Category Archives: government

When Whitehall shuns statutory scrutiny

By Tony Collins

In some ways central departments are deeply accountable.

They provide volumes of statistics and reports to the centre of government (Cabinet Office and Treasury) – as far as their limited management information systems will let them – and senior officers will sometimes answer questions from MPs on Parliamentary committees. Their permanent secretaries will meet colleagues in other departments every week.

At the same time, on things that really matter, some central departments – and councils – can be infinitely unaccountable. 

A report by the National Audit Office – which it says was researched and written unusually quickly, partly in response to parliamentary concern – gives a glimpse of how unaccountable central departments (and councils) can be.

When they don’t want to provide information they simply don’t – and nothing it seems can be done to force disclosure.

Power to ignore

With explicit and written approval from David Cameron the Cabinet Office has the power to mandate change in central departments. But senior officials can, if they wish, when faced with central requests for information, ignore, reject, deliberately misunderstand, confuse or minimise answers, or delay until the request no longer need be answered.

This ability of central departments to evade democratic and even statutory scrutiny surfaces in the NAO report Confidentiality clauses and special severance payments.

The report is into the gagging of public servants when they receive payments for ending their employments early. Rightly, the media’s coverage of the report focuses on the NAO’s concerns over gagging clauses that stop officials becoming whistleblowers. The FT said on Friday (21 June 2013)

“More than a thousand civil servants have signed gagging clauses that could stop them speaking out about problems, a system the [NAO] condemned as “unacceptable”.

What the national media apparently did not notice was that the NAO was unable to obtain all the information it had requested of departments.

“Despite the NAO’s statutory access rights, it received only 60 per cent of the compromise agreements requested from departments,” says the NAO.

The NAO has statutory rights of access to information held by departments. Indeed its Comptroller and Auditor General Amyas Morse certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. The NAO says he has “statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy”.

Avoiding NAO scrutiny

But some departments have not complied with the NAO’s requests, and one, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, formally requested not to be involved in the NAO’s investigation.

Says the NAO report

“Unfortunately, some departments did not respond promptly to our requests, and were delayed by their legal teams’ questioning of our access rights.

The NAO adds

“The Department for Culture, Media & Sport requested not to be involved in this piece of work, a position which could not be resolved until after our fieldwork window had closed.

“We found it challenging to gain a complete picture of the use of confidentiality clauses as, by their nature, they are not openly discussed. Our work was also hampered by incomplete records, and access to data as outlined above.

“It took several attempts to identify the appropriate individuals within departments responsible for compromise agreements and the associated payments. We experienced delays in receiving data, and what departments provided was frequently incomplete or in a format that was difficult to collate and analyse.”

So what can the NAO do now it has been snubbed or, to put it in Whitehall-speak, has encountered departmental non-compliance with statutory access requests?

Little or nothing. The NAO has no power to punish. Through MPs on the Public Accounts Committee it can admonish. That is all.

Says the NAO:

“Given the innovative nature of this work, some initial difficulties were anticipated. We will continue to work with departments, the Treasury and Cabinet Office to explore ways in which we can obtain the evidence on a timelier basis. It is important that departments are able to respond more quickly to these investigations in the future.”

Councils too can evade democratic accountability. The NAO has no access rights to local authorities but councils are, in theory, subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In practice they can all but ignore the FOI legislation if they wish.

In March 2010, the Audit Commission published a report on severance payments to council chief executives. The study found that:

• agreed severance packages for 37 council chief executives totalled £9.5 million, 40 per cent of which were in pension benefits;

• three in every ten outgoing council chief executives received a pay-off;

• the average cost to councils of each severance package was almost double the annual basic salary, but in four cases was more than triple; and

• 79 per cent of mutually-agreed severance payments had a confidentiality clause.

But the NAO found that, in a recent survey of councils by a member of the public under the FoI Act, 52 councils refused to disclose information on their use of compromise agreements.

The good news

The NAO says: “Some organisations have chosen to be transparent about severance packages, such as NHS National Services Scotland, who agreed to the disclosure of a director’s remuneration package, despite a confidentiality agreement being in place, following consultation with legal advisers.”

Comment:

How is Francis Maude to reform central government, particularly IT, if officials in central departments can apparently do what they wish?

The NAO found cases of payments that were higher than contractual entitlement, where there was the apparent reward for failure, and no attempt to seek Treasury’s approval.  Is all this lawful? 

On top of this there are departmental officials who avoided the NAO’s statutory requests for information.

If they can circumvent the law they can probably resist any central demands for change. Resistance seems to be regarded within departments as honourable.

One irony is that bureaucrats in Russia probably have little choice but to respond to central demands – whereas officials in Whitehall departments don’t have to.

Radical reform to change Whitehall’s outdated and costly ways is unlikely to happen while senior officers in departments run the system and have the final say.

NAO report “Confidentiality clauses and special severance payments

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Francis Maude –“unacceptable” civil service practices

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude laments civil service inaction over a cabinet committee mandate for centralising procurement. It “corrodes trust in the system”.

Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service,  confronted Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of civil service reform, on BBC R4’s In Defence of Bureaucracy last week.

The irreconcilable differences between O’Donnell and Maude were obvious and may be a sign of how difficult it will be for the minister to make lasting and deep cuts in IT-based spending, simplify overly complex processes, and reduce duplication.

O’Donnell spoke of the virtues of the civil service that have served the country for more than a century, particularly its impartiality.  But Maude said the “value of impartiality can sometimes turn into indifference”.

O’Donnell said: “We need to be proud and passionate about the public sector ethos…” and confronted Maude for saying things about the civil service “that are not always totally positive”.

Indeed Maude said,

“Most of the civil servants I deal with are terrific, work hard and do really good work.  It is not universal.”

O’Donnell then confronted Maude for saying that ministers in this and previous government have too often found that decisions they have made don’t get implemented. Is that the fault of ministers or civil servants, asked O’Donnell.

“I’d be astonished if it’s ministers,” said Maude who added,

“ I had a meeting the other day around this table …  where a decision was made by a cabinet committee, more than a year ago, on the centralising of procurement. It had happened to a very minimal extent.

“If there is a problem with it, that can be flagged up and tell us. Just to go away and not do it is unacceptable … it is protection of the system. This is the speaking truth unto power thing. What is unacceptable is not to challenge a ministerial position but then not to implement it. That is what corrodes trust in the system.”

About £230bn a year – nearly a third of everything government spends – is on public sector procurement.  In 2010, Nigel Smith, then CEO of the Office of Government Commerce, spoke to the “Smartgov” conference about the need for major reform in the way government buys things.

He spoke of the need for re-useable software, open source if possible, and said that suppliers regularly use fragmentation within government to maximise profits. “This has got to change,” says Smith.

He said there were 44,000 buying organisations in the public sector which buy “roughly the same things, or similar things, in basic commodity categories” such as IT and office supplies.

Massive duplication

He spoke of “massive duplication”, high tendering costs on suppliers, and a loss of value due to a lack of true aggregation. He said suppliers had little forward look of opportunities to tender and offer innovative solutions for required outcomes.

“Contract management with supplier relationship management is inconsistent, with too little attention paid to continuous improvement and benefits capture within contract.

“The opportunity to improve outcomes and efficiency gains should not be constrained by contract terms and innovations should not stop at the point of contract signature.

“If we miss this opportunity [to reform] we need shooting.”

So it is clear procurement [and much else] needs reforming. But in the R4 broadcast last week (which unfortunately is no longer available) O’Donnell portrays a civil service that is almost as good as it gets.

He speaks of its permanence in contrast to transient ministers. His broadcast attacks the US system of government in which public service leaders change every time there is a new government.  The suggestion is that the US system is like a ship that veers crazily from side to side, as one set of idealogues take the captain’s wheel from another. O’Donnell implies that in the UK civil service stability lasts for decades, even centuries.

The virtues he most admires in the UK civil service are what he calls the 4 “Ps” – Pace, Passion, Professionalism and Pride.  His broadcast speaks of the UK civil service as a responsible, effective, continual and reliable form of administration.  

Comment

O’Donnell’s most striking criticism of Maude’s intended reforms of central government goes to the heart of what Maude is trying to do: change what is happening in departments.

When, in the broadcast, Maude suggested that civil servants were not challenging ministerial decisions and were not implementing them either, O’Donnell replied that Maude was “overstating the issue”. But O’Donnell went much further and added a comment that implied Maude should leave departments alone.

O’Donnell said

“These sorts of problems mainly arise when ministers at the centre of government want to impose their will on secretaries of state who want to be left alone to run their departments as they see fit.”

Is O’Donnell giving permanent secretaries and departmental ministers his support if they continue to snub Cabinet Office reforms?

It is hardly surprising Maude is a bundle of frustrations. Central government administration cannot be reformed if departments have the autonomy to refuse to implement decisions of a cabinet committee.

It is ironic that cabinet committee decisions are binding on the entire Cabinet – but not, it seems, on departments.

Perhaps the gap between political and civil service leaders at the centre, and senior civil servants in departments, is as irreconcilable as ever. Today’s UK civil service is more than ever “Yes Minister” without the jokes.  Should this be the dysfunctional basis for coalition reforms of central government?

Perhaps this explains why Maude is trying to implement open standards, make government procurement friendly to SMEs and encourage the use of G-Cloud while the Department for Work and Pensions and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are  agreeing new mega-contracts,  with the same handful of monolithic suppliers.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary,  is perhaps a little more Maude-friendly than O’Donnell when he says in the R4 broadcast,

“There are lots of things we need to do better. Too many projects that we undertake are delayed, are over budget and don’t deliver on all the benefits that were promised. We are not as digital as the most effective private sector organisations are. We have been slow to embrace the digital revolution.”

Fine words. But if a cabinet committee’s decision on centralising procurement has little effect, how is Sir Jeremy going to convert his words into action? Or Francis Maude’s?

All change again for management of state IT projects in Florida

It is all change again when it comes to the management of IT and IT projects within one US state government.

According to this report, the state of Florida is preparing to do without a standalone agency that deals with technology, with the eventual demise of the Agency for Enterprise Information Technology (AEIT), a 16-person unit that helped set standards for technology purchasing and information security under the supervision of Florida’s governor and cabinet.

The Florida Legislature has passeda bill,  HB 5011, which would have replaced AEIT with an Office of State Technology (though quite how that would differ is unclear).  The Florida Governor, Rick Scott, vetoed the bill, and although the agency still exists, it will have no funding when the new fiscal year starts in July.

Many of its employees, including former state Chief Information Officer David Taylor, have already begun moving to other agencies, the report says.

As usual, the state of IT projects has come under fire with one politician, Denise Grimsley, arguing that studying some of the state’s technology initiatives – including an attempt to switch most of state government to a single e-mail system – led her to conclude that AEIT “in its current state was ill-suited to provide the statewide vision and oversight needed for certain enterprise information technology projects.”

Plus ca change.

Cabinet Office promises unprecedented openness on risky projects

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office has defended its decision not to publish “Gateway” review reports on the progress or otherwise of large and risky IT and construction projects.

Gateway reviews are regular, short and independent audits on the state of medium and high-risk projects. Their publication would allow  MPs and the public to have an early warning of a major project in trouble – rather than know of a project failure only after it has happened.

Campaigners have sought for a decade to have the review reports published; and the  Information Commissioner, in requiring the publishing of ID Card gateway reviews under FOI,  dismissed the generalised arguments put forward by officials for Gateway reviews to remain confidential.

The Conservatives, when in opposition, promised to publish Gateway review reports if they came to power. But departmental heads and senior officials have stopped this happening.

Now the Cabinet Office, in a statement to The Guardian, has suggested that the first annual report of the Major Projects Authority will more than compensate for the non-publication of Gateway review reports.

The statement says that the Authority’s ( delayed)  first annual report will “bring unprecedented scrutiny and transparency to our most expensive and highest risk programmes, changing forever the culture of secrecy that has allowed failure to be swept under the carpet”.

The statement continues:

“Historically, fewer than a third of government major projects have delivered to original estimates of time, cost and quality. Since April 2011 the Major Projects Authority has enforced a tough new assurance regime and begun raising leadership standards within the Civil Service.”

The Guardian asked the Cabinet Office whether the traffic light red/amber/green status of Gateway reviews will be published.  The spokesman replied:

“The annual report will contain details of the status of major projects.“

Comment:

We applaud the Major Projects Authority in scrutinising, and in rare cases helping to stop,  departmental projects that don’t have adequate business cases. The Authority’s work is vital in pre-empting ridiculous schemes such as the NPfIT.

But project  disasters that rely on  IT continue, at the Ministry of Justice for example.  Like the National Audit Office, the  Major Projects Authority has limited resources and cannot scrutinise everything. Even if it could, the system of government is not set up in such a way as to allow the Authority to have final say over whether a project is stopped, curbed or re-negotiated.

Preventing failure

Gateway review reports are a critical component in preventing IT-related project failures. If officials know the whistle is going to be authoritatively blown on their failing schemes they are likely to do all they can to avoid failure in the first place. If they know that nobody will be aware of doomed schemes until those involved have left or moved, they will have less incentive to make projects a success.

An annual report is no substitute for the contemporaneous publishing of Gateway review reports. Each Gateway review is several pages and puts into context the traffic light red/amber/green status of the project. An annual report will not contain every Gateway review report. If just the traffic light status is published that will be a start, but without the context of the report what will it mean?

[And it’s worth bearing in mind that the first annual report of the Major Projects Authority is already six months late.]

The non-publication of Gateway review reports is  a victory by senior officials over ministerial promises.  How can we believe that the coalition is committed to unprecedented openness when the final say remains with Sir Humphrey?

Cabinet Office promises to challenge culture of secrecy on IT projects.

Whitehall to relent on secrecy over mega projects?

The US approach to increasing innovation in government

By David Bicknell

I liked a recent blog written in the US by a ‘federal coach’ – I guess they could only get away with that title in the US!- about US government efforts to increase innovation in departments.

The piece makes the point that the White House recently launched an innovation scheme grandly titled the Presidential Innovation Fellows program that will bring in 15 ‘innovators’ from outside government to provide expertise on five technology projects.  

According to the article, within 24 hours of the announcement, more than 600 people had applied to go to Washington for at least six months to work with federal employees on projects aimed at making government more effective and more accountable.

The projects, which will be led by Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Government Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel, include creating an electronic payment system for government transactions involving foreign aid and U.S. operations overseas; and streamlining an online system for citizens in need of federal services.

It sounds impressive. The “Presidential Innovation Fellows program is based in part on the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence  programme that allows agencies to recruit world-class, private-sector innovators for limited periods of time and pair them with public-sector innovators to solve big problems.”

For the US, its scheme of government and the strength of its technology sector, it will probably work. Could such a programme work here? What would be the equivalent of a Presidential Innovation Fellows programme? And how many offers of help would it achieve within 24 hours of its launch?

IT: bringing both growth and headaches for developing nations

By David Bicknell

A number of developing nations are turning to IT to drive economic growth and create new employment opportunities.

Rwanda in Africa recently attracted the interest of the US Carnegie-Mellon University to invest in the country. French writer Francis Pisani is also visiting Rwanda on his global innovation tour.

But investing in IT can create headaches for developing countries too. For example,  a lack of money is threatening to halt the implementation of a Government IT project planned to increase Vietnam’s e-Government capability.  

The project, originally approved by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in September 2010, has largely failed to get off the ground.

Part of the project’s plan was to apply e-Government at all State-owned agencies from communal to central levels.

But according to the country’s Ministry of Information and Communications, Vietnam News reported, to date, 31 out of 63 provinces and cities across the country have not developed plans to implement the project. Most local authorities say they don’t know where or how to start.

Cao Dang Phuong, head of the ministry’s representative office in Da Nang City, said only seven out of 16 provinces and cities in the central region had plans to carry out the project.

Ho Quang Thanh, director of the Department of Information and Communications in central Nghe An Province, said that the biggest problem for most localities was the lack of funds for implementation.

To Thi Thu Huong, deputy director of the ministry’s IT Department, said: “This is a big project and to bring it into practice is a challenge as there is no financial source for it.”

The ministry has registered to carry out part of the project in 2012 at a cost of VND55.4 billion (US$2.6 million), but the lack of funding has hindered its implementation.

Nguyen Van Hai from the ministry’s IT Application Promotion Department told Thoi bao Ngan Hang (Banking Times) newspaper that VND100 billion (US$4.8 million) had been approved to execute plans at different ministries and localities this year, but it seems that is much too small to drive the successful IT development Vietnam needs.

Security breach costs US CIO his job

By David Bicknell

Beware of data security – a breach can cost you your job.

According to Government Technology, a breach of health data within the Utah Department of Health in the US has cost the state’s CIO, Steve Fletcher, his position.

Fletcher’s departure was part of Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s actions following the breach, which was discovered on April 2 and is believed to have compromised 280,000 Social Security numbers other personal information of an estimated 500,000 people, including names, addresses, birth dates and some details contained in patient health records.

In response to the data loss, Utah has now started a comprehensive security audit of the state’s technology systems and created a new position of “health data security ombudsman.”

The data breach was found to have occurred on March 30, and is believed to have been caused by a weak password that allowed hackers to break through the department’s security and steal the personal information of as many as 780,000 people.

Government Technology reported that the breach was regarded as ‘preventable’, and that the incident shows that greater funding is needed to protect government’s IT systems.

At the same time, it shows the problems CIOs – in both the public and private sectors – face in trying to put adequate protection in place to prevent security breaches before they occur.

The problem is that if you ask for security funding before anything has happened, the request risks being rejected by executives. And if you wait until a breach occurs, as in the latest Utah case, it’s a bit like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.

Dept of Technology Services CIO resigns over UDOH data breach

Are SIAMs the new SIs?

In this guest blog, John Jones and John Pendlebury-Green, co-founders of strategic sales architects Landseer Partners, take a look at the development of a new generation of outsourcing in ICT and the creation of a new breed of integration and manageement specialists dubbed ‘SIAMs’. This article is also carried on Landseer Partners’ website.

We now live in an age of austerity where we have to live within our means and this includes the Government  which has just announced the need for Departments to find a further £16bn in savings. 

All Departments and Agencies are having to make real year-on-year cuts to their budgets – effectively having to do  the same for less money for some considerable time to come.  This is leading to new models for the delivery of services (third generation outsourcing) as Government becomes more about “policy and strategy” and leaves the delivery of public services to the private sector.

Industry has already played a major part in first and second generation of outsourcing including what is now more commonly called “outcome-based contracting”. 

The recent contract awards of new prison builds and operations similar to the likes of G4S and Interserve provide exemplars of outcome-based contracting. The Work Programme Initiative at the Department of Work and Pensions is another relatively recent example of second generation outsourcing with payment linked directly to outcomes.  Lessons learned are only now emerging as to the efficacy of these contracts.

What is interesting is that now we are starting to witness a new third-generation of outsourcing in ICT – Service Integration and Management (SIAM).  The consequences for the ICT Industry and the delivery of ICT within and to Government are likely to be profound. 

At Landseer Partners, we believe that the shape and players of the ICT market will change significantly in the next two to five years.  The net effect on the role of existing System Integrators (SI) is likely to be significant.

So what is SIAM all about and, importantly, what will make SIAM a success and its implications for the big SIs?

SIAMs are the ICT Managing Agent for the Customer

So, what are SIAMs – well, for starters, there is no agreed de facto industry definition of what a SIAM is. Rather, there are emerging trends in the private sector and in the current government procurements at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that identify key characteristics of what Service Integrators and Management Services may look like. 

For instance, the MoJ and FCO both plan to award contracts to SIAM providers that can successfully demonstrate the ability to integrate services and manage a number of Tower service providers that (typically) provide one or more commoditised services of: data hosting, LAN/WAN provision, Applications Management and Support and some Security related services.  Importantly, the SIAMs will be characterised by:

  • Taking the risks for “end to end” delivery of the services and their continuing operations
  • Creating new commercial constructs to balance risk versus delivery
  • Not necessarily holding direct contracts with the Tower service providers
  • Providing full 24/7 service desks to support national and global needs of the customer
  • Working hand-in-glove and be contract-managed by the retained Intelligent Client Function (or Informed Partner as they are sometimes known) of the Contracting Authority

In effect, the UK public sector is now requesting what has long happened in the construction industry; they are looking to award contracts to Managing Agents to help deliver and manage critical  ICT services back to Departments/Agencies.

Expected Benefits

So, with the advent of SIAMs  what are the expected benefits?  Reading the prospectuses of the government procurements we would expect the benefits to be large and varied and include:

  • Reduced cost of ICT services to the commissioning Department/Agency – this might come about by greater efficiencies in programme delivery; but significant cash savings are also expected as staff are transferred move to more cost-effective private sector pensions schemes
  • Better risk management with continuous incentives to improve service quality to users
  • Greater innovation by the SIAMs, possibly by the use of niche SMEs which will assist with more agile delivery and innovation methods

The Future

Given the real lack of experience and reliable data on the likely impact of the creation of SIAMs it is difficult to say at this particular time whether SIAMs will effective in the longer term]– will SIAMs be effective in the longer term?  Will they help to drive down cost of ICT services?  Will they help in the delivery of better public services?

Landseer Partners’s view is that, although it is early days, SIAMs are likely to be here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future. The status quo, keeping large in-house Intelligent Customer Functions and Service Desk provision, is  neither desirable nor efficient and future procurements will build on the lessons learned from the current MoJ and FCO procurements.

The key thing now is for System Integrators to recognise that change is in the air, that different business models are appearing and that, to be in the market, a change in attitude, behaviours and delivery will be needed in order to become Service Integrators and Managing Agents to Government.

The debate over G-Cloud – have your say

By David Bicknell

A debate is running over the Government’s plans for G-Cloud. It follows Chris Chant’s Unacceptable IT is pervasive blog on his departure, a response to the comments received on Chant’s blog by his successor, Denise McDonagh, about Cloud Cynicism, and now, and this must break some new ground, a government-hosted ‘crowdsourcing’ opportunity for you to have your say and influence the debate.

Please add your thoughts here

Government publishes data on £70 billion of future contracts

By David Bicknell

The Government has published data on £70 billion of potential future government contracts, with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude arguing that the move marks a new era in openness about its long-term business needs.

“We have published details of £70 billion of potential Government business. Publishing data on what we plan to buy – whether it’s tunnels or computers – means we can identify skills gaps sooner and give industry a heads up so UK businesses are in a better position to compete,” he said.

The data published of potential future contracts over the next five years, covers 13 different sectors including construction, property, medical and police equipment. The publication of the data increases the potential opportunities for SMEs to bid for government business.

Information Age magazine has reported that the £70bn includes £2.5bn worth of IT projects.

Data on the contracts can be found at Contracts Finder

£70 billion of potential government business published to boost UK growth