Category Archives: Government IT

Whitehall to auto-extend outsourcing deals using Brexit as excuse?

By Tony Collins

Type of government procurement spend 2014-2015. ICT is the top item.
Source: National Audit Office

Under a headline “UK outsourcing deals extended because of Brexit workload”, the Financial Times has reported that “hundreds of government contracts with the private sector that were due to expire are to be automatically extended because civil servants are too busy with Brexit to focus on new and better-value tenders”.

The FT says the decision to roll over the contracts could prove expensive for taxpayers because it limits competition and undermines government efforts to improve procurement.

A “procurement adviser to the government” whom the FT doesn’t name, said more than 250 contracts were either close to expiring or had already expired in 2016-17. The adviser told the FT,

“Brexit has pushed them down the list of priorities so there are lots of extensions and re-extensions of existing deals.”

The adviser added that this was the only way civil servants could prioritise the huge increase in Brexit-related work since the referendum.

Extensions

The FT provides no evidence of automatic contract extensions or the claim that deals will be extended because of the civil service’s Brexit workload.

There is evidence, however, that Whitehall officials tend to extend contracts beyond their original expiry date.

In a report published this year on the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Service, the National Audit Office identified 22 framework contracts that were due to expire in 2016-17. Half of them (eleven) were extended beyond their original expiry date.

[The Crown Commercial Service was set up in 2014 to improve state procurement.]

The NAO also found that Whitehall departments – and the Crown Commercial Service – have been awarding contracts using expired framework deals, even though this contravenes public contracting regulations.

In 2015-16, 21 of the 39 frameworks that were due to expire were extended without competition or market testing, according to the NAO.

One example of an extended contract is a deal between Capita and the Department for Work and Pensions which started in 2010. Capita provides eligibility assessments for the personal independent payment allowance, which supports for people with long-term ill health or disability.

The five-year deal was extended by two years until July 2019.

Capita has also won a three-year extension to a contract with the Pensions Regulator and the BBC has extended a deal with Capita that was signed originally in 2002 to June 2022 – a total of at least 20 years.

Open competition?

The NAO has found that extending ICT contracts may not always be good for taxpayers. In the later years of their government contracts, suppliers tend to make higher margins (though not always).

There are also suggestions that civil servants will sometimes sign contract extensions when the performance of the supplier does not meet expected standards.

On ICT, the Cabinet Office asks central departments to complete a return every six months for each business process outsourcing and facilities management contract above £20m with strategic suppliers.

The survey asks whether the contract is being delivered on time, to scope, to budget, to the appropriate standards, and whether there have been any disputes.

In one study of government contracts with ICT suppliers, the NAO found that, of 259 returns from departments, 42 highlighted problems that included,

  • failure to achieve milestones
  • dissatisfaction with quality of outputs
  • errors and other issues with delivery
  • poor customer engagement and end user dissatisfaction and
  • failure to meet key performance indicators.

Comment

For taxpayers there is some good news.

A break-up of “Aspire”, the biggest IT outsourcing long-term deal of all, between HMRC and Capgemini (and to a lesser extent Fujitsu) – worth about £9bn – is going ahead this June. An HMRC spokesman says,

“HMRC is on track to complete the phased exit from Aspire, as planned, by June 2017.”

And according to Government Computing, Defra’s IT outsourcing contracts with IBM and Capgemini under a £1.6bn contract called “Unity” are due to expire in 2018 and there are no signs the deals will be extended.

But the Department for Work and Pensions’ huge IT outsourcing contracts with the same major suppliers are renewed routinely and not always with open competition. The DWP says on its website,

“DWP contracts are awarded by competition between potential suppliers, unless there are compelling reasons why competition cannot be used.”

The DWP doesn’t define “compelling”. Nor is it clear whether its auditors look at whether the DWP has put up a compelling case for not putting a large IT contract out to open competition.

In 2014 the Public Accounts Committee, after investigating major suppliers to government, concluded,

“Government is clearly failing to manage performance across the board, and to achieve the best for citizens out of the contracts into which they have entered.

“Government needs a far more professional and skilled approach to managing contracts and contractors, and contractors need to demonstrate the high standards of ethics expected in the conduct of public business, and be more transparent about their performance and costs”.

Breaking up is hard to do

The break up of the huge Aspire IT outsourcing contract at HMRC is an exception, not the rule. The NAO has found that civil servants regard their major incumbent suppliers as safe and less risky than hiring a smaller company (that’s not steeped in Whitehall’s culture).

The NAO has also found that in some cases officials don’t know whether their suppliers are performing well or not. On many ICT contracts there is “open book” accounting, but not all departments have the staff or expertise to check regularly on whether their suppliers’ profits are excessive.

If Whitehall, with exceptions, is continuing to roll over contracts whether it’s legal to do so or not, what incentive exists to stick to the rules?

Brexit?

The FT story suggests Brexit is the reason hundreds of contracts are to be extended automatically. There’s probably truth in the automatic extension of some contracts – but it’s unlikely to be because of Brexit.

It’s unlikely that the civil servants involved in Brexit will be the same ones who are handling ICT contract extensions. That said, Brexit will inevitably put a higher workload on lawyers working for government.

If contracts are being extended automatically, it’s probably because that’s the way it has always been, at least within living memory.

While Sir Humphrey and his senior officials remain only nominally accountable to Parliament for how they spend taxpayers’ money, the easiest option of renewing or extending existing contracts will usually be seen as the best option.

It can be justified with “compelling” arguments such as a need to make an urgent decision in difficult circumstances, or the absence of alternative suppliers who have the necessary skills or the financial strength to accept the risks of failure.

Will anything change?

Until departments have to publish contemporaneously their intentions to award contracts without open competition or there is effective accountability within the civil service for major decisions, little is likely to change.

It hasn’t happened yet and there’s no reason to believe it will.  Many politicians including prime ministers have tried to reform the civil service and they haven’t ruffled a single carpet in the corridors of Whitehall.

As Antony Jay, co-writer of Yes Minister,  said in January 2013,

“The central anomaly is that civil servants have years of experience, jobs for life, and a budget of hundreds of billions of pounds, while ministers have, usually, little or no experience of the job and could be kicked out tomorrow.

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

In short, Brexit is likely to be officialdom’s up-to-date excuse for carrying on much as before.

Thank you to @TimMorton2 for alerting me to the FT article.

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

Southwest One – a positive postscript

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

Outsourcing IT a “bad mistake” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Task facing Somerset officials

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

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

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

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

The council’s officers hope this will lead to

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

It is an innovative approach for a council.

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

Does outsourcing IT ever make sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

is London Ambulance Service’s back-up system “public endurance”?

By Tony Collins

In November 2016 London Ambulance Service had its busiest week for seriously ill and injured incidents in the history of the Service.

“The Service is …expecting demand to increase even further throughout December,” said London Ambulance Service at the time.

A few weeks later, on one of the busiest nights of the year, the systems went down, from 12.30am to 5.15am on 1 January 2017. The result was that 999 calls were logged  by pen and paper.

When systems are working normally  an incoming 999 call displays the address registered to that number – if the address is registered.  The London Ambulance operator confirms the location, assesses the severity and an ambulance can be despatched within seconds, with the address on its screen and a satnav pointing the way, according to a comment on The Register.

Pen and paper takes longer because the address and other details need to be given over a radio, which can take minutes.

But pen and paper is the London Ambulance Service’s back-up for IT failures.  Whether it can cope with unprecedented demand – or with a major incident in London – is in doubt.

A former London Ambulance Service paramedic told the BBC there had been waits of an hour for ambulances on 1 January 2017. He said call handlers had been “amazingly helpful”, but it was “easy to become overwhelmed especially in the midst of high call volumes”.

London Ambulance Service declined to answer any questions on its latest system failure.

Malcolm Alexander of the Patients’ Forum for the London Ambulance Service said: “We want to know why it is that this system that cost so much money and is supposed to be so effective is not fail-safe.”

He added: “If this system fails at a time when there is huge pressure in the system, for example if there was a major disaster or a terrorist attack, we are going to be in trouble. We really need to make sure it doesn’t collapse again.”

1992

A report into the collapse of London Ambulance Service systems found that they had had failed for many reasons. The Service had taken a “high-risk” IT approach and did not test systems thoroughly before putting them into service.

(Some may question how much has been learned since then.)

2006

In 2006 the London Ambulance Service systems crashed nine times in a fortnight. Each time staff reverted to pen and paper.

2008

In 2008, when systems failed,  repairs took 12 hours. Again the Service reverted to pen and paper.

2011

In June 2011 an IT upgrade caused the system to go down for about three and half hours. Pen and paper was again the back-up “system”. At the time the London Ambulance Service was upgrading the Commandpoint system, supplied by Northrop Grunman, which the Service deployed in 2010 and still uses.

2013

In 2013 on Christmas Day and Boxing Day the systems went down for separate reasons for several hours each day, with staff reverting to pen and paper.

2015

The Chief Inspector of Hospitals, Mike Richards, recommended that the London Ambulance Service be placed into special measures.

He said at the time,

“The Trust has been performing poorly on response times since March 2014. This is a very serious problem, which the trust clearly isn’t able to address alone, and which needs action to put right.”

Comment

It’s becoming the norm for parts of the public sector to regard the public as captive customers when it comes to going live with new IT or upgraded software.

Rather than test new systems, procedures and upgrades thoroughly before introducing them, some parts of the public sectors are going live with a “let’s see what happens and fix things then” approach.

This has become the semi-official approach to the introduction of Universal Credit – with long delays in payments for some claimants.

Within the NHS, at some hospitals introducing new patient record systems, there has been an internal acceptance that patients may suffer from delays,  perhaps with tragic consequences, at least for three year-old Samuel Starr.

The NHS e-referral service was launched with nine pages of known problems.  And when NHS England launched a streamlined GP support service with Capita, officials knew of the possible problems. But it launched anyway.

After the London Ambulance Service’s IT failure on New Year’s Day, it’s clear that many emergency workers did their best to give a normal 999 service. St John’s Ambulance helped.

But to what extent does senior management at the London Ambulance Service have a “stuff happens” mindset when IT goes seriously wrong?

There’s no individual accountability and no commercial imperative to learn lessons from any of the failures.

And there’s no fervent business or political will to ensure the same or similar mistakes don’t recur.

Every time systems fail, the London Ambulance Service promises an investigation. But where are the results published so that lessons can be learned?

Pen and paper is tried and tested. But demands on the London Ambulance Service are much greater than in the past.

With an unprecedented demand for its services how is it London Ambulance Service’s senior management can comfortably rely on pen and paper as its back-up system?

It can – if nobody in power requires an earnest answer to the question.

Another wider question is whether it’s acceptable to use the public as guinea pigs for new or upgraded IT, with potentially serious or even tragic consequences.

London Ambulance Service suffers New Year’s crash – Computer Weekly

London Ambulance Service hit by new year fault – BBC online

 

 

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

 

Atos pleased after it’s cleared of “sharp practice”

By Tony Collins

atos

A Cabinet Office review of the Whitehall contracts of IT services company Atos following a Public Accounts Committee allegation of “sharp practice” has more than  exonerated the supplier.

After looking at 12 Atos government contracts, the Cabinet Office has written to the Public Accounts Committee praising Atos for going beyond its contractual obligations. Where the company has fallen short, it has taken remedial steps.

Rarely are any government statements on an IT supplier replete with praise.

It’s likely the vindication will take some MPs by surprise after failings in a project to gather and collect in one place data from all the various GP practice systems – the so-called General Practice Extraction Service.

Now Atos may in future be a position to use the statement as evidence, when bidding, of its success in delivering government IT services and projects.

Millions written off

In December 2015 the Public Accounts Committee was highly critical of Atos in its report on the extraction service project.

The NHS Information Centre accepted the system from Atos although it didn’t work properly. The Centre also made public announcements at the time on the system’s success.  In fact the system had “fundamental design flaws” and millions of pounds was written off.

The Committee said,

“Very common mistakes from past projects were repeated, such as failing to adopt the right contracting approach, failing to ensure continuity of key staff on the project, and failing to undertake proper testing before accepting the system.

“GPES [General Practice Extraction Service] started some five years later than planned; it is over-budget; and it still does not provide the full service required.

“Atos, supplier for a key part of the system, may have met the letter of its contractual obligations but took advantage of a weak client by taking the client’s money while knowing full well that the whole system had not been properly tested.”

The Committee said that the NHS official who was chief executive of the Information Centre when it accepted the flawed system was “awarded total emoluments of £470,000 for the financial year 2012–2013 including a redundancy payment of £330,000”.

Tests

The Committee found that in its approach to the project, “Atos did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer”.

“We are not satisfied Atos provided proper professional support to an inexpert client and are very concerned that it appears to have acted solely with its own short term best interests in mind.

“Atos admitted that end-to-end testing should always be undertaken and that it was supposed to have happened in this case. However, NHS IC and Atos agreed a more limited test of the Atos component due to delays in completing other parts of the system.

“The Atos software passed this test, but after NHS IC accepted the system—and to Atos’s professed surprise—the system as a whole was found not to work. Atos claims it fixed the issues relating to its software at its own expense and that the additional £1.9 million it received while doing so was for additional work related to 15 new features.

“We found that Atos’s chief executive, Mr Adrian Gregory—the company’s witness in our enquiry—appeared rather indifferent to the plight of the client; we expect more from those contracting with government and receiving funds from the taxpayer.”

“Sharp practice”

The Committee recommended that the Cabinet Office undertake a “full review of Atos’s relationships as a supplier to the Crown”.

“We expect the Cabinet Office to note carefully this example of sharp practice when determining what obligations a duty of care on contractors should entail and what sanctions would apply when performance falls short.”

The government agreed to have a review.

Findings of Cabinet Office review of Atos contracts

The Cabinet Office found no “examples of behaviour that might be described as sharp commercial practice in the course of this review”.

The review team looked at 12 Atos contracts worth a total of more than £500m a year – 80% of Atos’s work with central government.

 

No: Department Contract Name
1 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
2 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Government Gateway Agreement
3 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ICT in support of medical assessments
4 HM Treasury (HMT) National Savings and Investments (NS&I)
5 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) Development, Innovation and Support Contracts (DISC) Infrastructure Services Agreement
6 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) End User Computing Services (EUCS)
7 Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) Shared Service Alliance
8 Home Office (HO) IND Procurement of Infrastructure Development and Support (IPIDS) Agreement
9 Home Office (HO) Contain Agreement
10 Department of Health (DH) Information Management Services (IMS 3)
11 Ministry of Defence (MOD) Strategic Partner Framework Defence Core Network Services (DCNS01)
12 Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) ICT Managed Services Agreement (IS2003)

Far from finding examples of sharp practice, the review team found “examples to the contrary”. In some of the contracts, Atos was “working at risk” and going “beyond their contractual obligations to act in the client’s interests”.

“Specific examples include expediting change control notices at the client’s request in advance of formal approval, taking financial risk ahead of contract extensions and proactively supporting the redeployment of resource to assist in the avoidance of client cost. On one contract, a notice period for a number of major decommissioning events lapsed and Atos continued to deliver the services flexibly to the client’s requirements until the service could be safely decommissioned.”

Where Atos did not meet monthly performance targets, service penalties were incurred and charged to Atos. “It was evident that when operational performance fell short appropriate sanctions were applied.”

Commitment

The Cabinet Office went on to say that Atos proactively and constructively engaged in the review and provided information as requested, “sometimes over and above their contractual commitments”.

The review team added,

“It is clear that Atos values its relationship as a supplier to the Crown; it has a comprehensive approach to the governance of all the contracts reviewed and the Atos leadership team shows commitment to its customers.

“In response to the PAC [Public Accounts Committee] hearing Atos has undertaken a number of initiatives to address PAC’s concerns.

“The Atos corporate programme ‘Client at the Heart’ aims to deepen the client-focussed culture within the organisation by embedding a set of values and action plans to deliver improved service for each contract they run, including all government contracts.

“In addition, whilst employees have always been recognised for achievement in quantitative and qualitative objectives, financial targets vary but typically account for only a small proportion of total reward packages.

“We see this as evidence that Atos client executives are incentivised to provide the appropriate professional support.”

An Atos spokesman told civilserviceworld that the company was “proud to be a trusted supplier” and had welcomed the review as an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of its services.

“We are pleased that the Cabinet Office has concluded that we deliver the appropriate level of professional support to our government clients,” he said.

Comment

It’s clear that Atos deserves credit for going beyond the call of duty on some contracts. It is also clear that those departmental officials the Cabinet Office spoke to as part of the review were happy with Atos.

What’s not so clear is the extent to which civil servants in general are in a position to know how well their major IT suppliers are performing.

Evidence from National Audit Office reports is that departments may not always have comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information – and enough staff time – to give sound judgements on how well a major IT supplier is performing on a complex contract.

Indeed the National Audit Office can be scathing about the quality of contract management within departments.

In 2013 the Audit Office, in its report “Universal Credit: early progress” identified a series of astonishing failings that, taken together,  suggested that the DWP had little understanding of what its major IT suppliers were charging for, or why, let alone what their performance was like.

The DWP is the largest central government department – which leaves one to wonder whether some other departments, which have smaller budgets and fewer staff, are better or worse off in terms of understanding their IT contracts.

These were some of the contract management weaknesses at the DWP as identified by the National Audit Office in 2013:

  • Over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation.
  • Inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.
  • Weak contractual relationships with supplier
  • The Department did not enforce all the key terms and conditions of its standard contract management framework, inhibiting its ability to hold suppliers to account.
  • Limited line of sight on cost of delivery, in particular between expenditure incurred and progress made in delivering outputs.
  • Poorly managed and documented financial governance, including for delegated financial authorities and approvals; for example 94 per cent of spending was approved by just four people but there is limited evidence that this was reviewed and challenged.
  • Limited IT capability and ‘intelligent client’ function leading to a risk of supplier self-review.
  • Insufficient review of contractor performance before making payments – on average six project leads were given three days to check 1,500 individual timesheets, with payments only stopped if a challenge was raised.
  • Ministers had insufficient information to assess the value for money of contracts before approving them.
  • Insufficient challenge of supplier-driven changes in costs and forecasts because the programme team did not fully understand the assumptions driving changes.

The Cabinet Office, in its review of Atos, found “inconsistencies” in departmental compliance with guidelines on contract management. It said,

“Where the evidence suggests that contract management is inconsistent [with National Audit Office guidelines on contract management] the Cabinet Office is discussing improvements with the contract owners in the Departments concerned.”

Praise where praise is due and Atos may well be a good – and perhaps outstanding – IT supplier to central government.

But if departments don’t have enough solid information on how well their major IT suppliers are performing, to what extent is any Cabinet Office statement praising an IT supplier likely to be a hopeful panegyric, based on what officials in departments believe they are expected to say?

Cabinet Office statement on Atos to the Public Accounts Committee – 8 September 2016

Public Accounts Committee report on Atos and the General Practice Extraction Service – December 2015

 

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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