Category Archives: IT projects

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

 

 

Capita adds 500 staff to boost recovery on “unacceptable” NHS contract

By Tony Collins

nicola-blackwoodNicola Blackwood, minister for public health and innovation at the Department of Health, yesterday described failings on Capita’s GP support services contract as “entirely unacceptable”.

Blackwood told MPs at an adjournment debate on failures relating to Capita’s £1bn Primary Care Support England contract,

“It was always clear that Capita’s services needed to be at least as good as those that they replaced… Capita put forward the most credible of any of the bids accepted on the short list, and at the time both the Department and NHS England had every confidence that the programme would be a success.

“However, it is evident that Capita was inadequately prepared for delivering this complex transition.”

Under its contract with NHS England, Capita is responsible for providing GP medical supplies such as needles and syringes, transferring medical records when patients switch GPs, payments to GPs and “performers list” applications.

Capita won the “Primary Care Support England” contract in 2015, amid unheeded warnings from some GPs that the private sector would be unable to successfully deliver the complexity of support services to GPs that were being provided by the NHS.

Blackwood said yesterday that MPs were “right to be concerned that the service provided by Capita under the primary care support services contract … has so far fallen well short of the standards that we expect, and GPs have borne the brunt of these failings, as we have heard today”.

She added,

“We need to make sure that GPs and their patients receive the service to which they are entitled.

“We want to restore acceptable services, and the contract contains sufficient financial incentives to ensure that Capita shares that goal, which is an important part of the contract and process.

“Let us be clear that the problems encountered with medical record transfers [in which thousands of records have gone missing, says the BBC] and overdue payments are entirely unacceptable. The Department shares that view.

“Both Capita and NHS England are co-operating fully with the Information Commissioner’s Office in order to address the implications for information governance, and I accept the need for urgent action in order to address the impact that this is having on patients and practitioners.

“That is why I have been holding regular meetings with Capita’s chief executive for integrated services, Joe Hemming, its new managing director for primary care support, Simon England, and NHS England’s national director for transformation and corporate operations, Karen Wheeler, and I will continue to hold such meetings.

“Both NHS England and Capita openly acknowledge that the service has not so far been good enough.

“NHS England has demanded and received rectification plans from Capita for the six most affected service lines, and has embedded a team of seven experts within Capita to support it as it resolves these issues…

“… it is also about having the right resources in the right place at the right time. Capita has informed me that it is adding around 500 more full-time equivalent staff to the service, at its cost, and that it is improving the training provided to ensure that new staff understand the importance of the service to both patients and practitioners.”

The minster denied that patients had been harmed (by GPs not having patient records).

“I know that these problems have caused great inconvenience and distress, but with reference to risk NHS England has assured me that it is not aware of any direct cases of patient harm that can be attributed to service issues.

“However, NHS England is working closely with regional and local medical directors so that we can be assured of patient safety. In particular, Dr Raj Patel, medical director of NHS England Greater Manchester, has joined the embedded team to ensure that clinical risks and concerns are appropriately addressed.

Backlogs

“The priority now is to deal with any backlogs, particularly with medical record requests, and to ensure that services are stabilised with the capacity to deal properly with new requests.

” There has been progress on that, which is encouraging. The backlog of medical record requests has reduced from 17,262 to 3,465 in the past two weeks. Capita assures me that it has an effective triage system in operation for new requests and is confident that the situate”ion will not recur. However, I will be monitoring the situation closely.”

Shortage of supplies

Blackwood continued,

“I am aware that some GPs were left short of basic supplies as a result, including syringes, and that they have had to source those from other suppliers at their own expense.

“NHS England tells me that it has reimbursed practices for any costs incurred from having to buy local supplies of needles and syringes.

Contact centre shortcomings

“I know that many of the members’ GP constituents have experienced frustration with Capita’s contact centre. I share those frustrations.

“Capita assures me that the contact centre has improved the way it responds to urgent queries by investing in more staff, improved processes and enhanced training. Capita is confident that these measures will deliver a quality service to customers. We will monitor its progress closely, including through meetings.

Late payments – compensation?

“I recognise that GPs, and ophthalmologists in particular, have suffered financial detriment as a result of late processing of payments.

“NHS England is working with Capita to explore what can be done to support affected stakeholders, and I have made it clear to Capita that I expect it to consider compensation as an option.”

Absence of medical records

Another Coventry MP Colleen Fletcher said that people who have requested a copy of a late relative’s medical records from the primary care support service have had to wait for more than twice the maximum 40 days that it should take to process such a request.

“It is utterly unacceptable to put anyone through that kind of delay, but it is inexcusable for it to happen to anyone who is already in an extremely vulnerable position following the death of a relative.”

New charges to the public for medical records

Geoffrey Robinson said,

“I have nothing against the private sector making profits—I am all for it—but the irony is that the companies cannot make a profit from a proper service, so they turn to such measures as imposing a £40 charge for access to a deceased relative’s records …

“They do not have to impose that charge. I think it used to be left to the GP’s discretion — but they now insist on it, and people have to pay postage and delivery charges on top, which is a disgraceful pursuit of short-term gain at the expense of the people they are meant to serve.”

Reinstate the old NHS support service?

Blackwood said,

“Some have suggested that the old model for provision of primary care support should be reinstated, but we must remember that it relied on localised services that did not connect with one another, with much duplication across processes.

“The quality of these services varied greatly—in some areas, it was outstanding; in others, it was quite poor. That was simply unsustainable.

“Furthermore, the system was unable to generate useful management information and so, honestly, issues such as the ones that we now face would be very unlikely to have surfaced. They would have gone unreported.

“A new model, with efficient and modernised processes, is the right approach to deliver to our primary care providers the service that they deserve.

“The Department and I will continue to closely scrutinise Capita and NHS England as they work to resolve current problems and build a quality service that is sustainable.”

A long way to go

“I acknowledge fully that there is a long way to go before the service can be considered acceptable and that Capita has much to do to earn the trust of practitioners and patients.

“This is clearly a live issue. I want to be clear today: I am listening. The issue is at the top of my priority list and will remain there until I am satisfied that an efficient and effective service is being delivered that meets the needs of patients and providers.”

Lessons

Coventry Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, who secured the adjournment debate, told the minister,

“These contracts are gaily handed out to companies that do not have the skills, preparation or sheer commitment necessary to provide the service.”

He questioned whether the contract would make the intended 40% savings.

“… the irony is that we have ended up with a terrible service that is costing more than the previous service ever would, because the company was not properly prepared, did not have a commitment to providing the service, and was unable to do so, and because of the competing and irreconcilable claims about short-term gains in the form of profits and illusory savings for the health service…

“We should not have badly planned impositions from the private sector, which does not know what it is going to do or how to do it.”

He said that minsters and civil servants pride themselves on awarding a contract that they have won a hard-nosed negotiation.

 “We got them down from Y to X and we saved all this. It is great. We really screwed the private sector, didn’t we? That is all a total illusion.”

Labour MP Kate Green said that NHS England trialled the new system in west Yorkshire and it provided unsatisfactory. “Yet the contract was rolled out regardless.”

Savings?

Robinson said,

“How can the Minister talk of savings? How can any savings have been made when 9,000 patients records have been missing for more than two months, without which they cannot attend doctors surgeries? It is illusory to speak of savings.”

MPs to debate Capita NHS contract today

By Tony Collins

In the House of Commons today MPs will debate the Capita Primary Care Support Services contract.

It has been secured by Coventry North West MP Geoffrey Robinson, who wants GPs to be compensated for the failures arising from the outsourcing contract.

The debate comes a day after the BBC reported that “more than 9,000 patients’ records in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex have gone missing” since Capita took on the task of transferring files.

As part of its contract Capita took on the job of transferring patients’ records, when people move from one GP to another.

A BBC survey of 78 GP practices showed that 9,009 records had been missing for more than two months.

Capita told the BBC it did not “recognise these claims”.

An NHS England spokesman said, “We know there have been serious issues with services delivered by Capita which have had an unacceptable impact on practices. We are ensuring Capita takes urgent steps to improve services.”

Patients “at risk”

Paul Conroy, a practice manager in Essex, has started a House of Commons petition on the delays, which has been signed by more than 3,000 people. It calls for an inquiry into the Capita contract and the impact it has had on GP practices.

“GPs rely on that full medical history in order to make key clinical decisions on patient care,” he said.

“If they can’t get hold of that physical record there could be vital information there could be vital information that puts a patient at risk.”

James Dillon, director of Practice Index – an organisation bringing together practice managers – told the BBC,

“GP practices are getting more and more frustrated by the missing patient records.

“Not only is this debacle putting the health of their patients at risk, it is putting added pressure on already stretched practices.”

In a statement, Capita said it had taken on the “challenging initiative” to streamline GP support services and there had been “teething problems”.

“[But] medical records are now being delivered securely up to three times faster than under the previous system,” it said.

“We do not recognise these claims regarding thousands of files being missing whatsoever.

“We request and move on average 100,000 files a week from multiple sites including GP surgeries and also third party run storage facilities which are contracted and managed by NHS England.”

GP magazine Pulse quoted MP Geoffrey Robinson as saying that the secretary of state should intervene directly “as this is extremely dangerous”. Robinson said that some medical records are not being delivered at all, or delivered late or delivered to the wrong practices.

Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee said that the problems arising from the outsourcing contract “are directly impacting on the ability of many GPs to provide safe, effective care to their patients in the area”.

He said, “They are in some cases being left without the essential information they need to know about a new patient and the tools to treat them.”

In August 2016, NHS England published the results of a User Satisfaction Survey of primary care support services over the previous six months. Only 21% of GPs were satisfied with the outsourced service, giving it an average overall score of 2.91 out of 10.

Lunacy?

An anonymous GP told Pulse how the problems are affecting him. He refers to the “performers list” that assures the public that GPs are suitably qualified, have up to date training, have appropriate English language skills and have passed other relevant checks such as with the Disclosure and Barring Service and the NHS Litigation Authority.

Said the GP,

“I moved 12 months ago and still haven’t been able to transfer performers list. I am 6 months late for my appraisal and unemployable except for my current salaried job as a result.

” It would have been easier to emigrate. The department responsible for the performers list at Capita is uncontactable except via a national email that isn’t responded to and a phone line that isn’t able to put you through to anyone.

“… As it is it’s virtually impossible to move region if you a UK GP. I am basically a slave bonded to a geographical region, forbidden to move house and work anywhere else other than short periods. Totally at the mercy of a faceless uninterested bureaucracy incapable of helping. Lunacy and utterly depressing. Why the hell did I become a GP? I curse the day.”

“I urgently need my medical records”

A patient who wrote to Campaign4Change said,

“My medical records were requested at the beginning of June 2016 when I changed to another health centre about 2 miles away.

“[I] phoned Capita today and was told there was no record of this request and to get my solicitor to contact them. Then they put the phone down. I don’t have and cannot afford a solicitor.

“I urgently need my medical records with my new doctor and am feeling helpless and extremely stressed by this.”

Pulse magazine reported yesterday (7 November 2016) the results of a snapshot survey of 281 GP practices carried out by the BMA’s GP Committee. It found:

  • 31% of practices had received incorrect patient records;
  • 28% failed to receive or have records collected from them on the date agreed with Capita;
  • 58% reported that new patient registrations were not processed within the required three days.
  • 81% of urgent requests for records were not actioned within three weeks.

GP practices also noted a reduction in the number of incorrect payments and fewer delays in registrations of the “performers list”.

Comment

It would be a pity if MPs today, in criticising Capita, lost sight of the bigger picture: how such outsourcing deals are considered and awarded.

The root of the problem is that before the contract is awarded officials concentrate their attention on the minutiae of the benefits: exactly how much will be saved, and how this will be achieved.

Pervading the pre-contract literature and discussions are the projected savings. This is understandable but wrong.

It’s understandable because it’s the projected savings that justify the sometimes-exciting time and effort that go into the pre-contract negotiations and discussions.

Large amounts of money are at stake. For officials, the pre-contract work can be a euphoric time – certainly more interesting than the day-to-day routine.

But what happens to negotiation and discussion of risk?

Risk is a table or two at the back of the reports. It’s a dry, uninspiring vaguely technical and points-scoring analysis of the likelihood of adverse events and the seriousness of the consequences materialising.

Sometimes the most serious risks are highlighted in red. But there’s always a juxtaposed “mitigation” strategy that appears to reassure. Indeed it appears to cancel out any reason for concern.

Risk is mentioned at the back of the internal pre-contract because it’s a cultural anathema. It’s the equivalent of visits by Building Regulations inspectors at a theme park under construction.

Who wants to talk about risk when a contract worth hundreds of millions of pounds is about to be awarded?

A bold official may dare to point out the horror stories arising from previous outsourcing contracts. That hapless individual will then be perceived by the outsourcing advisory group to have a cloud over his or her head. Not one of us.

And the horror stories will be dismissed by the officer group as the media getting it wrong as usual. The horror stories, it will be explained, were in fact successes.

Even when big public sector outsourcing deals end in a legal action between the main parties, officials and the supplier will later talk – without explanation or detail or audited accounts –  of the contract’s savings and overall success.

We’re seeing this on the Southwest One outsourcing/joint venture contract.

No doubt some will claim the GP contract support contract is a success. They’ll describe problems as teething. Marginalise them. And later, when it comes to the awarding of future contracts, supporters of the GP outsourcing contract will be believed over the critics.

And so the cycle of pre-contract outsourcing euphoria and post-contract rows over failure will be repeated indefinitely.

It would be of more use if MPs today debated the role of NHS England in the award of the GP support contract.

Blaming Capita will do little good. The supplier will face some minor financial penalties and will continue to receive what it is contractually due.

Countless National Audit Office reports show how contracts between the public and private sectors, when it comes to the crunch, strongly protect the supplier’s interests. The public sector doesn’t usually have a leg to stand on.

A focus today on Capita would be a missed opportunity to do some lasting good.

NHS England letter on Capita contract – September 2016

Capita NHS contract under scrutiny after “teething” problems – June 2016

GPs decry Capita’s privatised services as shambles – The Guardian

Did NHS England consider us in the Capita take-over?

NHS England vows to hold Capita to account

Capita mistakenly flags up to 15% of GP practice patients for removal  

Capita primary care support service performance “unacceptable”

 

 

 

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

Some Twitter comments on this post:

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DWP “evasive” and “selective” with information on Universal Credit programme

By Tony Collins

Has the Department for Work and Pensions put itself, to some extent, beyond the scrutiny  of Parliament on the Universal Credit IT programme?

Today’s report of the Public Accounts Committee Universal Credit progress update was drafted by the National Audit Office. All of the committee’s reports are effectively more strongly-worded NAO reports.

If the Department for Work and Pensions cannot be open with its own auditors – the National Audit Office audits the department’s annual accounts – are the DWP’s most senior officials in the happy position of being accountable to nobody on the Universal Credit IT programme?

The National Audit Office and the committee found the Department for Work and Pensions “selective or even inaccurate” when giving some information to the committee.

In answering some questions, the committee found officials “evasive”.

Today’s PAC report says:

“We remain disappointed by the persistent lack of clarity and evasive responses by the Department to our inquiries, particularly about the extent and impact of delays. The Department’s response to the previous Committee’s recommendations in the February 2015 report Universal Credit: progress update do not convince us that it is committed to improving transparency about the programme’s progress.”

On the basis of the limited information supplied by the DWP to Parliament the committee’s MPs believe that the Universal Credit has stabilised and made progress since the committee first reported on the programme in 2013, but there “remains a long way to go”.

So far the roll-out has largely involved the simplest of cases, and the ineligibility list for potential UC claimants is long.  By 10 December 2015, fewer than 200,000 people were on the DWP’s UC “caseload” list.

The actual number could be far fewer because the exact number recorded by the DWP by 10 December 2015 (175, 505)  does not include people whose claims have terminated because they have become ineligible by for example having capital more than £16,000 or earning more so that their benefits are reduced to zero.

The plan is to have more than seven million on the benefit, and the timetable for completion of the roll-out has stretched from 2017 originally to 2021,  although some independent experts believe the roll-out will not complete before 2023.

Meanwhile the DWP appears to be controlling carefully the information it gives to Parliament on progress. The committee accuses the DWP in today’s report of making it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the department to account. Says the report,

“The programme’s lack of clear and specific milestones creates uncertainty for claimants, advisers, and local authorities, and makes it difficult for Parliament and taxpayers to hold the Department to account.”

These are more excerpts from the report:

“In February 2015 the previous Committee of Public Accounts published Universal Credit: progress update … The Department accepted the Committee’s recommendations.

“However, we felt that the Department’s responses were rather weak and lacked specifics, and we were not convinced that it is committed to ensuring there is real clarity on this important programme’s progress.

“As a result, we recalled both the Department and HM Treasury to discuss a number of issues that concerned us, particularly around the business case, the continuing risks of delay, and the lack of transparency and clear milestones.

“Recommendation: The Department should set out clearly how it is tracking the costs of continuing delays, and who is responsible for ensuring benefits are maximised.

“The Department does not publish accessible information about plans and milestones and we are concerned by the lack of detail in the public domain about its expected progress.

“For proper accountability, this information should be published so that the Committee, the National Audit Office and the general public can be clear about progress…

“… the Department did not acknowledge that the slower roll-out affects two other milestones, because it delays the date when existing claimants start to be moved onto Universal Credit and reduces the number of Universal Credit claimants at the end of 2019.

“The flexible adaptation of milestones to circumstances is sensible, but the Department should be open about when this occurs and what the effects are. Instead, the Department’s continued lack of transparency makes it very difficult for us and the public to understand precisely how its plans are shifting.

“Claimants need to know more than just their benefits will change ‘soon’; local authorities need time to prepare additional support; and advisers need to be able to help people that come to them with concerns…

“Recommendation: By May 2016, the Department should set out and report publicly against a wider set of clearly stated milestones, based on ones it currently uses as internal measures, including plans for different claimant groups, local authority areas and for the development and use of new systems. We have set out the areas we expect these milestones to cover in an appendix to this report…

“The Department was selective or even inaccurate when highlighting the findings of its evaluation to us.”

The DWP has two IT projects to deliver UC, one based on its existing major suppliers delivering systems that integrate the simplest of new claims with legacy IT.

The other and more promising solution is a far cheaper “digital service” that is based on agile principles and is, in effect, entirely new IT that could eventually replace legacy systems. It is on trial in a small number of jobcentres.

The DWP’s slowly slowly approach to roll-out means it is reluctant to publish milestones, and it has reached only an early stage of the business case. The final business case is not expected before 2017 and could be later.

The committee has asked the DWP to be more transparent over the business case. It wants detail on:

  • Projected spending, including both investment and running costs for:
  • Live service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
  • Digital service (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘external supplier costs’)
  • Rest of programme (split between ‘staff and non staff costs’ and ‘External supplier costs’)
  • Net benefits realised versus forecasts.

Meanwhile the DWP’s response to those who criticise the slow roll-out is to give impressive statistics on the number of jobcentres now processing UC claims, without acknowledging that nearly all of them are processing only the simplest of claims.

Comment

To whom is the DWP accountable on the Universal Credit IT programme? To judge from today’s report it is not the all-party Public Accounts Committee or its own auditors the National Audit Office.

No government has been willing to force Whitehall departments to be properly accountable for their major IT-enabled projects or programmes. Sir Humphrey remains in control.

The last government with Francis Maude at the helm at the Cabinet Office came close to introducing real reforms (his campaign began too forcefully but settled into a good strategy of pragmatic compromise) but his departure has meant that open government and greater accountability for central departments have drifted into the shadows.

The DWP is not only beyond the ability of Parliament to hold it accountable it is spending undisclosed of public money sums on an FOI case to stop three ageing reports on the Universal Credit IT programme being published. The reports are nearly four years old.

Would that senior officials at the DWP could begin to understand a connection between openness and Lincoln’s famous phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public Accounts Committee report Universal Credit, progress update

DWP gives out “selective” information on welfare reform even to its auditors (a similar story in 2015)

Department for Work and Pensions “evasive” – Civil Service World (This article is aimed at its readers who are mostly civil servants. It is likely it will find favour with senior DWP IT staff who will probably mostly agree with the Public Accounts Committee’s view that the DWP hierarchy is, perhaps because of culture, evasive and selective with the information it gives to Parliament and the public.)

 

Another fine NHS IT mess

By Tony Collins

Today the National Audit Office reports on the General Practice Extraction Service, an IT system that allows patient data to be extracted from all GP practices in England.

The report says that Department of Health officials – who were then working for the NHS Information Centre – signed off and paid for a contract even though the system was unfit for use. The original business case for the system grossly underestimated costs.

And the system was developed using the highest-risk approach for new IT – a combination of agile principles and traditional fixed-price contract.

Some of the officials involved appear to be those who worked for NHS Connecting for Health – the organisation responsible for what has become the UK’s biggest IT-related failure, the £10bn National Programme for IT (NPfIT).

As with the NPfIT it is unlikely anyone responsible for the latest failure will be held accountable or suffer any damage to their career.

The NAO says officials made mistakes in the original procurement. “Contract management contributed to losses of public funds, through asset write-offs and settlements with suppliers.” More public money is needed to improve or replace the system.

Labour MP Meg Hillier MP, the new chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, sums up today’s NAO’s report:

“Failed government IT projects have long been an expensive cliché and, sadly for the taxpayer and service user, this is no exception.

“The expected cost of the General Practice Extraction Service ballooned from £14m to £40m, with at least £5.5m wasted on write-offs and delay costs.

“GPES has managed to provide data for just one customer – NHS England – and the data was received 4 years later than originally planned.

“While taxpayers are left picking up the tab for this failure, customers who could benefit, such as research and clinical audit organisations, are waiting around for the system to deliver what they need to improve our health service.”

Some GPs who do not want patient data to be extracted from their systems – they believe it could compromise their bond of confidentiality with patients – may be pleased the extraction system has failed to work properly.

But their concern about patient confidentiality being compromised will not make the failure of the extraction service any more palatable.

The NAO says it only learned of the failure of the extraction system through its financial audit of the Health and Social Care Information Centre. It learned that the system was not working as expected and that HSCIC had agreed to pay additional charges through a settlement with one of the main suppliers, Atos IT Services UK Ltd.

An NHS Connecting for Health legacy?

Work on the GP Extraction Service project began in 2007, first by the NHS Information Centre, and then by the HSCIC.

The NHS Information Centre closed in 2013 and responsibility transferred to the HSCIC which combines the Department of Health’s informatics functions – previously known as NHS Connecting for Health or CFH – and the former NHS Information Centre.

What went wrong 

The original business case said the extraction service would start in 2009-10, but it took until April 2014 for HSCIC to provide the first data extract to a customer.

Meanwhile other potential users of the system have found alternative sources of patient data in the absence of the HSCIC system.

The NAO says that officials changed the procurement strategy and technical design for the GPES extraction systems during the project. “This contributed to GPES being unable to provide the planned number and range of data extracts.”

The NHS Information Centre contracted with Atos to develop a tool to manage data extraction. In March 2013, the Centre accepted delivery of this system from Atos.

But officials at the HSCIC who took over the system on 1 April 2013 found that it had fundamental design flaws and did not work. “The system test did not reflect the complexity of a ‘real life’ data extract and was not comprehensive enough to identify these problems”.

To work in a ‘real life’ situation, the GPES query system needed to communicate accurately with the four separate extraction systems and other systems relying on its data.  The test officials and Atos agreed was less complex. It did not examine extractions from multiple extraction systems at once.

Nor did the test assess the complete process of extracting and then passing GPES data to third-party systems.

Fixed price and agile – a bad combination

Officials began procuring the GPES query tool in April 2009, using a fixed-price contractual model with ‘agile’ parts. The supplier and officials would agree some of the detailed needs in workshops, after they signed the contract.

But the NAO says there was already evidence in central government at this time that the contractual approach – combining agile with a fixed price – was high risk.

The NAO’s report “Shared Services in the Research Councils”reviewed how research councils had created a shared service centre, where a similarly structured IT contract failed.

In the report, Fujitsu and the shared service centre told the NAO that: “the fixed-rate contract awarded by the project proved to be unsuitable when the customers’ requirements were still unclear.”

The court case of De Beers vs. Atos Origin highlighted a similar failure.

To make matters worse officials relied too heavily on contractors for development and procurement expertise.  And 10 project managers were responsible for GPES between 2008 and 2013.

Once health officials and Atos had signed the query tool contract, they found it difficult to agree the detailed requirements. This delayed development, with Atos needing to start development work while some requirements had yet to be agreed. Officials and Atos agreed to remove some minor components. Others were built but never used by HSCIC.

A Department of Health Gateway 4 review in December 2012 found that difficulties with deciding requirements were possibly exacerbated by development being offshore.

They raised concerns about the project management approach:

“The GPET-Q [query tool] delivery is being project managed using a traditional ‘waterfall’ methodology. Given the degree of bespoke development required and the difficulties with translation of requirements during the elaboration parts of R1, the Review Team considers that, with hindsight, it might have been beneficial to have adopted an Agile Project Management approach instead.”

General Practice Extraction Service – an investigation. NAO report. 

Latest healthcare IT disaster is a reminder of how vital government digital transformation is.

 

Universal Credit at “amber/red” says latest DWP report

By Tony Collins

The Major Projects Authority, which is part of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group, has today published its annual report on 188 projects including Universal Credit, about which it makes only positive comments.

But the authority’s annual report is, it appears, economical with the actualité. At the same time as the MPA published the report, the Department for Work and Pensions published a spreadsheet with statistics and its own narrative on the state of its major projects including the Universal Credit programme.

The spreadsheet said that the UC programme had an “amber/red” rating – but neither the MPA nor the Department for Work and Pensions has given the MPA’s reasons for the rating.

At the request of permanent secretaries the MPA has agreed not to publish its comments on the traffic light status of certain projects, including Universal Credit. The MPA and the Cabinet Office have agreed to allow officials in each departmental to give their own narrative to explain the traffic light status of their projects.

So the DWP, on its website, gives a summary of the state of its major projects, but its narrative on Universal Credit says nothing about the programme’s problems. Neither is there any of the MPA’s recommendations which related to the “amber/red” rating.

In a further shrinking from openness, the MPA and Cabinet Office have agreed with permanent secretaries that the traffic light status of major projects will be published only when they are out of date. So the “amber/red” rating on Universal Credit, although published today, is dated September 2014.

Comment

It is odd in a modern democracy that a large central government department – the DWP – can spend £330m on the IT for a major project and get away with publishing such obviously contradictory information on the scheme.

On the one hand the MPA, the Cabinet Office and the DWP publish only positive comments about progress on the Universal Credit programme.

These are some of the MPA’s comments on Universal Credit:

“Delivery remains on track against plans announced in September 2014. Additionally the Programme has brought forward testing of initiatives from which the programme can learn including the:

• Continued trialling of Universal Support in partnership areas to ensure the right integrated local foundations are in place to support UC expansion.

• Extending In work progression trials to help households increase their earnings once they have found work. • Extending the role of UC Work Coaches to engage with households at their work search interview to assess financial capability.”

Similarly the DWP’s comments in its spreadsheet on the status of its major projects reads like a government press release. Why was one of the government’s major projects – the whole life project costs of UC are estimated at £15.8bn – given an amber/red status?

We don’t know. Except we know that the MPA gives an amber/red rating when it regards a programme as not on track – a programme that needs an assurance and action plan to improve confidence in delivery. Why is the programme not on track? What does the assurance and action plan say? What is the rating today?

So much for open government. Indeed the DWP’s external lawyers are going to an FOI tribunal in London next month as part of a long legal battle to stop four old reports on Universal Credit being published.

Any ministerial announcements about open government in future should, perhaps, take this unedifying FOI episode into account.

Major Projects Authority annual report 2014/2015

DWP will fight to stop publication of Universal Credit reports whoever wins in May

By Tony Collins

dwpOn 7 July 2004 the Work and Pensions Committee called on the DWP to be “significantly more open about its IT projects”.

Today – 11 years later – the DWP is fighting to stop publication of four reports that would throw light on early problems with the IT work on Universal Credit.

And the DWP has continued to keep secret millions of pounds worth of reports on the progress or otherwise of its big projects, including those that have a major IT element,  Universal Credit in particular.

The Department is preparing for a new one-day hearing as part of its legal efforts – which have lasted two years so far – to stop the four reports on Universal Credit being published under the FOI Act.

A first-tier tribunal judge in March 2014 ordered the DWP to publish the reports. The following month the same judge refused the DWP leave to appeal, but the DWP’s external lawyers appealed to an upper tribunal for leave to appeal.

Now a judge has ordered a new one-day hearing in London, at a date yet to be set.

While the appeals continue the DWP does not have to publish the reports. In the light of this, DWP officials plan to continue their legal fight to stop publication of the reports, irrespective of who wins the election next month.

Indeed the case could go on for years. That legal costs for taxpayers are mounting seems no deterrent to the Department’s officials.

The four reports are already dated – they go back to 2012. The reports are the risks register, issues register, milestone schedule and project assessment review. All are about the Universal Credit programme.

John Slater, a programme and project management professional, requested three of the reports under FOI. I requested the project assessment review. 

Lamentable

Little has changed – the DWP has remained defensive and secretive – since 2004 when the Work and Pensions Committee said in its weighty report “Department for Work and Pensions Management of Information Technology Projects: Making IT deliver for DWP Customers”:

“The record on IT by DWP and its predecessor the Department of Social Security, has been lamentable …”

The report referred to the DWP’s habit of setting “unrealistic deadlines” on big projects, a problem that years later hit Universal Credit.

The Committee in 2004 added that the DWP was keeping reports secret to avoid embarrassment:

“We felt that on occasions the secretive approach adopted by the Department and the Government … had little to do with commercial confidentiality and more to do with departments using it as an excuse to withhold information that rightly belonged in the public domain, but which might embarrass the Department if released publicly.

“In our view the lack of Parliamentary accountability is part of the reason for the relatively high number of defective IT projects.”

The secrecy is not the fault of the DWP’s major suppliers -who include IBM, HP, Accenture, BT and Fujitsu. The Work and Pensions Committee said:

“During our enquiry, we were struck by how open IT suppliers seemed prepared to be in contrast with the tendency of officials to invoke commercial confidentiality.”

universal creditIn an echo of the Work and Pensions Committee’s 2004 report, the Public Accounts Committee said in February 2015, in its report: Universal Credit: progress update:

“… a lack of openness remains within the Department, as does an unwillingness to face up to past failings.

“The Department refused to accept the extent of previous failings, despite the overwhelming evidence we heard last year that the programme’s management had been extraordinarily poor prior to the reset, and the small numbers claiming Universal Credit.

“Furthermore, since early 2012, the Department has been fighting a protracted legal case to prevent the publication of documents relating to the management of Universal Credit…”

Ministers powerless?

Ministers have so far been unable to persuade civil servants to publish contemporaneous reports on the government’s big IT-enabled projects and programmes.

Francis Maude came to power in 2010 expecting to publish “Gateway” reviews on IT schemes but senior civil servants refused, arguing in part that publication would have a “chilling effect” on those writing and researching the reports.

Maude gave up on trying to get the reports published but gained reluctant agreement from permanent secretaries to publishing the traffic light status of large projects – but only after these assessments have lost their topicality in the form of a six-month time lag.

FOI campaigners say there are several reasons senior civil servants do not want reports on big IT-based projects, including Universal Credit, published.

The main reason, they say, is tradition: departments have always kept secret their internal independent reports on the progress or otherwise of major schemes.

Another reason is that officials do not always implement the reports’ recommendations. If nobody outside a department’s inner circle knows what a report’s recommendations or findings are, will it matter if they go unimplemented?

A further reason is that disclosure of the reports may cause embarrassment by confirming that a department’s ministers and officials have been economical with the truth – giving Parliament and the media the wrong impression about a project’s successful progress.

Lucrative

Another reason for keeping the reports secret may be that it enables civil servants and consultants who write the reports to be kind – perhaps even deferential – to their Whitehall colleagues by producing positive reports on projects that may later go awry.

Writing and researching the reports can be lucrative work. They are sometimes worth £1,000 a day to some consultants. A positive report with comfortable conclusions is more likely to bring further commissions than a generally negative one.

Indeed an upper tribunal judge Edward Jacobs, in a ruling on the case of the four reports, hinted that they were so positive even a hostile press would be pressed to find things to criticise.

Jacobs said that if he grants a rehearing of the case it is possible that the new tribunal “will need to consider that some of the contents (of the four reports) could hardly be presented badly even in the most hostile media coverage”.

Why disclosure is important

Officials working on Universal Credit have repeated mistakes of the past: setting unrealistic deadlines, underestimating complexity and not being open about project problems – even internally: their minister, Iain Duncan Smith, to get the unvarnished truth, had to set up his own “red team” reviews to bypass civil servants who had been giving him information.

As John Slater has pointed out, the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham made an important statement on the need for openness:

“… Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.

“The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions. It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated.

“Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice. Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public.

Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant. Where abuses are exposed, they can be remedied. Even where abuses have already been remedied, the public may be entitled to know that they occurred.

Comment

The DWP’s culture of secrecy seems to overwhelm all new ministers who go along with it because they cannot run such a huge and complex department without the full support of their officials.

That’s perhaps why officials, on the matter of openness on IT projects, need never take seriously criticisms by the Information Commissioner, the Public Accounts Committee or the Work and Pensions Committee.

If officials have taken little notice of MPs for more than a decade, why should they start behaving differently under a new government?

The taxpayer suffers in the end. The DWP’s lamentable record on running major IT-based projects will probably continue, with huge financial losses and without accountability, while money continues to be poured into fighting pointless FOI legal battles.

It seems unlikely – and indeed would set a precedent – but perhaps a new set of ministers at the DWP will dare to try and change the culture.

 

 

A great speech in praise of the Public Accounts Committee

By Tony Collins

Margaret Hodge spoke incisively this week about her five years as chairman of the 160 year-old Public Accounts Committee.

It’s assumed that civil servants answer to ministers who are then accountable to Parliament when things go wrong. Hodge mentioned failed IT projects several times.

But she painted a picture of senior officialdom as a force independent and sometimes opposed to Parliament. She said some senior officials had a “fundamental lack of respect for Parliament”. She had come up against an opposition that was “akin to a freemasonry”.

She said:

“With accountability comes responsibility. I can’t think how often we ask whether those responsible for dreadfully poor implementation are held to account for their failures.

“It rarely happens. People rarely lose their job. Those responsible for monumental failures all too often show up again in another lucrative job paid for by the taxpayer…”

Some excerpts from Hodge’s “Speaker’s Lecture” are worth quoting at length …

“… I have been truly shocked by the extent of the waste we have encountered. This is not a party political point. It’s not that this Conservative- Lib-Dem Coalition is worse or better than the previous Labour Government.

“It’s not that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector.

“It’s not about questioning the dedication of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers wanting to do their best… for me personally, sitting on the left of the political spectrum, I passionately believe in the power of public spending and public services to transform and equalise life chances.

“Yet if I am to ask other people to give up their money so that we can use it to secure greater equality, then I must earn their trust that I will use that money well.

“From £700m which I believe is likely to be written off with the botched attempt to introduce a politically uncontroversial benefit change with Universal Credit, to £1.6bn extra cost incurred by the previous Government in signing the contract for the Aircraft Carriers without any money in the Defence budget and then delaying its implementation; from the failure of successive Governments to tackle the many billions lost through fraud and error or IT investment, to the inability of successive Governments to deport foreign nationals who have committed crimes and ended up in our prisons, the failures are too many, they occur too often and they occur with persistent and unbroken regularity.”

Media shuns “good news” stories

“Of course we do things well. I think of recent positive reports on the Troubled Families programme, the Prison buildings programme or the implementation of the Crossrail contract. And trying to get proper recognition of these successes is well-nigh impossible. …

“I remember being rung up by a researcher on the Today programme who wanted me to go on to speak about education for 16-18 year olds. She asked what I would be minded to say and I told her that it was a good report and I would be complimentary. ‘I thought you would be critical’ she responded. No it’s a positive report I replied. Well, she said, I’d better go away and read it, She  rang me half an hour later to tell me they had dropped the item from the programme.

“But despite acknowledging the good things that are done, I remain frustrated and angry at so much wasted expenditure and poor value for money.”

Grandstanding

“… If we do want to ensure public attention is drawn to something, it may involve the occasional bit of grandstanding. I don’t apologise for that, for I have very few tools available which I can use to get purchase and have an impact.

“If a bit of grandstanding is the only way to stop something happening again and again, we will use it – with big corporations, top civil servants and any establishment figure whom we believe has a case to answer…”

PAC versus a civil service freemasonry?

“I received a letter from the departing Cabinet Secretary which was widely circulated around Whitehall and to officials of the House accusing the Committee of treating officials unfairly and reminding me that civil servants are bound by duties of honesty and integrity and therefore should only be asked to give evidence on oath as ‘an extremely unusual step’.

“Then a researcher from the Institute of Government came to see me, armed with a report of interviews she had undertaken with senior civil servants. She was just the messenger, but her message from senior civil servants was blunt. I quote:

‘The NAO/PAC are modeled on the red guards – not a convincing grown up model of Government… the chair is an abysmal failure… the worst chair I have ever seen….. MH is informed by friends in the media… PAC profile is seen to be bashing senior officials and determined to get media soundbites.’ ‘It is under appreciated how important dull committees are.’

And then the final shot…  ‘Should the PAC be broken up?’

“Basically, the explicit threat relayed to me was that if we did not change how we held civil servants to account, we would be closed down. Shut up or we’ll shut you down.

“The story sounds like something from Yes Minister, but more seriously demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for Parliament that I find deeply worrying.

‘How dare you MPs touch us’ was what they were saying. It felt like we were up against something akin to a freemasonry.

“Now that was January 2012 and things have moved on… but have they?

Civil servants unaccountable?

“The sad truth is that in that struggle between civil servants and politicians, the civil servants are most likely to win, because whereas we are here today and gone tomorrow, they are there for the long term.

“There remains a deep reluctance among too many senior civil servants to be accountable to Parliament and through us, to the public. The senior civil servants hide behind the traditional convention that civil servants are accountable to ministers who in turn are accountable to Parliament.

“That principle worked when it was first invented by Haldane after the First World War and the Home Secretary worked with just 28 civil servants in the Home Office. Today there are over 26,000.

“It worked when the public did not demand transparency. Today they do.

“It worked when public spending was primarily funneled through large departments running large contracts. In today’s world with a plethora of autonomous health trusts and academy schools, in a world where  private providers are providing public services in a range of fragmented contracts, delivering everything from welfare to work, healthcare and now probation services, in today’s world the old accountability framework with the minister being responsible for everything is plainly a nonsense.

“And whilst we, of course, want to maintain an impartial civil service, that is not inconsistent with the need to modernize accountability to Parliament and the public.

“There is a fundamental problem at the heart of the traditional accountability system. How can civil servants be accountable to ministers if the ministers do not have the power to hire and fire them?

“It is the accountability framework that is broke and in need of reform – not the Public Accounts Committee…

Need for reform

“The promise to reform the Civil Service has produced a few welcome changes, like a Major Projects Academy to train people to manage big projects, but the change has been too little, too piecemeal and too marginal, not fundamental.

“We just need to build different skills and do it, not talk about it.

“We may need to pay more so that working in and staying in the public sector becomes a more attractive proposition for more talented people. Trumpeting success in keeping public sector salaries down is not sensible if you end up wasting money or hiring in expensive consultants to clear up the mess or do the work for you.

“We need to transform the way people get promoted. At the moment, you’re a success if you leave your post after two years in the job and move on.

“When I was Children’s Minister, after two years I had a better institutional memory than any of the civil servants with whom I was working.

“And when the PAC reviewed the Fire Control Programme, which aimed at reducing costs by rationalising how 999 calls were dealt with, but ended up costing nearly £1/2 bn when it was written off as a failure; we found that there had been 10 different responsible officers in charge of the project over a five year period.

“I know some projects take longer than the Second World War, but continuity of responsibility is critical to securing better value.

Centre of government “not fit for purpose”

“It is also clear to me that the way the centre of Government works is not fit for purpose. We have three departments Treasury, Cabinet Office and Number 10 all competing for power, rather than working together.

“And all of them seem to be completely unable to use their power to drive better value.  Treasury carves up the money and then does little to ensure it is spent wisely.

“They only worry whether the departments keep within their totals. This is not a proper modern finance function at the heart of Government that you would see in any other complex organisation.

“So, for instance we all know that early action saves money, be it in health, education, welfare spending or the criminal justice system. Treasury knows this too, but they are doing nothing to force a change in the way money is spent.”

Lessons unlearnt

“There is little learning across Government. The mistakes in the early PFI contracts are being repeated in the energy contracts negotiated by DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change]…

“Nobody at the centre seems to think through the impact of decisions in one area on another. So of course cuts in local authority spending, where nearly 40% of their money goes on community care services, will impact on hospitals and bed blocking.”

“Too much thinking is short-term.  PFI, to which the current Government is as wedded as past governments, is building up a huge bill for future generations; assets worth £30bn today will cost £151bn over time. And using PFI locks us into ways of delivering services which quickly become outdated – like large district hospitals when we now want to care for people outside hospitals in the community.”

Price of fish 

“None of this is rocket science. So why doesn’t change happen? Why is there such resistance? Radically transforming the culture must be at the heart of securing better value.

“If the machinery of Government is so resistant, we need to take that challenge outside party politics. Only by working together across parties and over time will we be able to secure the culture, capability and organisation that we all need to deliver on our different political priorities.

“When I first took this job I read the IPPR study which said that whilst officials dreaded their appearance before the Public Accounts Committee, they were confident that it would never ‘change the price of fish’.

“I am determined to change the price of fish.

That is why we have instituted new ways. We now have regular recall sessions, calling back people to tell us why they haven’t accepted our recommendations, or why they haven’t implemented them. We bring back people after they have moved jobs to hold them to account for what they did in post.

“That caused a minor revolution when we first did it. I wanted Helen Gosch, who had moved from DEFRA to the Home Office to come back and account for the mess she had made administering the rural payments agency, paying farmers late, paying them the wrong amounts and having to send money back to Brussels because of the errors. She refused our invitation and only caved in when I ordered her to appear.”

More protection for whistleblowers please

“We try to use our analysis of past expenditure to improve spending in the future; understanding problems with past rail investment can help improve the delivery of future projects. We take regular evidence on the big change programmes, like Universal Credit or the Probation service.

“And I take seriously the material I get from whistleblowers. My time on the PAC has strengthened my respect for whistleblowers. Without them, we would have been less effective on tax avoidance and on the performance of private companies receiving taxpayer’s money to deliver public services.

“A major regret for me is that I was unable to prevent the treatment meted out to Osita Mba by HMRC. He was the official who sent us the documents on the Goldman Sachs affair. The department used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, designed to get terrorists, to get into not just his emails and phone calls, but into his wife’s phone records. In the end he couldn’t stand it any more and quit HMRC. We clearly need to do more to protect whistleblowers.”

Investigative journalism

“I am also probably one of very few MPs who has a good word to say about journalists. From  eye Eye to the Times and from the Guardian to Reuters, their fantastic investigative work (when they do it properly) has helped us uncover abuse, malpractice and waste in a way we just couldn’t have done without them.

“For despite the excellent work produced by the National Audit Office, they are constitutionally separate from and different to the Parliamentary Committee. So we need our independent sources of help.”

My goal

“Unlike our American counterparts, who have 120 staff working to their committee, 80 working for the majority party and 40 for the minority party, we have a small committee staff who focus purely on process.

“If select committees are to increase their effectiveness they need to be better resourced. It’s partly about people, although I would hate to mirror our American colleagues because their system is very much more partisan.

“But it is also absurd that when we wanted to hold an international conference on tax avoidance we were told we had no money. It is just plain wrong that when we wanted to test whether a parliamentary committee should have access to company tax files to hold HMRC properly to account, we were unable to fund legal advice to support our case that HMRC should be accountable to us.

“Both the NAO and HMRC paid for expensive legal advice to oppose us. We had no money to secure our own advice.

“Select committees should have clear statutory powers to call for all papers and people to help them hold the Executive to account. We still don’t know whether Vodafone should have paid £6bn or £2bn with an interest free staging of the payments when they settled their tax bill with the Revenue. We should know and you should too…

“Reflecting on what I have said may leave you thinking everything is wrong. I know that there are many brilliant public sector workers and many stunning public services.

“Inevitably our work focuses on the problems and the challenges. But I come at it with a determination to seek and secure improvements. Because I care about public service and because I passionately believe in the power of public services to transform people’s life chances and to create greater equality in our society. That is my goal.”

Comment

One of the striking things about the PAC is the way it leaves crude tribal party politics at the door. That’s one of the reasons it’s quietly disliked by some senior officials: they cannot condemn the committee’s partisanship. It produces 60 unanimous reports a year. But do they make any difference?

One irony is that senior officials cite the PAC as a key Parliamentary device holding them to account. They lasso and rope in the PAC for their own purpose.

The work of the PAC in holding the civil service to account is cited by lawyers for the Department for Work and Pensions in repeatedly refusing to release four old Universal Credit documents.

In reality the PAC does not make much difference to the way Whitehall departments are run. But waste would probably be much greater if it didn’t exist.

What’s not in doubt is that Hodge is a great chairman of the PAC. If anyone can change the price of fish she will.

Governup

HMRC seeks smaller IT contracts – a big risk, but worth taking?

By Tony Collins

Public Accounts Committee MPs today criticise HM Revenue and Customs for not preparing well or quickly enough for a planned switch from one main long-term IT contract to a new model of many short-duration contracts with multiple suppliers.

It’s a big and risky change in IT strategy for HMRC that could put the safe collection of the nation’s taxes at risk, say the MPs in a report “Managing and replacing the Aspire contract”.

But the Committee doesn’t much consider the benefits of switching from one large contract to smaller ones, potentially with SMEs.

Is the risk of breaking up the huge “Aspire” contract with Capgemini, and its subcontractors Fujitsu and Accenture, worth taking?

Suppliers “outmanoeuvre” HMRC

The PAC’s report makes some important points. It says that HMRC has been “outmanoeuvred by suppliers at key moments in the Aspire contract, hindering its ability to get long term value for money”.

The costs of the Aspire deal have soared, in part because of extra work. Before it merged with Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue spent about £200m a year on its IT outsourcing contract with EDS, now HP.  Customs and Excise’s contract with Fujitsu cost about £100m a year.

After the Revenue and Customs merged, and a new deal was signed with Capgemini, the money spent on IT services soared to about £800m a year – arguably out of control.

HM Revenue and Customs spent £7.9bn on the Aspire contract from July 2004 to March 2014, giving a combined profit to Capgemini and Fujitsu of £1.2bn, equal to 16% of the contract value paid to these suppliers.

HMRC considers the contract to have been expensive,  and pressure to find cost savings in the short-term led it to trade away important value for money controls, says the PAC report.

“For example, in a series of disastrous concessions, HMRC  conceded its rights to withdraw activities from Aspire, to benchmark the contract prices against the market to determine whether they were reasonable,” says the report.

“It also gave up  its right to share in any excess profits. In 2007, HMRC negotiated a three-year  extension to the Aspire contract just three years after the contract was let, extending the end of the contract from 2014 to 2017.

“The Department has still not renegotiated the terms of the contract in line with a memorandum of agreement it signed in 2012 designed to separate Capgemini’s role in service provision from its role as service integrator and introduce more competition.”

Big or small IT suppliers?

The Aspire contract between HMRC and Capgemini is the government’s largest
technology contract.  It accounts for for 84% of HMRC’s total spend on ICT.

Today’s report says that Aspire has delivered certainty and continuity over the past decade but HMRC now plans a change in IT strategy in line with the Cabinet Office’s plan to break up monopolistic contracts.

In 2010, the Cabinet Office announced that long-term contracts with one main supplier do not deliver optimal levels of innovation, value for money or pace of change.

In 2014, it announced new rules to limit the value, length and structure of ICT contracts. No contract should exceed £100m and no single supplier should provide both services and systems integration to the same area of government. Existing contracts should not be extended without a compelling case.

The Cabinet Office says that smaller contracts should allow many more companies to bid, including SMEs, and provide an increase in competition.

HMRC agrees. So it doesn’t plan to appoint a single main supplier when Aspire expires in 2017.  But PAC members are worried that the switch to smaller contracts could jeopardize the collection of taxes. Says the PAC report:

“HMRC has made little progress in defining its needs and has still not presented a business case to government. Once funding is agreed, it will have only two years to recruit the skills and procure the services it will need.

“Moreover, HMRC’s record in managing the Aspire contract and other IT contractors gives us little confidence that HMRC can successfully achieve this transition or that it can manage the proposed model effectively to maximise value for money.

“HMRC also demonstrates little appreciation of the scale of the challenge it faces or the substantial risks to tax collection if the transition fails. Failure to collect taxes efficiently would create havoc with the public finances.”

The PAC recommends that HMRC “move quickly to develop a coherent business case, setting out the commercial and operational model it intends to put in place to replace the Aspire contract. This should include a robust transition plan and budget”.

Richard Bacon, a long-standing member of the PAC, said HMRC has yet to produce a detailed business case for the change in IT strategy.

“HMRC faces an enormous challenge in moving to a new contracting model by 2017, with many short-duration contracts with multiple suppliers, and appears complacent given the scale of the transformation required.

“Moreover, HMRC’s record in managing IT contractors gives us little confidence that HMRC can successfully achieve this transition or that it can manage the proposed model effectively to maximise value for money.”

Comment

The PAC has a duty to express its concerns. HMRC needs stable and proven systems to do its main job of collecting taxes. A switch from a single, safe contract with a big supplier to multiple, smaller contracts could be destablizing.

But it needn’t be. The Department for Work and Pensions is making huge IT – and organisational – changes in bringing in Universal Credit. That is a high-risk programme. And at one time it was badly managed, according to the National Audit Office. But the gradual introduction of new systems hasn’t hit the stability of payments to existing DWP claimants.

This is, perhaps,  because the DWP is doing 4 things at once: running existing benefit systems, building something entirely new (the so-called digital service), introducing hybrid legacy/new systems to pay some new claimants Universal Credit, and is asking its staff to do some things manually to calculate UC payments. Expensive – but safe.

The DWP’s mostly vulnerable claimants should continue to be paid whatever happens with the new IT. So the risks of major change within the department are financial. The DWP has written off tens of millions of pounds on the UC programme so far, says the NAO. Many more tens of millions may yet be wasted.

But many regard the risks as worth taking to simplify the benefits system. It could work out a lot cheaper in the end.

At HMRC the potential benefits of a major change in IT strategy are enormous too. Billions more than expected has already been spent on having one main supplier tied into the long-term Aspire contract (13 years).  Isn’t it worth spending a few tens of millions extra running parallel processes and systems during the transition from Aspire to smaller multiple contracts?

It could end up costing much less in the end. And running parallel new and existing systems and processes should ensure the safe collection of taxes.

If government departments are not prepared to take risks they’ll never change – and monolithic contracts and out-of-control costs will continue. Is there anything more risky than for HMRC to stay as it is, locked into Aspire, or a similar long-term commitment?

HMRC not ready to replace £10bn Aspire contract, MPs warn – Computerworld

Taxpayers face havoc from HMRC computer changes – Telegraph