Category Archives: IT-enabled projects and waste

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

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It adds,

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

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

The charter commits public bodies to:

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

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

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

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

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

He added,

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

IT-enabled projects

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

But their source reports aren’t published.

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

Comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Whitehall renews facade of openness on major IT projects

By Tony Collins

Headlines yesterday on the state of major government IT projects were mixed.

Government Computing said,

“IPA: Whitehall major projects show ‘slow and steady’ delivery improvement”

Computer Weekly said,

“Government IT projects improving – but several still in doubt”

The Register said,

“One-quarter of UK.gov IT projects at high risk of failure – Digital borders, digital tax and raft of MoJ projects singled out”

The headlines were prompted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual report which was published yesterday.

The report listed the RAG – red/amber/green – status of each of 143 major projects in the government’s  £455bn major projects portfolio. Thirty-nine of these are ICT projects, worth a total of £18.6bn.

Publication of the projects’ red/amber/green status – called the “Delivery Confidence Assessment” – seemed a sign that the government was being open over the state of its major IT and other projects.

A reversal of decades of secrecy over the progress or otherwise of major IT projects and programmes?

In a foreword to the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s report, two ministers referred twice to the government’s commitment to openness and accountability.

MP Caroline Nokes, Cabinet Office minister, and MP Andrew Jones, a Treasury minister, said in their joint foreword,

“The government is also committed to transparency, and to being responsive and accountable to the public we serve.

“Accordingly, we have collected and published this data consistently over the past five years, enabling us to track the progress of projects on the GMPP [Government Major Projects Portfolio] over time.

“We will continue to be responsive and accountable to the public.”

But the report says nothing about the current state of major IT projects. The delivery confidence assessments are dated September 2016. They are 10 months out of date.

This is because senior civil servants – some of whom may be the “dinosaurs” that former minister Francis Maude referred to last month – have refused to allow politicians to publish the red/amber/gtreen status of major projects (including the Universal Credit programme and the smart meters rollout) unless the information, when published, is at least six months old.

[Perhaps one reason is to give departmental and agency press officers an opportunity to respond to journalists’ questions by saying that the red, red/amber of amber status of a particular major project is out of date.]

Amber – but why?

An amber rating means that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist” though any problems “appear resolvable”.

In September 2016 the Universal Credit programme was at amber but we don’t know why. Neither the IPA or the Department for Work and Pensions mention any of the “issues”.

The £11bn smart meters rollout is also at amber and again we don’t know why. Neither the IPA nor the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy mention any of the “issues”. Permanent secretaries are allowed to keep under wraps the IPA’s reasons for the red/amber/green assessments.

Even FOI requests for basic project information have been refused.  Computer Weekly said,

“Costs for the Verify programme were also withheld from the IPA report, again citing exemptions under FOI.”

Comment

The senior civil servants who, in practice, set the rules for what the Infrastructure and Projects Authority can and cannot publish on major government projects and programmes are likely to be the “dinosaurs” that former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude referred to last month.

Maude said that Whtehall reforms require that new ministers “face down the obstruction and prevarication from the self-interested dinosaur tendency in the mandarinate.”

Clearly that hasn’t happened yet.

The real information about Universal Credit’s progress and problems will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Work and Pensions – but from local authoritities, housing associations, landlord organistions, charities and consumer groups such the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (which has called for Universal Credit to be halted), the local press, the National Audit Office and Parliamentary committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and Work and Pensions Committee.

On the smart meter rollout, the real information will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – but from business journalist Paul Lewis, consumer advocate Martin Lewis, business organistions such as the Institute of Directors,  experts such as Nick Hunn, the Energy and Climate Change Committee and even energy companies such as EDF.

Much of this “real” information will almost certainly be denied by Whitehall press officers. They’ll be briefed by senior officials to give business journalists only selected “good news” facts on a project’s progress and costs.

All of this means that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority may have good advice for departments and agencies on how to avoid project failures – and its tact and deference will be welcomed by permanent secretaries – but it’s likely the IPA will be all but useless in providing early warnings to Parliament and the public of incipient project disasters.

Ministers and some senior civil servants talk regularly about the government’s commitment to openness and accountability. When it will start applying to major government IT projects?

 

UK.gov watchdog didn’t red flag any IT projects. And that alone should be a red flag to everyone

 

 

 

 

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?”

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

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why courage?

Bock said,

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC R4 “Analysis” on talent, intelligence and recruitment

Laszlo Bock steps down

Can Birmingham City Council afford this jargon-laden Big Data project?

By Tony Collins

Birmingham council’s “Big Data Corridor” commits multiple offences against the English language. Could its jargon-heavy justifications threaten the usefulness of the project?

Birmingham City Council is running a budget deficit expected to be £49m in 2016/17. That hasn’t stopped it from pushing forward with plans to invest in a “Big Data Corridor” that has left at least one leading councillor confused as to its purpose.

Councillor Jon Hunt, leader of he Lib-Dems on the Labour-run council,  told a cabinet meeting that the project was “potentially exciting” and he thanked Aston University for its involvement but he added,

“I was a bit confused about the purpose of it.”

Birmingham City Council will be contributing hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the research project – money that Hunt said the council cannot afford.

He said Birmingham City Council may be best placed as an “enabler” of such projects rather than “putting in money it doesn’t have”.

A report to the council’s cabinet said,

“The proposed Big Data Corridor (BDC) project at a total cost of £2.568m will support Small/Medium Enterprises (SME’s) to understand the benefits of using data to design new services and products that will respond to specific challenges in East Birmingham, as a demonstrator.”

Quite what that means is unclear in the report; and leading councillors gave no direct responses to Hunt’s points about the unclear purpose of the project and  whether the council can afford it.

Birmingham Council says the Big Data Corridor is a “new initiative led by Birmingham City Council in partnership with Aston University, Future Cities Catapult, Centro, Telensa, Innovation Birmingham, local SMEs and community groups of the Eastern Corridor Smart Demonstrator.

The project is part funded by its participants, including Birmingham council, and the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund.

A report to the council’s cabinet said the project would “address specific challenges such as creating a healthy happy city”.

Comment

Birmingham City Council’s Big Data Corridor may be a fun research project to work on – but what’s its point?

The council says the aim of the project is to

 “create an innovative, connected data marketplace – a new disruptive economy – where SMEs use data to create new applications, services and experiences to serve personalised demand for businesses and communities in the Corridor, generating social and environmental value alongside hard economic impacts”.

But what’s its purpose for the citizens of Birmingham?

“SMEs will be supported to use data and technologies to create new services, and products that will respond to specific challenges in East Birmingham to deliver to beneficiaries in the Corridor, generating social, environmental and economic value….”

How is that useful to residents?

“Working with the Smart City Commission, we are exploring how the wider deployment of smart city / future internet-based technologies and services can help drive innovation and accelerate delivery of city outcomes bringing together both needs of public services, community and private sector.”

Which means?

“The demonstrator will aim to tackle local problems in a more holistic, layered and integrated way.

” It will drive greater connectedness along urban clusters – connecting assets, data, talent, location, infrastructure to combine innovative design, use of community and social spaces and services with housing and infrastructure developments; new models of commissioning and service delivery enabled through civic and social enterprise.”

Actual uses please?

“The demonstrator which links into existing City development plans e.g. Birmingham Connected City (formerly the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan); Birmingham Development Plan; East Birmingham Prospectus for Growth will focus on:

  • Mobility & connectivity – Improving how people travel around across all modes and enabling access to employment opportunities;

  • Health – Healthy ageing; improve quality of life / mental health & wellbeing indicators;

  • Skills & Enterprise – Manage supply and demand; Upskill local population and talent for innovation; grow level of enterprise and sustainable start-up & business growth

  • Information Marketplaces – enabling programme of activity creating conditions for data to be extracted and /or exchanged by multiple partners & stakeholders prioritised around above themes; creating the supply chain that may include business / developers that can create value with this new data

Yes, but one specific purpose?

“The Big Data Corridor will utilise a data platform provided by Birmingham City University, which will act like an address book to access a range of public and commercial service data sets, which will enable Small/Medium Enterprises with support through this project, to create new products and services to help address challenges faced by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.”

Its benefits for Birmingham council tax payers who would help fund the project?

“[The Big Data Corridor] aims to accelerate the digital capabilities of businesses to capitalise on the exponential growth of the Internet Of Things and Data Economy by developing solutions with citizens to address city in the areas of health, mobility and sustainability. This will be enabled through 3 key strands. All support for SMEs will be provide free of charge based on meeting eligibility criteria.”

Yes but specific benefits?

“[The Big Data Corridor] will host technology and data rich demonstrator activities to enable GBSLEP SMEs to develop new services and products enabled by the new data streams and tested in East Birmingham in response to specific challenges identified through work with stakeholders and communities. Note that this project will not compile data sets, but accesses those available openly or if will purchase them if necessary through this project.”

Specifically?

“[The Big Corridor will] provide technical and business support utilising the Serendip Incubator (a space for businesses to collaborate) at Birmingham Science Park – Aston to engage SMEs, manage their involvement, support rapid prototyping and commercialisation of products and services.”

Yes, but …

“To address congestion …”

Aha! A specific purpose. In what way will the Big Data Corridor reduce congestion?

“[It] could be for SMEs to access Telensa’s smart lighting application network, Centro transport data, personal data such as schemes that are already operating to enable individuals to share data voluntarily, as well as social media data to develop new products to incentivise behaviour change of citizens from cars to public transport to reduce congestion.”

Rarely before have so many offences against plain English been committed within one IT project.

The serious point is that unclear, abstract English and unclear thinking go hand in hand.

Orwell said that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”.  He would probably have described Birmingham council’s phrases such as “accelerate delivery of city outcomes” and “generating social, environmental and economic value” as avoidably ugly.

Such phrases suggest that their author was indifferent as to whether the words meant anything or not. They are easily written – because they don’t require any thought.

Orwell could have been looking at Birmingham Council’s words on its Big Data Corridor when he wrote,

“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

Indeed it’s hard to see how Birmingham council found the money for the Big Data Corridor, based on the poor quality of information it has provided so far.

One explanation could be that finance councillors and officials watched in awe as the river of ostensibly worthy phrases flowed in front of them – phrases such as “greater connectedness along urban clusters”.

Possible big data uses

One possible specific use of the big data corridor would be to “develop a service to enable citizens to find the healthiest and safest walking routes to local chemist”.

How many Birmingham citizens will take the time to use such an app rather than get to the chemist in the shortest possible time?

Another potential app would show air quality in real-time. This would be useful.

Big data could also be used for street lighting – to allow for the manual brightening of lights when required – and for triggering CCTV and a local response when certain noises are detected.

But would such potential uses be forgotten while project professionals wriggle furiously to try and stop themselves sinking into the Big Data Corridor’s mudflats of jargon?

It’s possible the project will create 56 jobs, which would be one tangible benefit. But what the new recruits will do for local residents is unclear.

Ideally, perhaps, they’d have the skill to translate abstract words and phrases into jargon-free English so that Birmingham’s residents would know how their Big Data Corridor money is being spent.

Perhaps the project may even win an award. Campaign4Change nominates Birmingham’s Big Data Corridor for the Golden Bull award 2017. It’s an award for the year’s worst written tripe.

This is from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”,

“A speaker who uses that kind of [abstract] phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved …”

He added,

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.”

In a report on the use and abuse of official language, the House of Commons’ Public Administration Committee criticised  “unlovely” words and phrases such as “step changes”, “stakeholder engagements”, “win-wins”, “level playing fields” and “going forwards”.

It concluded that a poor use of language by officials can amount to “maladministration”. The committee said,

“In our view, using confusing or unclear language that is so bad that it results in people not getting the benefits or services to which they are entitled, or which prevents them from understanding their rights or the choices available to them, amounts to ‘maladaministration’.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman at that time agreed with this view.

She said,

“I think if it got to the point that it was actually incomprehensible, then it would be in contravention of my principles about providing information that’s clear, accurate and not misleading.”

Click here to generate gobbledygook similar to Birmingham Council’s (Plain English Campaign’s gobbledygook generator).

 

Use and abuse of official language – House of Commons Public Administration Committee

Big Data Corridor bid goes through to the next stage

Big Data Corridor report

Big Data case studies

Birmingham council savings too ambitious and too many uncertainties.

Birmingham blog

Digital Birmingham