Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Judge in Post Office Horizon case calls for a “change of attitude”

By Tony Collins

The Law Society Gazette reports that the High Court judge in the Post Office Horizon case has called for a “change of attitude”.

At a case management conference, the judge Sir Peter Fraser listed some of the problems already reported during the group litigation:

  • Failure to lodge required documents with the court
  • Refusing to disclose obviously relevant documents
  • Threatening ‘pointless’ interlocutory skirmishes.
  • Failure to respond to directions for two months
  • Failure to even consider e-disclosure questionnaires

The case involves a class action – called a Group Litigation Order – against the Post Office brought by more than 500 mostly sub-postmasters.

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance seeks damages related to the introduction of the Horizon computer system about  17 years ago, which is alleged to have caused financial distress and in some cases bankruptcy.

According to the Law Society Gazette, the judge said the behaviour of legal advisers in the case “simply does not begin to qualify as either cost-effective, efficient, or being in accordance with the over-riding objective”. He added,

“A fundamental change of attitude by the legal advisers involved in this group litigation is required. A failure to heed this warning will result in draconian costs orders.”

The court has heard of problems trying to establish a timetable for the litigation. The claimants sought a substantive hearing for October 2018, while the Post Office argued the case could be managed for another entire year without any substantive hearing being fixed. Under this proposal, the hearing would not happen until at least 2019.

Fraser noted that to describe this approach as ‘leisurely, dilatory and unacceptable in the modern judicial system would be a considerable understatement’.

The day after a trial was ordered for November 2018, the Post Office asked for a change because its leading counsel already had a commitment at the Companies Court.

The judge suggested it was a ‘clear case of the tail wagging the dog’ if clerks were allowed to dictate hearing date. He said there was reasonable notice to arrange for a replacement counsel.

Fraser added: ‘Fixing hearings in this group litigation around the diaries of busy counsel, rather than their fixing their diaries around this case, is in my judgment fundamentally the wrong approach.’

Comment:

It appears that the judge did not single out the claimants or the Post Office as the main target for his irritation. He was impartial. But his no-nonsense approach might have surprised some at the Post Office.

The Post Office is familiar with control. When the Horizon system has shown a shortfall in the accounts of a local branch, the Post Office has required the sub-postmasters to pay whatever amount is shown, in order to return the balance to zero.

Even when paying the shown amount has led to bankruptcy and destruction of the family life of the sub-postmaster, the Post Office has pursued the case.

It has had control.

It supplied the contract that sub-postmasters signed; it supplied the Horizon branch accounting system; it required payment of what the system showed as a deficit; it investigated complaints by sub-postmasters that the shown deficits might have been incorrect;  it was able to decide what information to release or withhold – the “known errors” Horizon log being one piece of information not disclosed – and it was the prosecuting authority.

It has also been free to rebut public criticisms, as when BBC’s Panorama and forensic accountants Second Sight focused on the concerns of sub-postmasters.

Now it’s a High Court judge who is questioning, among other things, a failure to lodge required documents with the court and refusing a to disclose obviously relevant documents.

The judge’s comments are refreshing. Since 2009, when Computer Weekly first reported on the concerns of sub-postmasters, control has been one-sided.

Now at last it is on an even keel.

We hope the Post Office will reappraise whether it should be using public funds at all to fight the case.

If the case does drag on for years – postponing a judicial decision – who will benefit? Certainly not the sub-postmasters.

Law Society Gazette article

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Goodnewspeak and its Orwellian dark side

By Tony Collins

Orwell made no mention of goodnewspeak. But maybe today it’s an increasingly popular descendant of  Newspeak – a language devised by Orwell to show how the State could use words and phrases to limit thought.

This week, as a statue of Orwell was unveiled outside the BBC, a local council in Sussex made an announcement that was a fine example of goodnewspeak.

This was Horsham District Council’s way of not saying that it was scrapping weekly rubbish collections.

This was the benign side of goodnewspeak. The dark side is a growing acceptance in Whitehall, local authorities and the wider public sector that nothing negative can be thought of let alone expressed at work.

This suppression of negative thoughts means that the rollout of Universal Credit can be said officially to be going well and can be speeded up  despite the clamour from outsiders, including a former Prime Minister (John Major), for a rethink to consider the problems and delays.

[Labour MP Frank Field said last month that the DWP was withholding bad news on Universal Credit.]

It means that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy can continue to praise all aspects of its smart meters rollout while its officials keep silent on the fact that the obsolescent smart meters now being installed do not work properly when the householder switches supplier.

It means that council employees can think only good about their major IT suppliers – and trust them with the council’s finances as at Barnet council.

[Nobody at Barnet council has pointed out the potential for a conflict of interest in having outsourcing supplier Capita reporting on the council’s finances while having a financial interest in those finances. It took a local blogger Mr Reasonable to make the point.]

Goodnewspeak can also mean that public servants do their best, within the law, to avoid outside scrutiny that could otherwise lead to criticism, as at Lambeth council.

Last month Private Eye reported the results of a “People’s Audit” in which local residents asked questions and scrutinised the authority’s accounts. The audit found that:

 – The number of managers earning between £50,000 and £150,000 has increased by 88, at a cost of more than £5.5m year.
-Spending on Lambeth’s new town hall has gone from a projected £50m to £140m.
– The council “invested” a total of £57,000 on its public libraries last year – closing three of them – while spending £13m on corporate office accommodation.
-£10.3m was spent making people redundant.

These disclosures (and there are many more of them) raise the question of what Lambeth is doing to dispel the impression that it manages public money badly and that its decisions could be routine in the world of local authorities.

Lambeth council’s reaction to the audit was to denounce it and issue its own goodnewspeak statement; and it is considering a proposal to lobby the government to allow councils to ban such People’s Audits in future.

Lambeth’s website, incidentally, is entitled “Love Lambeth”. Which, perhaps, shows that its leaders have, at least, a deep sense of irony.

Whitehall

The following lists of announcements on the websites of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Transport are examples of how goodnewspeak manifests itself in Whitehall:

And the Department of Transport’s website:

Ministry of Truth

Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four of the Ministry of Truth whose expertise was lying, the Ministry of Peace which organised wars and the Ministry of Plenty which rationed food.

Some of the Party’s slogans were:

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

And Orwell, whose wife worked at the Ministry of Information at Senate House, London (Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth) said,

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

Comment

Of course goodnewspeak doesn’t exist as a policy anywhere. But its practice is all-pervasive in the public sector. And it seems to change the way people think when they’re at work.

It blocks out any view other than the official line.

In Nineteen Eight-four, Orwell created “Newspeak” as a language of the Party to coerce the public to shape their thoughts around the State’s beliefs. Its much-reduced vocabulary stopped people conceiving of any other point of view.

Not using Newspeak was a thoughtcrime. The Party advocated Duckspeak – to speak without thinking – literally quack like a duck.

Has this already happened in a minor way at Barnet? A council document on the benefits of its outsourcing policies was peppered with abstractions that could have been constructed by software-driven random-phrase generators:

“Ahead of the game”
“Top to bottom organisational restructure”
“Flexibility to meet future challenges whilst ensuring we provide excellent services to residents today.”
“Root of our success”
“New solutions to complex problems”
“Pioneering partnerships”
“Investing for the future”
“Protect what makes Barnet such a great place to live”
“Increasing resident satisfaction”
“Paying dividends”
“Prepared for the future”
“Great strides”
“A radical, ‘whole place’ approach to designing and providing services”
“We have not been backwards in coming forwards”
“Pursuing alternatives to the norm”
“Vision into reality”
“Frame our future strategic direction”
“Future Shape”
“Drivers for change”
“Genuine innovation in Local Government”
“Bold in its decision making”
“Forward looking change strategy”
“A new relationship with citizens”
“A one public sector approach”
“A relentless drive for efficiency”
“Focus on stimulating the market”
“Best in class’ range of tradable services to win and deliver work for other authorities.”
‘Form follows function’.
“Clear roles and responsibilities”
“An internal escalation model”
“Renewed focus on improving engagement”
“Increasing transparency, and developing trust”
“Connect with people and build relationships of trust”
“A steep demand line to climb”

Dark side

One worrying consequence is that Whitehall civil servants and public servants and ruling councillors at, say Barnet and Somerset councils (and even at Cornwall), made the assumption that their IT suppliers shared the public sector’s goodnewspeak philosophy.

But suppliers are commercially savvy. They don’t exist purely to serve the public. They have to make a profit or they risk insolvency.

For years, goodnewspeak at Somerset County Council led to officers and councillors regularly praising the successes of a joint venture with IBM while covering up the problems and losses, in part by routine refusals of FOI requests.

Goodnewspeak at Liverpool Council meant that its officials had nothing but praise for BT when they ended a joint venture in 2015. They said that ending the joint venture would save £30m. But the joint venture itself was supposed to have saved tens of millions.

Somerset County Council made a similar good news announcement when it terminated its joint venture Southwest One with IBM.

Such announcements are consistent with Newspeak’s “Doublethink” – the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.

DWP

Outsiders can find goodnewspeak shocking. The Daily Mirror reported on how the DWP celebrated the rollout of Universal Credit at Hove, Sussex, with a cake. Were managers mindful of the fact that some failed UC claimants have been driven to the brink of suicide?

Disillusioned

Francis Maude, when minister for the Cabinet Office, was almost universally disliked in the civil service. He was an outsider who did not accept the Whitehall culture.  Even though he believed the UK had the best civil service in the world, he did not always show it.

He tried to reduce Whitehall spending on IT projects and programmes that could not be justified. He spoke an IT supplier oligopoly.

Now he has left government, most of his civil service reforms (apart from the Government Digital Service) have settled back to how they were before he arrived in 2010.

In a speech last month, Maude spoke of a “distressing” disillusionment with the civil service culture. He said:

“Based on my experience as a Minister in the eighties and early nineties my expectations (of the civil service) were high. And the disillusionment was steep and distressing.

“It remains my view that we have some of the  very best civil servants in the world … But the Civil Service as an institution is deeply flawed, and in urgent need of radical reform.

” And it is civil servants themselves, especially the younger ones, who are most frustrated by the Service and its culture and practices.”

World’s best civil service

He added that, as the new minister responsible for the civil service, every draft speech or article presented to him started: ‘The British Civil Service is the best in the world.’

But complaints by ministers in all parties about the lack of institutional capability, inefficiency and failed implementation were legion, he said.

“When we queried the evidential basis for this assertion, it turned out that the only relevant assessment was a World Bank ranking for ‘government effectiveness’, in which the UK ranked number 16.”

Speaking the unsaid

Perhaps more than any former minister, Maude has expertly summarised the civil service culture but in a way that suggests it’s unredeemable.

“I and others have observed that all too often the first reaction of the Civil Service when something wrong is discovered is either to cover it up or to find a scapegoat, often someone who is not a career civil servant and who is considered dispensable.
“There seems to be an absolute determination to avoid any evidence that the permanent Civil Service is capable of failure.
“Another indicator is that if a Minister decides that a Civil Service leader is not equipped for his or her task, this has to be dressed up as “a breakdown in the relationship”, with the unspoken suggestion that this is at least as much the fault of the Minister as of the civil servant.
“It can never be admitted that the mandarin was inadequate in any way.
“When I suggested that there might be room for improvement, the distinguished former Civil Service Head, Lord Butler, accused me of a failure of leadership. Actually the leadership failure is to pretend that all is well when no one, even civil servants themselves, really believes that.

The good news

All is not lost – thanks to a vibrant and investigative local press in some areas and resident auditors such as Mr Reasonable, Mrs Angry, David Orr, Andrew Rowson and the people’s auditors in Lambeth.

Along with the National Audit Office and some MPs, these resident auditors are the only effective check on goodnewspeak. They are reminder to complacent officialdom that it cannot always hide behind its barrier of unaccountability.

Long may these dogged protectors of the public interest continue to highlight financial mismanagement, excess and self-indulgent,wasteful decisions.

Earlier this year Nineteen Eight-Four hit the No 1 spot in Amazon’s book sales chart.

Perhaps copies were being scooped up by shortlisted candidates for top public sector jobs as vital homework before falling in with the culture at their interviews.

**

Outside the BBC, Orwell’s new statute is inscribed with a quotation from a proposed preface to Animal Farm that was never used:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Thank you for David Orr, one of the dogged local resident auditors referred to above, for drawing my attention to some of the articles mentioned in this post.

DWP good news announcements

Newspeak

Whitewashing history in education

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It adds,

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

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

The charter commits public bodies to:

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

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

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

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

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

He added,

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

IT-enabled projects

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

But their source reports aren’t published.

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

Comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did Gauke and Couling break free today of DWP “good news” stance on Universal Credit rollout?

By Tony Collins

Two leaders of the Universal Credit rollout, David Gauke and Neil Couling, faced MPs’ questioning this morning on problems with the rollout of Universal Credit.

They were asked, among other things, about excessive delays in payments and payments made on the basis of incorrect data.

Gauke and Couling appeared before the work and pensions committee. There is also a Commons debate today on the Universal Credit rollout.

Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, and civil servant Neil Couling, Director General of Universal Credit, are known to resent criticism of the Universal Credit programme or its rollout.

Couling tweeted last week, in response to academic Jonathan Portas:

But MPs on the work and pensions committee, particularly its chairman Frank Field,  are sensitive to the DWP’s “good news” culture.

Field is reported to have said he suspected that ministers had only pressed ahead with the accelerated rollout of universal credit this month because civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions had withheld the true scale of the problems.

Field said:

“Given everything we have heard, I was surprised that David Gauke opted to proceed with the accelerated rollout.

“I strongly suspect his decision, together with the failure to tell us anything, reflects a culture at the DWP of those most invested in universal credit not telling anyone, including their ministers, bad news.”

In its 2013 report “Universal Credit Early Progress“, the National Audit Office said,

“Both the Major Projects Authority [now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority] and a supplier-led review in mid-2012 identified problems with staff culture; including a ‘fortress mentality’ within the programme.

“The latter also reported there was a culture of ‘good news’ reporting that limited open discussion of risks and stifled challenge.”

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme heard this morning (18 October 2017) that a Universal Credit claimant who’d been the victim of “mistake after mistake” on his claim had threatened to take his own life and police had been called.

Update:

Gauke and Couling told the work and pensions committee this morning that the rollout may be paused in January 2018 as part of the department’s test and learn philosophy. They called it a “fire-break.  Couling said the rollout was paused in February 2016 for two months and “nobody noticed”.

He added that he was prepared to advise his minister, the Treasury and the prime minister to pause the rollout whenever the “evidence merits”..

Gauke said the advantages of the Universal Credit system were of such a “prize” that there was  cost of slowing down the rollout. “It can transform lives and it’s my determination is to deliver this successfully,” said Gauke.

Gauke and Couling told MPs that the rollout was working successfully. Neither expressed any criticisms of the programme or the rollout; and neither accepted the many criticisms of the committee’s MPs of the programme. At one point, Couling helpfully suggested to the committee some of the questions they “should” have been asking.

Where there were problems it was outside the DWP’s control – because of information supplied, or not supplied, by claimants or employers. The real-time information supplied to DWP by HM Revenue and Customs was only as good as the information provided to HMRC by employers.

Comment:

There’s universal support for the idea of Universal Credit. But there is almost universal criticism of the way it is being rolled out. Critics of the rollout also find it difficult to understand the DWP’s continuing refusal to accept that there are any serious problems.

For decades the DWP and its predecessor the Department of Social Security have been culturally unable to accept criticism of any of their big IT-based projects and programmes, even after a project was aborted.

One DWP director last year used the word “paranoid” when referring to her colleagues and their concerns about leaks of any bad news on the Universal Credit programme.

The DWP routinely declines FOI requests to publish its performance reviews on the Universal Credit programme. This lack of official information on the DWP’s performance leaves officials and ministers free to say that criticism of the programme is subjective or anecdotal.

Stephen Crabb was one of the few politicians who have ever made a difference to the DWP’s closed culture of secrecy and defensiveness. He ordered that internal reports on the risks and progress of the Universal Credit programme be released, against the advice of his civil servants. But Crabb didn’t stay long.

And the “good news” culture has returned, as unremitting as ever. Will any minister or civil servant be able to change the DWP’s “good news” culture?

Probably not.

The DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux is retiring in January 2018, which will open the door to a successor who could try and change the department’s defensive culture.

It’s more likely, however, that Devereux’s replacement will be chosen on the basis that he or she will be a “safe pair of hands” which, in civil service terms, means a staunch defender of the department, its performance, all it is doing and the civil service in general.

However many independent voices call for a brake on the Universal Credit rollout, it seems inevitable that the DWP’s mandarins (and their pliant ministers) will carry on doing whatever they can justify to themselves.

The DWP hasn’t let humility or democratic openness get in the way before. Why would it give in to them now?

 

Whitehall renews facade of openness on major IT projects

By Tony Collins

Headlines yesterday on the state of major government IT projects were mixed.

Government Computing said,

“IPA: Whitehall major projects show ‘slow and steady’ delivery improvement”

Computer Weekly said,

“Government IT projects improving – but several still in doubt”

The Register said,

“One-quarter of UK.gov IT projects at high risk of failure – Digital borders, digital tax and raft of MoJ projects singled out”

The headlines were prompted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual report which was published yesterday.

The report listed the RAG – red/amber/green – status of each of 143 major projects in the government’s  £455bn major projects portfolio. Thirty-nine of these are ICT projects, worth a total of £18.6bn.

Publication of the projects’ red/amber/green status – called the “Delivery Confidence Assessment” – seemed a sign that the government was being open over the state of its major IT and other projects.

A reversal of decades of secrecy over the progress or otherwise of major IT projects and programmes?

In a foreword to the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s report, two ministers referred twice to the government’s commitment to openness and accountability.

MP Caroline Nokes, Cabinet Office minister, and MP Andrew Jones, a Treasury minister, said in their joint foreword,

“The government is also committed to transparency, and to being responsive and accountable to the public we serve.

“Accordingly, we have collected and published this data consistently over the past five years, enabling us to track the progress of projects on the GMPP [Government Major Projects Portfolio] over time.

“We will continue to be responsive and accountable to the public.”

But the report says nothing about the current state of major IT projects. The delivery confidence assessments are dated September 2016. They are 10 months out of date.

This is because senior civil servants – some of whom may be the “dinosaurs” that former minister Francis Maude referred to last month – have refused to allow politicians to publish the red/amber/gtreen status of major projects (including the Universal Credit programme and the smart meters rollout) unless the information, when published, is at least six months old.

[Perhaps one reason is to give departmental and agency press officers an opportunity to respond to journalists’ questions by saying that the red, red/amber of amber status of a particular major project is out of date.]

Amber – but why?

An amber rating means that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist” though any problems “appear resolvable”.

In September 2016 the Universal Credit programme was at amber but we don’t know why. Neither the IPA or the Department for Work and Pensions mention any of the “issues”.

The £11bn smart meters rollout is also at amber and again we don’t know why. Neither the IPA nor the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy mention any of the “issues”. Permanent secretaries are allowed to keep under wraps the IPA’s reasons for the red/amber/green assessments.

Even FOI requests for basic project information have been refused.  Computer Weekly said,

“Costs for the Verify programme were also withheld from the IPA report, again citing exemptions under FOI.”

Comment

The senior civil servants who, in practice, set the rules for what the Infrastructure and Projects Authority can and cannot publish on major government projects and programmes are likely to be the “dinosaurs” that former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude referred to last month.

Maude said that Whtehall reforms require that new ministers “face down the obstruction and prevarication from the self-interested dinosaur tendency in the mandarinate.”

Clearly that hasn’t happened yet.

The real information about Universal Credit’s progress and problems will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Work and Pensions – but from local authoritities, housing associations, landlord organistions, charities and consumer groups such the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (which has called for Universal Credit to be halted), the local press, the National Audit Office and Parliamentary committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and Work and Pensions Committee.

On the smart meter rollout, the real information will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – but from business journalist Paul Lewis, consumer advocate Martin Lewis, business organistions such as the Institute of Directors,  experts such as Nick Hunn, the Energy and Climate Change Committee and even energy companies such as EDF.

Much of this “real” information will almost certainly be denied by Whitehall press officers. They’ll be briefed by senior officials to give business journalists only selected “good news” facts on a project’s progress and costs.

All of this means that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority may have good advice for departments and agencies on how to avoid project failures – and its tact and deference will be welcomed by permanent secretaries – but it’s likely the IPA will be all but useless in providing early warnings to Parliament and the public of incipient project disasters.

Ministers and some senior civil servants talk regularly about the government’s commitment to openness and accountability. When it will start applying to major government IT projects?

 

UK.gov watchdog didn’t red flag any IT projects. And that alone should be a red flag to everyone

 

 

 

 

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.

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