Category Archives: public services

Government Digital Service loses “genius” and “national treasure”. Is Sir Humphrey winning campaign to dismember GDS?

,By Tony Collins

The dismembering of the Government Digital Service is underway, says Andrew Greenway, a former programme manager working on digital projects for the Cabinet Office. He now works as an independent consultant.

His comments in Civil Service World came, coincidentally, as another top GDS official prepared to leave.

Paul Downey, GDS’s Technical Architect – who is described by former colleagues as a “legend” and “national treasure” – has left to join the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Downey is the latest in a long line of leading government technologists to leave GDS, which will confirm in the minds of many that Sir Humphrey has won the campaign to stop GDS interfering in the 100 year-old autonomy of individual government departments.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox set up GDS in 2011 to break down departmental silos and have a “single version of the truth” for everything that government touches.

Former prime minister David Cameron said the creation of GDS “is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last Parliament”

Downey helped departments to create new digital services. He represented GDS on the UK government Open Standards Board. Formerly he was BT’s Chief Web Services Architect.

In reply to Downey’s tweet announcing his departure, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, former Executive Director of GDS, tweeted, “When people talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, they were talking about you.”

Mike Bracken, Foreshew-Cain’s predecessor as head of GDS, tweeted about Downey’s departure, “You’re a legend, my friend”.

Tom Loosemore, founder of GDS who, in 2012, wrote the Government Digital Strategy for GDS, also tweeted praise for Downey.

Loosemore left GDS in 2015 for the Co-op group. In an interview shortly after leaving, Loosemore said, “The shape of government needs to change … Businesses don’t run on siloed departments any more and neither should government.”

Liam Maxwell, National Technology Adviser at HM Government who used to be the government’s chief technology officer and who ran teams at GDS, tweeted,”You have been total inspiration to me and hundreds of others”.

Dismembering

Greenway said GDS retains people, prestige and power.  “There is no question that the civil service is in a much stronger position on digital than it was six years ago. Some of the work going on in government, including the teams in GDS building digital platforms, remains world-leading”.

Despite bleeding skills elsewhere, GDS has not experienced a terminal brain drain, says Greenway. “Many of those who have stayed are doing a heroic job in trying circumstances.”

But he added that officials working on digital programmes in other departments describe the GDS team as well-meaning but increasingly peripheral.

 It now looks as if the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will take over from GDS. But Greenway warns against replacing a weakened centre with diffuse departmental effort.

“The point of GDS was to have a single team that could act as the voice of users for government as a whole. To do that well, it needed a mandate covering data as well as design, operations and technology. It also had to have a clear mission. Increasingly, it has neither of these.

“The departmental shape of government gives no incentive for any non-central department to step in. It is a great shame that the two most well-placed advocates for an effective centre — the Treasury and Sir Jeremy Heywood — have proved unable or unwilling to stop the rot …

“The dismembering of GDS is underway.”

Comment

GDS was a great idea. But Sir Humphries tend not to like great ideas if they mean internal change. Permanent secretaries are appointed on the basis that they are a safe pair of hands.  Safe in this context means three things:

  • not spilling the beans however rancid they may be
  • valuing  department’s unique heritage, administrative traditions, staff and procedures
  • talking daily of the need for large-scale “transformative” change while ensuring it doesn’t happen.

Thus, for the past few years, GDS professionals have found that top civil servants want central government departments to continue to be run as separate bureaucratic empires with their uniqueness and administrative traditions preserved.

GDS technologists, on the other hand, want to cut the costs of running Whitehall and the wider public sector while making it easier for the public to interact with government. This puts GDS at odds with Whitehall officials who believe that each departmental board knows best how to run its department.

In the long run GDS cannot win – because it was set up by politicians who wanted change but whose stewardship was temporary while the will to dismember GDS comes from the permanent secretariat who do not welcome change and have the power to resist it.

More’s the pity because taxpayers will continue to spend a fortune on preserving departmental silos and huge, unnecessarily-complex technology contracts.

Andrew Greenway on the dismembering of GDS – Civil Service World

GDS deserves credit for its successes – Government Computing

GDS to lose some policy control? – Computer Weekly

Government Digital Service blog

Government Digital Service being “dismembered”

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Companies nervous over HMRC customs IT deadline?

By Tony Collins

This Computer Weekly article in 1994 was about the much-delayed customs system CHIEF. Will its CDS replacement that’s being built for the post-Brexit customs regime also be delayed by years?

The Financial Times  reported this week that UK companies are nervous over a deadline next year for the introduction of a new customs system three months before Brexit.

HMRC’s existing customs system CHIEF (Customs Handling of Import Export Freight) copes well with about 100 million transactions a year. It’s expected a £157m replacement system using software from IBM and European Dynamics will have to handle about 255 million transactions and with many more complexities and interdependencies than the existing system.

If the new system fails post-Brexit and CHIEF cannot be adapted to cope, it could be disastrous for companies that import and export freight. A post-Brexit failure could also have a serious impact on the UK economy and the collection of billions of pounds in VAT, according to the National Audit Office.

The FT quoted me on Monday as calling for an independent review of the new customs system by an outside body.

I told the FT of my concern that officials will, at times, tell ministers what they want to hear. Only a fully independent review of the new customs system (as opposed to a comfortable internal review conducted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority) would stand a chance of revealing whether the new customs system was likely to work on time and whether smaller and medium-sized companies handling freight had been adequately consulted and would be able to integrate the new system into their own technology.

The National Audit Office reported last year that HMRC has a well-established forum for engaging with some stakeholders but has

“significant gaps in its knowledge of important groups. In particular it needs to know more about the number and needs of the smaller and less established traders who might be affected by the customs changes for the first time”.

The National Audit Office said that the new system will need to cope with 180,000 new traders who will use the system for the first time after Brexit, in addition to the 141,000 traders who currently make customs declarations for trade outside the EU.

The introduction in 1994 of CHIEF was labelled a disaster at the time by some traders,  in part because it was designed and developed without their close involvement. CHIEF  was eventually accepted and is now much liked – though it’s 24 years old.

Involve end-users – or risk failure

Lack of involvement of prospective end-users is a common factor in government IT disasters. It happened on the Universal Credit IT programme, which turned out to be a failure in its early years, and on the £10bn National Programme for IT which was dismantled in 2010. Billions of pounds were wasted.

The FT quoted me as saying that the chances of the new customs system CDS [Customs Declaration Service) doing all the things that traders need it to do from day one are almost nil.

The FT quotes one trader as saying,

“HMRC is introducing a massive new programme at what is already a critical time. It would be a complex undertaking at the best of times but proceeding with it at this very moment feels like a high stakes gamble.”

HMRC has been preparing to replace CHIEF with CDS since 2013. Its civil servants say that the use of the SAFe agile methodology when combined with the skills and capabilities of its staff mean that programme risks and issues will be effectively managed.

But, like other government departments, HMRC does not publish its reports on the state of major IT-related projects and programmes. One risk, then,  is that ministers may not know the full truth until a disaster is imminent.

In the meantime ministerial confidence is likely to remain high.

Learning from past mistakes?

HMRC has a mixed record on learning from past failures of big government IT-based projects.  Taking some of the lessons from “Crash”, these are the best  things about the new customs project:

  • It’s designed to be simple to use – a rarity for a government IT system. Last year HMRC reduced the number of system features it plans to implement from 968 to 519. It considered that there were many duplicated and redundant features listed in its programme backlog.
  • The SAFe agile methodology HMRC is using is supposed to help organisations implement large-scale, business-critical systems in the shortest possible time.
  • HMRC is directly managing the technical development and is carrying out this work using its own resources, independent contractors and the resources of its government technology company, RCDTS. Last year it had about 200 people working on the IT programme.

These are the potentially bad things:

  • It’s not HMRC’s fault but it doesn’t know how much work is going to be involved because talks over the post-Brexit customs regime are ongoing.
  • It’s accepted in IT project management that a big bang go-live is not a good idea. The new Customs Declaration Service is due to go live in January 2019, three months before Britain is due to leave the EU. CHIEF system was commissioned from BT in 1989 and its scheduled go-live was delayed by two years. Could CDS be delayed by two years as well? In pre-live trials CHIEF rejected hundreds of test customs declarations for no obvious reason.
  • The new service will use, at its core,  commercially available software (from IBM) to manage customs declarations and software (from European Dynamics) to calculate tariffs. The use of software packages is a good idea – but not if they need large-scale modification.  Tampering with proven packages is a much riskier strategy than developing software from scratch.  The new system will need to integrate with other HMRC systems and a range of third-party systems. It will need to provide information to 85 systems across 26 other government bodies.
  • If a software package works well in another country it almost certainly won’t work when deployed by the UK government. Core software in the new system uses a customs declaration management component that works well in the Netherlands but is not integrated with other systems, as it would be required to do in HMRC, and handles only 14 million declarations each year.
  • The IBM component has been tested in laboratory conditions to cope with 180 million declarations, but the UK may need to process 255 million declarations each year.
  • Testing software in laboratory conditions will give you little idea of whether it will work in the field. This was one of the costly lessons from the NHS IT programme NPfIT.
  • The National Audit Office said in a report last year that HMRC’s contingency plans were under-developed and that there were “significant gaps in staff resources”.

Comment

HMRC has an impressive new CIO Jackie Wright but whether she will have the freedom to work within Whitehall’s restrictive practices is uncertain. It seems that the more talented the CIO the more they’re made to feel like outsiders by senior civil servants who haven’t worked in the private sector.  It’s a pity that some of the best CIOs don’t usually last long in Whitehall.

Meanwhile HMRC’s top civil servants and IT specialists seem to be confident that CDS, the new customs system, will work on time.  Their confidence is not reassuring.  Ministers and civil servants publicly and repeatedly expressed confidence that Universal Credit would be fully rolled by the end of 2017. Now it’s running five years late.  The NHS IT programme NPfIT was to have been rolled out by 2015.  By 2010 it was dismantled as hopeless.

With some important exceptions, Whitehall’s track record on IT-related projects is poor – and that’s when what is needed is known. Brexit is still being negotiated. How can anyone build a new bridge when you’re not sure how long it’ll need to be and what the many and varied external stresses will be?

If the new or existing systems cannot cope with customs declarations after Brexit it may not be the fault of HMRC. But that’ll be little comfort for the hundreds of thousands of traders whose businesses rely, in part, on a speedy and efficient customs service.

FT article – UK companies nervous over deadline for new Customs system

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

 

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”?

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.”

MPs to debate Capita NHS contract today

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patients “at risk”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunacy?

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

Said the GP,

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

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

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

“I urgently need my medical records”

A patient who wrote to Campaign4Change said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

But what happens to negotiation and discussion of risk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHS England letter on Capita contract – September 2016

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

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

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

NHS England vows to hold Capita to account

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

Capita primary care support service performance “unacceptable”

 

 

 

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

dwpBy Tony Collins

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

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

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP's written submission

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP’s written submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpts from the submission are here.

Analysis and Comment

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

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

Confidential

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

That sensitivity has little to do with protecting personal data.

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

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

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

Individual accountability for failure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understandable?

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

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

Need for openness

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

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

Programme papers“watermarked”

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

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

Concern over leaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Defensive”

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

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

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

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

Were there leaks of particularly sensitive information?

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

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

NPfIT

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

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

Ex-Government CIO wanted more openness on IT projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

MPs and even IT suppliers want openness on IT projects

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

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

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

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

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

DWP headline late and over budget

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

The report said,

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

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

The costs of concealment

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

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

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

“Abysmal”

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

1984

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

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

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

Does it matter if the DWP is paranoid about leaks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red team

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong assumptions

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

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

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

Said Lord Bach,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad news

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

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

Ministers helpless to force openness on unwilling officials?

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

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

Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Excerpts from the DWP submission

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