Category Archives: Home Office

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It adds,

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

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

The charter commits public bodies to:

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

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

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

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

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

He added,

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

IT-enabled projects

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

But their source reports aren’t published.

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

Comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Raytheon/Home Office IT dispute rolls on

By Tony Collins

Another big, old government IT contract goes wrong. It’s part of civil service tradition that officials blame the supplier for missing milestones and not delivering what the end-users needed or wanted; and the supplier blames the customer for causing or contributing to the alleged defaults.

The Raytheon Systems/Home Office eBorders legal dispute is going along these lines – as did the Department of Health’s dispute with CSC over parts of the failed National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

It’s tradition for the civil service not to take big IT suppliers to court: a hearing could mean that civil servants have to talk about government business in an open courtroom.

Senior Whitehall officials do not want the public knowing how departments are really managed, or not managed.

In 2002 a 44-day court case between National Air Traffic Services and EDS [now HP] ended suddenly – minutes before a senior civil servant was due to give evidence.

Arbitration is different. It’s in secret so a long dispute can be tolerated.

And so a Home Office mega-contract awarded to US company Raytheon in 2007 has ended up in arbitration and is set for a sequence of hearings and appeals that could last years.

It took 10 years for an IT dispute between HP and BSkyB to be settled, and it could take this long for Raytheon and the Home Office to settle their dispute.

Chronology 

In 2003 Tony Blair launches the eBorders programme. He wants a database of foreign travellers entering and leaving Britain to help fight the war on terror.

A year later the Home Office launches Project Semaphore with IBM to pilot an electronic borders system.

In 2007 Jacqui Smith, Labour’s home secretary, signs an eBorders contract with Raytheon Systems as lead supplier and Serco, Detica, QinetiQ and Accenture as subcontractors. It’s worth £750m. Within two years Home Office officials are expressing concern that milestones are being missed.

In 2010 a new coalition government that’s determined not to put up with big, underperforming IT deals, terminates the Raytheon contract after a recommendation by the Major Projects Authority and a coalition review group.

In 2011 it emerges that Raytheon is threatening to sue the Home Office for £500m for repudiating the contract. Raytheon blames project delays on UK Border Agency mismanagement. It’s far from clear that officials knew what they wanted from the systems.  Arbitration proceedings begin.

In 2013 it emerges that IBM, Fujitsu and Serco are carrying out some of the original eBorders work.

Home Office loses arbitration

Last year an arbitration tribunal ruled that the Home Office must pay £224m to Raytheon. It found that the decision to terminate Raytheon’s contract was unlawful on a number of grounds. The Home Office had not fully considered the extent to which the Home Office and the UK Border Agency had caused or contributed to the alleged defaults.

Home Office wins appeal

Now the Home Office has won an appeal against the arbitration tribunal’s ruling. A good account of the appeal judgment is on the Pinsent Masons website. Pinsent Masons was acting for the Home Office.  The appeal judge found that the arbitration award had been tainted by legal irregularities that could have caused a substantial injustice. The judge took the unprecedented step of setting aside the arbitration award and ordered that the dispute be resolved by a new tribunal.

Raytheon appeal

Raytheon has announced that it is appealing. It points out that the arbitration had 42 days of oral hearings with testimony from multiple witnesses, and had issued a 276 page award decision. Raytheon says it is determined to recover the sums it is due because of the “wrongful” termination of the contract.

Comment:

It’s five years since Raytheon’s contract was cancelled. It could easily be another five years before all the rulings and appeals are finally over.

It’s easy in hindsight to say, but would it have been better if the Home Office and coalition ministers had spent longer negotiating with Raytheon rather than doing the macho thing of cancelling the contract?

Pinsent Masons – latest ruling

Raytheon contests Home Office’s High Court verdict over e-Borders
 

Whitehall has taken on 100 technology experts over past year

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office says that government departments have taken on more than  100 IT experts over the past year.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) led the recruitment as part of a plan to raise technology-related skills in the civil service.

One appointment is of former Credit Suisse CIO Magnus Falk as the Government’s new Deputy Chief Technology Officer, reporting to Government CTO Liam Maxwell. Other recent technology recruits include:

  • MOJ Chief Technology Officer Ian Sayer, who was Global Chief Information Officer at Electrolux; and
  • Government Chief Technical Architect Kevin Humphries, former Chief Technical Architect at Qatarlyst.

Chief Digital Officer appointments include:

  • HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer Mark Dearnley, formerly CIO of Vodafone;
  • MOJ CDO Paul Shelter, who previously co-founded two start-ups and was CTO for banking at Oracle;
  • ONS’s Laura Dewis, Deputy Director Digital Publishing, who was Head of Online Commissioning at The Open University;
  • Jacqueline Steed, former Managing Director and CIO for BT Wholesale, who starts as CDO at the Student Loan Company next week; and
  • DWP CDO Kevin Cunnington, who was previously Global Head of Online at Vodafone.

Comment

It’s encouraging that the Cabinet Office, through the GDS, is overseeing the recruitment of IT leaders in government departments. It means the recruits will see their roles as cross-governmental. In the past the civil service culture has required that CIOs show an almost filial respect for their departmental seniors.

It’s a good idea that GDS tries to change age-old behaviours from within by recruiting technology experts with a wide range of experience from the private sector. But how long will they last?

Their challenge will be converting the words “transformation”, “innovation” and “fundamental change” from board papers, press releases, strategy documents, and conference speeches, into actions.

New deputy CTO role in central government – Government Computing

 

 

After two IT disasters, immigration officials launch £208m agile project

By Tony Collins

In 2001 immigration officials cancelled a £77m system with Siemens for a Casework Application system.

The objective had been to create a “paperless office”, help reduce a backlog of 66,000 asylum cases and provide a “single view” of individuals. But the scope was overambitious and the supplier underestimated the complexities. It proved difficult to automate paper-based processes.

In 2010 immigration officials came up with a similar scheme that also failed to meet expectations.  They developed a business case for a flagship IT programme called Immigration Case Work (ICW).

It was designed to draw together all casework interactions between the business and a person, enabling caseworkers to gain a single accurate view of the person applying. It was expected to replace both the legacy Casework Information Database (CID) and 20 different IT and some paper-based systems by March 2014.

A National Audit Office published today says the ICW programme was closed in
August 2013, having delivered “significantly less than planned for £347m.”

So in the end, while the taxpayer has paid hundreds of millions for caseworking systems for immigration staff, many of the workers are still, says the NAO, relying on paper.  Today’s NAO report says:

“Both directorates [UK Visas and Immigration and Immigration Enforcement, which were formerly the UK Border Agency] rely heavily on paper-based working.

“The Permanent Migration team is 100 per cent paper-based and acknowledge this as a barrier to efficiency.”

Immigration officials use some technology to record personal details of people who pass through the immigration system. But:

• A lack of controls mean staff can leave data fields blank or enter incorrect
information. The NAO found many errors in the database.
• There is a history of systems freezing and being unusable.
• A lack of interfaces with other systems results in manual data transfer or
cross‑referencing.

Agile success?

Now, says the NAO, the Home Office has begun a new agile-based programme, Immigration Platform Technologies  (IPT). It is due to cost £208.7 million by 2016-17.

A tool for online applications for some types of visa has already been rolled-out and is being updated using applicant feedback,” says the NAO.

But support contracts for the existing technology [the legacy Casework Information Database] expire in January 2016, before the scheduled completion of IPT in 2017.

The Home Office is “reviewing options for support contracts to cover this gap”.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, says of the agile project: “Given its poor track record, I have little confidence that the further £209 million it is spending on another IT system will be money well spent.”

Comment

Is it possible for a genuinely agile project to cost £208m? The point about agile is that it is supposed to be incremental, quick and cheap.  It looks as if the Home Office is running a hybrid conventional/agile programme, as the DWP did with Universal Credit. Either a project is agile or its not. Hybrids, it seems, are not usually successful.

There again is the Home Office congenitally capable of running an agile project?  The Agile Manifesto is based on twelve principles, most of which could be said to be alien to the Home Office’s culture:

1.Customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful software
2.Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
3.Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
4.Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
5.Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
6.Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
7.Working software is the principal measure of progress
8.Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
9.Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
10.Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
11.Self-organizing teams
12.Regular adaptation to changing circumstances

So what’s needed?

Big government IT-based change programmes tend to be introspective and secretive. Those working on them don’t always feel able to challenge, to criticise, to propose doing things differently.

What would be innovative would be openness and independent challenge, and tough and well-informed Parliamentary scrutiny. It rarely happens. Ask the Home Office for any of its progress reports on its IT-base change programmes and it’ll tell you exactly what the DWP says when asked a similar question: “That’s not something we generally release.”

The NAO report points to a culture problem. “… Having a transparent culture was rated as red on the UK Visas and Immigration risk trends in April 2014.”

Will the new agile project be any more successful than the other 2 major immigration IT projects? The Home Office will doubtless claim success as it usually does. Even when the patient dies it tells Parliament the operation was a success.  For you can say publicly whatever you like when you keep the facts confidential – as IDS at the DWP knows.

Reforming the UK border and immigration system – National Audit Office report