Category Archives: private sector lessons for the public sector

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

A report to the council’s cabinet said,

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

The council says the aim of the project is to

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

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

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

How is that useful to residents?

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

Which means?

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

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

Actual uses please?

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but one specific purpose?

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

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

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

Yes but specific benefits?

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

Specifically?

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

Yes, but …

“To address congestion …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible big data uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He added,

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

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

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

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

The Parliamentary Ombudsman at that time agreed with this view.

She said,

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

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

 

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

Big Data Corridor bid goes through to the next stage

Big Data Corridor report

Big Data case studies

Birmingham council savings too ambitious and too many uncertainties.

Birmingham blog

Digital Birmingham

 

 

Vodafone’s apology for poor customer service – a template for Whitehall?

By Tony Collins

In response to Ofcom’s fine of £4.625m, Vodafone has published a detailed and contrite apology  – albeit one that blamed computer systems more than senior management for a botched data migration exercise.

Nothing similar has been issued by a central government department, even after a major failure such as HMRC’s loss of 25 million records, or the DWP’s failure to provide timely benefits to people most in need of them, particularly the disabled.

Vodafone needs customers to stay in business. So an apology that explains in general terms what went wrong may be seen by some of its customers as a sign of remorse.

The Vodafone apology could be a template for government departments that tend not to apologise for anything that goes wrong, largely because they don’t have to.

This was Vodafone’s apology:

“Vodafone UK today issued its response to the Ofcom investigations into compliance matters related to Pay As You Go (PAYG) disconnections between December 2013 and April 2015 and general complaints handling between 1 January 2014 and 5 November 2015.

“The company also explained the background to the errors identified by Ofcom and set out the actions taken since to address the concerns raised.

“We deeply regret these system and process failures. We are completely focused on serving our customers: everyone who works for us is expected to do their utmost to meet our customers’ needs, day after day, and act quickly and efficiently if something goes wrong

“It is clear from Ofcom’s findings that we did not do that often enough or well enough on a number of occasions. We offer our profound apologies to anyone affected by these errors.

What happened – and why

“The matters under investigation were a consequence of errors during a complex IT migration which involved moving more than 28.5 million customer accounts and almost one billion individual customer data fields from seven legacy billing and services platforms to one, state-of-the-art system.

“The IT project began at the end of 2013 and was the largest of its kind ever undertaken by Vodafone anywhere in the world.

“Despite multiple controls in place to reduce the risk of errors, at various points a small proportion of individual customer accounts were incorrectly migrated, leading to mistakes in the customer billing data and price plan records stored on the new system.

“Those errors led to a range of different problems for the customers affected which – in turn – led to a sharp increase in the volume of customer complaints. This was the focus of the Ofcom investigation under General Condition 14.4.

“We accept that numerous customers were frustrated and affected by these issues and accept that we were not as effective as we should have been in handling and resolving customers’ issues fairly, consistently and in a timely manner.

“As Ofcom confirms, we were working to address the issues from October 2014 but also accept that that the steps taken weren’t effective or sufficient until November 2015.

The PAYG top-up error

“From late 2013 until early 2015, a failure in our billing systems – linked to the migration challenges explained above – meant that customers who had topped up a PAYG mobile which had been dormant for nine months or more received a confirmation message that the credit had been added to their account; however, the mobile in question continued to be flagged as disconnected on our systems.

“This meant that customers who had paid Vodafone in order to resume using a previously inactive mobile were led to believe – incorrectly – that they would be able to make calls, send texts and use data on Vodafone’s network.

“Affected customers continued to have access to the emergency services as all charged mobile phones can dial 999 via any mobile network, including when out of credit.

“This was a serious error that affected a total of 10,452 PAYG customers and forms the focus of the Ofcom investigation under General Condition 23.2 and 11.1.

“Unfortunately, as the circumstances of the IT failure in question were very unusual (at the time, less than 0.01% of all Vodafone UK PAYG customers’ phones were inactive for more than nine months before being reactivated), the teams responsible for the day-to-day operation of the relevant areas were not fast enough in identifying the issue and did not fully appreciate its significance once they did so.

“Once the issue was finally escalated to senior management there was a prompt, full and thorough investigation and every effort was made to fix the underlying failure and to refund in full all affected customers as quickly as possible.

What have we done to put this right?

“We have fully refunded or re-credited 10,422 customers out of the 10,452 affected. The average refund per customer was £14.35.

“We were unable to track down the remaining 30 customers affected. As we cannot refund those customers and have no intention of profiting from this issue in any way, we have instead made a donation of £100,000 to a number of UK charities.

“The IT failure involved was resolved by April 2015 – approximately 11 weeks after senior managers were finally alerted to it – with a system-wide change implemented in October 2015 that – as Ofcom acknowledges – means this error cannot be repeated in future.

“More broadly, we have conducted a full internal review of this failure and, as a result, have overhauled our management control and escalation procedures. A failure of this kind, while rare, should have been identified and flagged to senior management for urgent resolution much earlier.

Investment in improving our customer services

“Our new billing and customer management system is designed to give our customers the best experience possible. It puts the customers in control of every aspect of the Vodafone products and services upon which they rely.

” It also enables our customer service and retail employees to respond quickly and efficiently to changing customer needs and swiftly put things right if they go wrong.

“All of our consumer customer accounts have now been migrated successfully to the new system with a number of positive effects as a consequence.

“For example, there has been more than 50% reduction in customer complaints since November 2015 and our Net Promoter Score – which measures the extent to which our customers would recommend Vodafone to others – has increased by 50 points.

“We fully appreciate the consequences for our customers of various failures in the migration process over the last three years.

“We have sought to remedy these through an additional £30 million investment this year in customer service and training including hiring an additional 1,000 new UK-based call centre personnel and more than 190,000 hours of training to improve how we identify and resolve individual customer problems.

“We are also working with the Ombudsman to ensure that customers are able to escalate problems more effectively if we are unable to resolve these within our own systems quickly.

“This has been an unhappy episode for all of us at Vodafone: we know we let our customers down. We are determined to put everything right. We are also confident that our customers are already beginning to see the benefits of our substantial investment in new systems designed to meet their needs much more effectively in future.”

 

Comment:

The fine of £4.625m is the largest Ofcom has levied against any telecoms supplier.

No regulator exists that can force an admission of failure from any central government department, let alone extract an explanatory apology.

Margaret Hodge, former chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, concludes in her wonderful book Called to Account”

“There is a mind-boggling waste of taxpayers’ right across government.”

And not an apology in sight.

Botched IT migration – Computer Weekly

 

Inside Universal Credit IT – analysis of document the DWP didn’t want published

dwpBy Tony Collins

Written evidence the Department for Work and Pensions submitted to an FOI tribunal – but did not want published (ever) – reveals that there was an internal “lack of candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit IT] Programme and publicly”.

It’s the first authoritative confirmation by the DWP that it has not always been open and honest when dealing with the media on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme.

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP's written submission

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP’s written submission

According to the DWP submission, senior officials on the Programme became so concerned about leaks that a former member of the security services was brought in to lead an investigation. DWP staff and managers were the subjects of “detailed interviews”. Employee emails were “reviewed”, as were employee access rights to shared electronic areas.

Staff became “paranoid” about accidentally leaving information on a printer. Some of the high-security measures appear still to be in place.

Unpublished until now, the DWP’s written legal submission referred, in part, to the effects on employees of leak investigations.

The submission was among the DWP’s written evidence to an FOI Tribunal in February 2016.

The Government Legal Service argued that the DWP’s written evidence was for the purposes of the tribunal only. It should not be published or passed to an MP.

The Legal Service went further: it questioned the right of an FOI Tribunal to decide on whether the submission could be published. Even so a judge has ruled that the DWP’s written evidence to the tribunal can be published.

Excerpts from the submission are here.

Analysis and Comment

The DWP’s submission gives a unique glimpse into day-to-day life and corporate sensitivities at or near the top of the Universal credit IT programme.

It reveals the lengths to which senior officials were willing to go to stop any authoritative “bad news” on the Universal Credit IT programme leaking out. Media speculation DWP’s senior officials do not seem to mind. What appears to concern them is the disclosure of any credible internal information on how things are progressing on Universal Credit IT.

Confidential

Despite multiple requests from IT suppliers, former government CIOs and MPs, for Whitehall to publish its progress reports on big IT-based change programmes (some examples below), all central departments keep them confidential.

That sensitivity has little to do with protecting personal data.

It’s likely that reviews of projects are kept confidential largely because they could otherwise expose incompetence, mistakes, poor decisions, risks that are likely to materialise, large sums that have been wasted or, worst of all, a project that should have been cancelled long ago and possibly re-started, but which has been kept going in its original form because nobody wanted to own up to failure.

Ian watmore front cover How to fix government IROn this last point, former government CIO and permanent secretary Ian Watmore spoke to MPs in 2009 about how to fix government IT. He said,

“An innovative organisation tries a lot of things and sometimes things do not work. I think one of the valid criticisms in the past has been when things have not worked, government has carried on trying to make them work well beyond the point at which they should have been stopped.”

Individual accountability for failure?

Oblivious to MPs’ requests to publish IT progress reports, the DWP routinely refuses FOI requests to publish IT progress reports, even when they are several years old, even though by then officials and ministers involved will probably have moved on. Individual accountability for failure therefore continues to be non-existent.

Knowing this, MPs on two House of Commons select committees, Public Accounts and Work and Pensions, have called for the publication of reports such as “Gateway” reviews.

This campaign for more openness on government IT projects has lasted nearly three decades. And still Whitehall never publishes any contemporaneous progress reports on big IT programmes.

It took an FOI campaigner and IT projects professional John Slater [@AmateurFOI] three years of legal proceedings to persuade the DWP to release some old reports on the Universal Credit IT programme (a risk register, milestone schedule and issues log). And he had the support of the Information Commissioner’s legal team.

universal creditWhen the DWP reluctantly released the 2012 reports in 2016 – and only after an informal request by the then DWP secretary of state Stephen Crabb – pundits were surprised at how prosaic the documents were.

Yet we now know, thanks to the DWP’s submission, the lengths to which officials will go to stop such documents leaking out.

Understandable?

Some at the DWP are likely to see the submission as explaining some of understandable measures any government department would take to protect sensitive information on its largest project, Universal Credit. The DWP is the government largest department. It runs some of the world’s biggest IT systems. It possesses personal information on nearly everyone in Britain. It has to make the protection of its information a top priority.

Others will see the submission as proof that the DWP will do all it can to honour a decades-old Whitehall habit of keeping bad news to itself.

Need for openness

It’s generally accepted that success in running big IT-enabled change programmes requires openness – with staff and managers, and with external organisations and agencies.

IT-based change schemes are about solving problems. An introspective “good news only” culture may help to explain why the DWP has a poor record of managing big and successful IT-based projects and programmes. The last time officials attempted a major modernisation of benefit systems in the 1990s – called Operational Strategy – the costs rose from £713m to £2.6bn and the intended objective of joining up the IT as part of a “whole person” concept, did not happen.

Programme papers“watermarked”

The DWP’s power, mandate and funding come courtesy of the public. So do officials, in return, have the right to keep hidden mistakes and flawed IT strategies that may lead to a poor use – or wastage – of hundreds of millions of pounds, or billions?

The DWP’s submission reveals that recommendations from its assurance reports (low-level reports on the state of the IT programme including risks and problems) were not circulated and a register was kept of who had received them.

Concern over leaks

The submission said that surveys on staff morale ceased after concerns about leaks. IT programme papers were no longer sent electronically and were delivered by hand. Those that were sent were “double-enveloped” and any that needed to be retained were “signed back in”. For added security, Universal Credit programme papers were watermarked.

When a former member of the security services was brought in to conduct a leaks investigation, staff and mangers were invited by the DWP’s most senior civil servant to “speak to the independent investigator if they had any information”. This suggests that staff were expected to inform on any suspect colleagues.

People “stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the [Universal Credit IT] Programme,” said the submission. “People became suspicious of their colleagues – even those they worked closely with.

“There was a lack of trust and people were very careful about being honest with their colleagues…

“People felt they could no longer share things with colleagues that might have an honest assessment of difficulties or any negative criticism – many staff believed the official line was, ‘everything is fine’.

“People, even now, struggle to trust colleagues with sensitive information and are still fearful that anything that is sent out via email will be misused.

“For all governance meetings, all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings included, whether or not they contain sensitive information.”

“Defensive”

dwpLines to take with the media were added to a “Rolling Brief”, an internal update document, that was circulated to senior leaders of the Universal Credit IT programme, the DWP press office and special advisors.

These “lines to take” were a “defensive approach to media requests”. They emphasised the “positive in terms of progress with the Programme without acknowledging the issues identified in the leaked stories”.

This positive approach to briefing and media management “led to a lack of candour and honesty through the Programme and publically …”

How the DWP’s legal submission came about is explained in this separate post.

Were there leaks of particularly sensitive information?

It appears not. The so-called leaks revealed imperfections in the running of the Universal Credit programme; but there was no personal information involved. Officials were concerned about the perceived leak of a Starting Gate Review to the Telegraph (although the DWP had officially lodged the review with the House of Commons library).

The DWP also mentioned in its statement a leak to the Guardian of the results of an internal “Pulse” survey of staff morale – although it’s unclear why the survey wasn’t published officially given its apparent absence of sensitive commercial, personal, corporate or governmental information.

NPfIT

The greater the openness in external communications, the less likely a natural scepticism of new ways of working will manifest in a distrust of the IT programme as a whole.

The NHS’s National Programme for IT (NPfIT) – then the UK’s biggest IT programme costing about £10bn – was dismantled in 2011 after eight fraught years. One reason it was a disaster was the deep distrust of the NPfIT among clinicians, hospital technologists, IT managers, GPs and nurses. They had listened with growing scepticism to Whitehall’s oft-repeated “good news” announcements.

Ex-Government CIO wanted more openness on IT projects

When MPs have asked the DWP why it does not publish reports on the progress of IT-enabled projects, it has cited “commercial confidentiality”.

But in 2009, Ian Watmore (the former Government CIO) said in answer to a question by Public Account Committee MP Richard Bacon that he’d endorse the publication of Gateway reviews, which are independent assessments of the achievements, inadequacies, risks, progress and challenges on risky IT-based programmes.

“I am with you in that I would prefer Gateway reviews to be published because of the experience we had with capability reviews (published reports on a department’s performance). We had the same debate (as with Gateway reviews) and we published them. It caused furore for a few weeks but then it became a normal part of the furniture,” said Watmore.

Capability reviews are no longer published. The only “regular” reports of Whitehall progress with big IT programmes are the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual reports. But these do not include Gateway reviews or other reports on IT projects and programmes. The DWP and other departments publish only their own interpretations of project reviews.

In the DWP’s latest published summary of progress on the Universal Credit IT programme, dated July 2016, the focus is on good news only.

But this creates a mystery. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority gave the Universal Credit programme an “amber” rating in its annual report which was published this month. But neither the DWP nor the Authority has explained why the programme wasn’t rated amber/green or green.

MPs and even IT suppliers want openness on IT projects

Work and Pensions Committee front coverIn 2004 HP, the DWP’s main IT supplier, told a Work and Pensions Committee inquiry entitled “Making IT work for DWP customers” in 2004 that “within sensible commercial parameters, transparency should be maintained to the greatest possible extent on highly complex programmes such as those undertaken by the DWP”.

The Work and Pensions Committee spent seven months investigating IT in the DWP and published a 240-page volume of oral and written in July 2004. On the matter of publishing “Gateway” reviews on the progress or otherwise of big IT projects, the Committee concluded,

“We found it refreshing that major IT suppliers should be content for the [Gateway] reviews to be published. We welcome this approach. It struck us as very odd that of all stakeholders, DWP should be the one which clings most enthusiastically to commercial confidentiality to justify non-disclosure of crucial information, even to Parliament.”

The Committee called for Gateway reviews to be published. That was 12 years ago – and it hasn’t happened.

Four years later the Committee found that the 19 most significant DWP IT projects were over-budget or late.

DWP headline late and over budget

In 2006 the National Audit Office reported on Whitehall’s general lack of openness in a report entitled “Delivering successful IT-enabled business change”.

The report said,

“The Public Accounts Committee has emphasised frequently the need for greater transparency and accountability in departments’ performance in managing their programmes and projects and, in particular, that the result of OGC Gateway Reviews should be published.”

But today, DWP officials seem as preoccupied as ever with concealing bad news on their big IT programmes including Universal Credit.

The costs of concealment

The DWP has had important DWP project successes, notably pension credits, which was listed by the National Audit Office as one of 24 positive case studies.

But the DWP has also wasted tens of millions of pounds on failed IT projects.

Projects with names such as “Camelot” [Computerisation and Mechanisation of Local Office Tasks] and Assist [Analytical Services Statistical Information System) were cancelled with losses of millions of pounds. More recently the DWP has run into problems on several big projects.

“Abysmal”

On 3 November 2014 the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge spoke on Radio 4’s Analysis of the DWP’s ‘abysmal’ management of IT contracts.”

1984

As long ago as 1984, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee called for the civil service to be more open about its progress on major computer projects.

Today there are questions about whether the Universal Credit IT will succeed. Hundreds of millions has already been spent. Yet, as mentioned earlier, current information on the progress of the DWP’s IT programmes remains a state secret.

It’s possible that progress on the Universal Credit IT programme has been boosted by the irregular (but thorough) scrutiny by the National Audit Office. That said, as soon as NAO reports on Universal Credit are published, ministers and senior officials who have seen copies in advance routinely dismiss any criticisms as retrospective and out-of-date.

Does it matter if the DWP is paranoid about leaks?

A paper published in 2009 looks at how damaging it can be for good government when bureaucracies lack internal challenge and seek to impose on officials a “good news” agenda, where criticism is effectively prohibited.

The paper quoted the then Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev as saying, in a small meeting with leading Soviet intellectuals,

“The restructuring is progressing with great difficulty. We have no opposition party. How then can we control ourselves? Only through criticism and self-criticism. Most important: through glasnost.”

Non-democratic regimes fear a free flow of information because it could threaten political survival. In Russia there was consideration of partial media freedom to give incentives to bureaucrats who would otherwise have no challenge, and no reason to serve the state well, or avoid mistakes.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986, was not acknowledged by Soviet officials for two days, and only then after news had spread across the Western media.

The paper argued that a lack of criticism could keep a less democratic government in power. But it can lead to a complacency and incompetence in implementing policy that even a censored media cannot succeed in hiding.

As one observer noted after Chernobyl (Methvin in National Review, Dec. 4, 1987),

“There surely must be days—maybe the morning after Chernobyl—when Gorbachev wishes he could buy a Kremlin equivalent of the Washington Post and find out what is going on in his socialist wonderland.”

Red team

Iain DuncanSmithA lack of reliable information on the state of the Universal Credit IT programme prompted the then secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith to set up his own “red team” review.

That move was not known about at the time. Indeed in December 2012 – at a point when the DWP was issuing public statements on the success of the Universal Credit Programme – the scheme was actually in trouble. The DWP’s legal submission said,

“In summary we concluded (just before Christmas 2012) that the IT system that had been developed for the launch of UC [Universal Credit] had significant problems.”

One wonders whether DWP civil servants kept Duncan Smith in the dark because they themselves had not been fully informed about what was going on, or because they thought the minister was best protected from knowing what was going on, deniability being one key Whitehall objective.

But in the absence of reliable internal information a political leader can lose touch completely, said the paper on press freedom.

“On December 21, 1989, after days of local and seemingly limited unrest in the province of Timi¸ Ceausescu called for a grandiose meeting at the central square of Bucharest, apparently to rally the crowds in support of his leadership. In a stunning development, the meeting degenerated into anarchy, and Ceausescu and his wife had to flee the presidential palace, only to be executed by a firing squad two days later.”

Wrong assumptions

Many times, after the IT media has published articles on big government IT-based project failures, TV and radio journalists have asked to what extent the secretary of state was responsible and why he hadn’t acted to stop millions of pounds being wasted.

But why do broadcast journalists assume ministers control their departments? It is usually more likely that ministers know little about the real risks of failure until it is too late to act decisively.

Lord Bach, a minister at DEFRA, told a House of Commons inquiry in 2007 into the failure of the IT-based Single Payment Scheme that he was aware of the risks but still officials told him that systems would work as planned and farmers would receive payments on time. They didn’t. Chaos ensued.

Said Lord Bach,

“I do think that, at the end of the day, some of the advice that I received from the RPA [Rural Payments Agency] was over-optimistic.”

Lord WhittyAnother DEFRA minister at the time Lord Whitty, who was also party in charge of the Single Payment Scheme, told the same inquiry,

“Perhaps I ought also to say that this was the point at which I felt the advice I was getting was most misleading, and I have used the term ‘misleading’ publicly but I would perhaps prefer to rephrase that in the NAO terms …”

Even the impressive Stephen Crabb – who has now quit as DWP secretary of state – didn’t stand much of chance of challenging his officials. The department’s contracts, IT and other affairs, are so complex and complicated – there are bookcases full of rules and regulations on welfare benefits – that any new ministers soon find themselves overwhelmed with information and complexity.

They will soon realise they are wholly dependent on their officials; and it is the officials who decide what to tell the minister about internal mistakes and bad decisions. Civil servants would argue that ministers cannot be told everything or they would be swamped.

But the paper on press freedom said that in order to induce high effort within a bureacucracy, the leader needs “verifiable information on the bureaucrats’ performance”.

The paper made a fascinating argument that the more complacent the bureaucracy, the more aggressively it would control information. Some oil-rich countries, said the paper, have less media freedom than those with scarcer resources.

“Consistent with our theory, [some] non-democratic countries … have vast resources and poor growth performance, while the Asian tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), while predominantly non-democratic in the 1970s and 1980s, have high growth rates and scarce natural resource.”

In an apparent opening up of information, the government in China passed a law along the lines of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (“China Sets Out to Cut Secrecy, but Laws Leave Big Loopholes,” New York Times, Apr. 25, 2007). But was this law self-serving? It, and the launch of local elections, provided the central government with relatively reliable information on the performance of provincial bosses.

These stories from less democratic countries may be relevant in Britain because politicians here, including secretaries of state, seem to be the last to know when a big IT-based programme is becoming a disaster.

Bad news

Whtehall’s preoccupation with “good news only” goes well beyond the DWP.

T auditors Arthur D Little, in a forensic analysis of the delays, cost over-runs and problems on the development of a huge air traffic control IT project for National Air Traffic Services, whose parent was then the Civil Aviation Authority, which was part of the Department for Transport, referred to an “unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news”.

Ministers helpless to force openness on unwilling officials?

Francis Maude came to the Cabinet Office with a reforming zeal and a sophisticated agenda for forcing through more openness, but the effects of his efforts began to evaporate as soon as he left office. Even when he was at the height of his power and influence, he was unable to persuade civil servants to publish Gateway reviews, although he’d said when in opposition that he intended to publish them.

His negotiations ended with central departments agreeing to publish only the “traffic light” status of big projects – but only after a minimum delay of at least six months. In practice the delay is usually a year or more.

Brexit

Brexit campaigners argue that the EC is undemocratic, that decisions are taken in Brussels in secret by unelected bureaucrats. But the EC is at least subject to the scrutiny, sometimes the competing scrutiny, of 29 countries.

Arguably Whitehall’s departments are also run by unelected bureaucrats who are not subject to any effective scrutiny other than inspections from time to time of the National Audit Office.

Yes Minister parodied Sir Humphrey’s firm grip on what the public should and should not be told. Usually his recommendation was that the information should be misleadingly reassuring. This was close enough to reality to be funny. And yet close enough to reality to be serious as well. It revealed a fundamental flaw in democracy.

Nowhere is that flaw more clearly highlighted than in the DWP’s legal submission. Is it any surprise that the DWP did not want the submission published?

If officials had the choice, would they publish any information that they did not control on any of their IT projects and programmes?

That’s where the indispensable work of the National Audit Office comes into the picture – but it alone, even with the help of the Public Accounts Committee, cannot plug the gaping hole in democracy that the DWP’s submission exposes.

These are some thoughts I am left with after reading the legal submission in the light of the DWP’s record on the management of IT-based projects …

  • Press freedom and the free flow of information cannot be controlled in a liberal democracy. But does Whitehall have its own subtle – and not so subtle – ways and means?
  • In light of the DWP’s track record, the public and the media are entitled to distrust whatever ministers and officials say publicly about their own performance on IT-related programmes, including Universal Credit.
  • More worryingly, would the DWP’s hierarchy care a jot if the media and public didn’t believe what the department said publicly about progress on big projects such as Universal Credit?
  • Is the DWP’s unofficial motto: Better to tell a beautiful lie than an ugly truth?
  • AL Kennedy mentioned the “botched” Universal Credit programme  when she gave a “point of view” on Radio 4 last week. Not referring specifically to Universal Credit she said facts can be massaged but nature can’t be fooled. A girder that won’t hold someone’s weight is likely to fail however many PR-dominated assurance reports have gone before. “Facts are uncompromising and occasionally grim. I wish they weren’t. Avoiding them puts us all at increased risk,” she said.

 Excerpts from the DWP submission

Some Twitter comments on this post:

tweet2

tweet3

tweet

tweet4

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

Did DWP mislead MPs and media over Universal Credit?

By T0ny Collins

Today’s report of the all-party Public Accounts Committee “Universal Credit: early progress” goes beyond criticisms of the scheme in a National Audit Office report of the same name on 5 September 2013.

Public Accounts MPs say the Department for Work and Pensions gave “misleading interviews to the press regarding progress after it became aware of difficulties with the programme”.

And as recently as July 2013 the “Department denied that there were problems with the programme’s IT when it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee”.

These criticisms are against a background of the DWP’s refusal to publish any of the many internal and external reports the department has commissioned on the project’s progress, problems and challenges since 2011.

The Times today says that work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and members of his parliamentary team are “understood to have approached at least three Tory MPs on the cross-party [Public Accounts] committee to ask them to ensure that Robert Devereux, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, was singled out for censure”.  In the end there was only limited criticism in the PAC report of Devereux – under his formal title of “Accounting Officer”.

Comment

If the DWP has been misleading the press, giving incorrect evidence to Parliament, and keeping secret its reports on the problems and challenges facing one of the government’s most important IT-based programmes – all of which seem to be the case – is it an institution that regards itself as uniquely outside the democratic process?

On big IT projects, officials are not motivated by money and concern for their jobs as are private sector boards of directors. When a private company gets it wrong and loses tens of millions on a project, the share price may fall, individual bonuses may be hit, and jobs, including the CEO’s, may be at risk.

In the public sector getting it wrong rarely has any implications for officials. They have only the threat of departmental embarrassment as a deterrent to getting it wrong. But they need not fear even embarrassment if they can mislead the press and Parliament and keep secret all their internal and external reports.

If a lack of transparency, culture of denial, and the misleading of Parliament continue to characterize big risky IT-based ventures in central government, one has to ask whether Whitehall is congenitally ill-suited to running such programmes.

The Public Accounts Committee warned in a report in 1984 about the risks of large public sector computer programmes. That report came after a series of project disasters.

So what has been learned in the last 30 years – other than that central departments are poorly equipped managerially – or democratically – to handle big IT-based programmes and projects?

These are some of the Public Accounts Committee’s findings:

MPs try to be positive

“We believe that meeting any specific timetable is less important than delivering the programme successfully. There is still the potential for Universal Credit to deliver significant benefits, but there is no clarity yet on the amount of savings it will achieve.”

Culture of denial

“The programme had also developed a flawed culture of reporting good news and denying that problems had emerged. This culture resulted from the desire of senior staff within the programme to show publically that they were able to push the programme forward, at the expense of ensuring that adequate controls were in place or listening to concerns raised about its delivery.

“Although the Department has tried to tackle this culture, it gave misleading interviews to the press regarding progress after it became aware of difficulties with the programme, and as recently as July 2013 the Department denied that there were problems with the programme’s IT when it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee.”

Shocking absence of control over suppliers

“There has been a shocking absence of control over suppliers with the Department neglecting to implement basic procedures for monitoring and authorising expenditure…

“The Department recognises its supplier management has been weak, risking value for money.  Four main suppliers – Accenture, IBM, Hewlett Packard and British Telecom – have provided IT systems for Universal Credit, and by March 2013 the Department had paid them £265m out of the £303m spent with suppliers on IT systems.

“In February 2013 the Major Projects Authority found no evidence of the Department actively managing its supplier contracts, resulting in suppliers being out of control and financial controls not being in place.  The Department has yet to provide a comprehensive assessment of how much of this expenditure has proved nugatory, although the Major Projects Authority believes it will be a substantial figure running into hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Lack of oversight

The lack of oversight allowed the Department’s Universal Credit team to become isolated and defensive, undermining its ability to recognise the size of the problems the programme faced and to be candid when reporting progress…

“Oversight has been characterised by a failure to understand properly the nature and enormity of the task, a failure to monitor and challenge progress regularly, and a failure to intervene promptly when problems arose.

“Senior managers only became aware of problems through ad hoc reviews, mostly conducted by external reviewers, as inadequate management information and reporting arrangements had not alerted them that things were amiss.

“Given its huge importance to the Department, the Accounting Officer [Robert Devereux] and his team should have been more alert to identifying and acting on early warning signs that things were going wrong with the programme

Blinkered culture remains?

“Risk was not well managed and the divergence between planned and actual progress could and should have been spotted and acted upon earlier. The Department only reported good news and denied the problems that had emerged. The risk of a similarly blinkered culture remains as the Department will be working to tight timescales to get the programme back on track.”

Problems hidden

“It is extremely disappointing that the litany of problems in the Universal Credit Programme were often hidden by a culture prevalent in the Department which promoted only the telling of ‘good news’.

“For example, officials were aware that a critical report highlighting many of these issues had been discussed internally for months. Indeed, there are real doubts over when officials became aware of these problems and it is difficult to conceive, based on the evidence we were presented with, that officials within the Department did not know of them before July 2012.”

Shocking absence of financial and other controls

“There has been a shocking absence of financial and other internal controls and we are not yet convinced that the Department has robust plans to overcome the problems that have impeded progress.”

Did the DWP do anything well?

“The Department initially adopted a piecemeal approach to delivering the programme.

“In 2011 it identified over a hundred different types of users for Universal Credit, and initially sought to design IT solutions for each set of circumstances individually. It was only in early 2012 that the Department decided to stand back and try to establish a clearer picture of what the programme’s overall shape might look like.

“During the summer of 2012 the Department became aware of the problems that Universal Credit faced. It was first alerted by concerns raised in a supplier-led review, commissioned by the Secretary of State, which reported in July.

“The Department subsequently established that the programme’s progress was stalling because there were a number of unresolved issues which had become intractable, particularly relating to the level of security needed for identity assurance and protection against fraud and error and cyber-attack.

“The Department had been previously unaware of the programme’s difficulties because its internal lines of monitoring, intervention and defence, intended to identify and mitigate such problems, were not working properly. Governance arrangements were not remotely adequate, and the Accounting Officer [Robert Devereux] discussed progress with the head of the Universal Credit programme only every two or three weeks.

“The Department had inadequate performance information to scrutinise and challenge the programme’s reports of its progress, so internal reporting arrangements did not flag up that things were amiss. The Department’s corporate finance undertook insufficient work to ensure there was an appropriate control environment in place, and the Department’s process for ministers to sign-off higher-value contracts was weak.

“The Department’s senior management had relied on ad hoc reviews, mostly conducted by external reviewers, which only provided an occasional snapshot of the programme, instead of ensuring effective internal systems were in place to monitor and challenge progress. However, during 2012 the problems surfaced more clearly as the Universal Credit team became unable to respond to recommendations made by such reviews.”

Will Universal Credit ever work?

“The Department remains uncertain about key details of its final plans. It does not know how much can be delivered online, when this will be available, and what activities will continue to require face-to-face meetings.

“ The Department also does not know what the final cost of the IT will be, or the savings the programme is expected to deliver. Nor does it know when it will close down the other benefits that Universal Credit will replace.”

The Department has a target of enrolling 184,000 claimants on Universal Credit by April 2014 and has launched limited pilot schemes.”

Says the PAC report: “The current rate of progress is significantly below target, however. Only around 2,500 claimants were registered at the time of our hearing in September, and the Department was unwilling to speculate what number will be enrolled by next April.”

In a steady state Universal Credit is expected to deal with 10 million people in about 7.5 million households, making 1.6 million changes in circumstances each month.

Security versus usability

“The Department is aware that the system must include suitable security arrangements if Universal Credit is to operate effectively and deliver its intended benefits.  However, the Department has not yet finalised such a solution, and was unable to say when two key components – those countering fraud and error and confirming claimants’ identity- would be completed.

“The Department has found it particularly hard to establish the right balance between security and usability. The development of an effective security system has been hindered by security not being integral to the design of IT components from the outset, but instead being retro-fitted into systems, and suppliers working on different assumptions and to different standards. To address this, the Department told us it has now brought security issues together in one place, with one senior official responsible for overseeing this part of the programme.”

DWP response to PAC report

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson told the BBC

“This report doesn’t take into account our new leadership team, or our progress on delivery,” it said. “We have already taken comprehensive action including strengthening governance, supplier management and financial controls.”

The DWP said it did not accept “the write-off figure quoted by the committee” and expected it to be substantially less”.

A spokesman for Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that he had “every confidence” in the team now running the programme, including Mr Devereux – whose position  some newspapers have suggested is under threat.

“Both the National Audit Office and the public accounts committee acknowledged a fortress mentality within the Universal Credit programme,” he said.

“Iain was clear back in the summer about how he and the permanent secretary took action to fix those problems.”

PAC report: Universal Credit: early progress

National Audit Office report: Universal Credit: early progress

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

A reason many govt IT-enabled projects fail?

By Tony Collins

Last week’s highly critical National Audit Office report on Universal Credit was well publicised but a table in the last section that showed how the Department for Work and Pensions had, in essence, passed control of its cheque-book to its IT suppliers, was little noticed.

The NAO  in 2009 reported that the Home Office had handed over £161m to IT suppliers without knowing where the money had gone.

Now something similar has happened again, on a much bigger scale, with Universal Credit. The National Audit Office said last week that the Department for Work and Pensions has handed over £303m to IT suppliers. The NAO found that the DWP was unclear on what the £303m was providing. Said the NAO

“The Department does not yet know to what extent its new IT systems will support national roll-out … The Department will have to scale back its original delivery ambition and is reassessing what it must do to roll-out Universal Credit to claimants.”

After paying £303m, the “current programme team is developing new plans for Universal Credit,” said the NAO.

Surprising?

More surprising, perhaps, are the findings by PWC on its investigations into the financial management of Universal Credit IT. I and others in the media little noticed the summary of PWC’s work when I first read the NAO report.

PWC’s findings in the NAO’s report are in figure 15 on page 36. The table summarises PWC’s work on Linking outcomes to supplier payments and financial management. This is some of what the NAO says

– Insufficient challenge of supplier-driven changes in costs and forecasts because the programme team did not fully understand the assumptions driving changes.

– Inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.

– Over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation.

– The Department did not enforce all the key terms and conditions of its standard contract management framework, inhibiting its ability to hold suppliers to account.

– Insufficient review of contractor performance before making payments – on average six project leads were given three days to check 1,500 individual timesheets, with payments only stopped if a challenge was raised.

– 94% of spending was approved by just four people but there is limited evidence that this was reviewed and challenged.

– Inadequate internal challenge of purchase decisions; ministers had insufficient information to assess the value for money of contracts before approving them.

– the presentation of financial management information risked being misleading and reducing accountability.

– Limited IT capability and ‘intelligent client’ function leading to a risk of supplier self-review.

– Charges were on the basis of time and materials, leaving the majority of risks with the Department.

Comment

How can civil servants knowingly, or through pressure of other work, effectively give their suppliers responsibility for the sums they are paid? This is a little like asking a builder to provide and install a platinum-lined roof, then giving it the authority to submit invoices up to the value of its needs, which you pay with little or no validation.

On BBC Newsnight this week, Michael Grade, a past chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, told Jeremy Paxman about the Corporation’s corporate culture. 

“I think the BBC suffers more and more from a lack of understanding of the value of money. A cheque comes in every April – for £3.5bn – and if you don’t have to earn the money, and you have that quantity of money, it is very hard to keep to keep a grip on the reality of the value of money.

“If you run a business, if you own a business, you switch the lights out at 6 O’Clock. Everybody’s gone. You walk around yourself. You own the business. It’s your money. You have earned it the hard way. The culture of the BBC of late has been, definitely, a loss of the sense of the value of money.”

Does this help to explain why so many government IT-enabled change programmes fail to meet expectations? One can talk about poor and changing specifications, over-ambitious timescales, poor leadership and inadequate accountability as reasons that contribute to failures of public sector IT-enabled change programmes.

But, at bottom, is there simply too much public money available and too few people supervising payments to suppliers? Is it asking too much of senior civil servants and ministers to treat public money as their own? Is there a lack of the reality of the true value of money, as Michael Grade says when he refers to the BBC?

It is perhaps inconceivable that any private company would spend £303m and not be sure exactly what it is getting for the money.

It may also be inconceivable that a private company would accept supplier-driven changes in costs and forecasts without fully understanding the assumptions driving those changes.

And would a private company not control what is to be supplied, when it is to be delivered and at what cost? Would it not define what is to be delivered before contracts are signed?

Would a private company not check properly whether submitted invoices are fully justified before making payments?

Perhaps central government is congenitally ill-suited to huge IT-based projects and programmes and should avoid them – unless ministers and their officials are prepared to accept the likelihood of delays of many years and costs that are many times the amounts in the early business cases. They would also need to accept that success, even then, is not guaranteed, as we know from the NPfIT.

BT gets termination notice on £300m outsourcing contract

By Tony Collins

Sandwell Council has issued BT with a 30-day termination notice on a 15-year £300m outsourcing contract that has yet to reach its half-way point.

The metropolitan borough council says there are various defaults BT needs to resolve. Based at Oldbury, West Midlands, about five miles from Birmingham, Sandwell has been an outsourcing reference site for BT.

The company quoted Sandwell Council in its presentations that formed part of the bidding for Cornwall Council’s planned outsourcing work.

The “guaranteed” savings in Sandwell’s contract with BT appear to be based on a level of spending the council is not maintaining. One point of contention appears to be the council’s wish for BT to reduce its charges to the council in line with the authority’s lower levels of activity.

In June 2012 Sandwell submitted a change request that asked BT to recalculate the annual service charge because the service volumes delivered through the contract had reduced significantly.

The council wanted the recalculation to be based on a reduction in the workforce from around 7,400 in 2007 when the contract with BT was signed to 4,688 in mid 2012.

Government Computing quotes a council document on the dispute as saying

“A reduction in the workforce should have a corresponding reduction in volumes such as the size of the ICT estate, the payroll, HR support and budget holders. There have been volume reductions in invoices, the number of contracts administered and calls to the contact centre for some services.”

Sandwell’s 30-day termination notice to BT was issued on 16 July so it will expire around that time next month. The council says it is prepared to take back staff.

Sandwell council leader, Councillor Darren Cooper, told Government Computing: “Cabinet has approved a recommendation to start the process of ending our contract with BT. That termination will take effect in 30 days’ time unless BT puts right various defaults we have asked them to resolve.

“If we have to, I am confident we will be able to bring the services BT currently supplies to us back to the council and run them in the most effective way in future.”

Guaranteed

In 2007 BT and its joint bidder, outsourcing provider Liberata, had set out to run the council’s back-office functions at what was announced as a “guaranteed” reduced cost over the lifetime of the contract.

The deal was aimed at cutting costs and improving Sandwell’s IT infrastructure, HR, finance, payroll and customer services functions.

There was some success. The BT-led ‘Transform Sandwell’ team won the UK’s Best Customer Services Management Team at the National Customer Services Awards in December 2010.

BT built a 75,000 square foot office block for Transform Sandwell. It accommodated 400 employees of Transform Sandwell and a 300-strong customer service team working for BT.

Massive mistake?

Independent socialist councillor Mick Davies said “Someone somewhere has obviously made a massive mistake and the taxpayers of Sandwell will have to foot the bill… The writing seemed to be on the wall when BT’s partner in the project, Liberata, was dumped unceremoniously a couple of years ago.”

Sandwell Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for strategic resources Councillor Steve Eling said: “In view of the current climate and public expenditure reductions, the council is engaging with its partner to determine services that are needed over the medium term and to reduce the overall costs in light of public spending reductions.”

Technologies used in the Transform Sandwell contact centre have included Verint Impact 360, Siebel CRM and Nortel Contact Centre 6.0.

A BT spokesman told the Halesowen News

“BT continually looks at ways to improve the service it provides to its customers. The original contract was signed in 2007 and as is normal with long-term partnerships BT constantly looks at ways to service the changing needs of both the council and citizens of Sandwell.”

BT told Government Computing it “has throughout – and remains – fully committed to delivering the commitments it made through the Transform Sandwell Partnership.”

The European Services Strategy Unit which has carried out detailed research on outsourcing contracts lists some of the terminated and reduced local authority strategic partnership contracts.

Sandwell has 72 councillors, 67 of which represent Labour.

Comment

At some point in a 10 or 15-year outsourcing contract a major dispute seems almost inevitable because a supplier’s business objectives will rarely change when the council’s priorities change.

BT’s deal with Sandwell was signed in 2007 – as was Southwest One’s deal with IBM – at a pre-austerity period.

Now that councils have been making, and continue to make, radical savings, they want the flexibility to cut their outsourcing costs too. But it may not be in the supplier’s interests to take profits that are much lower than expected.

No such thing as a free lunch

How can the business interests of outsourcing providers and their council clients ever completely align and move in time like synchronised swimmers?

The growing number of disputes in local authority outsourcing deals suggests that councils are not properly weighing up the risks when they sign deals.

Perhaps small groups of ruling councillors – such as those at Barnet – are too easily persuaded by the “guaranteed” savings on offer at the start of a contract.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. But try telling that to council Cabinet councillors who have cartoon-character pound signs in their eyes in the Disney period before a big outsourcing contract is well underway.

Let’s hope BT and Sandwell kiss and make up. It looks like the lawyers are already in the middle of them, though; and at whose expense?

Sandwell and BT consider end of strategic partnership – Government Computing

The story of Southwest One

By Tony Collins

Dave Orr worked in a variety of IT and project management roles for Somerset County Council and retired in 2010. For years he has campaigned with extraordinary tenacity to bring to the surface the truth over an unusual joint venture between IBM, Somerset County Council, a local borough council and the local police force.

Now he has written an account of the joint venture and the lessons. It is published on the website of procurement expert Peter Smith.

Orr questions whether Southwest One was ever a good idea, since it was formed in 2007.

The deal has not made the savings intended, a SAP implementation went awry, the contract has been mired in political controversy and criticism, Southwest One has repeatedly lost money, and many of the transferred staff and services have returned to the county council, and some services returned to the borough council. IBM and the county council have ended up in a legal dispute that cost the county council £5.5m to settle. Southwest One was not exactly the partnership it set out to be.

The contract may show how an outsourcing deal that doesn’t have the support of the staff being transferred is flawed fundamentally from the start (which is one reason few people will be surprised if a 10-year £320m deal for Capita to run Barnet Council’s new customer service organisation [NSCSO]  ends in tears).

These are some of Orr’s points:

–  Like other light-touch regulators, the Audit Commission repeatedly gave Southwest One positive reports, without ever qualifying the accounts, even as problems with SAP implementation mounted in 2009 and procurement savings were not being made in line with forecasts.

 – The contract called for transformation based upon ‘world-class technologies’, yet all of the IT Service was placed into Southwest One with no IT expertise back in the Somerset County client (until after a poor SAP implementation in 2009). Was the lack of retained IT skills in the Somerset County client behind the formal acceptance of a badly configured SAP implementation?

– Large scale outsourcing over a long contract of 10 years or more requires an ability to foresee the future that is simply not possible to capture in a fixed contract. In a 10-year contract, there will be three changes of national government and three changes of local government. That is a great deal of unpredictable change to cope with via a fixed, long-term contract.

– Local Government will always be at a disadvantage in resources and skills, to a large multi-national contractor like IBM, when it comes to negotiating, letting and managing a complex multi-service contract.

– What was the culture of Southwest One (75% owned by IBM)? Was it private, public or a hybrid? The management culture remained firmly IBM, yet the councils and police workforces were seconded and remained equally firmly public sector rooted. There is such a thing as a public service ethos. In fact, Southwest One was run like a mini-IBM based upon global divisions, complete with IBM standard structures and processes. Southwest One seconded employees were not allowed anything like a full access to IBM internal systems, thus creating additional complexity, as “real” IBM employees relied entirely upon on-line systems.

–  Mixed teams in a single shared service were hard to amalgamate. This meant the IBM managers of Southwest One never really gained the sort of command & control of the multi-tier workforces that their bonus-oriented model needs to function. “I doubt that IBM would ever again contemplate the seconded staff model over the TUPE transfer model,” says Orr.

– Somerset County Council ran with a “thin” client management team that, in Orr’s view, did not have sufficient expertise or enough staff resources to effectively manage this complex contract with IBM. The councils relied upon definitions of “partnership” that meant one thing to the councils’ side and quite another thing to IBM, says Orr.

– In Southwest One, Somerset County Council handed their entire IT Service over lock, stock and barrel. “Can you really consider IT as wholly a ‘back office’ service? Many successful private Companies see IT as a strategic service to be kept under their own control.”

– The real savings might have been found in optimising processes in big departments (like Social Care, Education, Highways) that lay outside of Southwest One’s reach. “The focus on IT rather than service processes was another flaw in the model.”

Orr  concludes that nobody who played a major part in the Southwest deal has in any way been held to account for what has gone wrong.

Southwest One – the complete story from Dave Orr