Category Archives: oversight

Is Barnet Council up to the job of managing its suppliers – including Capita?

By Tony Collins

Tonight (27 July 2017) Barnet Council’s audit committee meets to discuss the interim year-end findings of BDO, its external auditor.

BDO identifies a “significant risk” in relation to the council’s contract management and monitoring. There are “numerous issues”, says BDO.

Barnet is well known in the local government community for having adopted a “commissioning council” concept. This means it has outsourced the vast majority of its services, leaving officers and the ruling Conservative group to set policy and monitor suppliers.

Capita is a main supplier. Its responsibilities include cemeteries, ICT and collecting council tax.

BDO’s report for tonight’s council meeting says that, with the council’s services now being delivered through various outsourcing arrangements, “it is important to establish strong contract management and monitoring controls”.

It adds that such controls “allow the Council to ascertain whether or not it is receiving value for money from the use of its contractors, and to take remedial action where issues are identified”.

On this point – contract management and monitoring –  BDO says,

“During the course of 2016/17 we have noted a number of internal audit reports which have raised significant findings in this area.

“In addition, further concerns have been identified through our own audit work. As such, we have recognised a significant risk to our use of resources [value for money] opinion.”

BDO’s findings are interim. It cannot finalise its final statutory report until many questions are answered and errors, financial misstatements and lapses in disclosure are corrected in Barnet’s draft financial accounts.

The auditors comment in their report on the “number and value of errors found” and the “level of misstatement in the current year accounts”.

These are some of BDO’s findings so far:

  • Large advance payments (about £44m in prepayments) as part of the Customer Service Group contracts with Capita. Not all of the payments were set out in the payments profile of the original contract. Significant payments were made at the start of the contract (and in subsequent years) to cover capital investment and transformational expenditure. The financial profile of the contract anticipates the advance payments being used by 2023. One advance payment of £19.1m in December 2016 covers service charge payments relating to the first three quarters of 2017/18. The council receives a £0.5m discount for paying in advance. The council also paid for some projects in advance. BDO finds that there was proper council scrutiny of the decision to make the payments.
  • Barnet overspent on services in 2016/2017 by £8.3m.
  • There’s a budget gap prior to identified savings of £53.9m over the three years to 2020.
  • There’s a substantial depletion in the council’s financial reserves.
  • Will claimed savings materialise? “Savings targets remain significant and achievement of these will be inherently challenging, as evidenced by the overspend in 2016/17.”
  • Net spending on the Customer and Support Group contracts with Capita increased to £34.4m in 2016/17 from £26.9m the previous year.
  • More than 100 officials at Barnet receive at least £60,000 a year and twelve at least £100,000.
  • Some councillors have failed to make formal declarations. A “poor response rate as compared to other authorities” says BDO’s report.

Comment:

You’d think a “commissioning council” – one that outsources the delivery of most of its services – would, above all, have a firm grip on what its main suppliers are doing and what they’re charging for.

In fact BDO’s report for tonight council meeting rates the council’s contract management and monitoring at “red”. BDO has identified “numerous” issues.

It’s easy for Barnet Council to issue press releases on the tens of millions it claims to have saved on its contracts with Capita.

But BDO possesses the facts and figures; and it questions the council’s “use of resources” – in other words “value for money”.

At the outset of its joint venture with IBM, officials at Somerset County Council spoke of planned savings of £180m over 10 years. In fact the deal ended up losing at least £69m.

Barnet blogger “Mr Reasonable” who has long kept a close eye on payments made by Barnet to Capita doubts that the council is up to the job of properly scrutinising Capita. We agree.

It was clear to many in 2013 when Barnet signed contracts with Capita that the council was unlikely to find the money to acquire adequate contract monitoring expertise and resources, given that its suppliers were required to deliver such a wide range of complex services.

Barnet Council’s most adept scrutineers, rather than local councillors, have proved to be its dogged local bloggers who include Derek Dishman (Mr Mustard), John Dix (Mr Reasonable), Theresa Musgrove (Mrs Angry) and Roger Tichborne (The Barnet Eye).

Had ruling councillors taken local blogger warnings more seriously, would they have specifically avoided becoming a “commissioning council”?

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

More IT-based megaprojects derail amid claims all is well

By Tony Collins

If one thing unites all failing IT-based megaprojects in the public sector it is the defensive shield of denial that suppliers and their clients hold up when confronted by bad news.

It has happened in the US and UK this week. On the Universal Credit  project, the minister in charge of the scheme, Lord Freud, accepted none of the criticisms in a National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: early progress”.   In a debate in the House of Lords Lord Freud quoted from two tiny parts of the NAO report that could be interpreted as positive comments.

“Spending so far is a small proportion of the total budget … and it is still entirely feasible that [universal credit] goes on to achieve considerable benefits for society,” said Lord Freud, quoting the NAO report.

But he mentioned none of the criticisms in the 55-page NAO report which concluded:

“At this early stage of the Universal Credit programme the Department has not achieved value for money. The Department has delayed rolling out Universal Credit to claimants, has had weak control of the programme, and has been unable to assess the value of the systems it spent over £300 million to develop.

“These problems represent a significant setback to Universal Credit and raise wider concerns about the Department’s ability to deal with weak programme management, over-optimistic timescales, and a lack of openness about progress.”

And a shield of denial went up in the US this week where newspapers on the east and west coast published stories on failing public sector IT-based megaprojects.  The LA [Los Angeles] Times said:

As many as 300,000 jobless affected by state software snags

“California lawmakers want to know why Deloitte’s unemployment benefits system arrived with major bugs and at almost double the cost estimate. The firm says the system is working.”

The LA Times continued:

“Problems are growing worse for the state’s Employment Development Department after a new computer system backfired, leaving some Californians without much-needed benefit cheques for weeks.”

The Department said the problems affected 80,000 claims but the LA Times obtained internal emails that showed the software glitches stopped payment to as many as 300,000 claimants.

Now lawmakers are setting up a hearing to determine what went wrong with a system that cost taxpayers $110m, almost double the original estimate.

Some blame the Department’s slow response to the problems. Others point the finger at a Deloitte Consulting.

The LA Times says that Deloitte has a “history of delivering projects over budget and with problematic results”. Deloitte also has been blamed, in part, for similar troubles with upgrades to unemployment software in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida, says the paper.

“We keep hiring the same company, and they keep having the same issues,” said Senator Anthony Cannella.  “At some point, it’s on us for hiring the same company. It’s faulty logic, and we’ve got to get better.”

In 2003 California planned to spend $58m upgrading its 30-year-old unemployment benefits system. By the time the state awarded Deloitte the contract in 2010  the cost estimate had grown by more than $30m.

The Department handed out $6.6bn to about 1 million unemployed Californians in 2012. The software was expected to ease the agency’s ability to verify who was eligible to receive benefits.

Problems began when the Department transferred old unemployment data to the new system. The software flagged claims for review — requiring state workers to manually process them.

The LA Times says that officials thought initially the workload would be manageable, but internal emails showed the agency was quickly overwhelmed. Phone lines were jammed. For weeks, the Department’s employees have been working overtime to clear the backlog.

A poor contract?

In a contract amendment signed two months ago California agreed to pay Deloitte $3.5m for five months of maintenance and operations costs. Those costs should have been anticipated in the contract said Michael Krigsman, a software consultant who is an expert on why big IT-based contracts go awry. He told the LA Times:

“It’s a striking oversight that maintenance was not anticipated at the beginning of the contract when the state was at a much stronger negotiation position.”

By the time the middle of a project is reached, the state has no choice but to stick with Deloitte to work out bugs that arise when the system goes live, he said.

System works

Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the Department, said the system is working, processing 80% of claims on time. As for the troubles, she said, “There is a period of transition or adjustment with any large infrastructure upgrade like this one.”

Deloitte spokeswoman Courtney Flaherty said the new California system is working and that problems are not the result of a “breakdown or flaw in the software Deloitte developed”.

System not working?

While there seems to be no project disaster in the eyes of the Department and Deloitte Consulting, some of the unemployed see things differently. One wrote:

“I am a contract worker who had to fight for my unemployment benefits. I won my case and yet they still cannot pay me… It’s been more than 3 weeks since I won my appeal and as of this moment, I am owed 13 weeks of back payments. To add insult to injury, they cannot send me current weeks to certify and they refuse to even try to help me to get back into the online system.

“I blame Deloitte, but it is California that carries the heaviest burden of fault… We’re nearing November and they still haven’t fixed an issue that began over Labor Day? Nonsense!

“This is untenable for everyone affected …We are owed reparations as well as our money at this point. It’s a funny word, affected. That means families and individuals are going hungry but can’t get food stamps or welfare. It means evictions and repossessed cars. It means destroyed credit, late fees, years of turmoil and shame for people already dealing with unemployment. Shame on you California.”

Another wrote:

“ … Not communicating is NOT an answer. Unemployed individuals caught up in the nightmare were told to be patient.  Rents and other expenses were still accumulating.  But [when you] add on additional fees: late fees, restoral fees, interest fees, etc…….you get the picture.

“Dear Governor Brown,

“Please reimburse me for all additional fees I’ve had to absorb to survive this fiasco.  You are going to make me payback any overpayments, but ignore the cost to the unemployed taxpayer.  This is  appears to unfair.  Perhaps Deloitte should pay us back from their contracted funds before they receive their final payment.  I am saving all of my receipts to deduct from my 2013 tax return.

“BTW Gov Brown – I am still waiting on additional payments as of today and DMV registration for my vehicle was due on 10/20/13.  Are you going to waive the penalty for late payment? Am I the only one with this question?”

Scrutiny

California’s state Assembly has set a date of 6 November 2013 for a hearing into the Department’s system upgrade.

“We’re going to look at EDD, the contractors and others to see how the system broke down so we can avoid this in the future,” said Henry Perea, chair of the Assembly’s Insurance Committee, which has oversight over the jobless benefits program.

On its website Deloitte says:

“Deloitte continues to help EDD [Employment Development Department] transform the level of service it provides to unemployed workers and improve the quality of information collected by EDD. The next time unemployment spikes, California should be ready to meet the increased demand for services.”

Massachutsetts IT disaster?

On the opposite coast the Boston Globe reported on an entirely separate debacle (which also involved Deloitte):

          None admit fault on troubled jobless benefits system

“… even with the possibility that unemployed workers could face months more of difficulties and delays in getting benefits, officials from the Labor Department and contractor, Deloitte Consulting of New York, testified before the Senate Committee on Post Audit that the rollout of the computer system was largely a success.

“‘I am happy with the launch,’ said Joanne F. Goldstein, secretary of Labour and Workforce Development, noting that she would have liked some aspects to have gone better.

“Mark Price, a Deloitte principal in charge of the firm’s Massachusetts business, acknowledged that software has faced challenges during the rollout, but insisted, ‘We have a successful working system today. ‘’’

NPfIT shield

A shield of denial was up for years at the Department of Health whose CIOs and other spokespeople repeatedly claimed that the NPfIT was a success.

Comment

If you didn’t know that Universal Credit IT wasn’t working, or that thousands of people on the east and west coasts of the US hadn’t been paid unemployment benefits because of IT-related problems, and you had to rely on only the public comments of the IT suppliers and government spokespeople, you would have every reason to believe that Universal Credit and the jobless systems in Massachusetts and California were working well.

Why is it that after every failed IT-based megaproject those in charge can simply blow the truth gently away like soap bubbles?

When confronted by bad news, suppliers and their customers tend to join hands behind their defensive shields. On the other side are politicians, members of the public affected by the megaprojects and the press who have all, according to suppliers and officials, got it wrong.

Is this why lessons from public sector IT-based project disasters are not always learned? Because, in the eyes of suppliers and their clients, the disasters don’t really exist?

None admit fault on troubled jobless benefit system

State fired Deloitte

Complaints continue despite claims system is under control

As many as 300,000 affected by California’s software problems

California’s predictable fiasco?

Who polices police IT reports?

By Tony Collins

The police, and civil and public servants in central government, the NHS and local authorities criticise journalists for biased reporting – taking selected facts out of context.

They’re sometimes right.  Journalists working for national newspapers can draft an article that is diligently balanced only to find, by the time it’s published, it leaves out facts which would have complicated, blunted, or contradicted the main points.

It’s one thing for this to happen in the world of journalism. You don’t expect public bodies to report on their own affairs with a partiality that rivals out-of-context reporting by some newspapers.

But it appears to be happening so regularly that one-sided self-reporting on organisational performance may be becoming the norm in the public sector.

In the NHS subjective, positive reporting in board papers – where managers tell directors what they think they want to hear – could help to explain why Cerner patient record implementations have, for years, gone badly wrong for the same reasons.

In recent months reports without balance have been published on the performance of Avon and Somerset Police’s IT outsourcing contract with IBM. 

Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police  are minority shareholders in a private company, Southwest One,  which is owned by IBM.

Confusingly, Taunton Deane Borough Council issued positive reports about its successful partnership with Southwest One – and then it decided to take some services back in-house.

Now it has emerged – only as a result of FOI requests by Somerset resident and campaigner Dave Orr – that two independent organisations, the National Audit Office, and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, have commented positively on Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s partnership with Southwest One, based entirely on the unaudited opinions of the police force itself.

SAP

From his FOI requests Orr learned that the Avon and Somerset’s outsourcing deal with Southwest One has not gone entirely as expected. The National Audit Office’s FOI team has released notes of a joint visit by the NAO and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary to Avon and Somerset police in December 2012.  The visit was to find out about how well Southwest One was delivering services to the police force.  

The NAO’s notes are positive in parts. They say that performance has improved considerably since the implementation of the contract.

“Implementation of SAP improving the accounts close-down process, initial issues being resolved and a good quality of service being provided regularly.”

But there is another side to the story that is not reflected in the published accounts of Avon and Somerset’s relationship with Southwest One. The NAO’s [unpublished] field notes say:

“Fewer than expected benefits have been realised from IT due to the considerably different security requirements of the Police compared to the Councils.

“It also took a long time for SAP to be implemented. There has yet to be a duty management system implemented by SWOne which is part of the contract… SAP would have benefited from some pre-launch testing or piloting.”

A letter to Orr from the Home Office appears to confirm that Avon and Somerset Police’s participation in Southwest One is an unequivocal success.

“The private sector can help to deliver police support services better and at lower cost. Every pound saved means more money for the front line, putting officers on the streets…

“In its report “Policing in Austerity: rising to the challenge [2013] Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary identified the Southwest One partnership as being a key element in achieving savings for Avon and Somerset Constabulary while ensuring better procurement, streamlining business support processes, and ensuring better use of police officer time.

“The report also noted that the Southwest One collaboration was the first of its kind for policing in England and Wales and that to date, no other force has delivered this level of partnership with local authorities.”

A little of the other side of the story comes in the last sentence of the Home Office letter to Orr which says: “We understand that Avon and Somerset Constabulary continues to work closely with IBM to resolve any technical difficulties and improve the services provided by Southwest One.”

Indeed a table on page 155 of HMIC ‘s 2013 report Policing in austerity: rising to the challenge indicates that Avon and Somerset Constabulary has one of the worst records of any police force when it comes to savings delivered between 2010/11 and 2012/13. [Table: Key indicators of the challenge – quartile analysis.]

Southwest One began a 10-year contract providing services to Avon and Somerset Police in 2008. The services included enquiry offices, district HR, estates, financial services, site administration, facilities, corporate human resources, information services, purchasing and supply, and reprographics. The contract involves 554 seconded staff.

Comment

Police forces, councils, the NHS and central government departments need  a few Richard Feymans to report on their organisation’s performance. Feynman was a gifted scientist, MIT graduate and noble prize winner who was chosen as a commissioner to report on the cause , or causes, of the Challenger Space Shuttle “O” rings accident on 28 January 1986.

He reported with such independence of mind and diligence that his hard-hitting findings were not considered acceptable to be included in the main report of the Presidential Commission of inquiry into the accident.  Feynman had to be content with having his findings published as an appendix to the Commission’s report – and an edited appendix at that.  

He suggested in his book “What do you care what other people think?” that his appendix was the only genuinely balanced part of the official inquiry report. 

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled,” said Feynman.

One of his questions was whether “organisation weaknesses that contributed to the [Shuttle] accident [was] confined to the solid rocket booster sector, or were they a more general characteristic of NASA.”

One of Feynman’s conclusions:

“It would appear that, for whatever purpose – be it for internal or external consumption – the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.”

If such exaggeration happens at NASA it can happen in UK police force IT reports, and in board papers on the performance of councils and NHS trusts.

When journalists get it wrong it’s usually to their eternal regret. In the public sector positive unbalanced reporting is so “normal” that hardly anyone involved realises it’s a deviant practice. The US author Diane Vaughan coined a phrase for such corporate behaviour.  She called it the normalisation of deviance.  

It’s surely time for public bodies to move away from the norm and start reporting on their performance, and the performance of their outsourcing other private sector contracts, with balance, objectivity and independence of mind.   

If managers knew that reports on the progress of their contracts would be audited for impartiality and competence over organisational self-interest, perhaps they would have a greater incentive to avoid badly thought through outsourcing deals and IT implementations.

Is this why some council and NHS scandals stay hidden for years?

NAO report “Private sector partnering in the police service”

Dave Orr’s HMIC FOI requests and answers

NAO’s FOI responses on Avon and Somerset Police

Does outsourcing make corruption more likely?

By Tony Collins

Few journalists want to write about corruption in local government unless they have specific evidence from a court case. Which helps to explain why a well-researched report on the subject last week attracted little mainstream publicity, although there was a piece in the Professional section of The Guardian .

Journalists assume, perhaps like many people, that local government doesn’t have a problem with corruption. But by its nature a subtle exploitation of the opportunities provided by a lack of oversight and accountability – at worst indifference – will remain hidden.

Who would say anything to the police – and if the police were informed would they act? – if officers or councillors shaped policy or a decision in favour of a certain company, with a view to opening up a path to future employment? Could such subtle deviance be proven?

“The temptation might be exacerbated by the risk of redundancy, providing a greater incentive for officers to use their position to build a network with a view to future employment,” says last week’s report Corruption in UK local government – the mounting risks.

The report was not written by a marginal organisation. It was researched and drafted for Transparency International by Elizabeth David-Barrett, Research Fellow at Said Business School and Director, Corruption and Transparency Research Centre, Kellogg College, Oxford University. Funding was from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. David-Barrett says a disturbing picture emerges of conditions in which corruption is likely to thrive, what she calls:

“low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate, outsourcing of public services, significant sums of money at play and perhaps a denial that corruption is an issue at all”.

High standards in public life are the norm but David-Barrett notes that a “feature of researching this report has been the lack of agreement among the many experts we consulted about the scale and prevalence of corruption in UK local government”.

Some argued that the cases that have come to light represent the tip of the iceberg. Others said the small number of obvious corruption cases, and their disclosure by existing oversight structures, indicated there was no iceberg.

The report makes no comment on current levels of corruption but points out that, by its nature, it will usually remain hidden. Corruption in local government does exist, says the report, and it gives a few examples that have been publicised.

Outsourcing

“If local authority employees abuse their access to insider information or their ability to shape policy or contracts whilst in office in order to create opportunities for themselves, their friends, or for private-sector companies for which they will later work, this is corrupt,” says the report.

Such corruption could manifest itself in poor services and value for money. It may shut out companies of unquestionable integrity that could offer better deals.

That said, some suppliers may be concerned about the risks to their reputation of hiring through the revolving door. One unnamed interviewee quoted in the report says:

“We’ve been approached by individuals who are retiring from local government but don’t want to stop working. They come to us and say they can help us, they have a lot of experience. We look at it very carefully and err on the side of caution if we are going to be working with that council.”

But another interviewee is quoted in the report as saying

“There are situations where local authority staff end up working for contractors and implicit agreements to scratch backs in return for contracts will arise.”

The report claims that a council officer who had written the specification for a tender for a particular contract resigned from the council and successfully bid for the contract as a private-sector supplier.

Undue influence

“Research conducted for this report suggested that revolving-door type corruption is difficult to prove, but may not be uncommon and is certainly creating suspicions which, in themselves, undermine public confidence.”

Change requests

An interviewee is quoted in the report as saying

“…the number of variations – that’s where people make money. The profit is often determined by the award of work under the framework contracts, particularly where the pricing basis is not clearly defined, so that you can end up with charging for extra work by hourly rates.”

Another interviewee said

“The sharp operator in terms of the outsourcing contractor company will have agreed a contract based on a lump sum, invariably based on a local authority which, at the time that the contract was let, was much larger.

“If you have a company which provides HR, IT and admin, where can it make its savings? If they are prepared to make the investment, they can usually make significant savings for themselves, that’s where they are legitimately making some of their profit, but if the local authority has downsized over the years, then there is less to provide.

“So if it’s a 20-year contract, every 5 years there is a review and renegotiation based around head count. But normally councils are not very good at negotiating soft-side deliverables.”

The report says that corruption can arise if favoured sub-contractors are not held accountable, or the use of sub-standard goods is overlooked, or if a corrupt company and corrupt supervising official collude to agree on price increases or changes in specifications.

“There is a key weakness in the governance of this area because the contract implementation phase is often managed by the local authority department which uses the procured goods or services, rather than by the central procurement function. This department may be unaware of the precise terms of the contract and may not notice if corners are cut.”

A procurement expert is quoted in the report as saying

“There might be a disconnect between a procurement department that does this first part [pre-tender and tender] and the ‘client’, for example, the council’s IT dept. It is the IT department that is supposed to monitor the contract, and see how it is performing, but the disconnect reduces accountability. The supplier might be able to provide sweeteners to the IT department to re-negotiate the contract without going back through the procurement department.”

Another procurement specialist said that relatively few resources are devoted to contract management.

“The central functions in local authorities often focus on contract letting and not contract management. Many of the same skills are involved, but less [sic] resources are devoted to contract management. And departments are often left to manage contracts – raising risks not just of corruption but also of inefficiency.”

Does outsourcing reduce accountability?

“When services are outsourced, local authorities retain a statutory obligation to ensure that all of the rules that would have applied to them are equally followed by the external providers. However, the extent to which that obligation is fulfilled varies… there are concerns that local government officers do not adequately monitor contract performance or respond to complaints. Councils sometimes seek to claim that decisions made by contractors on long-term contracts are beyond their control.

“Without the Audit Commission to exert pressure and with the decline of local investigative journalism, there is a risk that corruption in this area will become more common.

“The Institute for Government’s 2012 report, Commissioning for Success, argues that decisions about when to outsource need to be made on a more robust basis, that monitoring and stewardship of outsourced services needs to be strengthened, and that accountability arrangements need to be clarified.”

Auditors enfeebled?

The report says

“The system of checks and balances that previously existed to limit corruption has been eroded or deliberately removed.

“These changes include the removal of independent public audit of local authorities, the withdrawal of a universal national code of conduct, the reduced capacity of the local press and a reduced potential scope to apply for freedom of information requests. We have identified 16 areas in which we find a marked decline in the robustness of local government to resist corruption…”

The lack of independent audits is a particular concern. Audits are carried out by companies that can be sacked if they’re too critical.

“We believe that the new system – in which local authorities themselves are solely responsible for awarding their audit contracts and where there is no back-stop support for auditors who are challenging the local authority – will narrow the scope and effectiveness of local audits, while increasing potential conflicts of interest…”

External auditors risk being sued if they try to highlight suspected corruption in a report, even if they have the appetite to do it “which is less likely given their commercial priorities and the expected relative reduction in the scope of audits”.

The report goes further and says that external auditors “may face incentives to avoid undertaking investigations or raising concerns about suspicions of fraud or corruption”.

Audit professionals interviewed for this report saw these as serious concerns. One commented, “If you come down tough on a client, and it creates ruffles, you’ve got an eye to what will happen when it goes to open competition.”

Another said “external auditors now have nominal independence but they will probably feel pressure to keep their clients happy so as to avoid losing this contract, future contracts, or non-audit contracts with the local authority.”

Risks

Particular risks of corruption include:

1. public procurement at needs assessment stage;

2. public procurement at bid design stage;

3. public procurement at award stage;

4. public procurement at contract implementation stage;

5. control and accountability over outsourced services;

6. the revolving door of personnel between local authorities and private companies bidding to provide services;

7. planning discretion and influence regarding ‘permissions to build’ decisions;

8. planning discretion and influence regarding ‘changes of use’ decisions;

The report says:

“We feel it is important to emphasise, as has been noted in a number of public consultations and inquiries, that the majority of local councillors and council officers observe high standards of conduct and very few misuse their positions to further their own ends.

“There is no substitute for a commitment to ethics and integrity in public service. However, when accountability is absent, public officials may exercise their power for private ends unchecked by scrutiny, complaint, or the threat of punishment.

“Clear opportunities exist for unethical officers and members to exploit public trust for private gain. In any sector, corruption tends to increase as oversight and enforcement are weakened…

“Irrespective of how much corruption currently occurs, we believe that under the new and proposed arrangements for local government, corruption is likely to increase and there will be less reporting of that corruption.”

Media enfeebled?

The report says there is little scrutiny of local authority work by a “largely emasculated local media”; and the ballot box “provides only feeble discipline given that turnout is low and in many areas one party dominates or seats go uncontested”.

Corruption scandals over the years have revealed that individuals are sometimes able to capture local politics, exercising informal power over the local party and their political group as well as council officers, “so that they can shape policy to serve their own interests unchallenged by their peers”.

Countering corruption

The report highlights a need for:

–  Effective assessment of corruption risks;

–  Independence of the units or authorities whose duty is to prevent or investigate corruption;

–  Visible and effective whistleblowing mechanisms.  “Whistleblowing has been more effective than audit, internal monitoring, or police investigations in revealing corruption in local government … Suitable mechanisms should be established to provide an easy-to-use and confidential channel for reporting corruption suspicions or incidents.”

– The institutional will to mount effective investigation and prosecution of corruption;

– A nominated individual in every local authority who is responsible for counter-corruption and who conducts a regular corruption risk assessment and liaises closely with law enforcement authorities.

– Strong sanctions implemented against those who are caught – both legal and other;

– A commitment to transparency.

– Firms providing an audit function for local authorities not being allowed to provide other commercial and consultancy services to the same local authority.

–  Internal investigations being adequately resourced and sufficiently independent. “Internal audit teams are vulnerable to manipulation by the corrupt, and this vulnerability increases if they are under-resourced, unsupported by the leadership or have their terms of reference and freedom to investigate curtailed.”

– Strict procedures requiring officers always to report (i) major price discrepancies among procurement bids and (ii) details of contract variations to the council’s Audit Committee and senior management.

– Greater monitoring of elected officials’ interests

–  Private companies, when operating services in the public interest, to be required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act with regards to those services. Specifically audit reports from local authorities should be covered under the Freedom of Information Act or published directly as public documents.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the Transparency International report.

Comment

Lack of firm oversight, and a tolerance of bad practice contributed to the financial crisis of 2007/8. It was normal to give mortgages to people who had no means of paying them back. Only when the crisis became manifest did people realise that what had been regarded as normal behaviour was in fact deviant.

Is there a danger of tolerance in local government to aberrant behaviour such as the shaping of policy to favour outsourcing which could later benefit some individuals?

Those who claim corruption hardly exists can point to the strong ethos of public service in many councils – and indeed countless councillors do important public work for very little money – but that doesn’t remove concerns about what may remain hidden.

Transparency International’s report rings alarm bells. It points out that auditors, the media and whistleblowers are unlikely to expose deviant practices, and are even less likely to in the future. The report suggests that local government provides unprecedented opportunities for corruption.

“The accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference.”  – Bess Myerson, columnist. 1974.

Corruption in UK local government – the mounting risks.

IT suppliers out of control of DWP on Universal Credit?

By Tony Collins

The Department for Work and Pensions is investigating with consultants PwC whether poor financial controls on payments to IT suppliers have “materialised into cash that should not have been spent”.

If there is evidence the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux says the DWP will raise the matter with suppliers.

It’s rare for details of central government’s relationship with specific suppliers to come into the public domain but this has happened to some extent on the Universal Credit IT project, thanks mainly to the National Audit Office.

Last week the NAO published a summary of a PwC report into the financial management of UC’s IT suppliers. PwC’s report was circulated to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee who read out some of its contents at a hearing this week.

The Committee’s MPs questioned Devereux, his Finance Director Mike Driver, and Dr Norma Wood, Interim Director General at the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

Wood said the Major Projects Authority noticed that suppliers, in doing user acceptance testing, were increasing their average daily rates from £500 to about £800.

Said Wood:

“We came back down to about £500, in round figures. That could mean that you have much greater quality, so one has to be careful. We didn’t have an evidence base really to be able to probe this, which is why we recommended to the accounting officer that he undertake this [PwC] investigation.”

Wood agreed with Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, that financial control of the IT companies was a “shambles”.

Hodge said: “The PwC report reads more shockingly than the NAO report in terms of the lack of financial control.” She said that the DWP had sat on the PwC report for six months [before releasing it internally], a point the department has not denied.

Hodge said the PwC report referred to:
– incomplete contracts
– incomplete evidence to support contracts
– inappropriate authorisations
– insufficient information supporting contract management
– delegated authority given to a personal assistant to authorise purchase orders on the behalf of the chair of the strategic design authority

“This is a shambles,” said Hodge. “The fear that one has is that money was clearly paid out to the four big ones—Accenture, IBM, HP and BT—which they claimed on a time basis. It was not a tight contract; it was on a time-and-materials basis, which could well have paid out for no work being done.”

Wood: “I agree with you…it is quite clear that suppliers were out of control and that financial controls were not in place. As we did the reset, we ensured that everything was properly negotiated and contracted for, so that is very tight in terms of the reset going forward, but there are definitely questions about how it was handled… As with any payments you should have a proper audit trail and they should be properly governed. They should have been properly contracted for…”

Wood said that she would use the same suppliers again. “Under proper control why not?”

Hodge said the DWP appeared to have given suppliers a blank cheque. “Last night Mr Driver [DWP Finance Director] kindly sent me a copy of the PwC report, which is even more damning in my view [than the NAO report Universal Credit: early progress], particularly on the blank cheque that you appear to have given to suppliers and the failure to keep Ministers properly informed.”

Conservative MP Richard Bacon said the findings in the PwC report were “extraordinary”. Reading from the report he said there was:
– Limited cost control
– Ineffective end-to-end accounts payable processing
– Limited control over receipting against purchase orders
– Accenture and IBM accounted for almost 65% of total IT supplier spend, as at February 2013.
– Purchase orders for Accenture and IBM do not allow for granular verification of expenditure as they are raised and approved by value only. Thus, they cannot
be linked to individual delivery and grades of staff use. Receipting is completed by reference to time sheets. However, this confirmation is not complete and/or accurate as the majority of those individuals receipting do not have the capability and capacity to verify all time recording. This constraint has resulted in expenditure being approved with a nil return in many cases. As a result, payments may be made with no verification.

Bacon added:

“After all the history that we have had of IT projects going wrong, how can this
extraordinarily loose control—it is probably wrong to use the word “control”—how can this extraordinarily loose arrangement exist?”

Devereux, who was criticised by Hodge on several occasions for not answering questions directly, replied: “I will try at least to explain what was going on. Let me take you back to the process that we were operating. The process we were operating was seeking to work through, in the space of a four-week period -”

Hodge: “You are doing it again, Mr Devereux.”

Devereux: “I am afraid that I cannot answer the question without giving some facts.”

Hodge: “So is PwC wrong?”

Devereux: No, no. PwC is correct, but I am about to explain what else was going on. I have just had a long set of sessions with PwC, who as we speak, are doing further work for me to establish one particular, critical thing that you will want to know, which is that other things were being checked in the background here that enabled PwC to go back and do some ex post calculations about exactly how much was being paid for each of the outputs we had. It is absolutely right to say-”

Bacon “… Is it not utterly elementary that when you are paying a supplier for having given you something, you know what it is you are paying and what you are getting for it? This is basic!”

Devereux said his department had a resource plan agreed with Accenture (the main UC IT supplier) which was based on a computer model on what a piece of work would involve.

“The contract …in any one month was being based on that calculation of how much work we were likely to put into it in advance. Then the signing off of invoices was indeed based on looking at monthly time sheets. I agree with you that that is not a satisfactory position.”

Bacon: “What is amazing is that you said you did not know any of this until the supplier-led review brought it to you in the summer of 2012. This had been going on for quite a while. There was apparently nothing going on in the Department that was flagging this up. Internal assurance, internal audit—where was it?”

Devereux: “… I conclude this, and it is my responsibility—that more than one line of defence has gone wrong. We have talked so far about whether the programme was properly managing itself.”

Bacon: “This is extraordinary, and it is horribly familiar…it is absolutely central to your job as accounting officer to be sure that you have got lines of defence that are operating effectively. That is part of your job, isn’t it?”

Devereux: “It is part of my job.”

Bacon: “So to be surprised by this is an extraordinary admission, is it not?”

Devereux: “I can only be surprised by this if I am not getting signals from my second line of defence—my financial controllers—that they are worried about what is going on.”

Bacon: “You do sound as though you are blaming everybody underneath you, I am afraid.”

Devereux: “I do not intend to do that, but you are asking me what I knew and what I didn’t know. I am trying to take you through the process by which I am aware of things, and the action I have taken on them.”

Bacon: “But my point is that it was your job to know. It is your job to manage this. You are effectively the chief executive of the DWP.”

Devereux: “I am the chief executive of the DWP, I am the accounting officer, and I am accountable for it. Correct.”

Bacon: “But you didn’t know, did you?

Devereux: “I didn’t know on this, no.”

Hodge revealed that one of the conclusions of the PwC report was that there was a lack of evidence of ministerial sign-off of some contracts. PwC tested 25 contracts over £25,000, and only 11 could be traced with approval; and evidence of value for money provided to the Minister was limited in some cases.

Hodge said: “Basically it [PwC] found that you failed to consult properly with Ministers in signing off the IT contracts.”

Driver: “I think we had a weakness in the process that was operating…It has not always been possible to find all of the paper evidence to confirm a decision. We hold our hands up; we need to improve that. We have now significantly improved the control arrangements that operate within the Department ahead of ministerial sign-off.

“We have also significantly improved the arrangements that apply to any sign-off with the Cabinet Office. I personally chair what is called a star chamber group, which looks at all contracts before we seek authority from the Cabinet Office to go forward…”

Devereux: The work that I was trying to describe to the Chair earlier, which PwC is doing now, is to establish whether the risks we have been running, given this lack of control, have actually materialised into cash that should not have been spent…

“In the event that there is evidence of that, we will go back to the suppliers, obviously. I do not want to run this argument too hard, but there is a set of control weaknesses here which gives rise to a risk of loss of value for money. I accept that.”

MPs dig hard for truth on Universal Credit IT

Why does truth on Universal Credit emerge only now?

By Tony Collins

For nearly a year the Department for Work and Pensions, its ministers and senior officials, have told Parliament that Universal Credit IT is on track and on budget.

Together with DWP press officers, they have criticised parts of the media and some MPs for suggesting otherwise.

Now the truth can be held back no longer: the National Audit Office is expected tomorrow to report on UC’s problems. Ahead of that report’s publication, and perhaps to take the sting out of it, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has allowed Howard Shiplee, the latest DWP lead on delivery of UC, to own up to the project’s difficulties.

IDS has given permission for Shiplee to write an article for the Telegraph on the UC project. Every word is  likely to have been checked by senior DWP communications officers.

It’s the first time anyone on the UC project has publicly acknowledged the project’s difficulties though, as with nearly every government response to critical NAO reports, the administration depicts the problems as in the past. Shiplee’s article says

“… it’s also clear to me there were examples of poor project management in the past, a lack of transparency where the focus was too much on what was going well and not enough on what wasn’t and with suppliers not managed as they should have been.

“There is no doubt there have been missteps along the way. But we’ve put that right…

“I’m not in the business of making excuses, and I think it’s always important to acknowledge in any project where things may have gone wrong in order to ensure we learn as we go forward.

“To that end, the key decision taken by the Secretary of State to reset the programme to ensure its delivery on time and within budget has been critical.

“When David Pitchford arrived from the Major Projects Authority earlier this year, at the Secretary of State’s request, he began this process in line with those twin objectives…

“I’ve also ensured that as a programme we have a tight grip on our spending, and I have put in place a post for a new Director who will be dedicated to ensuring that suppliers deliver value for money. I am confident we are now back on course and the challenges are being handled.”

Parliament has a right to ask why nearly every central government IT project that goes wrong – whatever the government in power – is preceded for months and sometimes years in the case of the NPfIT by public denials.

From the over-budget and fragmented Operational Strategy project for welfare benefits in the 1980s, to the repeatedly delayed and over budget air traffic control IT at the New En Route Centre at Swanwick, Hampshire, and the abandoned Post Office “Pathway” project in the 1990s, to the failed National Programme for IT – NPfIT –  in the NHS in the last decade, ministers and senior officials were telling Parliament that all was well and that the project’s critics were misinformed. Until the facts became only too obvious to be denied any longer.

These are some of the reassurances ministers and DWP officials have been giving Parliament and the media about the UC project. None of their statements has given a hint of the  “missteps along the way” that Shiplee’s article refers to now.

House of Commons, 20 May 2013

Universal Credit (IT System)

Clive Betts (Lab): What assessment he [the secretary of state for work and pensions] has made of the preparedness of the universal credit IT delivery system.

Iain Duncan Smith: The IT system to support the pathfinder roll-out from April 2013 is up and running…

Betts: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he confirm that three of the pathfinders are not going ahead precisely because the computer system is not ready? …

Duncan Smith: The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong. All the pathfinders are going ahead. The IT system is but a part of that, and goes ahead in one of the pathfinders. The other three are already testing all the other aspects of universal credit and in July will, essentially, themselves roll out the remainder of the pathfinder, and more than 7,000 people will be engaged in it. All that nonsense the hon. Gentleman has just said is completely untrue.”

**

BBC – 9 Sept 2012

 “A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “Liam Byrne [Labour] is quite simply wrong. Universal Credit is on track and on budget. To suggest anything else is incorrect.”

**

Iain Duncan Smith, House of Commons, 20 May 2013

“This [Universal Credit] system is a success. We have four years to roll it out, we are rolling it out now, we will continue the roll-out nationwide and we will have a system that works—and one that works because we have tested it properly.”

Howard Shiplee – FT July 2013

“… Howard Shiplee, who has led UC since May, denied claims from MPs that the original IT had been ‘dumped’ because it had not delivered. ‘The existing systems that we have are working, and working effectively,’ he said. He added, however, that he had set aside 100 days ‘not to stop the programme, but to reflect on where we’ve got to and start to look at the entire total plan’.”

**

DWP spokesperson 16 August 2013

“… a DWP spokesperson said: “The IT supporting Universal Credit is working well and the vast majority of people are claiming online.”

**

Howard Shiplee Work and Pensions Committee, House of Commons, 10 July 2013.

“…The pathfinder, first of all, has demonstrated that the IT systems work…”

Mark Hoban, DWP minister, House of Commons, 6 March 2013.

The shadow Secretary of State has been touting this story for months. No it has been longer than that. The last outing was in today’s Guardian. I want to make it clear that nobody has walked off the project; all the contractors are in place and the project is on schedule to be delivered at the end of April. Now, if he thinks the idea is good in theory, it is about time he supported it. It is working and the contractors are in place, doing the job and ensuring that the pilots will be up and running at the end of April.”

[Hoban’s response was to a question on whether personnel or contractors at Accenture, Atos Origin, Oracle, Red Hat, CACI or IBM UK had been stepped down, or in any way notified by the Department, that they were to suspend work on Universal Credit. The main IT contractors for UC are Accenture, Hewlett Packard and BT plus input from Agile specialists Emergn. The DWP awarded UC IT contracts without any specific open competitive tender.]

Comment

On this site various posts have questioned whether Iain Duncan Smith has been getting the whole truth on the state of the UC IT project. He repeatedly went before MPs of the Work and Pensions Committee and gave such confident reassurances on the state of the UC project that it was difficult to believe that he knew what was really going on.

What we now know about the UC project’s “missteps along the way” shows, if nothing else, how gullible ministers are in believing their officials.

It is hard or impossible to believe that officials would lie but it is probable they would tell their ministers what they want to hear – and IDS has been in no mood to hear about problems.

Every big IT-based project in government that is failing ends up in a pantomime. From the back of the auditorium the media and MPs shout out when they receive leaks about problems. “Look behind you – there’s chaos,” they call out to departmental ministers and officials who don’t look behind them and reply “Oh no there isn’t!”

One reason this pantomime is repeated over decades is that independent reports on the progress or otherwise on big IT-based projects and programmes in central government are kept under departmental lock and key.  Even FOI requests for the keys consistently fail

So it’s usual for ministers and officials to answer media and Parliamentary questions about departmental projects without fear of authoritative contradiction.

Until the NAO is in imminent danger of publishing  a revealing report.

Perhaps it’s a lack of openness and accountability that contributes to IT-enabled change projects in central government going seriously awry in the first place.

With openness would come early and public recognition of a scheme that’s too ambitious to be implementable. With secrecy and the gung-ho optimism that seems to pervade projects like Universal Credit many on the project pretend to each other and perhaps even themselves that it’s all doable, while money continues to be thrown away.

When will the pantomime of misinformation and long-delayed revelation stop? Perhaps when Whitehall becomes genuinely open and accountable on the progress or otherwise of its IT-enabled projects. In other words: never.

Thank you to David Moss for drawing my attention to Howard Shiplee’s article in the Telegraph.

Time for truth on Universal Credit

Millions of pounds worth of secret DWP reports

Has 2 decades of outsourcing cut costs at HMRC?

By Tony Collins

If HMRC’s experience is anything to go by, outsourcing can, in the long-term, at least triple an organisation’s IT costs.

When Inland Revenue contracted out its 2,000-strong IT department to EDS, now HP, in 1994 it was the first major outsourcing deal in central government.

Costing a projected £1.03bn over 10 years the outsourcing was a success, according to the National Audit Office in a report in March 2000. The deal  enabled Inland Revenue to bring about changes in tax policy to a tight timetable, said the NAO’s Inland Revenue/EDS Strategic Partnership – Award of New Work.

But costs soared for vague reasons. Something called “post-contract verification” added £203m to the £1.03bn projected cost over 10 years. A further increase of £533m was because of “workload increases including new work”. Another increase of £248m was put down to inflation.

By now the deal with HP had risen from £1.03bn to about £2bn.

When the contract expired in 2004, HM Revenue and Customs and HP successfully transferred the IT staff to Capgemini. The new 10-year contract from 2004 to 2014 (which was later extended 2017) had a winning bid price of £2.83bn over 10 years.

So by 2004 the costs of outsourcing had risen from £1.03bn to £2.83bn.

The new contract in 2004 was called ASPIRE – Acquiring Strategic Partners for Inland Revenue. HMRC then added £900m to the ASPIRE contract for Fujitsu’s running of Customs & Excise systems. By now there were about 3,800 staff working on the contract.

The NAO said in its report in July 2006  – ASPIRE, the re-competition of outsourced IT services – that Gateway reviews had identified the need for a range of improvements in the management of the contract and projects.

Now costing £7.7bn over 10 years

The latest outsourcing costs have been obtained by Computing. It found that annual fees paid to Capgemini under ASPIRE were:

  • 2008/09:  £777.1m
  • 2009/10:  £728.9m
  • 2010/11:  £757.8m
  • 2011/12:  £735.5m
  • 2012/13:  £773.5m

So IT outsourcing costs have soared again. The original 10-year costs of outsourcing in 1994 were put at £1.03bn. Then the figure became about £2bn, then £2.83bn, then £3.7bn when Fujitsu’s contract was added to ASPIRE. Now annual IT outsourcing costs are running at about £770m a year – £7.7bn over 10 years.

So the original IT running costs of Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise have, under outsourcing contracts, more than tripled in about two decades.

Comment:

What happened to the prevailing notion that IT costs fall over the long-term, and that outsourcing brings down costs even further?

Shouldn’t HMRC’s IT costs be falling anyway because of reduced reliance on costly Fujitsu VME mainframes, reductions in data centres, modernisation of PAYE, and the clearance of time-consuming unreconciled items on more than 10 million tax files?

HMRC knows how much profit Capgemini makes under “open book” accounting. It’s a margin of about 10-15% says the NAO. Lower margins are for value-added service lines and higher margins for riskier projects. If the overall target profit margin of 12.3% is exceeded, HMRC can obtain an equal share of the extra profits.

There were 10 failures costing £3.25m in the first 15 months. Capgemini refunded £2.67m in service credits in the first year of the contract.

It’s also worth mentioning that Capgemini doesn’t get all the ASPIRE fees. It is the lead supplier in which there are around 300 subcontractors – including Fujitsu and BT.  Capgemini pays 65% of its fees to its subcontractors.

The outsourcing has helped to enable HMRC to bring in self-assessment online and other changes in tax policy. But HMRC’s quality of service generally (and not exclusively IT) is mixed, to put it politely.

The adjudicator for HMRC who intervenes in particularly difficult complaints identifies as particular problems the giving out of inaccurate information and recording information incorrectly.

She says in her 2013 annual report:

“I am disappointed at the number of complaints HMRC customers feel they need to refer to me in order to get resolution. My role should be to consider the difficult exceptions, not handle routine matters that are well within the capability of departmental staff to resolve successfully. At a time of austerity it is also important to note that the cost of dealing with customer dissatisfaction increases exponentially with every additional level of handling.”

RTI

There are complaints among payroll companies and specialists that real-time information  is not working as well as HMRC has claimed. There seems to be growing irritation with, for example, HMRC’s saying that companies owe much more than they do actually owe. And HMRC has been sending out thousands of tax codes that are wrong or change frequently – or both.

HMRC says it has made improvements but the helpline is appalling. It’s not unusual for callers to wait 30 minutes or more for an answer – or to hang on through multifarious automated messages only to be cut off.

That said there are signs HMRC is, in general, improving slowly. Chief executive of HMRC since 2012 Lin Homer is more down-to-earth and slightly more willing to own up to HMRC’s mistakes than her predecessors, and the fact that RTI and the modernisation of PAYE has got as far as it has is creditable.

But is HMRC a shining example of outsourcing at its best, of outsourcing that cuts costs in the long term? No. A decade of HP and a decade of Capgemini has shown that with outsourcing HMRC can cope, just about, with major changes in tax policy to demanding timetables. But the costs of the outsourcing contracts in the two decades since 1994 have more than tripled.

What about G-Cloud? We look forward to a change in direction from the incoming head of IT Mark Dearnley (if he has much say).

**

A Deloitte survey “The trend of bringing IT back in-house” dated February 2013, said that 48% of respondents in its Global Outsourcing and Insourcing survey 2012 reported that they had terminated an outsourcing agreement early, or for cause, or convenience. Those that took IT services back in-house mentioned cost reduction as a factor. Deloitte said factors included:

– the need for additional internal quality control due to poor quality from the outsourcer

– an increase in the price of service delivery through scope creep and excessive change orders.

Trust spends £16.6m on consultants for Cerner EPR

By Tony Collins

Reading-based Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust says in an FOI response that its spending on “computer consultants since the inception of the EPR system is £16.6m”.

The Trust’s total spend on the Cerner Millennium system was said to have been £30m by October 2012.

NHS IT suppliers have told me that the typical cost of a Trust-wide EPR [electronic patient record] system, including support for five years, is about £6m-£8m, which suggests that the Royal Berkshire has spent £22m more than necessary on new patient record IT.

Jonathan Isaby, Taxpayers’ Alliance political director, said: “This is an astonishing amount of taxpayers’ money to have squandered on a system which is evidently failing to deliver results.

“Every pound lost to this project is a pound less available for frontline medical care. Those who were responsible for the failure must be held to account for their actions as this kind of waste cannot go unchecked.”

 The £16.6m consultancy figure was uncovered this week through a Freedom of Information request made by The Reading Chronicle. It had asked for the spend on consultants working on the Cerner Millennium EPR [which went live later than expected in June 2012].

The Trust replied: “Further to your request for information the costs spent on computer consultants since the inception of the EPR system is £16.6m.”

The Chronicle says that the system is “meant to retrieve patient details in seconds, linking them to the availability of surgeons, beds or therapies, but has forced staff to spend up to 15 minutes navigating through multiple screens to book one routine appointment, leading to backlogs on wards and outpatient clinics”.

Royal Berkshire’s chief executive Edward Donald had said the Cerner Millennium go live was successful.  A trust board paper said:

 “The Chief Executive emphasised that, despite these challenges, the ‘go-live’ at the Trust had been more successful than in other Cerner Millennium sites.”

A similar, stronger message had appeared was in a separate board paper which was released under FOI.  Royal Berkshire’s EPR [electronic patient record] Executive Governance Committee minutes said:

“… the Committee noted that the Trust’s launch had been considered to be the best implementation of Cerner Millennium yet and that despite staff misgivings, the project was progressing well. This positive message should also be disseminated…”

Comment

Royal Berkshire went outside the NPfIT. But its costs are even higher than the breathtakingly high costs to the taxpayer of NPfIT Cerner and Lorenzo implementations.

As senior officials at the Department of Health have been so careless with public funds over NHS IT – and have spent millions on the same sets of consultants – they are in no position to admonish Royal Berkshire.

So who can criticise Royal Berkshire and should its chief executive be held accountable?

When it’s official policy to spend tens of millions on EPRs that may or may not make things better for hospitals and patients – and could make things much worse – how can accountability play any part in the purchase of the systems and consultants?

The enormously costly Cerner and Lorenzo EPR implementations go on – in an NHS IT world that is largely without credible supervision, control, accountability or regulation.

Cash squandered on IT help

Trust loses £18m on IT system

The best implementation of Cerner Millennium yet?

Universal Credit – good for its IT suppliers?

By Tony Collins

The DWP is conceding in its own tangential way that the IT for Universal Credit is not up to scratch; and an article in the Daily Telegraph suggests that Universal Credit this year (and perhaps well beyond) will handle so few claimants that the calculations for the time being could be done by hand, or on a spreadsheet, and not automatically by IT systems. The Register, through anonymous sources, has confirmation of this.

The FT says there will be a progressive national rollout of the coalition’s welfare reform in just six additional jobcentres which it said was the “latest sign the project is falling behind schedule”. It added that a significant shake-up of the IT underpinning universal credit is under way. 

The DWP said David Pitchford, the Whitehall troubleshooter who took over the running of Universal Credit for three months, had been asked to “review” the IT and ministers had “accepted his recommendation that they should explore enhancing the IT for universal credit working with the government digital service”.

“Advancements in technology since the current system was developed have meant that a more responsive system that is more flexible and secure could potentially be built,” said the DWP.

The FT quoted Howard Shiplee, who has led the Universal Credit  project since May, as denying claims from MPs that the original IT had been dumped because it had not delivered. “The existing systems that we have are working, and working effectively,” he said.

He added that he had set aside 100 days not to stop the programme, but to reflect on where it has got to and start to look at the entire total plan.

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, doesn’t concede that the  timetable for the implementation of Universal Credit has changed. He told the work and pensions committee on Wednesday that numbers of claimants would ramp up during 2014 and he insisted that all claimants would be on the system by 2017, as originally planned.

“We get fixated on things like IT; the reality is it’s about a cultural shift,” Duncan Smith told MPs.

Comment

Iain Duncan Smith makes it clear that his DWP staff and suppliers, with the help of HMRC, are implementing Universal Credit with extreme care. Labour’s  work and pensions spokesman Liam Byrne says the Universal Credit project is a shambles. The truth is hard to fathom.

For years the DWP has rejected press reports that the IT for Universal Credit was in trouble. It is able to do without fear of authoritative contradiction because it keeps secret all its consultancy reports on the state of the Universal Credit project, despite FOI requests.

The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and his officials talk much about the need for openness and transparency. Isn’t it time they persuaded DWP officials to release their internal and external reports on the detailed challenges faced by suppliers and civil servants on Universal Credit and other major government IT projects?

All big government IT projects are characterised by secrecy and defensiveness, although a little information about them is in the vague and subjectively-worded Major Projects Authority annual report.

One by-product of departmental defensiveness and secrecy is that the IT suppliers – in Universal Credit’s case HP, IBM and Accenture – are likely to continue to be paid even if the project is halted and redesigned. It’s probable the suppliers would argue that they have successfully done what they were asked to do in the contract. Who knows what the truth is?

The DWP is in effect protecting its suppliers from public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has been this way for decades and nothing has changed.