Category Archives: Government digital Service

Some officials “smuggle their often half-baked proposals past ministers” says Cabinet Office adviser who quits

By Tony Collins

Jerry Fishenden has resigned from the Cabinet Office‘s Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group after nearly six years. First he was its chairman and more recently co-chairman.

The Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group comprises privacy and security experts who give the government independent analysis and guidance on personal data and privacy initiatives by departments, agencies and other public sector bodies. This includes GOV.UK Verify.

The group’s advice has had the citizens’ interests in mind. But the group might have been seen by some Whitehall officials as having an open and frank “outsiders” culture.

Francis Maude, then Cabinet Office minister, helped to set up the group but he left in 2015 and none of his replacements has had a comparable willingness to challenge the civil service culture.

Maude welcomed the help of outsiders in trying to change the civil service.  He tried to bring down the costs of Government IT and sought to stop unnecessary or failing projects and programmes. He also wanted to end the “oligopoly” of a handful of large IT suppliers. But Maude’s initiatives have had little continuing support among some Whitehall officials.

Fishenden said in a blog post this week that Maude had wanted the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group to be a “critical friend” – a canary that could detect and help fix policy and technology issues before they were too far down the policy / Bill process.

“The idea was to try to avoid a repeat of previous fiascos, such as the Identity Card Act, where Whitehall generalists found themselves notably out of their depth on complex technical issues and left Ministers to pick up the pieces.”

He added that “since Francis Maude’s departure, there has been only one meeting” with subsequent Cabinet Office ministers.

“Without such backing, those officials who find the group’s expert reviews and analyses “challenging” have found it easier to ignore, attempting instead to smuggle their often half-baked proposals past Ministers without the benefit of the group’s independent assistance…

“Let’s just hope that after the election the value of the group will be rediscovered and government will breathe life back into the canary. Doing so would help realise Francis Maude’s original purpose – and bring significant benefits to us all, whether inside or outside of government.”

Comment

One of the Privacy and Consumer Group’s strengths has been its independent view of Government IT-related initiatives  – which is probably the main reason it has been marginalised.

Fishenden’s departure is further confirmation that since Maude’s departure, the Cabinet Office – apart from the Government Digital Service – has settled back into the decades-old Whitehall culture of tinkering with the system while opposing radical change.

While Whitehall’s culture remains unreformable, central government will continue to lose the best IT people from the private sector. Some of these include the former Government Digital Service executive director Mike Bracken, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who took over from Bracken, Janet Hughes, programme director of Verify,  Andy Beale, GDS’s chief technology officer, Paul Maltby, GDS’s director of data and former Whitehall chief information officers Joe Harley, Steve Lamey, Andy Nelson and Mark Dearnley.

The unfortunate thing is that a few powerful career civil servants, including some permanent secretaries, will be delighted to lose such outsiders.

Jerry Fishenden is simply the latest casualty of a civil service tradition that puts the needs of the department before those of the citizen.

It’s a culture that hasn’t changed for decades.

The canary that ceased to be – Jerry Fishenden’s blog on his departure

Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group

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Does Universal Credit make a mockery of Whitehall business cases?

By Tony Collins

Does Universal Credit make a mockery of this Treasury guidance on business cases?

It’s supposed to be mandatory for Whitehall departments to produce business cases. They show that big projects are “unequivocally” affordable and will work as planned.

But Computer Weekly said yesterday that the Department for Work and Pensions has not yet submitted a full business case for Universal Credit although the programme has been running for six years.

The result is that the Universal Credit IT programme may be the first big government computer project to have reached the original completion date before a full business case has been finalised.

Its absence suggests that the Department for Work and Pensions has not yet been able to produce a convincing case to the Treasury that the IT programme will either work or be affordable when it is due to roll out to millions of claimants.

The absence also raises a question of why the Department for Work and Pensions was able to award contracts and proceed with implementation without having to be accountable to Parliament for milestones, objectives, projected costs and benefits – all things that would have been recorded in the full business case.

If the DWP can proceed for years with project implementation without a full business case, does this mean that other Whitehall department need have no final structured plan to justify spending of billions on projects?

Will Universal Credit work?

By early March 2017, fewer than 500,000 people were on Universal Credit. On completion, the system will be expected to cope with seven million claimants.

Although the rollout of the so-called “digital” system – which can handle all types of claim online – is going well (subject to long delays in payments in some areas and extreme hardship for some), there are uncertainties about whether it will cope with millions of claimants.

Universal Credit campaigner John Slater has been unable to obtain any confirmation from the DWP on whether it is planning to complete the rollout by 2022 – five years later than originally scheduled.

Business cases present arguments that justify the spending of public money. They also provide a “clear audit trail for purposes of public accountability,” says Cabinet Office guidance on business cases.

But hundreds of millions has already been spent on Universal Credit IT, according to the National Audit Office.

Business cases are mandatory … sort of

The Treasury says that production of business cases is a

“mandatory part of planning a public sector spending proposal …”

Yesterday, however, Computer Weekly reported that,

“Amazingly, given the programme has been going since 2011, the full business case for Universal Credit has still not been submitted or signed off by the Treasury – that’s due to take place in September this year.”

The Treasury says that preparation of the Full Business Case is “completed following procurement of the scheme – but prior to contract signature – in most public sector organisations.”

But by March 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions had already spent about £303m on Universal Credit IT, mostly with Accenture (£125m), IBM (£75m), HP (49m) and BT (£16m), according to the National Audit Office.

Why a business case is important

The Treasury sums up the importance of business cases in its guidance to departments,

“… it is vital that capital spending decisions are taken on the basis of highly competent professionally developed spending proposals.

The business case provides a

“structured process for appraising, developing and planning to deliver best public value.”

The full business case, in particular, sets out the

  • contractual arrangements
  • funding and affordability
  • detailed management arrangements
  • plans for successful delivery and post evaluation.

In the absence of a full business case the DWP was able to start the Universal Credit IT programme with little structured control on costs. The National Audit Office found in 2013 that there was

  • Poorly managed and documented financial governance
  • Limited evidence that supplier invoices were properly checked before payments were made.
  • Inadequate challenge of purchase decisions
  • Insufficient information on value for money of contracts before ministers approved them
  • Insufficient challenge of suppliers’ cost changes
  • Over-reliance on performance information from suppliers that the Department for Work and Pensions didn’t validate.
  • No enforcement by the DWP of key parts of the supplier contracts

Comment

Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions have gone to the bank for money for a new business venture – the building of Universal Credit IT – and said in effect,

“We’ll let you have an outline business case that may change a few times and in a few years, perhaps on completion of the programme or thereabouts, we’ll provide a full business case. But we’d like the money now please.”

In response the bank – HM Treasury – has replied in effect,

“You’re supposed to supply a full business plan before we decide on whether to give you the money but we know how important Universal Credit is.

“We’ll tell you what: we’ll let you have a few tens of millions here and there and see how you get on.

“For the time being, without a full business case, you’re restricted to an IT spend of around £300m.

“In terms of the eligibility criteria for the money, you can let us know what this should be when you’re a few years down the road.

“We accept that you’ll be in a much better position to know why you should be given the money once you’ve spent it.”

Does “mandatory” mean anything when there is no sanction against non-compliance?

And when the DWP is able to embark on a multi-billion pound programme without submitting a full business case until after the original completion date (2017), what’s the point of a business case?

The fact that the DWP is six years into implementation of Universal Credit without a full business case suggests that departments make up the rules as they go along.

What if the Treasury rejects the Universal Credit business case when it’s eventually submitted?

Will the DWP wait another few years to submit a case, when an entirely new set of officials will be in place? By then, perhaps, the Universal Credit rollout will have finished (or been aborted) and nobody at that stage could be effectively held to account if the scheme didn’t work or money had been wasted.

If Whitehall routinely waits until an IT-based programme is finished before presenting a full business case for Treasury approval, there’s nothing the Treasury can do if it wants and needs the programme.

Sir Humphrey is all-powerful.  Why should officials worry about presenting full business cases on programmes they know there’s a political imperative to deliver?

Can DWP meet its revised 2022 target for completion of Universal Credit? – Computer Weekly

Treasury guidance on business cases

 

 

Large suppliers still dominate government IT

By Tony Collins

In 2012, the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, lamented the high costs of government IT and spoke of an “oligopoly” of large suppliers. He suggested things would change.

“… contracts were consistently awarded to a limited number of very large suppliers on long-term exclusive contracts.

“As a result there was inadequate competition and an abdication of control. The concept of having one supplier, aggregated supply, increased project risk and removed competitive tension.

“The Government repeatedly found itself paying large amounts for systems that were delivered late, over budget and which often did not fully meet the original policy requirement.  If indeed, they were delivered at all. There are plenty of well-documented disasters – such as DH’s now terminated National programme for IT.

“Ultimately, the last Government lost control of IT – it outsourced not only delivery, but its entire strategy and ability to shape the future of our public services.

“At the same time smaller, more innovative and efficient suppliers were finding themselves locked out of the supply of services to Government because of what was described by Parliament as a powerful “oligopoly” of large suppliers.

“Procurements took so long only the big companies could absorb the cost – which they naturally passed on to us.

“All in all, we had an approach that was bad for users, bad for the taxpayer and bad for growth.”

Public sector IT spending was up to £20bn a year, he said, adding that “public sector productivity was actually declining”.  He outlined how things were changing.

What has happened since?

A report published today by the National Audit “Digital Transformation in Government” raises a question of how much has changed.

Efforts to boost the SME share of government IT business “have had some impact”, says the National Audit Office, but it adds that “most government procurement with digital and technology suppliers continues to be with large organisations”.

“In 2015-16, 94% of such spending was with large enterprises, a fall of less than one percentage point since 2012-13.”

Today’s NAO report is mainly about the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service – GDS. It points out GDS’s strengths and weaknesses but in general does not give any advice on the sensitive point of whether it should have more or less influence on government IT.

On digital transformation, it says that the work of the NAO shows that attempts to transform government have had mixed success.

“Many public services appear increasingly unsustainable. Those responsible for major programmes have continued to exhibit over-optimism and make slow progress towards their objectives.”

It adds,

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs.

“GDS has also struggled to demonstrate the value of its own flagship initiatives such as Verify, or to set out clear priorities between departmental and cross-government objectives.

“GDS’s renewed approach aims to address many of these concerns as it expands and develops into a more established part of government. But there continues to be a risk that GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities.

“To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

Comment

The National Audit Office report is strong on facts and quality of research but avoids the big question of how GDS can bring about change when the top brass in departments prefer autonomy to what they see as GDS’s interference.

GDS’s existence goes to the heart of how the civil service runs. It is one part of the civil service trying to bring about change in other parts of the civil service.

And the evidence so far is that the civil service doesn’t like change.

The NAO report disappoints because it doesn’t address how government IT is to change if departments are to continue to run empires unchallenged by GDS or the heads of the civil service. Sir Humphrey is still king.

GDS scrutinises departmental IT spending – spending applications are reviewed by a team of eight people within GDS’s Standards Assurance team – but, much to Sir Humphrey’s delight, GDS’s influence seems to be waning.

When Jack Straw was Justice secretary, he told MPs in 2007 that when he abandoned projects there was a fuss at first and soon nobody noticed the project did not exist.

“There is always the option to abandon things. I did that in the Foreign Office with much complaint that the world might end.

“What happened was that we saved a lot of money and no one ever noticed the fact that that scheme did not exist…it is very frustrating that so many people, including the private sector, are taken in by snake oil salesmen from IT contractor who are not necessarily very competent and make a lot of money out of these things. I am pretty intolerant of this.”

How much has changed? Outsiders including Jack Straw and Francis Maude, together with insiders such as Chris Chant have pointed to the need for major changes in the way departments manage huge IT budgets and there have been some improvements: HMRC’s is breaking up its monolithic “Aspire” contract, citizens may notice that it is possible now to renew passports and driving licences online and GDS has had an impact in making departments think hard about whether they really need to spend the amounts they do on major IT contracts.

But major change in the costs of government IT seems not just a long way off but unattainable while the dominance of Sir Humphrey remains unchallenged.

Digital Transformation in Government – NAO report

Crazy – millions of citizens offered two competing government identity systems

 

From HMRC’s website on Gov.UK … Which should you choose to confirm your identity?
HMRC and other government departments are offering millions of citizens the choice of two “competing” identity systems – the Cabinet Office’s GOV.UK Verify, or HMRC’s Government Gateway.
There’s no guidance offered on which to choose; and no explanation for the absence of joined-up thinking.

By Tony Collins

When Whitehall departments do their own thing, the public rarely notices the duplicated time, effort and cost, at least when it comes to IT.  Now the “silo” approach has spilled out into the public arena.

The Government Digital Service – part of the Cabinet Office – developed GOV.UK Verify to enable people to confirm their identify when they want to use government services online.

At the same time, HMRC continued to work on a separate identity system: Government Gateway.

The cost of the two developments isn’t known.

HMRC prefers its own development work on Government Gateway because it enables companies as well as individuals to identify themselves. Verify is designed for individual use.

But instead of adapting one or the other to serve individuals and companies, or using Government Gateway for companies only, central departments are offering both  – with no guidance on which system citizens should choose; and there’s no explanation for the absence of a joined-up approach to IT.

The BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones says of the two separate identity systems that GDS and HMRC are engaged in a “bitter turf war”.

Comment

Today I went online to renew a driving licence and was shepherded by DVLA to use the Government Gateway identity system. A few weeks ago I had already successfully registered with GOV.UK Verify.

Government Gateway didn’t work properly, for me at least, although I had all the correct documents.

When I registered to use a different government service a few weeks I had no choice but to use GOV.UK Verify to confirm my identity. Verify was thorough, seamless and worked perfectly. Impressive. It left the impression of a system that had been well thought out, with the citizen in mind.

Putting aside the fact that Government Gateway did not work for me, it seemed dated, much less thorough than Verify, and left an impression of transience – that it was a temporary “make-do” system. For instance, the help screens were not tailored to the particular question being asked. Not impressive.

For me. GOV.UK Verify is the identity system of choice. It could surely be adapted to confirm the identities of companies – unless HMRC would rather continue to do its own thing.

It’s ludicrous that central government is spending billions of IT annually without a joined-up approach. Ministers keep promising it. Officials at conferences keep promising it. Whitehall press releases promise it.

A few weeks ago departments were offering only Government Gateway or GOV.UK Verify. Now many of them are offering both.

That’s progress?

Disturbing

A wider point of Whitehall’s dual IT approach to identity verification is that it’s the tip of the iceberg (apologies for the cliché but it’s apt).

With their ICT budgets, collectively, of billions of pounds a year, central departments are, in the main, doing their own thing.

A politician with the clout of Francis Maude may be needed to bang the heads of permanent secretaries together. But even if Maude’s replacement Ben Gummer had that clout – and he doesn’t – permanent secretaries and departmental boards would complain that the Cabinet Office was interfering.

Complaints along these lines would be made, perhaps, in off-the-record briefings to friendly journalists and to the National Audit Office in departmental responses to NAO surveys of senior officials, with the result that the Cabinet Office would end up backing away from trying to enforce a joined up IT approach.

That a genuine joined-up approach to government IT has been talked about for decades and hasn’t happened is largely because, outside of determining of the size of budgets, it is the permanent secretaries and their senior officials who hold power in Whitehall,  not transient politicians.

And bureaucracies always want to keep their departmental empires as intact as possible.

The current two top Whitehall officials, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, are consensus-seeking people, not at all confrontational. Probably their lack of a controversial edge is one of the main reasons they were chosen for their jobs.

All of which means there’s no chance of permanent secretary heads being banged together in an effort to cut costs and help bring about joined up government IT .

In 2012, Francis Maude, then Cabinet Office minister,  said, in a speech to the FT Innovate Conference,

“In the last decade our IT costs have gone up – while our services remained patchy. According to some estimates, we spend more on IT per capita than any other government.”

Is government ICT spending much less today? Perhaps HMRC’s Government Gateway officials would let us know.

**

Some Twitter comments





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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why courage?

Bock said,

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC R4 “Analysis” on talent, intelligence and recruitment

Laszlo Bock steps down

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

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office entrance

Cabinet Office entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the National Audit Office’s conclusion:

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

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

Some of the NAO’s detailed findings:

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crown Commercial Service – National Audit Office report

 

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

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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

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

By Tony Collins

It’s extraordinary that some of the Department for Work and Pensions’ main arguments against publishing three reports on the Universal Credit programme resemble, in part, those given by the Walpole government of 1738 when the House of Commons passed a  resolution against the publishing of Parliamentary debates.

The DWP argues that the media could misinterpret the three Universal Credit reports or take negative comments in them out of context, which would have a “chilling effect” on the officials who contribute to or write the reports.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, members of the House of Commons and House of Lords were concerned that parliament could be brought into disrepute by the irresponsible reporting of its proceedings, and that MPs could be influenced in what they said in debates by the knowledge that their speeches could be reported .

Sir Robert Walpole, the then prime minister, in winding up an 1738 debate on banning newspaper reporting of Parliament, said press coverage of parliamentary proceedings was a “forgery of the worst kind”.

Neither officials nor ministers had at that time invented the phrase “chilling effect” but they held to its meaning: they expressed concern that if debates were in the public domain members would shape what they said in debates to win influence, or avoid criticism by, newspapers.

Eventually Parliament decided in the 19th century that it was in its own interests to have debates in the public domain partly because important speeches were going unreported.

Today the DWP is a long way from reaching the stage of openness of Parliament in the 18th century.

universal creditAfter hearing the DWP’s evidence in the case of the three Universal Credit reports, an FOI tribunal judge sympathised with the department. He (Judge Edward Jacobs) said, “It is not difficult, looking at the Risk Register (one of the three Universal Credit reports in question), to see how a journalist or blogger with an agenda could select and present parts of the material in a way that would generate attention and attract criticism of the Department (DWP).”

Still referring to the media, he said, “There is no limit to the ways in which seemingly innocuous details can be used as a means of causing trouble.”

The judge’s apparent sympathy for the DWP’s case surprised me, given that Parliament decided centuries ago that the risk of MPs being influenced by the media when making speeches was a minor consideration when weighed against the importance of reporting the proceedings of parliament.

Democracy is far from perfect but it is surely not served by departments such as the DWP keeping secret for as long as they can reports on their performance on high-cost, risky and innovative programmes such as Universal Credit.

The National Audit Office will usually report on programmes as big as Universal Credit, and will usually do so with skill, insight and professionalism.  But it didn’t report on the UC programme until September 2013.

Disclosure of the risk and issues registers and project assessment review  when they were requested under FOI would have given MPs, the public and stakeholders the chance to hold ministers and officials to account in 2012 – at a time when Iain Duncan Smith and senior officials at the DWP were confidently claiming that the UC programme was on time and to budget. IDS said nothing in 2012 about the problems the programme was facing.

“High indignity”

It’s fascinating to look back at debates of the House of Commons in the 17th and 18th centuries to see how closely some of the speeches resemble the arguments the DWP is making in its submissions to next week’s FOI tribunal.

In April 1738 the Commons passed a resolution declaring that it was a “high indignity and a notorious breach of privilege” to report what was said in the Chamber, even when it was in recess.

This was the 1738 resolution:

“That it is an high indignity to, and a notorious breach of privilege of, this House, for any News writer, in letters, or other papers (as Minutes or under any other denomination) or for any printer or publisher of any printed newspaper, of any denomination, to presume to infer in the said letters or papers, or to give therein, any account of the debates, or other proceedings of this House, or any Committee thereof, as well during the recess, as the sitting of Parliament; and that this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offenders.”

Part of the DWP’s case to the FOI tribunal next week in Leicester is that, if the reports in question are published, they could be misinterpreted by the public, which would involve ministers and civil servants being diverted from the Universal Credit programme to correct the media.

It may be worth noting some of the actions taken by the House of Commons in 1771 against newspaper proprietors who published proceedings of the Commons – and allegedly got it wrong.

The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser on Friday 8 February 8 1771, which was printed for R. Thomson, and also the Middlesex Journal on Tuesday 5 February 5 to Thursday 7 February 1771, which was printed for J Weeble, were accused of “misrepresenting the speeches, and reflecting on several of the members of this House, in contempt of the order, and in breach of the privilege of this House”.

The House issued a proclamation for the apprehension of John Weeble and R Thompson.

Today the DWP seems not to accept that being held to account by journalists, even incompetent and hostile ones, is a price to be paid for democracy.

Accountability

Parliament banned newspaper reports of its debates in the 17th and 18th centuries in part because publication would have meant contemporaneous accountability.

That, it seems to me, is the main reason the DWP opposes disclosure of any independent and authoritative reports on its performance on the UC programme.

Senior officials are understandably concerned about personal and contemporaneous accountability on a big, risky, high-cost IT-enabled programme. Not the IT professionals who, incidentally, are largely in favour of openness.

Middle-ranking managers on the UC programme have a tough time of it.  They rarely get any credit for what they achieve. But there is a notable divide between the cultures of middle and senior management.

Now that the House of Commons allows reporting of its proceedings, and even allows TV cameras, the DWP’s ministers and senior officials look as if they are stuck in a bygone era. They believe that the public can wait for accountability until the National Audit Office decides to publish its reports.

But how well can the public hold the DWP to account if people doesn’t know how hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent – at the time it is spent – on the Universal Credit IT programme?

The high turnover of senior management on big programmes all but ensures that the most senior officials will probably have moved on by the time the National Audit Office reports on their programmes.

No bureaucracy will embrace openness until it is forced to. Nobody should be surprised that the DWP is fighting the publication of the disputed UC reports.

Kicking and screaming

What’s needed, therefore, is a campaigning minister, to bring today’s top officials at the DWP kicking and screaming into the modern world.

There is a serious consequence to the DWP’s antiquated approach to openness: the mounting legal costs of the FOI case it keeps appealing.

Officials and ministers at the DWP are launching FOI appeals as if money were no object. Bundles of documents have been produced by barristers and other lawyers who have been working on behalf of the DWP.

I don’t believe senior officials care particularly what is in the reports.

They are really fighting, perhaps subconsciously, to continue their control of official information on the UC programme.

For that privilege they will continue to dig deeply into the public purse for the legal costs of this case. That’s a scandalous waste of money, especially in a supposed era of open government.