Category Archives: public sector

Nine-year outsourcing deal caught on camera?

By Tony Collins

This photo is of a Southwest One board that was surplus to requirements.

Southwest One continues to provide outsourced services to Avon and Somerset Police. The 10-year contract expires next year.

But unless Southwest One continues to provide residual IT services to the police, the company – which is owned by IBM – will be left without its three original public partners.

Photo a metaphor?

IBM and Somerset County Council set up Southwest One in 2007  to propel council services “beyond excellence”.

Joining in the venture were Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police. The hope was that it would recruit other organisations,  bringing down costs for all.

It didn’t happen.

An outsourcing deal that was supposed to save Somerset residents about £180m over 10 years ended early, in 2016, with losses for the residents of about £70m. The council and Southwest One settled a High Court legal dispute in 2013.

Taunton Deane Borough Council also ended the deal early, in 2016.

Comment

Was it all the fault of Southwest One? Probably not. The success of the deal was always going to be judged, to some extent, on an assumption that other organisations would join Southwest One.

When that didn’t happen, two councils and a police force had to bear the main costs.

There was also the inherent problem that exists with most big council outsourcing deals: that it’s always difficult for a supplier to innovate, save money on the costs of running council services, invest significantly more in IT, spend less overall and still produce a healthy profit for the parent company.

It could be done if the council, police force or other public body was manifestly inefficient. But Somerset County Council outsourced what was, by its own admission, an excellent IT organisation.

Some at the time had no doubts about how the outsourcing deal would end up.

Southwest One – The complete story by Dave Orr

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are some of BDO’s findings so far:

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

Comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A classic “waterfall” IT project disaster – yet officials went by the book

By Tony Collins

Some of those who read “Crash – 10 easy ways to avoid a computer disaster” may remember a warning that buying an IT system on the basis that it works well in another country and can therefore be adapted to the UK’s needs, is flirting with disaster.

First published in 1999, Crash said,

“There are graveyards of computer projects that began life as a simple adaptation of a package used elsewhere in the world.”

One example at that time was the failure of the London Stock Exchange’s Taurus project.

Now a report published today by Audit Scotland on the “i6” project goes into forensic – but lucid – detail on what went wrong and the conflicting views of police and the supplier Accenture.

Says the report,

“The belief that most of the i6 system could be based on an existing IT system proved incorrect.”

It became clear well into project that

“a virtually fully bespoke system was required”.

The plan was for i6 to replace 130 paper-based processes and IT systems but on 1 July 2016, after many well-publicised difficulties and delays, the Scottish Police Authority and Accenture agreed to terminate the i6 contract.

Police in Scotland had chosen Accenture’s bid in 2013 largely because it had successfully implemented a system for Spain’s Guardia Civil police service.

To its credit Accenture refunded all the money the police in Scotland had paid for the i6 system, £11.06m, plus a further £13.56m – but Audit Scotland says the failure of the project …

“means that some of the benefits that should have arisen from implementing it, have been, at best, delayed. There was a need to modernise police ICT systems six years ago when the procurement of i6 began. That need has not been met. Police officers and staff continue to struggle with out-of-date, inefficient and poorly integrated systems.

“This also hinders how Police Scotland interacts and shares information and intelligence with the other parts of the justice system. There is an urgent need to determine what the next steps should be…”

The lessons are clear from the report:

  • Don’t buy an overseas system without realising that it’ll need to be built almost from scratch for the UK. The ideal is for the business processes to be greatly simplified and adapted to fit a tried and tested system, not the other way around. Audit Scotland says the police programme team and Accenture believed that the majority of the i6 system could be based on an existing IT system that Accenture had developed for Spain,  with the remainder being bespoke development work.  But there was an “over-reliance” on Accenture’s work for Guardia Civil”.
  • The “waterfall” systems development contributed to the fact that Police Scotland “only discovered the true extent of problems with the system when it was delivered for testing”.  Waterfall meant that Accenture produced the software in distinct phases, in a sequence resembling a waterfall. Once a phase was complete, the process moved to the next phase – and no turning back. “It meant that all of the design, coding and construction of i6 would be completed before Accenture released it to Police Scotland for testing. Police Scotland would pay for each phase when it was completed.” [Agile, on the other hand, is a “test and see” approach and is far more flexible. It can adapted according to what the end-user needs and wants, and changes in those needs and wants.]
  • Don’t trust the demonstration of a waterfall system. The demo may look great but rolling it out successfully across various regions may be a different story. Accenture had demonstrated i6 but much later, after a period of testing, the i6 programme team reported to the programme board in August 2015 that there were: critical errors in the technical coding, flaws that Accenture was unable to resolve as quickly as expected, serious concerns about the criminal justice module, which did not comply with the Integrated Scottish Criminal Justice Information System data standards, errors in the search and audit modules and “problems around the limited functionality in the administration module”.
  • External assurance reports may tell you that you have complied with good practice and they may give you detailed praise for your attention to detail but they probably haven’t looked at the big question: will the systems ever work? Audit Scotland said external assurance reports such as the Scottish Government’s “Gateway reviews” suggested improvements but “raised no major concerns”.  Throughout the course of the i6 programme, most of the external reviews suggested that delivery confidence was either amber or green.
  • If the plan is for a waterfall development, doing everything by the book before a contract is awarded will not guarantee success, or even make it more likely, if you haven’t asked the big question: Is this ever likely to work given the complexities we don’t yet understand? For officials in Scotland, everything went smoothly before the award of contract: there were even 18 months of pre-contract discussions. But within weeks of the contract’s start, Police Scotland and Accenture disagreed about whether the proposed system would deliver the requirements set out in the contract. Soon there was a “breakdown in relationships and a loss of trust between Police Scotland and Accenture that never fully recovered,” said Audit Scotland.
  • The supplier may be just as optimistic as you. “As the design and development of i6 progressed, it became apparent that Accenture would need to develop significantly more than had been originally anticipated. Despite delays and serious problems throughout the lifetime of the programme, Accenture provided regular assurance, in the face of strong challenge, about their confidence in delivering the i6 system. This assurance proved misplaced.”
  • When planning a waterfall system that has complexities and inter-dependencies that are not fully understood at the outset, expect ever-lengthening delays and projected costs to soar. At one point Police Scotland estimated that the level of effort Accenture would require to complete i6 was around eight times greater than the resources Accenture had estimated when signing the original contract. “The i6 programme team believed that the functionality of Accenture’s solution did not meet the requirements it had agreed in the contract. Accenture maintained that Police Scotland had not specified a detailed description of business requirements. This issue had not emerged during months of pre-award dialogue. Accenture also believed that it had set out clearly what its solution would do and maintained that Police Scotland, as part of procurement process, had accepted its qualified solution. A dispute followed about the interpretation of the contract requirements. Police Scotland argued that, after months of competitive dialogue, the requirements of the i6 system were well-defined, and that in line with the contract, these took precedence. Accenture argued its solution had precedence and that Police Scotland was trying to extend the scope of the programme. Accenture stated that, to meet Police Scotland’s interpretation of requirements, it would require more time and money.”
  • As soon as things start going badly awry, stop and have a re-think. Cancel all existing work if necessary rather than plough on simply because failure isn’t an option. Above all, take politics out of the equation. The Scottish Police Authority was anxious about i6 being seen to be a success after the failure of a previous police ICT project in 2012 – the Common Performance Management Platform. At the same time the i6 programme was “extremely important to Accenture at a global level. “This may have led to misplaced optimism about the prospects of success and unwillingness to consider terminating the programme,” says Audit Scotland.
  • When things start to go wrong, the truth is unlikely to emerge publicly. Even those accountable for the project may be kept in the dark. “Police Scotland were cautious of commercial sensitivities when providing assurances on i6 publicly. The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing held a number of evidence sessions with the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland to explore progress with the i6 programme. In March 2014, the Sub-Committee expressed frustration at the lack of information about the problems with the i6 programme that had been ongoing since August 2013. Police Scotland did not disclose the severity of the issues facing the programme, nor was it overly critical of Accenture. This may have reflected a desire to maintain relationships with Accenture to keep the programme on track or to maintain the commercial confidentiality of the contract.”

Accenture’s response

Accenture said,

“As the report acknowledges, the scope and the complexity of the solution for i6 increased significantly during the project.  This was driven by the client.  There were challenges and issues on both sides, but we worked closely with Police Scotland to review the programme and recommend revised plans to successfully deliver i6.

Despite our best efforts, it was not possible to agree the necessary changes and we mutually agreed to end the project.”

In May 2017 Audit Scotland is due to publish a report that summarises the lessons from a number of public sector ICT projects it has investigated.

Some of what i6 was intended to cover …

Comment

Tis a pity officials in Scotland hadn’t read Crash before they embarked on the i6 project – or if they had, taken more notice of the dangers of assuming a system that works overseas can be tweaked to work in the UK.

We commend Audit Scotland for its expert investigation and a fine report.

Clearly the failure of i6 is not entirely Accenture’s fault.  The project was commissioned on the basis of assumption and when things went wrong politics intervened to prevent a complete stop and a fundamental re-think.

Fatally, perhaps, there appears to have been no discussion about simplifying police administration to make the IT more straightforward. If police administration is so enshrined in law that it cannot be simplified, officials would have to accept before awarding the contract that they were buying an entirely new system.

The UK armed services simplified volumes of rules and practices before it introduced pay and personnel administration systems. It was hard, inglorious work. But simplifying ways of working first can make the difference between IT success and failure.

i6 – a review. Audit Scotland’s report. 

Waterfall approach damns £46m Scottish police system – Government Computing

Another public sector IT disaster – but useful if the lessons are learned.

is London Ambulance Service’s back-up system “public endurance”?

By Tony Collins

In November 2016 London Ambulance Service had its busiest week for seriously ill and injured incidents in the history of the Service.

“The Service is …expecting demand to increase even further throughout December,” said London Ambulance Service at the time.

A few weeks later, on one of the busiest nights of the year, the systems went down, from 12.30am to 5.15am on 1 January 2017. The result was that 999 calls were logged  by pen and paper.

When systems are working normally  an incoming 999 call displays the address registered to that number – if the address is registered.  The London Ambulance operator confirms the location, assesses the severity and an ambulance can be despatched within seconds, with the address on its screen and a satnav pointing the way, according to a comment on The Register.

Pen and paper takes longer because the address and other details need to be given over a radio, which can take minutes.

But pen and paper is the London Ambulance Service’s back-up for IT failures.  Whether it can cope with unprecedented demand – or with a major incident in London – is in doubt.

A former London Ambulance Service paramedic told the BBC there had been waits of an hour for ambulances on 1 January 2017. He said call handlers had been “amazingly helpful”, but it was “easy to become overwhelmed especially in the midst of high call volumes”.

London Ambulance Service declined to answer any questions on its latest system failure.

Malcolm Alexander of the Patients’ Forum for the London Ambulance Service said: “We want to know why it is that this system that cost so much money and is supposed to be so effective is not fail-safe.”

He added: “If this system fails at a time when there is huge pressure in the system, for example if there was a major disaster or a terrorist attack, we are going to be in trouble. We really need to make sure it doesn’t collapse again.”

1992

A report into the collapse of London Ambulance Service systems found that they had had failed for many reasons. The Service had taken a “high-risk” IT approach and did not test systems thoroughly before putting them into service.

(Some may question how much has been learned since then.)

2006

In 2006 the London Ambulance Service systems crashed nine times in a fortnight. Each time staff reverted to pen and paper.

2008

In 2008, when systems failed,  repairs took 12 hours. Again the Service reverted to pen and paper.

2011

In June 2011 an IT upgrade caused the system to go down for about three and half hours. Pen and paper was again the back-up “system”. At the time the London Ambulance Service was upgrading the Commandpoint system, supplied by Northrop Grunman, which the Service deployed in 2010 and still uses.

2013

In 2013 on Christmas Day and Boxing Day the systems went down for separate reasons for several hours each day, with staff reverting to pen and paper.

2015

The Chief Inspector of Hospitals, Mike Richards, recommended that the London Ambulance Service be placed into special measures.

He said at the time,

“The Trust has been performing poorly on response times since March 2014. This is a very serious problem, which the trust clearly isn’t able to address alone, and which needs action to put right.”

Comment

It’s becoming the norm for parts of the public sector to regard the public as captive customers when it comes to going live with new IT or upgraded software.

Rather than test new systems, procedures and upgrades thoroughly before introducing them, some parts of the public sectors are going live with a “let’s see what happens and fix things then” approach.

This has become the semi-official approach to the introduction of Universal Credit – with long delays in payments for some claimants.

Within the NHS, at some hospitals introducing new patient record systems, there has been an internal acceptance that patients may suffer from delays,  perhaps with tragic consequences, at least for three year-old Samuel Starr.

The NHS e-referral service was launched with nine pages of known problems.  And when NHS England launched a streamlined GP support service with Capita, officials knew of the possible problems. But it launched anyway.

After the London Ambulance Service’s IT failure on New Year’s Day, it’s clear that many emergency workers did their best to give a normal 999 service. St John’s Ambulance helped.

But to what extent does senior management at the London Ambulance Service have a “stuff happens” mindset when IT goes seriously wrong?

There’s no individual accountability and no commercial imperative to learn lessons from any of the failures.

And there’s no fervent business or political will to ensure the same or similar mistakes don’t recur.

Every time systems fail, the London Ambulance Service promises an investigation. But where are the results published so that lessons can be learned?

Pen and paper is tried and tested. But demands on the London Ambulance Service are much greater than in the past.

With an unprecedented demand for its services how is it London Ambulance Service’s senior management can comfortably rely on pen and paper as its back-up system?

It can – if nobody in power requires an earnest answer to the question.

Another wider question is whether it’s acceptable to use the public as guinea pigs for new or upgraded IT, with potentially serious or even tragic consequences.

London Ambulance Service suffers New Year’s crash – Computer Weekly

London Ambulance Service hit by new year fault – BBC online

 

 

Central buying of IT and other services is a bit of a shambles – just what Sir Humphrey wants?

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office entrance

Cabinet Office entrance

Like the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service was set up as a laudable attempt to cut the huge costs of running central government.

The Cabinet Office under Francis Maude set up the Crown Commercial Service [CCS] in 2014 to cut the costs of buying common products and services for Whitehall and the wider public sector including the NHS and police.

It has a mandate to buy commodity IT, other products and services and whatever can be bought in bulk. It has had some success – for example with negotiating lower prices for software licences needed across Whitehall. The skills and knowledge of its civil servants are well regarded.

But, like the Government Digital Service, CCS has had limited support from permanent secretaries and other senior officials who’d prefer to protect their autonomy.

It has also been hindered by unachievable promises of billions of pounds in savings. Even CCS’s own managers at the time regarded the Cabinet Office’s plans for huge savings as over-optimistic.

Yesterday [13 December 2016] the National Audit Office published a report that questioned whether CCS has paid its way, let alone cut public sector costs beyond what civil and public servants could have achieved without it.

CCS employed 790 full-time equivalent staff in 2015/16 and had operating costs in one year alone of £66.3m

This was the National Audit Office’s conclusion:

“CCS has not achieved value for money. The Cabinet Office underestimated the difficulty of implementing joint buying for government. With no business case or implementation plan CCS ran into difficulties. Net benefits have not been tracked so it cannot be shown that CCS has achieved more than the former Government Procurement Service would have.

“However, the strategic argument for joint buying remains strong and CCS is making significant changes to improve future services.”

Some of the NAO’s detailed findings:

  • The public sector spends £2.5bn directly with CCS – £8bn less than originally forecast.
  • Seven departments buy directly through CCS – 10 fewer than originally forecast
  • The forecast of £3.3bn net benefits from the creation of CCS over the four years to 2017-18 are  unlikely to materialise.
  • The National Audit Office says the actual net benefits of CCS to date are “unknown”.
  • The Cabinet Office did not track the overall benefits of creating CCS.
  • Most of the planned transfers of procurement staff from central departments and the wider public sector to CCS haven’t happened.
  • Where some of the workforce has transferred, some departments have rehired staff to replace those who transferred.
  • Departments continue to manage their own procurement teams, although they use CCS’s frameworks.
  • CCS was set up with the power to force central departments to use its bulk buying services. But that power wasn’t enforced.
  • The National Audit Office says it is “no longer clear whether CCS has a clear mandate that requires all departments to use it for direct buying… it no longer has a clear timetable or expectation that further departments will transfer staff or buying functions to CCS”.

It’s all a far cry from the expectations set by a Cabinet Office announcement in 2013 which said that CCS will “ensure maximum value for the taxpayer is extracted from every commercial relationship”.

The then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the time,

“The new Crown Commercial Service will ensure a step change in our commercial capability, giving government a much tighter grip on all aspects of its commercial performance, from market engagement through to contract management.”

Comment

Why CCS has failed so far to make much difference to Whitehall’s costs is not clear. It seems to have been hit by a combination of poor management at the outset, a high turnover of senior officials and ludicrously high expectations, combined with a civil service reluctance in central departments and the wider public sector to cede control over procurement to CCS –  even when it comes to common products and services.

The NAO report is a reminder of a fundamental flaw in the way government works: central departments can’t in practice be forced to do anything. They are a power unto themselves. The Cabinet Office has powers to mandate a change of practice and behaviour in central departments – to which Sir Humphrey can shrug his shoulders and change nothing

Even the Prime Minister is, in practice, powerless to force departments to do something they don’t want to do (except in the case of the miscarriage of justice that involved two Chinook pilots who were eventually cleared of gross negligence because the then defence secretary Liam Fox, through a series of manoeuvres, forced the MoD to set the finding aside).

The CCS may be doomed to failure unless the Cabinet Office rigorously enforces its mandate to make government departments use its buying services.

If the Cabinet Office does not enforce its power, Sir Humphrey will always protect his turf by arguing that the products and services his officials buy – including IT in general – are specific and are usually tailored to the department’s unique and complex needs.

Much to the relief of Sir Humphrey, Francis Maude, the battle-hardened enforcer at the Cabinet Office, has left the House of Commons. He has no comparable replacement.

Are all central initiatives aimed at making  a real dent in the costs of running Whitehall now doomed to failure?

Sir Humphrey knows the answer to that; and he’s wearing a knowing grin.

Crown Commercial Service – National Audit Office report

 

Barnet Council claims £31m savings with Capita – and not an auditor in sight.

By Tony Collins

capita

It’s commendable that Barnet Council has published much material on its three-year review of a £322m 10-year outsourcing contract with Capita.

More than a dozen council reports and appendices cover every aspect of the contract.

The quantity of material seems, on the face of it, to answer critics of the outsourcing deal, among them local bloggers, who have pointed to the lack of reliable evidence of the savings achieved. The suspicion is that costs have increased and council services including ICT have deteriorated since Capita took over in 2013.

Now the council has ostensibly proved that the opposite is the case. Barnet’s press release says,

Barnet Council and Capita contract delivers £31m savings

“A review of a contract between Barnet Council and Capita has demonstrated it is delivering significant benefits to the borough with overall savings of £31 million achieved alongside increased resident satisfaction…

“In terms of satisfaction with services provided, the review, showed 76 per cent of residents were satisfied with the outward-facing customer services, up from 52 per cent before the contract was established.

“This increase was even more significant in respect of face to face services, as 96 per cent of residents who engaged with the council in this way said they were satisfied compared with a previous 35 per cent.

“The review also showed that the cost of delivering the bundle of services provided in the contract is now £6m a year less than before the contract was signed and that 90 per cent of the contract’s key performance indicators being met or exceeded.”

The press release quotes two leaders of the council saying how pleased they were with the contract. Capita calls it a “positive review”.

The review has various mentions of items of additional spending including £9m on ICT and it’s not clear whether the extra sums are taken into account in the savings figures.

Among the review’s suggestions is that the council pay Capita’s annual management fee of £25m up front – a year in advance – instead of every quarter in return for extra savings.

The review also raises the possibility of extending the contract beyond the 10 years in return for additional savings. Capita is “keen” to explore this suggestion (though it could tie the hands of a future council administration).

The review reports were compiled by council officers who reported to a working group of Tory and Labour councillors, under a much-respected Tory chairman. By a small margin, Conservatives run the council.

Lack of independent challenge?

It’s unclear why the council did not commission its audit committee, or auditors, to review the contract. In the past the audit committee has been critical of some aspects of the contract.

For this reason the reports are unlikely to silence critics of Barnet’s outsourcing deal. Council officers compiled the review’s findings, not auditors.

As a result, despite the volume of published written material, there is no evidence that the figures for savings have been independently verified as accurate.

Neither is there independent verification of the methods used by officers for obtaining the figures.

Further, some observers may question the positive tone of the review findings. The “good news” tone may be said to be at odds with the factual neutrality of, say, reports of the National Audit Office.

There are also questions about whether the council is providing enough effective challenge to Capita’s decisions and figures.

At a council committee meeting in November 2016 to discuss the review reports, the most informed challenges to the findings appear to have come not from Barnet councillors but two local bloggers, Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable, who questioned whether the claimed savings could be more than wiped out by additional spending – including an extra £9m on ICT. They appear to have received no clear answers.

Concerns of some officials

The body of the review reports outline some of the concerns of staff and directors. Mrs Angry quotes some of the concerns from the review reports:

“Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend were raised as key concerns. It was felt that CSG [Barnet’s Customer and Support Group, for which Capita is responsible] are often reluctant to go above and beyond the requirements of the contract without additional charges.

“Directors reported that the council needs to be more confident that solutions suggested by CSG, particularly for projects and capital spend are best value.

“Concerns were raised that CSG has a disproportionate focus on the delivery of process and KPIs over outcomes, creating a more contractual rather than partnership relationship between CSG and the council. Directors noted that many KPIs are not relevant and their reporting does not reflect actual service performance.”

The Capita contract began in September 2013, under which it provides finance, ICT, HR, Customer Services, Revenues and Benefits, Procurement, Estates and Corporate Programmes.

Comment

On the face of it, Barnet Council’s review of the Capita contract looks comprehensive and impressively detailed.

Looked at closely it’s disappointing – a wasted opportunity.

Had the council wanted the review’s findings to be widely believed, it would have made it uncompromisingly independent, in line with reports by the National Audit Office.

As it is, the review was carried out by council officers who reported to a working group of councillors. The working group comprised Labour as well as Tory councillors but the facts and figures were compiled by officers.

Nearly every page of every Barnet review report has a “good news” feel. There’s an impression that negative findings are played down.

Example:

“It should be noted that the failure to meet the target for KPI 30 related to one quarter only [my italics] and discussions are continuing regarding the application of the above service credit.”

Some negative findings are immediately countered by positive statements:

“CIPFA benchmarking data shows that the cost of the ICT service is slightly above the median, but below upper quartile in terms of the cost of the service as a percentage of organisational running costs.”

Another example of a negative finding immediately countered by a positive one, which may be said to be one hallmark of a non-independent report:

“One key area of concern in terms of overall performance is internal customer satisfaction… Survey results in respect of the financial year 2015/16 were universally poor, with all services failing to meet the target of upper quartile customer satisfaction. As a result, service credits to a total value of £116k have been applied in respect of these KPIs.

“To some extent, a degree of dissatisfaction amongst internal service users is to be expected, given the fact that cost reductions have been achieved to a large extent through increased self-service for both managers and staff, along with more restrictive processes and controls over things like the payment of invoices and the appointment of staff.

“Despite the survey outcomes indicating a low level of satisfaction, the interviews conducted with staff and managers as part of this Review suggest that services are generally considered to be improving.”

Integra ERP financial system a “success” – ?

The review report describes Capita’s introduction of the Integra financial system as “successful”. Elsewhere, however, it says,

“Many users raised issues with the Integra finance system, describing it as clunky and not user-friendly or intuitive.”

Double counting?

There’s no evidence that savings figures have been checked for possible inadvertent double counting on overlapping services. Double counting of savings is regularly found in National Audit Office reports.

“There are no standardised way for departments to evidence the reductions in ongoing expenditure,” said the National Audit Office in a report on Cabinet Office savings in July 2014. “Departments provided poor evidence, and double counting was highly likely as projects reduced staff or estates requirements.”

In a separate report on claimed savings in central government, the National Audit Office quoted the findings of an internal audit …

“A number of errors (instances where the evidence did not support the assertion) were found during our review and total adjusted accordingly … In addition, a number of savings were double counted with other savings categories and these have now been removed…

“We assessed some £200m of other savings as Red because they were double counted due to the same savings having been claimed by different units or, for example, because savings on staff were also claimed through reductions in average case costs.”

Omitted costs?

The omission of relevant costs could skew savings figures. It’s unclear from Barnet’s review reports whether extra spending of millions of pounds on, for example, ICT have been taken into account. Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable, who has a business background, raises the question of whether £65m of additional spending has been taken into account in the savings figures.

Reverse Sir Humphrey phenomenon?

The biggest single flaw in the review reports is that they appear worded to please the councillors who made the decision to outsource – the reverse of the “Sir Humphrey” caricature. The positive tone of Barnet’s reports implies that officers are – naturally – deferring to their political leaders.

In a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Whitehall, former minister Peter Lilley talked about how some officials spend part of their working lives trying to please their political leaders.

“Officials are trying to work out how to interpret and apply policy in line with what the minister’s views on the policy is …. They can only take their minister’s written or spoken word for it and that has a ripple effect on the department far greater than you imagine… Making speeches is the official policy of the department and that creates action.”

Another former minister Francis Maude told the BBC he found that too few officials were willing to say anything the minister did not want to hear.

“The way it should work is for civil servants give very candid well informed advice to ministers about what it is ministers want to do – the risks and difficulties,” said Maude. “My experience this time round in government, 20 years on from when I was previously government, is that the civil service was much less ready to do that.

“There were brilliant civil servants who were perfectly ready to tell you things that they thought you might not want to hear but there were too few of them.”

Barnet’s reviewing officers might have been dispassionately independent in reporting their findings and double checking the supplied figures – but who can tell without any expert independent assessment of the review?

The US Sabanes-Oxley Act, which the Bush administration introduced after a series of financial scandals, defines what is meant by an “independent” audit. The Act prohibits auditing by anyone who has been involved in a management function or provided expert services for the organisation being audited.

That would disqualify every Barnet officer from being involved in an independent audit of their own council’s contract with Capita.

The Act also says that the auditor must not have been an employee of the organisation being audited. Again that would disqualify every Barnet officer from an independent audit of their own council’s contract.

Review a waste of time and money?

It would be wrong to imply that the review is a pointless exercise. It identifies what works well and what doesn’t. It will help officers negotiate changes to the contract and to key performance indicators. For example it’s of little value having a KPI to answer phone calls within 60 seconds if the operator is unable to help the caller.

What the review does not provide is proof of the claimed savings. Barnet’s press release announcing savings of £31m is just that – a press release. It does not pretend to be politically neutral.

But without independent evidence of the claimed savings, it’s impossible for the disinterested observer to say that the Capita contract so far has been a success. Neither does evidence exist it has failed.

Capita share price at 10-year low

What is clear is that fixing some of the more serious problems identified in the report, such as obsolescent IT, will not be easy given the conflict between the continuing need for savings and Capita’s pressing need to improve the value of its business for shareholders, against a backdrop of difficulties on a number of its major contracts [Transport for London, Co-op Bank, NHS] and a share price that was yesterday [30 November 2016] at a ten-year low.

The review also raises a wider question: are most of a council’s busy councillors who come to council meetings in their free time equipped to read through and digest a succession of detailed reports on the three-year interim results of a complex outsourcing contract?

If they do glance through them, will they have enough of a close interest in the subject, and a good understanding of it,  to provide effective challenge to council officers and their political leaders?

If nothing else, the Barnet review shows that councillors in general cannot provide proper accountability on an outsourcing contract as complex as Capita’s deal with Barnet.

Either council tax payers have to put their faith in officers, irrespective of the obvious pressure for officialdom to tell its political leaders what they want to hear, or council taxpayers can put their faith in an independent audit.

Barnet Council has not given its residents any choice.

It’s a pity that when it comes to claimed savings of £31m there’s not an auditor in sight.

Barnet declares its contract a success – Barnet and Whetstone Press

Mr Reasonable – important questions on the Capita review

Mrs Angry – who writes compellingly on the council meeting where the review reports were discussed.

Days from taking back outsourced IT, Somerset Council is unsure what it’ll find

By Tony Collins

Facing the TV cameras, officials at Somerset County Council spoke with confidence about the new joint venture company they had set up with the “world-class” IT supplier IBM.

“The contract has to succeed; we will make it succeed, ” a senior official said at the time. Greater choice for residents, more control, sustained improvement of services, improved efficiency, tens of millions in savings and enhanced job prospects for staff.

These were some of the promises in 2007.

Since then, Somerset County Council has been through a costly legal dispute with IBM; projected savings have become losses, and Somerset is days away from taking back the service early.

Now the council faces new IT-related risks to its reputation and finances, warns a team of auditors.

In several audit reports on the exit arrangements, auditors warn of a series of uncertainties about:

  •  what exactly IT assets the council will own as of 1 December 2016, when the joint venture hands back IT and staff.
  • how much software may not be licensed, therefore being used illicitly.
  • how much software is being paid for without being needed or used, wasting council tax money.
  • whether thousands of pieces of hardware have been disposed of securely over the years of the contract, or whether confidential data could later turn up in the public domain.
  • the accuracy of some supplied information. “… the same networking hardware items have the same value associated with them even though one is twelve years old and the other only four” said auditors.

Comment

That Somerset County Council laments setting up the Southwest One joint venture with IBM is not new. What continues to surprise is the extent of the difficulties of ending the joint venture cleanly – despite months, indeed more than a year – of preparatory work.

The realty is that uncertainties and risks abound.

When IT journalists ask leading councillors and officers at the start of outsourcing/joint venture deals whether all the most potentially serious risks have been given proper consideration, the spokespeople inevitably sound supremely confident.

If things go wrong, they are sure the council will be able to take back the service under secure arrangements that have been properly planned and written into the contract.

Yet today some of the most potentially serious risks to Somerset’s finances and reputation come from continuing threats such as the possibility confidential data being found on old hardware not securely disposed of.

Or the council may be paying for unneeded software licences.

In short Somerset County Council is taking back the IT service on 1 December 2016 without being certain what it will find.

In future, therefore, when councillors and officials across the country talk with supreme confidence at the start of an outsourcing deal or joint venture about large savings, sustained efficiencies, and a step-change improvement in services that comes with the benefits of collaborating with a world-class private-sector partner, local residents will have every right to be deeply sceptical.

For the reality is more likely to be that the council and its world-class supplier are about to embark on a journey into the unknown.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to the council audit reports that made this post possible.

TV broadcast in 2007 days after the council and IBM signed the Southwest One joint venture deal.

**

Excerpts from reports due to be considered by Somerset County Council’s Audit Committee next week (29 November 2016):

“… laptops, servers, storage devices, networking equipment, etc.) have been disposed of without the correct documentation historically, throughout the term with SWO [Southwest One]. There is a high likelihood that without the documentation to show that SWO were meant to have previously disposed of any specific data baring assets in a compliant manner then subsequent fines and loss of reputation will need to be dealt with by the Council.

“This is being addressed as part of the exit works but initial investigations show an expected lack of documentation.

**

“The quality of asset management and therefore exposure to risk (over and above this inherited risk) is expected to improve significantly once asset management returns to SCC [Somerset County Council).”

**

“Asset locations have been updated and improved though there are still issues regarding all asset details not being recorded accurately in the Asset Register. There is a risk that if wrong details are recorded against an asset then incorrect decisions could be made regarding these assets which may in turn cause the Council financial loss and/or loss of reputation.”

**

“… the same networking hardware items have the same value associated with them even though one is twelve years old and the other only four.”

**

“Software assets are now included in the monthly asset register report though the information collected and lack of correlation to meaningful license information means the original risk is not fully mitigated.

“This continued lack of software asset usage information against licensing proof of entitlement as well as the obvious risk of illegally using non licensed software there is also a risk that the Council is wasting public funds and Council officer’s time to manage unnecessary software. This means the Council will not be able to show “Best Value” in these purchases which could lead to fines being imposed by Central Government and loss of reputation by the inefficiencies being reported in the media.”

**

“I cannot though see evidence of the warranty & support arrangements being recorded or accurate recording of end of life assets. Due to a lack of or incorrect detail on the asset information there is the risk of incorrect decisions being made regarding an asset’s usage which could then lead to loss of money or reputation for the Council.”

Capita to lose part of £1bn+ Service Birmingham contract?

By Tony Collins

Birmingham City Council is set to take back the “Revenues” – council tax – element of its Service Birmingham contract with Capita.

A report which went before a cabinet meeting on Tuesday said that decisions on the “proposed termination of the revenues element of the Service Birmingham contract” with Capita would be taken in the “private” – secret – part of the meeting.

One reason the discussions are in private is that even though the contract allows the council to take back services “at will”, this may still involve paying compensation to Capita,

In the open part of the meeting, the deputy leader said that bringing the revenues service back in-house will allow the council “greater flexibility” – which appears to mean lower costs.

It will require a change to the wider Service Birmingham contract under which Capita delivers Birmingham’s ICT services.

In particular, said the deputy leader, taking back the revenues service will avoid any need to invoke a formal “change control” within the contract. He didn’t say why the council was keen to avoid invoking the change control clause.

Taking back revenue services could mean up to 150 Capita staff returning to the direct employment of the council, according to theBusinessDesk.com.

Service Birmingham is a joint venture company run by Capita since 2006 in which the council owns a minority of shares. The contract, which mainly covers ICT services, ends in 2021.

In the first few years Capita received about £120m a year from the joint venture but the figure has come down to about £90m-£100m a year after much criticism of the cost of the contract.

Between 2006 and 2012, Service Birmingham paid Capita £994m. It’s unclear whether the payments have represented value for money for Birmingham’s residents.

The report for this week’s cabinet meeting said that since Capita took over revenue collection the government has introduced a number of local welfare reforms [related to Universal Credit] “which have resulted in the council wishing to deal with Revenues matters differently”.

Keen to retain the revenues work, Capita had suggested a revised service to the council but the report said, “These were considered and it was concluded that they did not meet the current requirements of the council.”

Taking back revenue collection could result in “savings” worth £10.5m between next year and 2020, according to theBusinessDesk.com.

The gradual introduction of Universal Credit means that the Department for Work and Pensions, rather than the council, will eventually handle housing benefit payments.

This would mean less work for the council and Service Birmingham.

Councillors were expected at yesterday’s meeting to confirm officer recommendations on terminating the revenues collection part of the Service Birmingham contract. The new arrangements are likely to come into effect from February 1, 2017

Capita says on the Service Birmingham website that it has transformed services and “realised savings of approximately £1bn”. Capita had introduced SMS texting to prompt council tax payments and reduce the need to issue paper reminders.

Overspend

Birmingham council has a serious overspend for 2016/17, estimated to be around £49m.

The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel says, “The Council faces a mammoth task to prepare a balanced budget for 2017/18.  With very limited general reserves available, this potentially places at risk its future success.”

Lessons

In 2012 a “high-level” review of Service Birmingham by the Best Practice Group suggested that the deal had its successes but that trust and relationships might have been breaking down in some areas.

It said,

“BCC [Birmingham City Council] and SB [Service Birmingham] seemed to overcome early challenges in their relationship by having a ‘great common cause’. The Council entered into this relationship in 2006 because it had the foresight to realise it had to fundamentally transform how it operated in order to improve social outcomes for its population…

“Now the transformation has largely been successful and the initiatives are almost complete, the level of innovation seems to have stalled and the relationship has deteriorated. Somewhere in the fire-fighting, both BCC and SB have lost sight of the next ‘great common cause’ – the fact that the Council needs to further reduce the cost of ICT service delivery by £20m per annum. This will require some significant ‘outside the box’ thinking about how to achieve from both BCC and SB.”

The report said that some individuals within the council needed to understand better that Service Birmingham was not a social enterprise, a public sector mutual, or a charity, and needed “to make a significant return on its capital for its shareholders” amid a “significantly deteriorating financial position due to Government cutbacks.”

Best Practice Group also said that Capita reduced its charges when challenged

“There have been statements made by a number of the officers in the Council that SB drops its prices when challenged, especially when the Council has investigated alternative industry offerings. SB have suggested that it is only when the challenge arises that initial data is clarified and therefore, more focused pricing can be provided.”

Trust

There was – at that time – a “general lack of commercial trust between the parties and the fact that BCC have shown that SB have reported some data incorrectly (after discussion around interpretation), means that the KPIs are not fully aligned to the business outcomes BCC now needs to achieve in the current financial climate”.

The report reached no firm conclusions on value for money but questioned whether Service Birmingham was “significantly more expensive” in some technology areas.

Comment

Birmingham City Council expects to make “savings” by bringing the revenues collection service back in-house.

If the new savings are added to the claimed £1bn savings originally predicted for the Service Birmingham joint venture, are the actual savings more or less what the council could have saved if it carried on supplying ICT in-house, without helping to keep Caita’s shareholders happy?

In fact the word “savings” has been largely discredited when used in connection with large council outsourcing deals and joint ventures.

In the absence of published and audited savings figures, council reports can interpret the word “savings” to mean almost anything.

The unfortunate truth, as observers of Barnet Council’s deal with Capita have discovered, is that local residents who fund joint ventures and outsourcing deals, have no idea whether their councillors end up paying far too much for IT and other services.

Hide

Birmingham Council this week discussed a major revision to the Service Birmingham contract in secret, which raises a wider point.

Commercial confidentiality means that councils and suppliers can hide behind the contract when things go wrong. Indeed all parties to the contract have an interest in not telling the public about anything that goes wrong.

Exactly what is going on with Service Birmingham nobody knows – outside the council’s inner circle of officers and ruling councillors.  Could the contract be costing too much but the cancellation fees are too high to make cancellation worthwhile?

How many of the councillors who were involved in the signing of the original deal will care if it ends up costing a fortune?

The ruling councillors in 2006 are highly unlikely to be the ruling councillors in 2016.

Councils have the power to make the wrong decisions in private and local residents have no options but to pay for those decisions; and when, many years later, councillors want to discuss a major revision to the contract, which could involve paying compensation on the basis of further promised savings, they have the power to go into private session again.

Those who have no right to know what’s going wrong are the captive council tax payers – those who fund the council’s decisions on the basis of never-ending promises of “savings” – savings that are rarely if ever independently verified as having been achieved.

The system could work well if big decisions were taken in public view.

ICT suppliers are not always obsessed with secrecy. They tend to want only very specific details kept secret. Ian Watmore, former head of Accenture, later government chief information officer and the first Civil Service Commissioner, has been a notable advocate of public sector openness.

But council officers and ruling councillors usually want to have all discussions about outsourcing deals in private – largely because life is simpler without accountability.

It’s not a political matter. Birmingham council is staunchly labour but it was a coalition of Conservatives and Lib-dems that set up Service Birmingham in 2006.

In the same way as the government imposed openness on local councils, so new laws or government guidelines could force councils to be open on big decision and major revisions to contracts.

There again, if council tax payers knew in advance the whole truth about the likely full-term costs and speculative benefits of a major IT-based outsourcing deal or joint venture, would such a public-private partnership deal ever be signed?

Update 11.05 17 November 2016

Barnet Council has this week published a report on “£31” savings from its contract with Capita, alongside “increased resident satisfaction”. Barnet outsourced IT,  HR, a call centre and other services in 2013 in a 10-year contract. The Barnet report will be the subject of a separate post on Campaign4Change.

Birmingham set to pull out of [part of] Capita joint venture in revenues collection overhaul.

 

Can all councils open up like this please – even Barnet?

By Tony Collins

Bitten by misfortune over its outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM, Somerset County  Council has become more open – which seemed unlikely nearly a decade ago.

In 2007 the council and IBM formed Southwest One, a joint services company owned by IBM. The deal was characterised by official secrecy. Even non-confidential financial information on the deal was off-limits.

That’s no longer the case. Humbled a little by a failure of the outsourcing deal (including a legal action launched by IBM that cost the council’s taxpayers at least £5.9m)  local officials and their lawyers don’t automatically reach for the screens when things go wrong.

In 2014 Somerset County Council published a useful report on the lessons learnt from its Southwest One contract.

The latest disclosure is a report to the council’s audit committee meeting in June. The report focuses on the poor management and lack of oversight by some of Somerset’s officers of a range of contractor contracts. The council has 800 contracts, 87 of which are worth over £1m and some worth a lot more.

Given that the Council is committed to becoming an increasingly commissioning authority, it is likely that the total value of contracts will increase in the medium term, says the audit report by the excellent South West Audit Partnership (SWAP).

SWAP put the risk of contracts not being delivered within budget as “high”, but council officers had put this risk initially at only “medium”. SWAP found that the risk of services falling below expected standards or not delivering was “high” but, at the start of the audit assessment, council officers had put the risk at only “medium”.

somerset county council2One contract costing more than £10m a year had no performance indicators that were being actively monitored, said SWAP.

None of the contracts reviewed had an up-to-date risk register to inform performance monitoring.

No corporate contract performance framework was in place for managing contracts above defined thresholds.

“Some key risks are not well managed,” says the report.

“It is acknowledged that the Council has implemented new contract procedural rules from May 2015 which post-dates the contracts reviewed in this audit; however these procedural rules contain only ‘headline’ statements relating to contract management.

“Most notable in the audit work undertaken was the lack of consistency in terms of the approach to contract management across the contracts reviewed. Whilst good practice was found to be in place in several areas, the level of and approach to management of contracts varied greatly.

“No rationale based on proportionality, value, or risk for this variation was found to be in place. The largest contract reviewed had an annual value of over £10 million but no performance indicators were currently being actively monitored.”

Report withdrawn

Soon after the report was published the council withdrew it from its website. It says the Audit Committee meeting for 3 May has been postponed until June. It’s expected that the audit report will be published (again) shortly before that meeting.

Fortunately campaigner Dave Orr downloaded the audit report before it was taken down.

Comment

How many councils manage outsourcing and other contracts as unpredictably as Somerset but keep quiet about it?

Why, for example, have Barnet’s officers and ruling councillors not made public any full audit reports on the council’s performance in managing its contracts with Capita?

It could be that councils up and down the country are not properly managing their contracts – or are leaving it to the outsourcing companies to reveal when things go wrong.

Would that regular SWAP reports were published for every council.

All public authorities have internal auditors who may well do a good job but their findings, particularly if they are critical of the management of suppliers, are usually kept confidential.

Freedom of information legislation has made councils more open generally, as has guidance the Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2014.

But none of this has made councils such as Barnet more open about any problems on its outsourcing deals.

Indeed clear and perceptive audit reports such as the one from SWAP are rare in the world of local government.

All of which raises the question of whether one reason some councils love outsourcing is that they can pass responsibility to suppliers for things that go wrong knowing the public may never find out the full truth because secrecy is still endemic in local government.

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the audit report – and its (temporary) withdrawal.

Somerset Council’s (withdrawn) Audit Committee report

Southwest One – the complete story by Dave Orr

Judge orders FOI release of Universal Credit IT reports

By Tony Collins

universal creditA judge has ordered the Department for Work and Pensions to release three Universal Credit IT reports that ministers and their officials have spent public money trying to keep out of the public domain.

Judge Chris Ryan and his FOI tribunal panel went further: they concluded that had the reports in question been disclosed at the time they might have corrected misleading government statements about the robust state of the Universal Credit programme.

In their ruling this week the tribunal said that disclosure of the documents,

“might have corrected a false impression, derived from official government statements by revealing the very considerable difficulties that were beginning to develop around the time when the information requests were submitted.”

Two director-level officials at the Department for Work and Pensions had argued that civil servants needed a “safe space” in the reports in question to be candid in their assessments of risks and problems.

But the FOI tribunal, whose members have project management experience, concluded that it’s in the self interest of officials to be candid and professional about problems and risks rather than be associated with a failed project.

In addition, officials would not wish to be held partly responsible in a later review, such as one carried out by the National Audit Office, for having “failed to draw colleagues’ attention to problems with sufficient clarity to ensure that they were addressed effectively and in good time”.

Civil servants had an “awareness of the importance of candour in support of good decision-making and their professional obligation to assist that process”.

The tribunal said the three reports in question should have been  disclosed at the time they were requested in 2012. It directed the DWP to disclose them.

If the DWP’s barrister can identify good reasons why the tribunal might have made an error, or errors, in law, he can appeal within 28 days, though a tribunal could reject his appeal . The DWP could then appeal this decision.

This cycle of appeals that has already happened once – or the DWP could now decide that it has spent enough public money on fighting the case and release the reports.

dwpDid the DWP mislead?

The reports are expected to throw light on the problems and risks of Universal Credit IT at  a time when DWP’s officials, secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith and his ministers, were giving assurances that all was well with the programme.

An FOI tribunal ordered the reports to be released in 2014 but various DWP appeals led to a re-hearing of the case last month (22 February 2016) at Leicester Magistrates Court.

Now Judge Ryan and two other FOI tribunal panel members have ordered that the DWP release a risk register, issues register and Major Projects Authority project assessment review.

The risk register described risks, the possible impact should they occur, the probability of their occurring, a risk score, a traffic light status, a summary of the planned response if a risk materialised, and a summary of the risk mitigation.

The issues register included a list of problems, the dates they were identified, the mitigating steps required and the dates for review and resolution.

The project assessment review gave a high-level strategic view of the state of UC, its problems, risks and how well or badly it was being managed.

The DWP argued that routine disclosure of such reports could lead to sensationalist headlines that would have a “chilling effect”.  Not wanting to give food to a hostile media, officials writing or contributing to such reports could make them anodyne.

dwpDWP fears “over-stated”

But Judge Ryan said the DWP had “over-stated” its fears. The tribunal suggested that the DWP had not been entirely truthful about the Universal Credit programme.

“We do not accept the Department’s submission that the management of the Universal Credit Programme is already exposed to sufficient public scrutiny and that this dilutes the strength of the arguments in favour of disclosure. On the particular facts of this case it is clear that the true story about the troubles which the Programme team faced only came to light a long time after the event and then showed a markedly different picture than had been portrayed by government statements issued at the time.”

This difference between reality on the UC programme and government statements was a good reason in favour of the disclosure of the reports, said the judge.

Closed session

The DWP’s witness Cath Hamp, a senior DWP official, went into closed session at the latest hearing to argue that her concerns about civil servant behaviour would be more clearly shown by reference to specific items in the withheld documents.

Her closed-session arguments related to the risk of fraud and hacking into the system, relations with commercial organisations, and relations with local government. The tribunal was not convinced by her arguments.

Neither was the panel convinced by the “chilling effect” arguments.

“The evidence on the likelihood of civil servants altering their behaviour in future with regard to their contributions to the preparation of a risk or issues register or to the conduct of a project review was, as Ms Hamp fairly conceded, speculative…”

FOI a benefit more than a “burden”?

The DWP argued that disclosures of the reports would have placed a burden on DWP’s Universal Credit programme executives. They would have been forced to divert their energies and time into correcting media reports about the seriousness of problems and risks. But the tribunal concluded,

“Nor do we accept that resources would be wasted in providing explanations. It is clear from the press releases that we have been shown that the Department has been adept at presenting its case to the public and that it clearly has the specialist staff to carry out that function.”

The tribunal suggested that FOI obligations, rather than cause harm as the DWP had suggested, would be a benefit. The FOI Act had “brought with it an obligation on government to explain itself to a greater extent than had previously been found necessary”.

The tribunal rejected the DWP’s argument that it faced a hostile media which made officials defensive.

“… the evidence before us suggests that, on this issue, the media has adopted a relatively balanced approach to information about the Programme that has come into its possession.”

The judge said that in any event it is a

“perfectly appropriate performance of the media’s role in a modern democracy for it to investigate and comment on the implementation of a major reform involving large sums of public money and a potentially crucial impact on the lives of some of the least fortunate members of society”.

He added: “We do not therefore accept the Department’s submissions on the likelihood of the public misunderstanding the disputed information, or being misled as to its significance by the media”

In its final paragraph the tribunal said,

“… we have concluded that the public interest in maintaining the exemption in respect of each of the withheld documents does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure and that they should therefore have been disclosed when requested. Our decision is unanimous.”

Comment

My thanks to IT projects professional John Slater who has been the main force behind the case in favour of disclosure of the reports.

He made the original request in 2012 for the reports to be published. I requested one of them. He went to the original First Tier Tribunal and to Leicester Magistrates Court last month to cross examine the DWP’s witness. The points he made were quoted by the tribunal in its submission.

It’s campaigners like John Slater (and Dave Orr) who have helped to make FOI legislation more effective than it would otherwise have been.

If the DWP continues to pour money into fighting the disclosure of the reports in question, it will confirm to some of us that, when it comes to its own interest, that is its interest as a bureaucracy,  it may not be a fit authority to manage the spending of public money.

I hope it will release the reports now. It is time it started distinguishing between the public interest and its own.

Universal Credit FOI tribunal ruling – March 2016:  077 110316 Final Open Decision