

The DWP’s submission gives a unique glimpse into day-to-day life and corporate sensitivities at or near the top of the Universal credit IT programme.

It reveals the lengths to which senior officials were willing to go to stop any authoritative “bad news” on the Universal Credit IT programme leaking out. Media speculation DWP’s senior officials do not seem to mind. What appears to concern them is the disclosure of any credible internal information on how things are progressing on Universal Credit IT.

Confidential

Despite multiple requests from IT suppliers, former government CIOs and MPs, for Whitehall to publish its progress reports on big IT-based change programmes (some examples below), all central departments keep them confidential.

That sensitivity has little to do with protecting personal data.

It’s likely that reviews of projects are kept confidential largely because they could otherwise expose incompetence, mistakes, poor decisions, risks that are likely to materialise, large sums that have been wasted or, worst of all, a project that should have been cancelled long ago and possibly re-started, but which has been kept going in its original form because nobody wanted to own up to failure.

Ian watmore front cover How to fix government IROn this last point, former government CIO and permanent secretary Ian Watmore spoke to MPs in 2009 about how to fix government IT. He said,

“An innovative organisation tries a lot of things and sometimes things do not work. I think one of the valid criticisms in the past has been when things have not worked, government has carried on trying to make them work well beyond the point at which they should have been stopped.”

Individual accountability for failure?

Oblivious to MPs’ requests to publish IT progress reports, the DWP routinely refuses FOI requests to publish IT progress reports, even when they are several years old, even though by then officials and ministers involved will probably have moved on. Individual accountability for failure therefore continues to be non-existent.

Knowing this, MPs on two House of Commons select committees, Public Accounts and Work and Pensions, have called for the publication of reports such as “Gateway” reviews.

This campaign for more openness on government IT projects has lasted nearly three decades. And still Whitehall never publishes any contemporaneous progress reports on big IT programmes.

It took an FOI campaigner and IT projects professional John Slater [@AmateurFOI] three years of legal proceedings to persuade the DWP to release some old reports on the Universal Credit IT programme (a risk register, milestone schedule and issues log). And he had the support of the Information Commissioner’s legal team.

universal creditWhen the DWP reluctantly released the 2012 reports in 2016 – and only after an informal request by the then DWP secretary of state Stephen Crabb – pundits were surprised at how prosaic the documents were.

Yet we now know, thanks to the DWP’s submission, the lengths to which officials will go to stop such documents leaking out.

Understandable?

Some at the DWP are likely to see the submission as explaining some of understandable measures any government department would take to protect sensitive information on its largest project, Universal Credit. The DWP is the government largest department. It runs some of the world’s biggest IT systems. It possesses personal information on nearly everyone in Britain. It has to make the protection of its information a top priority.

Others will see the submission as proof that the DWP will do all it can to honour a decades-old Whitehall habit of keeping bad news to itself.

Need for openness

It’s generally accepted that success in running big IT-enabled change programmes requires openness – with staff and managers, and with external organisations and agencies.

IT-based change schemes are about solving problems. An introspective “good news only” culture may help to explain why the DWP has a poor record of managing big and successful IT-based projects and programmes. The last time officials attempted a major modernisation of benefit systems in the 1990s – called Operational Strategy – the costs rose from £713m to £2.6bn and the intended objective of joining up the IT as part of a “whole person” concept, did not happen.

Programme papers“watermarked”

The DWP’s power, mandate and funding come courtesy of the public. So do officials, in return, have the right to keep hidden mistakes and flawed IT strategies that may lead to a poor use – or wastage – of hundreds of millions of pounds, or billions?

The DWP’s submission reveals that recommendations from its assurance reports (low-level reports on the state of the IT programme including risks and problems) were not circulated and a register was kept of who had received them.

Concern over leaks

The submission said that surveys on staff morale ceased after concerns about leaks. 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”. For added security, Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

When a former member of the security services was brought in to conduct a leaks investigation, staff and mangers were invited by the DWP’s most senior civil servant to “speak to the independent investigator if they had any information”. This suggests that staff were expected to inform on any suspect colleagues.

People “stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the [Universal Credit IT] Programme,” said the submission. “People became suspicious of their colleagues – even those they worked closely with.

“There was a lack of trust and people were very careful about being honest with their colleagues…

“People felt they could no longer share things with colleagues that might have an honest assessment of difficulties or any negative criticism – many staff believed the official line was, ‘everything is fine’.

“People, even now, struggle to trust colleagues with sensitive information and are still fearful that anything that is sent out via email will be misused.

“For all governance meetings, all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings included, whether or not they contain sensitive information.”

“Defensive”

dwpLines to take with the media were added to a “Rolling Brief”, an internal update document, that was circulated to senior leaders of the Universal Credit IT programme, the DWP press office and special advisors.

These “lines to take” were a “defensive approach to media requests”. They emphasised the “positive in terms of progress with the Programme without acknowledging the issues identified in the leaked stories”.

This positive approach to briefing and media management “led to a lack of candour and honesty through the Programme and publically …”

How the DWP’s legal submission came about is explained in this separate post.

Were there leaks of particularly sensitive information?

It appears not. The so-called leaks revealed imperfections in the running of the Universal Credit programme; but there was no personal information involved. Officials were concerned about the perceived leak of a Starting Gate Review to the Telegraph (although the DWP had officially lodged the review with the House of Commons library).

The DWP also mentioned in its statement a leak to the Guardian of the results of an internal “Pulse” survey of staff morale – although it’s unclear why the survey wasn’t published officially given its apparent absence of sensitive commercial, personal, corporate or governmental information.

NPfIT

The greater the openness in external communications, the less likely a natural scepticism of new ways of working will manifest in a distrust of the IT programme as a whole.

The NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT) – then the UK’s biggest IT programme costing about £10bn – was dismantled in 2011 after eight fraught years. One reason it was a disaster was the deep distrust of the NPfIT among clinicians, hospital technologists, IT managers, GPs and nurses. They had listened with growing scepticism to Whitehall’s oft-repeated “good news” announcements.

Ex-Government CIO wanted more openness on IT projects

When MPs have asked the DWP why it does not publish reports on the progress of IT-enabled projects, it has cited “commercial confidentiality”.

But in 2009, Ian Watmore (the former Government CIO) said in answer to a question by Public Account Committee MP Richard Bacon that he’d endorse the publication of Gateway reviews, which are independent assessments of the achievements, inadequacies, risks, progress and challenges on risky IT-based programmes.

“I am with you in that I would prefer Gateway reviews to be published because of the experience we had with capability reviews (published reports on a department’s performance). We had the same debate (as with Gateway reviews) and we published them. It caused furore for a few weeks but then it became a normal part of the furniture,” said Watmore.

Capability reviews are no longer published. The only “regular” reports of Whitehall progress with big IT programmes are the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual reports. But these do not include Gateway reviews or other reports on IT projects and programmes. The DWP and other departments publish only their own interpretations of project reviews.

In the DWP’s latest published summary of progress on the Universal Credit IT programme, dated July 2016, the focus is on good news only.

But this creates a mystery. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave the Universal Credit programme an “amber” rating in its annual report which was published this month. But neither the DWP nor the Authority has explained why the programme wasn’t rated amber/green or green.

MPs and even IT suppliers want openness on IT projects

Work and Pensions Committee front coverIn 2004 HP, the DWP’s main IT supplier, told a Work and Pensions Committee inquiry entitled “Making IT work for DWP customers” in 2004 that “within sensible commercial parameters, transparency should be maintained to the greatest possible extent on highly complex programmes such as those undertaken by the DWP”.

The Work and Pensions Committee spent seven months investigating IT in the DWP and published a 240-page volume of oral and written in July 2004. On the matter of publishing “Gateway” reviews on the progress or otherwise of big IT projects, the Committee concluded,

“We found it refreshing that major IT suppliers should be content for the [Gateway] reviews to be published. We welcome this approach. It struck us as very odd that of all stakeholders, DWP should be the one which clings most enthusiastically to commercial confidentiality to justify non-disclosure of crucial information, even to Parliament.”

The Committee called for Gateway reviews to be published. That was 12 years ago – and it hasn’t happened.

Four years later the Committee found that the 19 most significant DWP IT projects were over-budget or late.

DWP headline late and over budget

In 2006 the National Audit Office reported on Whitehall’s general lack of openness in a report entitled “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”.

The report said,

“The Public Accounts Committee has emphasised frequently the need for greater transparency and accountability in departments’ performance in managing their programmes and projects and, in particular, that the result of OGC Gateway Reviews should be published.”

But today, DWP officials seem as preoccupied as ever with concealing bad news on their big IT programmes including Universal Credit.

The costs of concealment

The DWP has had important DWP project successes, notably pension credits, which was listed by the National Audit Office as one of 24 positive case studies.

But the DWP has also wasted tens of millions of pounds on failed IT projects.

Projects with names such as “Camelot” [Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks] and Assist [Analytical Services Statistical Information System) were cancelled with losses of millions of pounds. More recently the DWP has run into problems on several big projects.

“Abysmal”

On 3 November 2014 the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge spoke on Radio 4’s Analysis of the DWP’s ‘abysmal’ management of IT contracts.”

1984

As long ago as 1984, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee called for the civil service to be more open about its progress on major computer projects.

Today there are questions about whether the Universal Credit IT will succeed. Hundreds of millions has already been spent. Yet, as mentioned earlier, current information on the progress of the DWP’s IT programmes remains a state secret.

It’s possible that progress on the Universal Credit IT programme has been boosted by the irregular (but thorough) scrutiny by the National Audit Office. That said, as soon as NAO reports on Universal Credit are published, ministers and senior officials who have seen copies in advance routinely dismiss any criticisms as retrospective and out-of-date.

Does it matter if the DWP is paranoid about leaks?

A paper published in 2009 looks at how damaging it can be for good government when bureaucracies lack internal challenge and seek to impose on officials a “good news” agenda, where criticism is effectively prohibited.

The paper quoted the then Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev as saying, in a small meeting with leading Soviet intellectuals,

“The restructuring is progressing with great difficulty. We have no opposition party. How then can we control ourselves? Only through criticism and self-criticism. Most important: through glasnost.”

Non-democratic regimes fear a free flow of information because it could threaten political survival. In Russia there was consideration of partial media freedom to give incentives to bureaucrats who would otherwise have no challenge, and no reason to serve the state well, or avoid mistakes.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, was not acknowledged by Soviet officials for two days, and only then after news had spread across the Western media.

The paper argued that a lack of criticism could keep a less democratic government in power. But it can lead to a complacency and incompetence in implementing policy that even a censored media cannot succeed in hiding.

As one observer noted after Chernobyl (Methvin in National Review, Dec. 4, 1987),

“There surely must be days—maybe the morning after Chernobyl—when Gorbachev wishes he could buy a Kremlin equivalent of the Washington Post and find out what is going on in his socialist wonderland.”

Red team

Iain DuncanSmithA lack of reliable information on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme prompted the then secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith to set up his own “red team” review.

That move was not known about at the time. Indeed in December 2012 – at a point when the DWP was issuing public statements on the success of the Universal Credit Programme – the scheme was actually in trouble. The DWP’s legal submission said,

“In summary we concluded (just before Christmas 2012) that the IT system that had been developed for the launch of UC [Universal Credit] had significant problems.”

One wonders whether DWP civil servants kept Duncan Smith in the dark because they themselves had not been fully informed about what was going on, or because they thought the minister was best protected from knowing what was going on, deniability being one key Whitehall objective.

But in the absence of reliable internal information a political leader can lose touch completely, said the paper on press freedom.

“On December 21, 1989, after days of local and seemingly limited unrest in the province of Timi¸ Ceausescu called for a grandiose meeting at the central square of Bucharest, apparently to rally the crowds in support of his leadership. In a stunning development, the meeting degenerated into anarchy, and Ceausescu and his wife had to flee the presidential palace, only to be executed by a firing squad two days later.”

Wrong assumptions

Many times, after the IT media has published articles on big government IT-based project failures, TV and radio journalists have asked to what extent the secretary of state was responsible and why he hadn’t acted to stop millions of pounds being wasted.

But why do broadcast journalists assume ministers control their departments? It is usually more likely that ministers know little about the real risks of failure until it is too late to act decisively.

Lord Bach, a minister at DEFRA, told a House of Commons inquiry in 2007 into the failure of the IT-based Single Payment Scheme that he was aware of the risks but still officials told him that systems would work as planned and farmers would receive payments on time. They didn’t. Chaos ensued.

Said Lord Bach,

“I do think that, at the end of the day, some of the advice that I received from the RPA [Rural Payments Agency] was over-optimistic.”

Lord WhittyAnother DEFRA minister at the time Lord Whitty, who was also party in charge of the Single Payment Scheme, told the same inquiry,

“Perhaps I ought also to say that this was the point at which I felt the advice I was getting was most misleading, and I have used the term ‘misleading’ publicly but I would perhaps prefer to rephrase that in the NAO terms …”

Even the impressive Stephen Crabb – who has now quit as DWP secretary of state – didn’t stand much of chance of challenging his officials. The department’s contracts, IT and other affairs, are so complex and complicated – there are bookcases full of rules and regulations on welfare benefits – that any new ministers soon find themselves overwhelmed with information and complexity.

They will soon realise they are wholly dependent on their officials; and it is the officials who decide what to tell the minister about internal mistakes and bad decisions. Civil servants would argue that ministers cannot be told everything or they would be swamped.

But the paper on press freedom said that in order to induce high effort within a bureacucracy, the leader needs “verifiable information on the bureaucrats’ performance”.

The paper made a fascinating argument that the more complacent the bureaucracy, the more aggressively it would control information. Some oil-rich countries, said the paper, have less media freedom than those with scarcer resources.

“Consistent with our theory, [some] non-democratic countries … have vast resources and poor growth performance, while the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), while predominantly non-democratic in the 1970s and 1980s, have high growth rates and scarce natural resource.”

In an apparent opening up of information, the government in China passed a law along the lines of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (“China Sets Out to Cut Secrecy, but Laws Leave Big Loopholes,” New York Times, Apr. 25, 2007). But was this law self-serving? It, and the launch of local elections, provided the central government with relatively reliable information on the performance of provincial bosses.

These stories from less democratic countries may be relevant in Britain because politicians here, including secretaries of state, seem to be the last to know when a big IT-based programme is becoming a disaster.

Bad news

Whtehall’s preoccupation with “good news only” goes well beyond the DWP.

T auditors Arthur D Little, in a forensic analysis of the delays, cost over-runs and problems on the development of a huge air traffic control IT project for National Air Traffic Services, whose parent was then the Civil Aviation Authority, which was part of the Department for Transport, referred to an “unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news”.

Ministers helpless to force openness on unwilling officials?

Francis Maude came to the Cabinet Office with a reforming zeal and a sophisticated agenda for forcing through more openness, but the effects of his efforts began to evaporate as soon as he left office. Even when he was at the height of his power and influence, he was unable to persuade civil servants to publish Gateway reviews, although he’d said when in opposition that he intended to publish them.

His negotiations ended with central departments agreeing to publish only the “traffic light” status of big projects – but only after a minimum delay of at least six months. In practice the delay is usually a year or more.

Brexit

Brexit campaigners argue that the EC is undemocratic, that decisions are taken in Brussels in secret by unelected bureaucrats. But the EC is at least subject to the scrutiny, sometimes the competing scrutiny, of 29 countries.

Arguably Whitehall’s departments are also run by unelected bureaucrats who are not subject to any effective scrutiny other than inspections from time to time of the National Audit Office.

Yes Minister parodied Sir Humphrey’s firm grip on what the public should and should not be told. Usually his recommendation was that the information should be misleadingly reassuring. This was close enough to reality to be funny. And yet close enough to reality to be serious as well. It revealed a fundamental flaw in democracy.

Nowhere is that flaw more clearly highlighted than in the DWP’s legal submission. Is it any surprise that the DWP did not want the submission published?

If officials had the choice, would they publish any information that they did not control on any of their IT projects and programmes?

That’s where the indispensable work of the National Audit Office comes into the picture – but it alone, even with the help of the Public Accounts Committee, cannot plug the gaping hole in democracy that the DWP’s submission exposes.

These are some thoughts I am left with after reading the legal submission in the light of the DWP’s record on the management of IT-based projects …

  • Press freedom and the free flow of information cannot be controlled in a liberal democracy. But does Whitehall have its own subtle – and not so subtle – ways and means?
  • In light of the DWP’s track record, the public and the media are entitled to distrust whatever ministers and officials say publicly about their own performance on IT-related programmes, including Universal Credit.
  • More worryingly, would the DWP’s hierarchy care a jot if the media and public didn’t believe what the department said publicly about progress on big projects such as Universal Credit?
  • Is the DWP’s unofficial motto: Better to tell a beautiful lie than an ugly truth?
  • AL Kennedy mentioned the “botched” Universal Credit programme  when she gave a “point of view” on Radio 4 last week. Not referring specifically to Universal Credit she said facts can be massaged but nature can’t be fooled. A girder that won’t hold someone’s weight is likely to fail however many PR-dominated assurance reports have gone before. “Facts are uncompromising and occasionally grim. I wish they weren’t. Avoiding them puts us all at increased risk,” she said.

 Excerpts from the DWP submission

Some Twitter comments on this post:

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Can all councils open up like this please – even Barnet?

By Tony Collins

Bitten by misfortune over its outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM, Somerset County  Council has become more open – which seemed unlikely nearly a decade ago.

In 2007 the council and IBM formed Southwest One, a joint services company owned by IBM. The deal was characterised by official secrecy. Even non-confidential financial information on the deal was off-limits.

That’s no longer the case. Humbled a little by a failure of the outsourcing deal (including a legal action launched by IBM that cost the council’s taxpayers at least £5.9m)  local officials and their lawyers don’t automatically reach for the screens when things go wrong.

In 2014 Somerset County Council published a useful report on the lessons learnt from its Southwest One contract.

The latest disclosure is a report to the council’s audit committee meeting in June. The report focuses on the poor management and lack of oversight by some of Somerset’s officers of a range of contractor contracts. The council has 800 contracts, 87 of which are worth over £1m and some worth a lot more.

Given that the Council is committed to becoming an increasingly commissioning authority, it is likely that the total value of contracts will increase in the medium term, says the audit report by the excellent South West Audit Partnership (SWAP).

SWAP put the risk of contracts not being delivered within budget as “high”, but council officers had put this risk initially at only “medium”. SWAP found that the risk of services falling below expected standards or not delivering was “high” but, at the start of the audit assessment, council officers had put the risk at only “medium”.

somerset county council2One contract costing more than £10m a year had no performance indicators that were being actively monitored, said SWAP.

None of the contracts reviewed had an up-to-date risk register to inform performance monitoring.

No corporate contract performance framework was in place for managing contracts above defined thresholds.

“Some key risks are not well managed,” says the report.

“It is acknowledged that the Council has implemented new contract procedural rules from May 2015 which post-dates the contracts reviewed in this audit; however these procedural rules contain only ‘headline’ statements relating to contract management.

“Most notable in the audit work undertaken was the lack of consistency in terms of the approach to contract management across the contracts reviewed. Whilst good practice was found to be in place in several areas, the level of and approach to management of contracts varied greatly.

“No rationale based on proportionality, value, or risk for this variation was found to be in place. The largest contract reviewed had an annual value of over £10 million but no performance indicators were currently being actively monitored.”

Report withdrawn

Soon after the report was published the council withdrew it from its website. It says the Audit Committee meeting for 3 May has been postponed until June. It’s expected that the audit report will be published (again) shortly before that meeting.

Fortunately campaigner Dave Orr downloaded the audit report before it was taken down.

Comment

How many councils manage outsourcing and other contracts as unpredictably as Somerset but keep quiet about it?

Why, for example, have Barnet’s officers and ruling councillors not made public any full audit reports on the council’s performance in managing its contracts with Capita?

It could be that councils up and down the country are not properly managing their contracts – or are leaving it to the outsourcing companies to reveal when things go wrong.

Would that regular SWAP reports were published for every council.

All public authorities have internal auditors who may well do a good job but their findings, particularly if they are critical of the management of suppliers, are usually kept confidential.

Freedom of information legislation has made councils more open generally, as has guidance the Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2014.

But none of this has made councils such as Barnet more open about any problems on its outsourcing deals.

Indeed clear and perceptive audit reports such as the one from SWAP are rare in the world of local government.

All of which raises the question of whether one reason some councils love outsourcing is that they can pass responsibility to suppliers for things that go wrong knowing the public may never find out the full truth because secrecy is still endemic in local government.

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the audit report – and its (temporary) withdrawal.

Somerset Council’s (withdrawn) Audit Committee report

Southwest One – the complete story by Dave Orr

Hidden for four years – a review of Universal Credit IT

By Tony Collins

Front page of a report the DWP kept hidden for four years. The DWP's lawyers went through numerous FOI appeals to try and stop the report being published.

Front page of a report the DWP kept hidden for four years. The DWP’s lawyers went through numerous FOI appeals to try and stop the report being published.

This is the independent Universal Credit Project Assessment Review  that lawyers for the Department for Work and Pensions went through numerous FOI tribunal appeals trying to keep hidden.

It  was written for the DWP by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority. Interviewees included Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud who was – and is – a work and pensions minister.

In 2012 Lord Freud signed off the DWP’s recommendation that an FOI request for the report’s release be refused.

Remarkable

The now-released report is remarkable for its professionalism and neutrality. It’s also remarkably ordinary given the number of words that have been crafted by the DWP’s lawyers to FOI tribunals and appeals in an effort to keep the report from being published.

The DWP’s main reason for concealing the report – and others that IT projects professional John Slater had requested under FOI in 2012 – was that publication could discourage civil servants from speaking candidly about project problems and risks, fearing negative publicity for the programme.

In the end the DWP released the report 11 days ago. This was probably because the new work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb refused to agree the costs of a further appeal. Last month an FOI tribunal ordered that the project assessment review, risk register and issues register be published.

Had the reports been published at the time of the FOI request in 2012 it might have restricted what ministers and the DWP’s press office were able to say publicly about the success so far of the Universal Credit programme.

In the absence of their publication, the DWP issued repeated statements that dismissed criticisms of its programme management. Ministers and DWP officials were able to say to journalists and MPs that the Universal Credit programme was progressing to time and to budget.

In fact the project assessment review questioned a projected increase of £25m of IT spend in the budget.

MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group, part of the Cabinet Office. OBC is the Outline Business Case for Universal Credit. SOBC is the Strategic Outline Business Case.

MPRG is the Major Projects Review Group, part of the Cabinet Office. OBC is the Outline Business Case for Universal Credit. SOBC is the Strategic Outline Business Case.

 

 

 

 

The DWP claimed in the report that the projected of £25m in IT spend was a “profiling”rather than budgetary issue.

By this the DWP meant that it planned to boost significantly the projected savings in later years of the project. Those anticipated savings would have offset the extra IT spend in the early years. Hence the projected overspend was a “profiling” issue.

But the report questioned the credibility of the profiling exercise.

credibility extract

On the question  of whether the whole programme could be afforded the report had mixed views.

affordability extract

The report was largely positive about the DWP’s work on Universal Credit. It also revealed that in some ways not all was progressing as well as had been hoped (which was contrary to DWP statements at the time). The report said,

behind the curve extract

And a further mention of “behind the curve”…

behind the curve excerpt

None of these problems was even hinted at in official DWP statements in 2012. About six months after the project assessment review was conducted, this was a statement by a DWP minister (who uses words that were probably drafted by civil servants).

“The development of Universal Credit is progressing extremely well. By next April we will be ready to test the end to end service and use the feedback we get from claimants to make final improvements before the national launch.

“This will ensure that we have a robust and reliable new service for people to make a claim when Universal Credit goes live nationally in October 2013.”

And the following is a statement by the then DWP secretary  of state Iain Duncan Smith in November 2011, which was around the time the project assessment review was carried out. Doubtless his comments were based on briefings he received from officials.

“The [Universal Credit] programme is on track and on time for implementing from 2013.

“We are already testing out the process on single and couple claimants, with stage one and two now complete. Stage 3 is starting ahead of time – to see how it works for families.

“And today we have set out our migration plans which will see nearly twelve million working age benefit claimants migrate onto the new benefits system by 2017.”

Ironic

It’s ironic that the DWP spent four years concealing a report that could have drawn attention to the need for better communications.

communications extract

The report highlighted the need for three types of communication, internal, external and with stakeholders.

communications extract2

On communications with local authorities ..

communications extract3

Comment

The DWP has denigrated the released documents. A spokesperson described them as “nearly four years old and out of date”.

It’s true the reports are nearly four years old. They are not out of date.

They could hardly be more important if they highlight a fundamental democratic flaw, a flaw that allows Whitehall officials and ministers to make positive public statements about a huge government project while hiding reports that could contradict those statements or could put their comments into an enlightening context.

Stephen Crabb, IDS’s replacement at the DWP, is said by the Sunday Times to want officials to come clean to him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.

To do that his officials will have to set themselves against a culture of secrecy that dates back decades. Though not as far as the early 1940s.

Official proceedings of parliament show how remarkably open were statements made to the House during WW2. It’s odd that Churchill, when the country’s future was in doubt, was far more open with Parliament about problems with the war effort than the DWP has ever been with MPs over the problems on Universal Credit.

I have said it before but it’s time for Whitehall departments, particularly the DWP, to publish routinely and contemporaneously their project assessment reviews, issues registers and risk registers.

Perhaps then the public, media and MPs will be better able to trust official statements on the current state of multi-billion pound IT-based programmes; and a glaring democratic deficit would be eliminated.

Openness may even help to improve the government’s record on managing IT.

Universal Credit Project Assessment Review

Is DWP’s Universal Credit FOI case a scandalous waste of money?

Crabb’s momentous FOI decision on Universal Credit IT?

By Tony Collins

Some of the DWP legal "bundles" in its protracted and pointless FOI case to try and stop Universal Credit reports being released.

Some of the DWP legal “bundles” in its protracted and pointless FOI case to try and stop Universal Credit reports being released.

Stephen Crabb, the new DWP secretary of state who replaces IDS, has started to make a difference.

On 3 April 2016 the Sunday Times reported that Crabb had ordered officials to stop refusing FOI requests and come clean with him and the public about problems on the Universal Credit programme.

Five days later (8 April 2016) the DWP released three reports under FOI on the Universal Credit programme: a risk register, an issues register and a Major Projects Authority project assessment review.

DWP FOI bundles2

The DWP fought for years at FOI tribunals and appeal hearings to stop the reports being published. Officials were expected to instigate a further appeal after an FOI tribunal ruled last month that the reports be published.

But it now appears that Stephen Crabb refused to sign off further public money for an appeal and officials were left with little choice but to release the reports.

The reports show the extent to which the DWP was economical with the truth in its self-praising departmental press releases and ministerial statements on the state of the Universal Credit programme in 2012 and 2013.

Trust

Indeed, how can we trust any DWP press statement on Universal Credit given that officials are still keeping hidden from Parliament and the public the risk registers, issues registers and project assessment reviews carried out on the UC programme since 2012.

Stephen Crabb

Stephen Crabb

Crabb’s appointment and the release of the three reports dated 2011 and 2012 are, from an FOI point of view, a good start.

But will the DWP become more open in the future about the state of its big IT-enabled change programmes?

Probably not. In a statement to Computer Weekly last week, a DWP spokesperson dismissed the released reports as “nearly five years old and out-of-date” and went on to praise the Universal Credit programme (which involves a waterfall approach and separate much cheaper, and to some extent competing, agile-based project).

This statement suggests that the DWP’s “no bad news” culture is still pervasive; that it is prepared to denigrate its own reports as out of date when they convey messages that conflict with officialdom’s good news culture.

A mass of DWP paperwork and legal bundles on the FOI appeals and hearings related to the documents show how earnest were the reasons for the DWP’s refusal to release the reports until this month.

It is likely that Crabb personally ordered their release. But, probably unknown to Crabb, the DWP has just refused an FOI request to release an Integrated Assurance and Approval Plan (IAAP) on the Universal Credit programme.

IT projects professional John Slater had requested the IAAP. He’d also made the original request for the UC risk register and issues register, and had campaigned long and hard for their release.

Some people may be surprised by the DWP’s refusal to release the IAAP, given that it is another very old Universal Credit report, dating back to the start of the programme. It may even pre-date the released risk register, issues register and project assessment review.

But the IAAP’s release could embarrass the DWP. IAAPs have been mandatory for all major projects since 1 April 2011. They show how well officials have planned a project or programme.

UC assumptions

The Treasury will not normally approve funding without a satisfactory IAAP. It is likely the DWP made a range of over-optimistic assumptions about the UC roll-out in its IAAP.

The DWP’s refusal to release it was under section 36 of FOI legislation. This requires sign off by a minister. In this case it is likely to have been signed off by Lord Freud, the welfare and pensions minister.

He was the minister who originally refused the FOI requests for the Universal Credit risk register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review.

It is unlikely that Crabb knows anything about Slater’s request for the IAAP.

No Whitehall department has yet released contemporaneously – under FOI or outside it – any reports on the performance, progress or otherwise of its big IT-enabled projects or programmes, including Universal Credit.

Arguably it is the continued secrecy on the way officials manage big and costly schemes that contributes more than anything else to the poor record of central government when it comes to understanding and implementing IT-related change.

Out of control?

John Slater said of the released reports,

“Whilst the information disclosed relates to the UCP as it was back in 2012 it is still important and relevant to the programme today.

“The information shows a programme that appears to have been running at breakneck pace and was out of control.

“The normal checks and balances that a professional organisation should have had in place, especially cost control, simply weren’t there. Whilst these problems were recognised in the risks and issues there was no sense that the senior leadership team were willing or able to do anything about them.

“Having read the information it is not a surprise that the Major Projects Authority had no other option but to stop and restart the programme via the now infamous reset.

“The released information also raises questions about the validity of the Universal Credit business case that might explain why it still hasn’t been signed off by the Treasury.”

Comment

Well done to Stephen Crabb. He has given the culture of secrecy at the DWP a gentle shake. But can he make a lasting difference?

As we saw in “Yes Minister” it is difficult for a new minister – or any minister – to have any permanent influence on officialdom. And it remains the case that neither the DWP nor any other department has ever released contemporaneously reports on its own performance or the progress on a big IT-related change programme.

The nearest thing to it is a National Audit Office report, but these are usually retrospective and they are almost always dismissed by departmental press offices and ministers as out of date, whether they are or not.

It is abundantly clear that the DWP is pre-occupied – maybe paranoid – about negative media coverage of the Universal Credit programme.

The same thing happened at the Department of Health over media coverage of the NPfIT NHS IT programme: officials even issued written instructions to NHS staff on the tone of voice they should use with journalists and others when discussing the programme.

Many of the legal reasons the DWP gave to FOI tribunals and appeal judges revolved around the fear of releasing information that could fuel a negative response by the media to the Universal Credit programme.

dwpWhitehall’s war on FOI

Crabb has won an FOI battle but his officials are winning the pro-secrecy war. For Crabb to make a lasting difference he will need to persuade Lord Freud – and any of his successors – of the virtues of openness.

Until officials willingly publish contemporaneous reports on the progress or otherwise of big IT-enabled change programmes, government will probably continue to have a poor record when managing these schemes.

Success in government IT requires openness because IT-enabled projects and programmes are about solving problems; and if the problems cannot be admitted let alone discussed widely they are unlikely to be solved,as we saw with the initial problems on the Universal Credit programme.

Universal Credit involves many external organisations such as local authorities and housing associations. The DWP could start to embrace media coverage as giving healthy challenge to its decisions – challenges that may help to resolve a range of problems that are inevitable when the benefit system is being simplified.

Keeping reports such as the IAAP secret – even after five years – will continue to fuel the internal paranoia against open and constructive debate.

After decades of secrecy over the contemporaneous release of project and performance reports it is time for lasting change.

Universal Credit shows it’s time to make all major government projects open and transparent – Computer Weekly Editor’s Blog.

Judge orders Universal Credit reports must be published – The Register

Victory for campaigners as DWP finally publishes Universal Credit reports – Politics.co.uk

Judge orders FOI release of Universal Credit IT reports

By Tony Collins

universal creditA judge has ordered the Department for Work and Pensions to release three Universal Credit IT reports that ministers and their officials have spent public money trying to keep out of the public domain.

Judge Chris Ryan and his FOI tribunal panel went further: they concluded that had the reports in question been disclosed at the time they might have corrected misleading government statements about the robust state of the Universal Credit programme.

In their ruling this week the tribunal said that disclosure of the documents,

“might have corrected a false impression, derived from official government statements by revealing the very considerable difficulties that were beginning to develop around the time when the information requests were submitted.”

Two director-level officials at the Department for Work and Pensions had argued that civil servants needed a “safe space” in the reports in question to be candid in their assessments of risks and problems.

But the FOI tribunal, whose members have project management experience, concluded that it’s in the self interest of officials to be candid and professional about problems and risks rather than be associated with a failed project.

In addition, officials would not wish to be held partly responsible in a later review, such as one carried out by the National Audit Office, for having “failed to draw colleagues’ attention to problems with sufficient clarity to ensure that they were addressed effectively and in good time”.

Civil servants had an “awareness of the importance of candour in support of good decision-making and their professional obligation to assist that process”.

The tribunal said the three reports in question should have been  disclosed at the time they were requested in 2012. It directed the DWP to disclose them.

If the DWP’s barrister can identify good reasons why the tribunal might have made an error, or errors, in law, he can appeal within 28 days, though a tribunal could reject his appeal . The DWP could then appeal this decision.

This cycle of appeals that has already happened once – or the DWP could now decide that it has spent enough public money on fighting the case and release the reports.

dwpDid the DWP mislead?

The reports are expected to throw light on the problems and risks of Universal Credit IT at  a time when DWP’s officials, secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith and his ministers, were giving assurances that all was well with the programme.

An FOI tribunal ordered the reports to be released in 2014 but various DWP appeals led to a re-hearing of the case last month (22 February 2016) at Leicester Magistrates Court.

Now Judge Ryan and two other FOI tribunal panel members have ordered that the DWP release a risk register, issues register and Major Projects Authority project assessment review.

The risk register described risks, the possible impact should they occur, the probability of their occurring, a risk score, a traffic light status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialised, and a summary of the risk mitigation.

The issues register included a list of problems, the dates they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.

The project assessment review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.

The DWP argued that routine disclosure of such reports could lead to sensationalist headlines that would have a “chilling effect”.  Not wanting to give food to a hostile media, officials writing or contributing to such reports could make them anodyne.

dwpDWP fears “over-stated”

But Judge Ryan said the DWP had “over-stated” its fears. The tribunal suggested that the DWP had not been entirely truthful about the Universal Credit programme.

“We do not accept the Department’s submission that the management of the Universal Credit Programme is already exposed to sufficient public scrutiny and that this dilutes the strength of the arguments in favour of disclosure. On the particular facts of this case it is clear that the true story about the troubles which the Programme team faced only came to light a long time after the event and then showed a markedly different picture than had been portrayed by government statements issued at the time.”

This difference between reality on the UC programme and government statements was a good reason in favour of the disclosure of the reports, said the judge.

Closed session

The DWP’s witness Cath Hamp, a senior DWP official, went into closed session at the latest hearing to argue that her concerns about civil servant behaviour would be more clearly shown by reference to specific items in the withheld documents.

Her closed-session arguments related to the risk of fraud and hacking into the system, relations with commercial organisations, and relations with local government. The tribunal was not convinced by her arguments.

Neither was the panel convinced by the “chilling effect” arguments.

“The evidence on the likelihood of civil servants altering their behaviour in future with regard to their contributions to the preparation of a risk or issues register or to the conduct of a project review was, as Ms Hamp fairly conceded, speculative…”

FOI a benefit more than a “burden”?

The DWP argued that disclosures of the reports would have placed a burden on DWP’s Universal Credit programme executives. They would have been forced to divert their energies and time into correcting media reports about the seriousness of problems and risks. But the tribunal concluded,

“Nor do we accept that resources would be wasted in providing explanations. It is clear from the press releases that we have been shown that the Department has been adept at presenting its case to the public and that it clearly has the specialist staff to carry out that function.”

The tribunal suggested that FOI obligations, rather than cause harm as the DWP had suggested, would be a benefit. The FOI Act had “brought with it an obligation on government to explain itself to a greater extent than had previously been found necessary”.

The tribunal rejected the DWP’s argument that it faced a hostile media which made officials defensive.

“… the evidence before us suggests that, on this issue, the media has adopted a relatively balanced approach to information about the Programme that has come into its possession.”

The judge said that in any event it is a

“perfectly appropriate performance of the media’s role in a modern democracy for it to investigate and comment on the implementation of a major reform involving large sums of public money and a potentially crucial impact on the lives of some of the least fortunate members of society”.

He added: “We do not therefore accept the Department’s submissions on the likelihood of the public misunderstanding the disputed information, or being misled as to its significance by the media”

In its final paragraph the tribunal said,

“… we have concluded that the public interest in maintaining the exemption in respect of each of the withheld documents does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure and that they should therefore have been disclosed when requested. Our decision is unanimous.”

Comment

My thanks to IT projects professional John Slater who has been the main force behind the case in favour of disclosure of the reports.

He made the original request in 2012 for the reports to be published. I requested one of them. He went to the original First Tier Tribunal and to Leicester Magistrates Court last month to cross examine the DWP’s witness. The points he made were quoted by the tribunal in its submission.

It’s campaigners like John Slater (and Dave Orr) who have helped to make FOI legislation more effective than it would otherwise have been.

If the DWP continues to pour money into fighting the disclosure of the reports in question, it will confirm to some of us that, when it comes to its own interest, that is its interest as a bureaucracy,  it may not be a fit authority to manage the spending of public money.

I hope it will release the reports now. It is time it started distinguishing between the public interest and its own.

Universal Credit FOI tribunal ruling – March 2016:  077 110316 Final Open Decision