Category Archives: Institute for Government

Are you happy paying to help with problem Capita contract?

By Tony Collins

This week, as Barnet residents go to the polls, how many will be influenced by the continuing national and local media coverage of the council’s mass outsourcing deal with Capita?

Barnet’s Capita contracts are a local election issue. The council’s conservatives and Capita say the outsourcing contracts have saved money and are performing as expected “in many areas”.

But a former local Tory councillor Sury Khatri , who has been deselected after criticising the Capita contract, described the deal as “disastrous”. Barnet has paid Capita £327m since the deals were signed in 2013. Capita runs council services that range from cemeteries to IT.

Councillor Khatri said,  “My time at the council has been overshadowed by the disastrous Capita contract that is falling apart at the seams. Four years on, issues still keep rolling out of the woodwork. This contract represents poor value for money, and the residents are being fleeced.”

Another critic of the Capita contracts is John Dix who blogs as “Mr Reasonable” and is one of several highly respected local bloggers. He has been studying the council’s accounts for some years. He runs a small business and is comfortable with accounts and balance sheets.

He writes,

“I have no problem with outsourcing so long as it is being done for the right reasons. Typically this is where it involves very specialist, non core activities where technical expertise may be difficult to secure and retain in house.

“In Barnet’s case this outsourcing programme covered so many services which were core to the running of the council and which in 2010 were rated as 4 star (good). Barnet has been an experiment in mass outsourcing and almost five years in, it appears to be a failure.

“Last night’s [19 April 2018] audit committee was a litany of service problems, system failures, lack of controls, under performance, a major fraud. Internal audit saying issues were a problem, Capita saying they weren’t.”

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has entered the debate. He has applauded Barnet’s Unison branch for its enduring, close scrutiny of the Capita contracts. Unison this week published a report on the deal.

Capita’s share price rises

Earlier this month the national press reported extensively on concerns that Capita would follow Carillion into liquidation.

Since the bad publicity, the company’s announcement of a pre-tax loss of £535m, up from £90m the previous year, £1.2bn of debt and a rights issue to raise £662m after fees by selling new shares at a discount, Capita’s share price has risen steadily, from a low a month ago of about 130p to about 191 yesterday.

Could it be that investors sense that Capita’s long-term future is secure: the company has a wide range of complex and impenetrable public sector contracts where history shows that public sector clients – ruling politicians and officials – will defend Capita more enthusiastically than Capita itself, whatever the facts?

A list of some of Capita’s problem contracts is below the comment.

Comment

Carillion, a facilities management and construction company, collapsed in part because the effects of its failures were usually obvious: it was desperately short of money and new roads and hospitals were left unfinished.

When IT-based outsourcing deals go wrong, the effects are usually more nuanced. Losses can be hidden in balance sheets that can be interpreted in different ways; and when clients’ employees go unpaid, or the army’s Defence Recruiting System has glitches or medical records are lost, the problems will almost always be officially described as teething even if, as in Capita’s NHS contracts, they last for years.

It is spin that rules and protects IT outsourcing contracts in the public sector. Spin hides what’s really going on. It is as integral as projected savings and key performance indicators.

When Somerset County Council signed a mass outsourcing deal with IBM, its ruling councillors boasted of huge savings. When the deal went wrong and was ended early after a legal dispute with IBM the council announced that bringing the deal in-house would bring large savings: savings either way. Liverpool council said the same thing when it outsourced to BT – setting up a joint venture called Liverpool Direct – and brought services back-in house: savings each time.

Barnet Council is still claiming savings while the council’s auditors are struggling to find them.

Spinmeisters know there is rarely any such thing as a failed public sector IT contract: the worst failures are simply in transition from failure to success. Barnet’s council taxpayers will never know the full truth, whoever is in power.

Even when a council goes bust, the truth is disputed. Critics of spending at Northamptonshire County Council, which has gone bust, blame secretive and dysfunctional management. Officials, ruling councillors and even the National Audit Office blame underfunding.

In March The Times reported that Northamptonshire had paid almost £1m to a consultancy owned by its former chief executive. It also reported that the council’s former director of people, transformation and transactions for services, was re-hired on a one-year contract that made her company £185,000 within days of being made redundant in 2016.  Her firm was awarded a £650-a-day IT contract that was not advertised.

In the same month, the National Audit Office put Northamptonshire’s difficulties down to underfunding. It conceded that the “precise causes of Northamptonshire’s financial difficulties are not as yet clear”.

Perhaps it’s only investors in Capita who will really know the truth: that the full truth on complex public sector contracts in which IT is central will rarely, if ever, emerge; and although Capita has internal accountability for failures – bonuses, the share price and jobs can be affected – there is no reason for anyone in the public sector to fear failure. No jobs are ever affected. Why not sign a few more big outsourcing deals, for good or ill?

Thank you to FOI campaigners David Orr and Andrew Rowson for information that helped me write this post.

Some of Capita’s problem contracts

There is no definitive list of Capita’s problem contracts. Indeed the Institute for Government’s Associate Director Nick Davies says that poor quality of contract data means the government “doesn’t have a clear picture of who it is buying from and what it is buying”. Here, nevertheless, is a list of some of Capita’s problem contracts in the public sector:

Barnet Council

A Capita spokesperson said: “The partnership between Capita and Barnet Council is performing as expected in many areas. We continue to work closely with the council to make service enhancements as required.”

Birmingham City Council

“The new deal will deliver a mix of services currently provided under the joint venture, plus project based work aimed at providing extra savings, with forecasts of £10 million of savings in the current financial year and £43 million by 2020-21.”

West Sussex County Council

A spokesman said, “Whatever your concerns and small hiccups along the way, I believe this contract has been and will continue to be of great benefit to this county council.”

Hounslow Council

A Capita spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the London Borough of Hounslow to ensure a smooth transition of the pensions administration service to a new provider.”

Breckland Council

“They concluded that planning officers, working for outsourcing company Capita, had misinterpreted a policy, known as DC11, which dictates the amount of outdoor playing space required for a development..”

Army

Mark Francois, a Conservative former defence minister,  said Capita was known “universally in the army as Crapita”. But Capita said in a statement,

“Capita is trusted by multiple private and public clients to deliver technology-led customer and business process services, as demonstrated by recent wins and contract extensions from clients including British Gas, Royal Mail, BBC, TfL Networks, M&S and VW.”

Electronic tagging

(but it’s alright now)

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “As the National Audit Office makes clear, there were challenges in the delivery of the electronic monitoring programme between 2010 and 2015…

“As a direct result, we fundamentally changed our approach in 2015, expanding and strengthening our commercial teams and bringing responsibility for oversight of the programme in-house.

“We are now in a strong position to continue improving confidence in the new service and providing better value for money for the taxpayer.”

Disability benefits

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said, “Assessments work for the majority of people, with 83 per cent of ESA claimants and 76 per cent of PIP claimants telling us that they’re happy with their overall experience…”

Miners

A Capita spokesperson said: “This issue has been resolved and all members affected will shortly receive letters to advise that they do not need to take any action. We sincerely apologise for any concern and inconvenience this has caused.”

NHS

Opticians

Dentists

BBC licence fee

Windrush

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Government Digital Service loses “genius” and “national treasure”. Is Sir Humphrey winning campaign to dismember GDS?

,By Tony Collins

The dismembering of the Government Digital Service is underway, says Andrew Greenway, a former programme manager working on digital projects for the Cabinet Office. He now works as an independent consultant.

His comments in Civil Service World came, coincidentally, as another top GDS official prepared to leave.

Paul Downey, GDS’s Technical Architect – who is described by former colleagues as a “legend” and “national treasure” – has left to join the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Downey is the latest in a long line of leading government technologists to leave GDS, which will confirm in the minds of many that Sir Humphrey has won the campaign to stop GDS interfering in the 100 year-old autonomy of individual government departments.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox set up GDS in 2011 to break down departmental silos and have a “single version of the truth” for everything that government touches.

Former prime minister David Cameron said the creation of GDS “is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament”

Downey helped departments to create new digital services. He represented GDS on the UK government Open Standards Board. Formerly he was BT’s Chief Web Services Architect.

In reply to Downey’s tweet announcing his departure, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, former Executive Director of GDS, tweeted, “When people talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, they were talking about you.”

Mike Bracken, Foreshew-Cain’s predecessor as head of GDS, tweeted about Downey’s departure, “You’re a legend, my friend”.

Tom Loosemore, founder of GDS who, in 2012, wrote the Government Digital Strategy for GDS, also tweeted praise for Downey.

Loosemore left GDS in 2015 for the Co-op group. In an interview shortly after leaving, Loosemore said, “The shape of government needs to change … Businesses don’t run on siloed departments any more and neither should government.”

Liam Maxwell, National Technology Adviser at HM Government who used to be the government’s chief technology officer and who ran teams at GDS, tweeted,”You have been total inspiration to me and hundreds of others”.

Dismembering

Greenway said GDS retains people, prestige and power.  “There is no question that the civil service is in a much stronger position on digital than it was six years ago. Some of the work going on in government, including the teams in GDS building digital platforms, remains world-leading”.

Despite bleeding skills elsewhere, GDS has not experienced a terminal brain drain, says Greenway. “Many of those who have stayed are doing a heroic job in trying circumstances.”

But he added that officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral.

 It now looks as if the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will take over from GDS. But Greenway warns against replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort.

“The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. Increasingly, it has neither of these.

“The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre — the Treasury and Sir Jeremy Heywood — have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot …

“The dismembering of GDS is underway.”

Comment

GDS was a great idea. But Sir Humphries tend not to like great ideas if they mean internal change. Permanent secretaries are appointed on the basis that they are a safe pair of hands.  Safe in this context means three things:

  • not spilling the beans however rancid they may be
  • valuing  department’s unique heritage, administrative traditions, staff and procedures
  • talking daily of the need for large-scale “transformative” change while ensuring it doesn’t happen.

Thus, for the past few years, GDS professionals have found that top civil servants want central government departments to continue to be run as separate bureaucratic empires with their uniqueness and administrative traditions preserved.

GDS technologists, on the other hand, want to cut the costs of running Whitehall and the wider public sector while making it easier for the public to interact with government. This puts GDS at odds with Whitehall officials who believe that each departmental board knows best how to run its department.

In the long run GDS cannot win – because it was set up by politicians who wanted change but whose stewardship was temporary while the will to dismember GDS comes from the permanent secretariat who do not welcome change and have the power to resist it.

More’s the pity because taxpayers will continue to spend a fortune on preserving departmental silos and huge, unnecessarily-complex technology contracts.

Andrew Greenway on the dismembering of GDS – Civil Service World

GDS deserves credit for its successes – Government Computing

GDS to lose some policy control? – Computer Weekly

Government Digital Service blog

Government Digital Service being “dismembered”

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment:

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

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

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

It has had control.

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

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

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

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

Now at last it is on an even keel.

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

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

Law Society Gazette article

Goodnewspeak and its Orwellian dark side

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitehall

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

And the Department of Transport’s website:

Ministry of Truth

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

Some of the Party’s slogans were:

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

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

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

Comment

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

It blocks out any view other than the official line.

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

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

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

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

Dark side

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

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

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

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

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

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

DWP

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

Disillusioned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World’s best civil service

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

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

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

Speaking the unsaid

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

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

The good news

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

DWP good news announcements

Newspeak

Whitewashing history in education

 

Is Gauke being told the whole truth on Universal Credit’s rollout problems?

By Tony Collins

“It is working,” said Work and Pensions secretary David Gauke in Manchester yesterday. He was referring to a plan to accelerate the rollout of Universal Credit from this month.

“I can confirm that the rollout will continue, and to the planned timetable,” he added.

But are civil servants giving Gauke – and each other – full and unexpurgated briefings on the state of the Universal Credit programme?

Last year, in a high-level DWP document that government lawyers asked a judge not to release for publication, a DWP director referred to

“a lack of candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit] programme.”

Senior civil servants were not passing bad news on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme even to each other.

The DWP document was dated several years after Iain Duncan-Smith, the original force behind the introduction of Universal Credit, found his internal DWP briefings on the state of the UC programme so inadequate – a “good news” culture prevailed – that he brought in his own external advisers – what he called his “red team”.

In 2013 the National Audit Office, in a report on Universal Credit, said a “good news” mentality within the DWP prevented problems being discussed.

If problems could not be discussed they could not be addressed.

Last year the Institute for Government, in a report on Universal Credit, said IT employees at the DWP’s Warrington offices burst into tears with relief when at last permitted – by external advisers –  to talk openly about problems on the programme.

The Work and Pensions Committee has questioned why DWP ministers told MPs all was going well with the programme when it was well behind schedule and beset with problems.

The Public Accounts Committee called the DWP “evasive and selective” when it came to passing on information about the state of the Universal Credit programme.

Is there any reason to believe that the “fortress mentality” that the NAO referred to in its report on Universal Credit in 2013 is no longer present?

When David Gauke announced yesterday that he is continuing the rollout of Universal Credit, was he basing his decision on the full facts – or a “good news” version of it as told to him by the DWP?

Comment

David Gauke will have been given the “new minister” treatment when he joined the DWP on 11 June 2017.

“The first thing you’ve got to overcome when you walk through the door is that everybody is being almost far too nice to you,” said one of Gauke’s predecessors, Iain Duncan Smith. He was speaking in 2016 after leaving the DWP.

IDS was much criticised for assuring Parliament all was well with the Universal Credit IT programme when it wasn’t. But maybe he was right to point out that, when he joined the DWP, he found that the “biggest cultural barrier” was getting civil servants to be honest about difficulties.

“The Civil Service, legitimately, see it as their role to deliver on politicians’ policy demands and this can sometimes make them resistant to the idea that they should inform you early of problems,” said IDS.

It was IDS who told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme in December 2013, that Universal Credit was on track.

“It’s on budget. It’s on budget. Some 6.5million people will be on the system by the end of 2017.”

In fact, fewer than 700,000 people are claiming Universal Credit,  according to the latest DWP statistics.

DWP’s 30 years of a “good news” culture

In the past 30 years, it has been almost unknown for the DWP’s mandarins to concede that they have had serious problems with any of their major IT-based projects and programmes.

Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that Gauke apparently refuses to listen to critics and continues with the accelerated rollout of Universal Credit.

Would he have any idea that the Citizens Advice Bureau, in a carefully-researched report this year, said that some claimants are on the DWP’s “live service” (managed by large IT suppliers) which is “rarely updated” while other claimants are on a separate “full service” – what the CAB calls a “test and learn” system – which is still being designed?

Would Gauke know of the specific concerns of the all-party Work and Pensions Committee which wrote to the DWP earlier this year about Universal Credit decision makers being “overly reliant on information from [HMRC’s] Real-time information” even when there is “compelling evidence” that this data is  incorrect?

Would Gauke have any reason to believe those who refer to regular computer breakdowns and inaccurate and inconsistent data?

In the DWP’s own document that it did not want published, the DWP director said that, internally, “people stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the Programme, even when those comments would be useful as part of something like an MPA [Major Projects Authority] review.”

Many staff believed the official line was ‘everything is fine’. Nobody wanted to be seen to contradict it.

All this suggests that the DWP will carry on much as before, regardless of external criticism.  Individual ministers are accountable but they move on. Their jobs are temporary. It’s the permanent civil service that really matters when it comes to the implementation of Universal Credit.

But mandarins are neither elected nor effectively accountable.

NHS IT programme?

There may be some comparisons between Universal Credit and the NHS IT programme, the £10bn NPfIT.

A plethora of independent organisations and individuals expressed concerns about the NPfIT but minister after minister dismissed criticisms and continued the rollout. The NPfIT was dismantled many years later, in 2011. Billions was wasted.

Based on their civil service briefings, NPfIT ministers had no reason to believe the programme’s critics.

Universal Credit has more support than the NPfIT and the IT is generally welcomed, not shunned. But the Universal Credit rollout is clearly not in a position yet to be speeded up.

Whether Gauke will recognise this before his time is up at the DWP is another matter.

Like IDS, Stephen Crabb and Damian Green – all secretaries of state during the rollout of Universal Credit – Gauke will move on and his successor will get the “new minister” treatment.

And the cycle of ministerial “good news” briefings will continue.

Perhaps the DWP’s senior civil servants believe they’re protecting their secretaries of state.

As the civil servant Bernard Woolley said in “Yes Minister”

“If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”

Thank you to David Orr, an ardent campaigner for open government, who alerted me to Universal Credit developments that form part of this article.

MPs suggest Cabinet Office is losing its grip on departments – but does it care?

By Tony Collins

The Register has an excellent piece by Kat Hall on how the Cabinet Office is losing its grip on Government departments.

Citing the annual report of the all-party Public Accounts Committee, Hall says there are issues where “departments repeatedly don’t do what they have been told or asked to do by the centre”.

An analysis by The Register found that

“government departments are winning significantly more exemptions to splash the cash on expensive IT projects since the departure of former Cabinet Office minister Francis “Mad Frankie” Maude last year”.

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier said: “After my second year as Chair I am increasingly concerned about the long-term accountability of senior civil servants.

“The game of musical chairs starts as one Permanent Secretary moves on and they all change jobs in the system. And few are in post long enough to have a vested interest in the long-term aims of their department or a project.

“And there is the age-old tension between a department and central Whitehall through the Cabinet Office.”

Universal Credit and HMRC’s plans to overhaul its Aspire IT contract – the biggest in Europe – were outlined as being two areas of concern. As was the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network.

“The Home Office seemed to downplay the risks to the contract and its being caught unawares by the contractor does not reassure us that the Department is on top of the contract or this project. This could cost the taxpayer dear,” it said.

Comment:

It’s hard to argue with a comment on Hall’s piece by @JagPatel3 who suggests that some in Whitehall are as preoccupied with spin as with the efficient delivery of public services.

“… Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate.

“The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy.

“And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens …

“the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.”

The commentator also says that the “intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself, led to alienation and disaffection”.

A good summary. Many ordinary civil servants are doing the hard work of delivering public services while a few of their masters are preoccupied with keeping what they do secret and justifying or defending all else that is published in National Audit Office reports, other third-party reports or leaked emails.

It’s hardly surprising the Cabinet Office is losing control of departments. Since Maude’s departure it doesn’t want control. It has become clear that it wants, in a hassle-free way,  to continue with Sir Humphrey’s non-integrated approach to government.

The Cabinet Office is just another Whitehall department. Why would it want to be an “enforcer?”

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group

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

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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