Category Archives: IT projects

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

Universal Credit project costs reach £36,222 per claimant (excluding the claim)

By Tony Collins

Iain Duncan Smith has told MPs that the costs of the Universal Credit project are £652m to March 2014 – which is about £36,222 per successful claimant.

The figure includes the money paid to the DWP’s Universal Credit IT suppliers which was £303m by the end of 2012/13.  An updated figure will be published in a UC report by the National Audit Office due to be published near the end of this month.

The costs of Universal Credit per successful claimant are disproportionately high for an IT-enabled programme that has been running for more than three years because numbers on the system are small.

If the UC programme were complete, at a forecast cost of £1.8bn, and the predicted 7.7 million people were receiving the benefit, the scheme’s delivery costs per claimant would be only about £234.

As at October 2014 17,850 people were on the Universal Credit caseload.  IDS told the Work and Pensions Committee on 5 November, in a hearing that lasted more than 2 hours,  that the costs of UC were £652m by March 2014.

That works out at about £36, 222 per successful UC claimant.

Total delivery costs for the programme are expected to be £1.8bn, down from an original prediction of £2.4bn, IDS told the committee.

IDS and the DWP hope many more successful claimants will be added to the systems next year when Universal Credit is rolled out to all jobcentres and local authorities across the country. But the scheme is subject to growing uncertainties, as the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux and IDS made clear to the committee.

DWP drops firm end date for UC

When an MP put it to IDS that he no longer has a concrete end date for when  7.7 million people will be on UC, he paused. Then he said the plan was for UC to be complete “by the end of 2018”. He gave no commitment and did not deny that there is no concrete end date.

“Er yes, yeah,” replied IDS. “We do envisage UC being complete by the end of 2018. That’s our plan.”  He said that UC would handle singles, couples, then families. In the meantime the DWP is developing an “end-state digital process” that will deliver benefits for claimants and the departments.

“The roll-out gives us phenomenal understanding of what we need to do to make sure the digital service ultimately comes in and completes that process properly. There is a de-risking of the process.”

UC may never be fully automated

Another uncertainty for UC is its ability to handle an estimated 1.6 million changes per month to people’s claims.

Changes in circumstances are handled manually at present.

Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the DWP, told the committee that the UC systems are, for some claimants,  part manual, part automated. Devereux said:

“The peculiar nooks and crannies with individual circumstances  – we have deliberately not tried to code every permutation as we go along. We are trying to make sure it can be safely delivered within costs in a sensible fashion.

“It would not be sensible to code every possible permutation back at the start while you are still learning.  There are different elements of the system, some of which will be [digital] all the way through, some which are not.”

The committee chair Dame Anne Begg questioned whether UC will ever work effectively if manual processing is applied to some of the 7.7 million claimants. She received no clear answer.

Comment

It’s a good thing that the DWP is going slowly and cautiously but a spend of £652m to March 2014 per UC recipient does not seem cautious at all. If the project is being run on agile principles of fail early and fail cheaply, can this sum be justified?

On a more positive note IDS has stopped quoting a firm end date for UC. At first the DWP was saying UC would be completed by the end of 2017, then IDS said the programme would be “essentially complete” by the end of 2017.  Now he is saying it may be complete by the end of 2018 but is giving no commitment. His caution is probably because the NAO’s update on UC later this month will suggest that the programme is unlikely to be delivered in any certain time period. Nobody can say with authority or credibility when UC’s implementation will be complete.

It’s also a good thing that the DWP is conceding that UC can never be fully automated. It doesn’t make sense spending disproportionate sums on automating calculations that can be done more cheaply by hand.  But if the exceptions prove the rule UC could prove much more expensive to implement than planned.

UC is a good idea in theory but the next government needs to do a full review of its financial and practical feasibility, which the present government is unlikely to do.

Universal Credit could be complete by 2018 – Government Computing

DWP’s advert for a £180k IT head – what it doesn’t say

By Tony Collins

Soon the Department for Work and Pensions will choose a Director General, Technology.  Interviewing has finished and an offer is due to go out to the chosen candidate any day now.

The appointee will not replace Howard Shiplee who runs Universal Credit but has been ill for some months. The DWP is looking for Shiplee’s successor as a separate exercise to the recruitment of the DG Technology.

In its job advert for a DG Technology the DWP seeks a “commercial CIO/CTO to become one of the most senior change agents in the UK government”.

The size of the salary – around £180k plus “attractive pension” – suggests that the DWP is looking for a powerful, inspiring and reforming figure. The DWP’s IT makes 730 million payments to a value of 166bn a year.

In practice it is not clear how much power and influence the DG will have, given that there will be a separate head of Universal Credit (Shiplee’s successor) and there is already in place a Director General for Digital Transformation Kevin Cunnington.

What’s a DG Technology to do then?

The job advert suggests the job is about bringing about “unprecedented” change.  It says:

“The department is undergoing major business change, which has at its heart a technology and digital transformation of the services it provides, which will radically improve how it interacts with citizens.”

The role, says the advert, involves:

  • “Designing, developing and delivering the technology strategy that will enable unprecedented business change.”
  • “… Reducing the time to taken to develop new services and cutting the cost of delivery.”

The chosen person needs “a clear record of success in enabling the delivery of service driven, user focused, digital business transformation,” says the advert.

What the DWP doesn’t say

If DWP officials took a truth pill when interviewing candidates they might have said:

  • “No department talks more about change than we do. We regularly commission reports on the need for transformation and how to achieve it. We issue press releases and give briefings on our plans for change.  We write  ministerial speeches on it. We employ talented people to whom innovation and productive change comes naturally. The only thing we don’t do is actually change. It remains an aspiration.
  • “We remain one of the biggest VME sites in the world (VME being a Fujitsu – formerly ICL – operating system that dates back to the 1970s). VME skills are in ever shorter supply and it’s increasingly costly to employ VME specialists but changing our core software is too risky; and there is no commercial imperative to change: it’s not private money we’re spending.  We’ve a £1bn a year IT budget – one of the biggest of any government department in the world.
  • DWP core VME systems run an old supplier-specific form of COBOL used on VME, not an industry standard form.
  • We’ve identified ways of moving away from VME: we have shown that VME-based IDMSX databases can be transitioned to commodity database systems, and that the COBOL code can be converted to Java and then run on open source application servers. Still we can’t move away from VME, not within the foreseeable future. Too risky.
  • We’d love the new DG Technology to work on change, transformation and innovation but he/she will be required for fire-fighting.
  • It’s a particularly difficult time for the DWP. We are alleged to have given what the Public Accounts Committee calls an unacceptable service to the disabled, the terminally ill and many others who have submitted claims for personal independence payments. We are also struggling to cope with Employment and Support Allowance claims. One claimant has told the BBC the DWP is “not fit for purpose”.
  •  The National Audit Office will publish an unhelpful report on Universal Credit this Autumn. We’ll regard the report as out-of-date, as we do all negative NAO reports. We will say publicly that we have already implemented its recommendations and we’ll pick out the one or two positive sentences in the report to summarise it. But nobody will believe our story, least of all us.
  • If we could, we’d appoint a representative of our major suppliers to be the head of IT.  HP, Fujitsu, Accenture, IBM and BT have a knowledge of how to run the DWP’s systems that goes back decades. The suppliers are happily entrenched, indispensable. That they know more about our IT than we do puts into context talk of SMEs taking over from the big players.
  • One reason we avoid major change is that we are not good at it: Universal Credit (known internally as Universal Challenge), the £2.6bn Operational Strategy benefit scheme that Parliament was told would cost no more than £713m, the £141m  (aborted) Benefit Processing Replacement Programme, Camelot which was the (aborted) Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks,  and the (aborted)) Debt Accounting and Management System. Not to mention the (aborted) £25m Analytical Services Statistical Information System.
  • They’re the failures we know about. We don’t have to account to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of our big projects, and we’re particularly secretive internally, so there may be project failures not even senior management know about.
  • We require cultural alignment of all the DWP’s most senior civil servants. This means the chosen candidate must – and without exception – defend the department against all poorly-informed critics who may include our own ministers.
  • The Cabinet Office has some well-meaning reformers we want nothing to do with. That said, our policy is to agree to change and then absorb the required actions, like the acoustic baffles on the walls of a soundproofed studio.

 

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agile success?

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

So what’s needed?

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

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

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

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

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

Labour promises new NAO inquiry into Universal Credit project if elected

By Tony Collins

“All our [Universal Credit] IT at the moment is working and it’s working well, which is why we’ve taken the decision to roll it out to the whole of the North West,” said Iain Duncan Smith on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics programme at the weekend.

But IDS is not publishing any of the Department for Work and Pensions’ reports on Universal Credit  IT, such as the project assessment reviews, risk registers or issues registers, so it’s difficult to verify independently his assurances that the IT is working well.

Labour, meanwhile, has promised, if it wins the 2015 election,  a new National Audit Office inquiry into Universal Credit.

In an interview with BBC One’s Sunday Politics programme, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said:

“We set up a universal credit rescue committee in the autumn of last year because we had seen, from the National Audit Office [and] from the Public Accounts Committee, report after report showing that this project is …not going to be delivered according to the government timetable.

“We believe in the principle of universal credit, we think it is the right thing to do.”

Reeves criticised ministers for not being open about what had gone wrong with the project. “There is no transparency,” she said. “It’s going to cost £12.8bn to deliver and we don’t know what sort of state it is in.

“So we have said that if we win the next election we will pause… the build of the system for three months, calling in the National Audit Office to do a warts-and-all report on it.”

She said the “pause” would not involve halting the pilot schemes that were already in place. She urged coalition ministers to follow her prescription immediately.

“The government doesn’t need to wait for the next election,” she said. “They could do this today: call in the National Audit Office … and finally get a grip on this incredibly important programme.”

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced the roll-out of UC to all job centres in the north west by the end of this year but the IT will handle only the simplest of cases and some of these involve clerical intervention.

Integration with back-office systems is handled manually, and claims from couples or those with dependents are still not allowed.

The DWP said last month that the IT would be handle claims from couples starting this summer but this now seems unlikely.

UC claimants for the time being must be single, without children, newly claiming a benefit, fit for work, not claiming disability benefits, not have caring responsibilities, not be homeless or in temporary accommodation, and have a valid bank account and National Insurance number.

The National Audit Office in a report on UC last September questioned whether the IT will work for the millions of people whose claims are complicated.

Comment

Labour’s promise of an NAO investigation if it wins power – and its suggestion that the NAO publish an update to its September 2013 report on UC before the next election – are welcome.

Probably the last thing IDS wants at the moment is an up-to-date report by the NAO on Universal Credit. At present IDS and the Department for Work and Pensions can say without fear of authoritative contradiction that the IT is working well.  An NAO update would show whether that assurance is optimistic.

Labour if it wins the election cannot force the NAO to investigate the UC project. No political party instruct the NAO to investigate anything.  The NAO is independent of government and decides what to investigate, often in conjunction with the cross-party Public Accounts Committee.

It’s likely, however, that the NAO would agree to publish a new report on the UC project if Labour wins the next election.

Whoever wins the NAO will publish a new report on UC – it is already monitoring the programme – but is likely to do so sooner if Labour wins.

IDS could still win much credibility for the DWP and himself by deciding to publish the UC project assessment reviews, risk registers, issues registers and high-level milestone schedules.

Universal Credit creeps into north west 

 

How well is new passport IT coping with high demand?

By T0ny Collins

In 1989 when the Passport Agency introduced new systems avoidable chaos ensued. A decade later, in 1999, officials introduced a new passport system and avoidable chaos ensued. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, apologised to the House of Commons.

Last year HM Passport Office introduced, after delays,  a replacement passport system, the Application Management System. It was built with the help of the Passport Office’s main IT supplier CSC under a 10-year £385m contract awarded in 2009.

The Passport Office said at the time the new system was designed “to be easier to use and enable cases to be examined more efficiently”. So how well is the system coping with unusually high demand, given that an objective was to help passport staff deal with applications more efficiently?

The answer is that we don’t know: open government has yet to reach HM Passport Office. It publishes no regular updates on how well it is performing, how many passports it is processing each month or how long it is taking on average to process them. It has published no information on the performance of the Application Management System or how much it has cost.

All we know is that the system was due to be rolled out in 2012 but concerns about how well it would perform after go-live led to the roll-out being delayed a year. In the past 18 months it has been fully rolled out.

Comment

Has there been a repeat of the IT problems that seriously delayed the processing of applications in 1989 and 1999? In both years, passport officials had inadequate contingency arrangements to cope with a surge in demand, according to National Audit Office reports.

Clearly the same thing has happened for a third time: there have been inadequate contingency arrangements to cope with an unexpectedly high surge in demand.

How is it the passport office can repeatedly build up excessive backlogs without telling anyone? One answer is that there is a structural secrecy about internal performance.

Despite attempts by Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office to make departments and agencies more open about their performance, the Passport Office is more secretive than ever.

It appears that even the Home Secretary Theresa May was kept in the dark about the latest backlogs.  She gave reassuring statistics to the House of Commons about passport applications being processed on time – and only days later conceded there were backlogs.

It’s a familiar story: administrative problems in a government agency are denied until the truth can be hidden no longer because of the number of constituents who are contacting their MPs.

David Cameron said this week that up to 30,000 passport applications may be delayed.

One man who contacted the BBC said he had applied for a passport 7 weeks before he was due to travel. The passport office website said he should get a new passport in 3 weeks. When it had not arrived after 6 weeks he called the passport office and was told he’d be called back within 48 hours. He wasn’t, so he called again and was told the same thing. In the end he lost his holiday.

In 1989 the IT-related disaster was avoidable because managers continued a roll-out even though tests at the Glasgow office had shown it was taking longer to process passport applications on computers than clerically. Backlogs built up and deteriorating relations with staff culminated in industrial action

In 1999 electronic scanning of passport applications and added security checks imposed by the new systems caused delays and lowered productivity.  Even so a national roll-out continued. Contingency plans were inadequate, said the National Audit Office.

Does the “new” Application Management System show down processing of applications? We don’t know. The Passport Office is keeping its 2014 statistics to itself.

Decades of observing failures in government administration have taught me that chaos always seems to take officialdom by surprise.

If departments and agencies had to account publicly for their performance on a monthly and not just an annual basis, the public, MPs, ministers and officials themselves, would know when chaos is looming. But openness won’t happen unless the culture of the Passport Office changes.

For the time being its preoccupation seems to be finding whoever published photos of masses of files of passport applications seemingly awaiting processing.

The taking and publication of the photos seems to be regarded as a greater crime than the backlogs themselves.  To discourage such leaks the Passport Office has sent a threatening letter to staff.

But innocuous leaks are an essential part of the democratic process. They help ministers find out what’s going on in their departments and agencies.  Has government administration really come to this?

 

Why the DWP wants Universal Credit reports kept secret

By Tony Collins

Yesterday the Department for Work and Pensions, via Andrew Robertson, a lawyer in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, issued the grounds for its appeal against an Information Tribunal ruling that four reports on Universal Credit be released.

The four reports in question are:

– A project assessment review on the state of the project in November 2011, as assessed by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

– A risk register of possible risks to the development or eventual operation of UC as perceived by those involved.

– An issues register of problems that have materialised, why and how they can be minimised or eliminated.

– A milestone schedule of progress and times by which activities should be completed.

The DWP keeps losing appeals to stop the reports being published– but public money being no object when it comes to justifying departmental secrecy, it keeps spending on appeals. The latest appeal is to the “Upper Tribunal”. A decision on whether the appeal can go to the Upper Tribunal will come shortly from the “First-tier” tribunal.

The DWP says its main grounds for appeal is that the Information tribunal “wholly misunderstood the nature and/or manifestation of any ‘chilling effect’. [The chilling effect suggests that public servants will not tell the whole truth in project reviews if they know the reports will be published. The counter argument is that it is the job and duty of public servants to tell the truth, which they are more likely to do if the reports are published and they could be held accountable if it transpires later they had not told the whole truth.]

The DWP said the Tribunal’s misunderstanding about the chilling effect “amounted to an error in law” and was “perverse”.

The DWP’s appeal document is here: Application for Permission to Appeal & Grounds of Appeal 16.04.14 (as fi…

Comment:

The DWP’s appeal document shows the ease with which its lawyers could credibly argue – with an entirely straight face – that day is night, and night is day, on the basis that daylight in one part of the world always signifies darkness in another part of the world.

The DWP’s lawyers could also credibly argue that black is white, and white is black, on the basis that colour is simply a perception based on the light reflected back to our eyes and that if an object can reflect back all the light we see it is white, and black will be perceived only superficially since it is necessary to doubt everything when assessing the world from a fresh perspective, clear of any preconceived notions.

It is in this Orwell-parodying vein that the DWP’s lawyers argue that four Universal Credit reports need to be kept secret. Below are 2 extracts from the DWP’s appeal document. Anyone who understands what either of these paragraphs means deserves a prominent place in the DWP legal team. Here’s a clue. Having read the paragraphs below three times I think they’re saying that it is difficult to prove whether a leaked document has had a chilling effect.

Says the DWP appeal:

“Any argument as to the ‘chilling effect’ of disclosure is necessarily speculative, because it makes assumptions about the future effect of an event that has not yet occurred (i.e. the future effect of disclosure of particular information). Any argument as to the ‘chilling effect’ of disclosure in the past of any ‘chilling effect’ is likely to be the assertion of persons whose experience in particular working environments has enabled them to assess and evaluate how candour and frankness may alter, or may have altered, in the light of premature disclosure of information…”

Here’s another excruciating extract from the DWP’s appeal document:

“The Tribunal’s assumption that it would be ‘quite easy to assemble’ a ‘before’ and ‘after’ documentary comparison itself exemplifies its erroneous understanding of how a ‘chilling effect’ can be proved. Far from being easy, it would in the majority of cases be impossible to demonstrate that a particular type of document had changed fundamentally as a result of disclosure. That is because the likely effect of disclosure will very probably not be a change in the form in which a document (such as a risk register) is produced. It will rather be a change in the substantive content of the register, as a result of a conscious or subconscious decrease in the candour of those contributing to it. But it will equally be impossible to show what those contributors might have said, had it not been for disclosure: because they will not, in fact, have said it.”

Jonathan Swift, in perhaps the best satirical book of all time, Gulliver’s Travels, described lawyers as a society of men “bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid”.

It’s not that the DWP’s lawyers lie. They don’t need to. This latest appeal is a legal nicety, a way of stringing things out, a display of conformance with the FOI game. Nothing will convince the DWP that it should publish the UC reports in question. Nothing will convince the DWP that it should publish any of its reports on any of its major IT-related projects or programmes.

If they need to, Iain Duncan Smith or Lord Freud, his minister, will simply sign a ministerial veto preventing publication of the UC reports under the FOI Act. If there is a legal challenge to the veto, as with the veto on the release of Prince Charles’ letters, IDS will be pleased to have the matter kicked into touch; and while the legalities stretch out over years the UC reports will continue to moulder in locked DWP cupboards.. Eventually they may be released – when they are so old nobody will care what they say. Or they will have disintegrated ( and no, the DWP doesn’t always keep its most secret reports electronically).

That’s what open government means to the DWP… precisely nothing.

Millions of pounds of secret DWP reports

Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports should be published

DWP throws money at keeping Universal Credit reports secret

Too much dishonesty and secrecy over Universal Credit project?

DWP criticised for “worrying” secrecy

DWP refused to release Universal Credit report to MPs

“Outrageous” secrecy at DWP (2005) 

MPs criticise secrecy in DWP IT probe (2004)

Survive a Public Accounts Committee hearing – a lesson for ministers and top civil servants?

By Tony Collins

Mark Thompson was Director General of the BBC for eight years from 2004 to 2012. He was one of the highest paid in the public sector, earning more than £800,000.  He’s now CEO of the New York Times Company.

When he went before the Public Accounts Committee in February 2014 he faced accusations he had mislead MPs over the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative which was cancelled in 2013. The BBC wrote off £98.4m on the project.

Thompson has emerged from the affair unscathed although he had presided over the project.  Indeed he seems to have impressed the committee’s MPs who are notoriously hard to please.

In today’s PAC report on the failure of DMI, MPs appear to have preferred Thompson’s evidence over that of other witnesses. So how is it possible to come to a PAC to answer accusations of misleading Parliament and end up winning over your accusers?

Today’s PAC report on DMI criticises the BBC for:

–  complacency in taking a “very high-risk” project in-house from Siemens

–  spending years working on a system that did not meet users’ needs

–  not knowing enough about progress which led to Parliament being   misinformed that all was well when it wasn’t

– ending up with a system that costs £3m a year to run, compared to £780,000 a year for the 40 year-old “Infax” system it was designed to replace. And Infax works 10 times faster.

In February 2014 Committee chairman Margaret Hodge began her questioning of Thompson over DMI by pointing out that, three years earlier, in 2011, he had assured the PAC that all was well with the project when it wasn’t.

Thompson told Hodge in February 2011 that DMI was “out in the business” and “there are many programmes that are already being made with DMI”. In reality, the DMI had been used to make only one programme, called ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ – and problems on the project at that time were deepening but, as in many public sector IT-based projects that go wrong, such as Universal Credit, bad news from the project team was not being escalated to top management (or the BBC Trust).

How Thompson won over PAC MPs

At the PAC hearing in February 2014 Hodge asked Thompson if he had misled the Committee when he spoke positively about DMI in 2011.

Thompson’s reply was so free of reserve that it appears to have taken the wind out of Hodge.

Thompson replied: “I don’t believe that I have misled you on any other matter, and I do not believe that I knowingly misled you on this one.

“I will answer your question directly, but can I just make one broad point about DMI before then? In my time at the BBC, we had very many successful technology projects—very large projects, some of them much larger than DMI. I believe that the team, including John Linwood [then the BBC’s Chief Technology Officer], who were in the middle of DMI, had many successes—for example, digital switchover, West One, Salford and BBC iPlayer.

“I just wanted to say … everything I have heard and seen makes me feel that DMI was not a success. It failed as a project. It failed in a way that also meant the loss of a lot of public money. As the director-general who was at the helm when DMI was created and developed and who, in the end, oversaw much of the governance system that, as we will no doubt discuss, did not perform perfectly in this project, I just want to say sorry.

“I want to apologise to you and to the public for the failure of this project. That is the broad point.”

Hodge (who would normally, at a point such as this, launch her main offensive) said simply:

“Thank you.”

Usually civil servants will deny that a big IT-based project has actually failed. Many times the archetypal civil servant Sir David Nicholson, when Chief Executive of the NHS, defended the failed NPfIT at PAC hearings.

But Thompson told PAC MPs:  “Here we are in the beginning of 2014—I am not going to debate with you whether or not this project [DMI] failed. I am sure we can talk about how, why, where and so forth, but it definitely failed.

“When I came to see you in February 2011, I believed that the project was in very good shape indeed. Why did I believe that? I had seen a number of programmes myself—I had been and seen parts of DMI working on ‘Bang Goes the Theory’; I knew that ‘The One Show’ had started to use elements of DMI a few weeks earlier; and I knew that a kind of prototype version of the technology had been used in the very, very successful ‘Frozen Planet’ natural history series.

“I have gone back and asked the BBC to look at all the briefing materials—I had a voluminous amount of briefing from the BBC—and there is a real consistency between the briefing I got – .”

Richard Bacon: Sorry, a real inconsistency?

Thompson: No, a real consistency between the briefing I got and the evidence that I gave. To be honest, some of this is going to go very much to the point Mr Bacon was making earlier on (about what is or is not a deployment).

Stephen Barclay: Just a second…So it was consistent, but consistently wrong, wasn’t it, because just the following month, after the consistent briefing, you were then aware that it was going to miss the key milestone? From March 2011 you knew it [DMI] was not going to hit the deadline.

Thompson: If I may say so, what I am trying to focus on at the moment is the question—I understand, given subsequent events, the perfectly reasonable question—about whether the testimony I gave in February 2011 misled you or not… My belief is that my testimony gave a faithful and accurate account of my understanding of the project at this point.

Hodge: But were you misled, then?

Thompson: Let me give you just a sense of my briefing. To be honest, there were echoes of this in John Linwood’s testimony a few minutes ago, and Mr Bacon has helped me to understand this by putting his finger on the use of one word in particular, which is ‘deployment’. This is the timeline …”

Thompson then did something civil servants rarely do, if ever, when they appear before the committee. He read from the internal briefings he had received on the project in 2010 and 2011 . Those briefings indicated all was well.

He was not even shown a draft Accenture report in December 2010 that said the elements of the DMI examined (by Accenture) were not robust enough for programme-making and that significant remedial work was required.

Thompson said that the day before he gave evidence to the PAC in February 2011 he was given an internal note which said:

“Our next release [of DMI], Enhanced Production Tools, entered into user acceptance testing this week. This release builds on the production tool we previously delivered in 2010, Fabric Workspace, and desktop editing and logging.

“We will deploy its release to pilot users in Bristol, the ‘Blue Peter’ production team, ‘The One Show’ current affairs team, ‘Bang Goes the theory’ — again — ‘Generation Earth’, weather and ‘Pavlopetri’ inside London Factual.”

Thompson had the firm impression that DMI was challenging but that the BBC was starting to deliver the system and users had been positive about the elements delivered.

Thompson said in February 2014, “Mr Bacon is right about the very bullish use of the world “deployed”, meaning, perhaps, elements that have been loaded on to a desktop but not really extensively used: that was the background to the remarks I made to you in February 2011. I am absolutely clear that at the time that was what I knew and believed about the project.”

Hodge: So you were misled?

Thompson replied, in essence, that the BBC’s business users tried to make DMI work but most of them gave up. There were tensions between the project team who were enthusiastic about DMI and the business users who, mostly, weren’t.

These were complicated, difficult issues, said Thompson. “There was a pronounced and, it would appear, growing difference of opinion between the team making DMI and the business users on how effective and how real the technology was.

“You will understand that I have been involved in a lot of projects at the BBC and in other organisations, and I can smell business obstinacy. I can smell when a business is unready, is not prepared to play ball or is constantly moving the goalposts.

“I absolutely understand John Linwood’s particular perspective, given what he was doing. He was a very passionate advocate of the project, and I understand all of that.

“In my time, which ended when I left in September 2012, I saw great efforts being made by the business—in other words, by colleagues inside BBC Vision, BBC North and elsewhere—to get DMI to work. Although there were tensions, I do not believe that those tensions, which frankly were more or less inevitable, were themselves a central and critical part of the project’s failure.”

Richard Bacon: … It sounds to me as if the people getting the business case through the main governance processes were technology and finance people. I want to be clear on what you are saying. It sounds to me as if the technology people were very gung-ho and the experience of the business people on the ground was that it was not necessarily working as well as they had been led to believe, so they probably lost faith in it. Is that a fair summary?

Thompson: “I believe that that was definitely what started to happen, certainly by the end of 2011 and through 2012. It happened for understandable reasons. This has been a troubled project…

“I thought great efforts were made in BBC Vision and in BBC North both by senior people and by some front-line programme makers to help us to get the thing to work.

“Where my perspective perhaps differs from John’s perspective – it is very easy for me to sit here and say that this project failed because some difficult programme makers refused to use it, although there may have been an element of that somewhere – is that I thought that, overall, this was a project on which there was a lot of work and effort to try to get it to work on the business side…”

Hodge asked again if Thompson had been misled when he assured the PAC in February 2011 that DMI was being used at the BBC.

Thompson: I believed it.

Hodge: You believed it?

Thompson: Yes.

Hodge:  You believed it, but were you being misled?

Thompson: “I think that the language that the team was using, combined to some extent with the fact that I had seen what looked like a very positive demonstration of it … I had heard that “The One Show” had also started using it, and I saw a list of other programmes that were also using it. That combined with the language in the briefing led me to believe that it was being more extensively used.”

PAC conclusion

The PAC could have concluded in its report today that the BBC had misled Parliament in February 2011. But MPs used the word “misinformed” instead.

“Neither the [BBC’s] Executive Board nor the [BBC] Trust knew enough about the DMI’s progress, which led to Parliament being misinformed. While [Thompson] assures us that he gave a faithful and accurate account of his understanding of the project at that point in early 2011, he was mistaken and there was confusion within the BBC about what had actually been deployed and used.

“In its reporting on major projects, the BBC needs to use clear milestones that give the Executive and the Trust an unambiguous and accurate account of progress and any problems.”

Comment

The PAC had every right to be angry.  So credible were the BBC’s assurances about DMI in February 2011 that the Committee published a report in April 2011 that reflected those assurances. It was wrong.

But there is a positive element in the failure of DMI – and that is the completely open and honest testimony of Mark Thompson.

MPs on the PAC are used to be being misled – usually by the sin of omission – when civil servants and ministers come before them. But when Thompson read from his internal briefings it was easy to see how he came to the view that DMI in February 2011 was showing signs of a success.

It was clear to MPs that Thompson had not set out to mislead.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that you can go far with honesty and openness. That’s not an easy lesson for the ministers and civil servants who have to appear before the PAC, but it has certainly served Thompson well.

BBC Digital Media Initiative – Public Accounts Committee report

 

A tragic outcome for Cerner Millennium implementation at Bath?

By Tony Collins

Three year-old Samuel Starr died in the arms of his parents as his they read him his favourite stories at the local hospital. 

At an inquest this week his parents, and specialists, raised questions about whether long delays in arranging appointments on a new Cerner Millennium system at Bath’s Royal United Hospital, which replaced an old “TDS” patient administration system, was a factor in his death.

Ben Peregrine, the speciality manager for paediatrics at the RUH in Bath,  told the inquest:

“Samuel’s appointment request must have fallen through the cracks between the old and new system.”

After successful heart surgery at 9 months, Samuel should have had regular scans to see if his condition had worsened. But he didn’t have any scans for 20 months, in part because of difficulties in organising the appropriate appointments on Bath’s new Millennium systems.

Though there is no certainty, Samuel may be alive today if he’d had the scans.

In a review of Samuel’s death, which took place in November 2012, the details of which have only just been made public, Bristol Children’s Hospital concluded that appointment delays might have played a part.

It said: “Death was felt to be possibly modifiable if [there had been] earlier surgery before cardiac function deteriorated.”

Samuel had his first surgical procedure, open heart surgery at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, on 3 March 2010. He was discharged six days later, and referred to the Paediatric Cardiac Clinic at the Royal United Hospital in Bath for check-ups.

This week’s inquest heard that the first check-up took place in Bristol in October 2010, when an echocardiogram, also known as an ‘echo’, was carried out. Samuel’s parents, Paul Starr and Catherine Holley, expected a follow-up appointment in January 2012 but by March they’d not received one.

Their community nurse rang the hospital five times in as many months for a follow-up appointment but could not arrange one. When another echo was eventually taken in June 2012 – 20 months after the first – it was found that Samuel needed urgent surgery which proved more complicated than expected. He died on 6 September 2012.

Paul Starr told the BBC that during the long delays in obtaining an appointment for a further scan Samuel’s heart function went from good to bad. He said: “It is not like he had bad care in that time. He had no care at all.”

Ben Peregrine, the speciality manager for paediatrics at the hospital, told the inquest:

“The new system is now up and running as best as it can be, but as long as there is still humans entering the information there will always be room for error.”

The BBC reported that the delay in Samuel’s treatment “came after a new computerised appointment booking system was introduced at the RUH in 2011. It was only after an appointment had been set that doctors discovered the three-year-old, from Frome in Somerset, needed open heart surgery.”

BBC West’s Inside Out obtained a hospital document “Issues for discussion including any action or learning to be taken as a result of the child’s death. Issues that require broader multi-agency discussion” that has as its first bullet point:

“Failure of the RUH Millennium computer software to organise appointments at the designated time leading to a delay of three months before Samuel was seen by (redacted) in Bath.

“Parents have since told me that Samuel had not had an ECHO for 20 months prior to June 2012. At his previous cardiac appointment (April 2011) [redacted] failed to carry out an ECHO because he was not expecting to see Samuel despite Samuel’s parents being sent an appointment for this day.”

It appears that events at Bath after the Cerner go-live have, in the main, followed a pattern at a dozen or so other trusts that have installed the Millennium system.

The pattern was outlined in a Campaign4change post in December 2012:

– go-live

– chaos

– a trust admission that potential problems, costs and risks were underestimated

– a public apology to patients

– a trust promise that the problems have been fixed

– trust board papers that show the problems haven’t been fixed or new ones have arisen

– ongoing difficulties producing statutory and regulatory reports

– provision in trust accounts for unforeseen costs

– continuing questions about the impact of the new system on patients

– a drying-up of information from the trust on the full consequences of the EPR implementation, other than public announcements on its successful aspects.

Catherine Holley, Samuel’s mother, believes the Millennium implementation at the Royal United Hospital at Bath might have followed the above cycle.

Bath went live with Cerner Millennium at the end of July 2011. An upbeat trust statement at the time to E-Health Insider said:

“We can confirm that the new Cerner Millennium IT system successfully went live on Friday 29 July – as planned – at Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Trust.

“BT and Cerner worked closely with the trust and the Southern Programme for IT on the implementation over the past year – a complex and major change management programme.”

As part of its investigation into Samuel’s death, the BBC asked the RUH how many appointments were overdue to delayed because of the new computer system. Said the BBC’s Inside Out West programme:

“They told us there were 63 overdue appointments some with delays of up to 2 years before they were discovered.”

Separately an FOI request to the trust on the Millennium installation brought the response that there have been 65 cardiac outpatients’ appointments “that have been identified as being were missed due to problems with the delayed and that occurred around implementation of Cerner Millennium… All of these appointments have been followed up and actioned as required.”

The RUH is not discussing Samuel Starr’s death. A spokesperson said the inquest is expected to give Samuel’s family and everyone involved in his care a clearer indication of the circumstances surrounding his death. “We have offered our sincere condolences to the family of Samuel Starr following his sad death.”

Contradictory

RUH Board reports on Millennium’s deployment have had a general “good news” tone. But some of the reports have mentioned potentially serious problems. This was in an RUH board report in 2011 on Millennium:

“… there were significant issues with clinic templates and data that had not been migrated. This affected encounters with long term follow up appointments. As a result this meant that there was unplanned downtime across Outpatients and backlogs developed in addition to those produced as a result of planned downtime”.

Comment:

What’s striking about the reports to the Bath board of directors on the Cerner Millennium implementation is their similarity, in tone and substance, to the “good news” reports of deployments of Millennium at other trusts.

The go lives are nearly always depicted as successes for clinicians that have had minor irritations for administrators.

Now we know from the RUH Bath’s implementation of Millennium that when appointments are delayed as a result of inadequate preparations for, and structural settlement of, a new patient administration system, it can be a matter of life and death.

Indeed the BBC, in its investigation into Samuel Starr’s short life, raises the question of whether delayed appointments have been a factor in other deaths.

But do trusts genuinely care about the bigger picture, or do they regard each case of harm or death as an individual, unique event, to be reviewed after the problems come to light?

At the RUH Bath, IT appears to be treated as a separate department, too little interweaved with care and treatment. Managers talked enthusiastically of smartcard use, the work of the service desk, the need for more printers, resolving BT outages, the benefits of the service security model, champion users and floorwalkers, completing the Readiness Workbook, and keeping the Deployment Hazard Document up to date – while the parents of Samuel Starr could not get an appointment on the new system for their son to have a vital heart scan.

In 2011 a senior executive at Bath told his trust staff: “Our partners BT and Cerner are describing it [the go-live of Cerner Millennium] as the smoothest deployment yet” and “we now have the foundation in place to meet the future needs of the Trust and the NHS”.

Will things improve?

The comment in my post of December 2012, which was about Royal Berkshire’s implementation of Cerner Millennium, seems apt so some it may be worth repeating (below).

“Some Cerner implementations go well and bring important benefits to hospitals and their patients. Some implementations go badly. One question the NHS doesn’t ask, but perhaps should, is: what level of problems is acceptable with a new electronic patient record system?

“It appears from some EPR implementations in the NHS that there is no such thing as a low point. No level of disruption or damage to healthcare is deemed unacceptable.

“Berkshire’s chief executive Edward Donald speaks the truth when he says that the trust’s implementation of Cerner was more successful than at other NHS sites. This is despite patients at his trust attending for clinics that did not exist, receiving multiple requests to attend clinics and not receiving follow-up appointments…

“The worrying thing for those who use the NHS is that, as far as new IT is concerned, it is like flying in a plane that has not been certified as safe – indeed a plane for which there has been no statutory requirement for safety tests. And if the plane crashes it’ll be easy for its operators and supplier to deny any responsibility. They can argue that their safety and risk ratings were at “green” or “amber-green”.

“The lack of interest in the NHS over the adverse effect on patients of patient record implementations means that trusts can continue to go ahead with high-risk electronic patient record system go-lives without independent challenge.”

This very thing seems to have happened at the RUH Bath – with possibly tragic consequences.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the BBC’s investigation into Samuel Starr’s death.

RUH booking system might have contributed to boy’s death – BBC

Boy died after scan delay – BBC

Best Cerner Millennium implementation yet?