Category Archives: PWC

Excellent reports on lessons from Universal Credit IT project published today – but who’s listening?

By Tony Collins

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening.”

The Institute for Government has today published one of the most incisive – and revelatory – reports ever produced on a big government IT project.

It concludes that the Universal Credit IT programme may now be in recovery after a disastrous start, but recovery does not mean recovered. Much could yet floor the programme, which is due to be complete in 2022.

The Institute’s main report is written by Nick Timmins, a former Financial Times journalist, who has written many articles on failed publicly-funded IT-based projects.

His invaluable report, “Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?” – includes interviews with David Pitchford, a key figure in the Universal Credit programme, and Howard Shiplee who led the Universal Credit project.

Timmins also spoke to insiders, including DWP directors, who are not named, and the former secretary of state at the Department for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP’s welfare reform minster Lord Freud.

Separately the Institute has published a shorter report “Learning the lessons from Universal Credit which picks out from Timmins’ findings five “critical” lessons for future government projects. This report, too, is clear and jargon-free.

Much of the information on the Universal Credit IT programme in the Timmins report is new. It gives insights, for instance, into the positions of Universal Credit’s major suppliers HP, IBM, Accenture.

It also unearths what can be seen, in retrospect, to be a series of self-destructive decisions and manoeuvres by the Department for Work and Pensions.

But the main lessons in the report – such as an institutional and political inability to face up to or hear bad news – are not new, which raises the question of whether any of the lessons will be heeded by future government leaders – ministers and civil servants – given that Whitehall departments have been making the same mistakes, or similar ones, for decades?

DWP culture of suppressing any bad news continues

Indeed, even as the reports lament a lack of honesty over discussing or even mentioning problems – a “culture of denial” – Lord Freud, the minister in charge of welfare reform, is endorsing FOI refusals to publish the latest risk registers, project assessment reviews and other Universal Credit reports kept by the Department for Work and Pensions.

More than once Timmins expresses his surprise at the lack of information about the programme that is in the public domain. In the “acknowledgements” section at the back of his report Timmins says,

“Drafts of this study were read at various stages by many of the interviewees, and there remained disputes not just about interpretation but also, from some of them, about facts.

“Some of that might be resolvable by access to the huge welter of documents around Universal Credit that are not in the public domain. But that, by definition, is not possible at this stage.”

Churn of project leaders continues

Timmins and the Institute warn about the “churn” of project leaders, and the need for stable top jobs.

But even as the Institute’s reports were being finalised HMRC was losing its much respected chief digital officer Mark Dearnley, who has been in charge of what is arguably the department’s riskiest-ever IT-related programme, to transfer of legacy systems to multiple suppliers as part of the dismantling of the £8bn “Aspire” outourcing venture with Capgemini.

Single biggest cause of Universal Credit’s bad start?

Insiders told Timmins that the fraught start of Universal Credit might have been avoided if Terry Moran had been left as a “star” senior responsible owner of the programme. But Moran was given two jobs and ended up having a breakdown.

In January 2011, as the design and build on Universal Credit started, Terry Moran was given the job of senior responsible owner of the project but a few months later the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux took the “odd” decision to make Moran chief operating officer for the entire department as well. One director within the DWP told Timmins:

“Terry was a star. A real ‘can do’ civil servant. But he couldn’t say no to the twin posts. And the job was overwhelming.”

The director claimed that Iain Duncan Smith told Moran – a point denied by IDS – that if Universal Credit were to fail that would be a personal humiliation and one he was not prepared to contemplate. “That was very different from the usual ministerial joke that ‘failure is not an option’. The underlying message was that ‘I don’t want bad news’, almost in words of one syllable. And this was in a department whose default mode is not to bring bad news to the top. ‘We will handle ministers’ is the way the department operates…”

According to an insider, “Terry Moran being given the two jobs was against Iain’s instructions. Iain repeatedly asked Robert [Devereux] not to do this and Robert repeatedly gave him assurances that this would be okay” – an account IDS confirms. In September 2012, Moran was to have a breakdown that led to early retirement in March 2013. He recorded later for the mental health charity Time to Talk that “eventually, I took on more and more until the weight of my responsibilities and my ability to discharge them just grew too much for me”.

Timmins was told, “You cannot have someone running the biggest operational part of government [paying out £160bn of benefits a year] and devising Universal Credit. That was simply unsustainable,”

Timmins says in his report, “There remains a view among some former and current DWP civil servants that had that not happened (Moran being given two jobs), the programme would not have hit the trouble it did. ‘Had he been left solely with responsibility for UC [Universal Credit], I and others believe he could have delivered it, notwithstanding the huge challenges of the task,’ one says.”

Reviews of Universal IT “failed”

Timmins makes the point that reviews of Universal Credit by the Major Projects Authority failed to convey in clear enough language that the Universal Credit programme was in deep trouble.

“The [Major Projects Authority] report highlighted a lack of sufficient substantive action on the points raised in the March study. It raised ‘high’ levels of concern about much of the programme – ‘high’ being a lower level of concern than ‘critical’. But according to those who have seen the report, it did not yet say in words of one syllable that the programme was in deep trouble.”

Iain Duncan Smith told Timmins that the the Major Projects review process “failed me” by not warning early enough of fundamental problems. It was the ‘red team’ report that did that, he says, and its contents made grim reading when it landed at the end of July in 2012.

Train crash on the way

The MPA [Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority] reviewed the programme in March 2011. “MPA reports are not in the public domain. But it is clear that the first of these flagged up a string of issues that needed to be tackled …

” In June a member of the team developing the new government’s pan-government website – gov.uk – was invited up to Warrington [base for the Universal Credit IT team] to give a presentation on how it was using an agile approach to do that.

“At the end of the presentation, according to one insider, a small number from the audience stayed behind, eyeing each other warily, but all wanting to talk. Most of them were freelancers working for the suppliers. ‘Their message,’ the insider says, ‘was that this was a train crash on the way’ – a message that was duly reported back to the Cabinet Office, but not, apparently, to the DWP and IDS.”

Scared to tell the truth

On another occasion when the Major Projects Authority visited the IT team at Warrington for the purposes of its review, the review team members decided that “to get to the truth they had to make people not scared to tell the truth”. So the MPA “did a lot of one-on-one interviews, assuring people that what they said would not be attributable. And under nearly every stone was chaos.

“People burst into tears, so relieved were they that they could tell someone what was happening.

” There was one young lad from one of the suppliers who said: ‘Just don’t put this thing [Universal Credit] online. I am a public servant at heart. It is a complete security disaster.’

IBM, Accenture and HP

“Among those starting to be worried were the major suppliers – Accenture, HP and IBM. They started writing formal letters to the department.

‘Our message,’ according to one supplier, ‘was: ‘Look, this isn’t working. We’ll go on taking your money. But it isn’t going to work’.’ Stephen Brien [then expert adviser to IDS] says of those letters: ‘I don’t think Iain saw them at that time, and I certainly didn’t see them at the time.”

At one point “serious consideration was given to suing the suppliers but they had written their warning letters and it rapidly became clear that that was not an option”.

Howard Shiplee, former head of the project, told Timmins that he had asked himself ‘how it could be that a very large group of clever people drawn from the DWP IT department with deep experience of the development and operation of their own massive IT systems and leading industry IT suppliers had combined to get the entire process so very wrong? Equally, ‘how could another group of clever people [the GDS team] pass such damning judgement on this earlier work and at the stroke of a pen seek to write off millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money?’

Shiplee commissioned a review from PwC on the work carried out to date and discovered that the major suppliers “were genuinely concerned to have their work done properly, support DWP and recover their reputations”.

In addition, when funding had been blocked at the end of 2012, the suppliers “had not simply downed tools but had carried on development work for almost three months” as they ran down the large teams that had been working on it.

“As a result, they had completed the development for single claimants that was being used in the pathfinder and made considerable progress on claims for couples and families. And their work, the PwC evaluation said, was of good quality.”

On time?

When alarm bells finally started ringing around Whitehall that Universal Credit was in trouble,  IDS found himself under siege. Stephen Brien says IDS was having to battle with the Treasury to keep the funding going for the project. He had to demonstrate that the programme was on time and on budget.

‘The department wanted to support him in that, and didn’t tell him all the things that were going wrong. I found out about some of them, but I didn’t push as hard as I should have. And looking back, the MPA [Major Projects Authority] meetings and the MPA reports were all handled with a siege mentality. We all felt we had to stand shoulder to shoulder defending where we were and not really using them to ask: ‘Are we where we should be?’

‘As a result we were not helping ourselves, and we certainly were not helping others, including the MPA. But we did get to the stage between the end of 2011 and the spring of 2012 where we said: ‘Okay, let’s get a red team in with the time and space to do our own challenge.’”

The DWP’s “caste” system

A new IT team was created in Victoria Street, London – away from Warrington but outside the DWP’s Caxton Street headquarters. It started to take a genuinely agile approach to the new system. One of those involved told Timmins:

“It had all been hampered by this caste system in the department where there is a policy elite, then the operational people, and then the technical people below that.

“And you would say to the operational people: ‘Why have you not been screaming that this will never work?’ And they’d say: ‘Well, we’re being handed this piece of sh** and we are just going to have to make it work with workarounds, to deal with the fact that we don’t want people to starve. So we will have to work out our own processes, which the policy people will never see, and we will find a way to make it work.’

Twin-track approach

IBM, HP and Accenture built what’s now known as the “live” system which enabled Universal Credit to get underway, and claims to be made in jobcentres.

It uses, in part, the traditional “waterfall” approach and has cost hundreds of millions of pounds. In contrast there’s a separate in-house “digital” system that has cost less than £10m and is an “agile” project.

A key issue, Shiplee told Timmins, was that the new digital team “would not even discuss the preceding work done by the DWP and its IT suppliers”. The digital team had, he says, “a messiah-like approach that they were going to rebuild everything from scratch”.

Rather than write everything off, Shiplee wanted ideally to marry the “front-end” apps that the GDS/DWP team in Victoria Street was developing with the work already done. But “entrenched attitudes” made that impossible. The only sensible solution, he decided, was a “twin-track” approach.

“The Cabinet Office remained adamant that the DWP should simply switch to the new digital version – which it had now become clear, by late summer, would take far longer to build than they anticipated – telling the DWP that the problem was that using the original software would mean ‘creating a temporary service, and temporary will become permanent’.

“All of which led to the next big decision, which, to date, has been one of the defining ones. In November 2013, a mighty and fraught meeting of ministers and officials was convened. Pretty much everyone was there. The DWP ministers, Francis Maude (Cabinet Office minister), Oliver Letwin who was Cameron’s policy overlord, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the home civil service, plus a clutch of DWP officials including Robert Devereux and Howard Shiplee as the senior responsible owner along with Danny Alexander and Treasury representatives.

“The decision was whether to give up on the original build, or run a twin-track approach: in other words, to extend the use of the original build that was by now being used in just over a dozen offices – what became dubbed the ‘live’ service – before the new, and hopefully much more effective, digital approach was finished and on stream.

“It was a tough and far from pleasant meeting that is etched in the memories of those who were there…

“One of those present who favoured the twin-track approach says: There were voices for writing the whole of the original off. But that would have been too much for Robert Devereux [the DWP’s Permanent Secretary] and IDS.

” So the twin-track approach was settled on – writing a lot of the original IT down rather than simply writing it off. That, in fact, has had some advantages even if technically it was probably the wrong decision…

“It has, however, seen parts of the culture change that Universal Credit involves being rolled out into DWP offices as more have adopted Universal Credit, even if the IT still requires big workarounds.

“More and more offices, for example, have been using the new claimant commitment, which is itself an important part of Universal Credit. So it has been possible to train thousands of staff in that, and get more and more claimants used to it, while also providing feedback for the new build.”

Francis Maude was among those who objected to the twin-track approach, according to leaked minutes of the project oversight board at around this time.

Lord Freud told Timmins,

‘Francis was adamant that we should not go with the live system [that is, the original build]. He wanted to kill it. But we, the DWP, did not believe that the digital system would be ready on anything like the timescales they were talking about then …But I knew that if you killed the live system, you killed Universal Credit…”

In the end the twin-track approach was agreed by a majority. But the development of the ‘agile’ digital service was immediately hampered by a spat over how quickly staff from the GDS were to be withdrawn from the project.

Fury over National Audit Office report

In 2013 the National Audit Office published a report Universal Credit – early progress –  that, for the first time, brought details of the problems on the Universal Credit programme into the public domain. Timmins’ report says that IDS and Lord Freud were furious.

“IDS and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Lord Freud were furious about the NAO report; and thus highly defensive.”

IDS tried to present the findings of the National Audit Office as purely historical.

In November 2014, the NAO reported again on Universal Credit. It once more disclosed something that ministers had not announced – that the timetable had again been put back two years (which raises further questions about why Lord Freud continues to refuse FOI requests that would put into the public domain – and inform MPs – about project problems, risks and delays without waiting for an NAO report to be published)..

Danny Alexander “cut through” bureaucracy

During one period, the Treasury approval of cash became particularly acute. Lord Freud told Timmins:

“We faced double approvals. We had approval about any contract variation from the Cabinet Office and then approvals for the money separately from the Treasury.

“The Government Digital Service got impatient because they wanted to make sure that the department had the ability to build internally rather than going out to Accenture and IBM, who (sic) they hate.

“The approvals were ricocheting between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury and when we were trying to do rapid iteration. That was producing huge delays, which were undermining everything. So in the end Danny Alexander [Lib-dem MP who was chief secretary to the Treasury] said: ‘I will clear this on my own authority.’ And that was crucial. Danny cut through all of that.”

Optimism bias

So-called optimism bias – over-optimism – is “such a common cause of failure in both public and private projects that it seems quite remarkable that it needs restating. But it does – endlessly”.

Timmins says the original Universal Credit white paper – written long before the start of the programme – stated that it would involve “an IT development of moderate scale, which the Department for Work and Pensions and its suppliers are confident of handling within budget and timescale”.

David Pitchford told Timmins,

“One of the greatest adages I have been taught and have learnt over the years in terms of major projects is that hope is not a management tool. Hoping it is all going to come out all right doesn’t cut it with something of this magnitude.

“The importance of having a genuine diagnostic machine that creates recommendations that are mandatory just can’t be overstated. It just changes the whole outcome completely. As opposed to obfuscation and optimism bias being the basis of the reporting framework. It goes to a genuine understanding and knowledge of what is going on and what is going wrong.”

Sir Bob Kerslake, who also identified the ‘good news culture’ of the DWP as being a problem, told Timmins,

“All organisations should have that ability to be very tough about what is and isn’t working. The people at the top have rose-tinted specs. They always do. It goes with the territory.

And unless you are prepared to embrace people saying that ‘really, this is in a bad place’… I can think of points where I have done big projects where it was incredibly important that we delivered the unwelcome news of where we were on that project. But it saved me, and saved my career.”

Recovery?

Timmins makes good arguments for his claim that the Universal Credit programme may be in recovery – but not recovered – and that improvements have been made in governance to allow for decisions to be properly questioned.

But there is no evidence the DWP’s “good news” culture has changed. For instance the DWP says that more than 300,000 people are claiming Universal Credit but the figure has not been audited and it’s unclear whether claimants who have come off the benefit and returned to it – perhaps several times – are being double counted.

Timmins points out the many uncertainties that cloud the future of the Universal Credit programme  – how well the IT will work, whether policy changes will hit the programme, whether enough staff will remain in jobcentres, and whether the DWP will have good relations with local authorities that are key to the delivery of Universal Credit but are under their own stresses and strains with resourcing.

There are also concerns about what changes the Scots and Northern Irish may want under their devolved powers, and the risk that any ‘economic shock’ post the referendum pushes up the volume of claimants with which the DWP has to deal.

 Could Universal Credit fail for non-IT reasons?

Timmins says,

“In seeking to drive people to higher earnings and more independence from the benefits system, there will be more intrusion into and control over the lives of people who are in work than under the current benefits system. And there are those who believe that such an approach – sanctioning people who are already working – will prove to be political dynamite.”

The dire consequences of IT-related failure

It is also worth noting that Universal Credit raises the stakes for the DWP in terms of its payment performance, says Timmins.

“If a tax credit or a Jobseeker’s Allowance payment or any of the others in the group of six go awry, claimants are rarely left penniless in the sense that other payments – for example, Housing Benefit in the case of Jobseeker’s Allowance or tax credits, – continue.

“If a Universal Credit payment fails, then all the support from the state, other than Child Benefit or disability benefits not included within Universal Credit, disappears.”

This happened recently in Scotland when an IT failure left hundreds of families penniless. The DWP’s public response was to describe the failure in Scotland as “small-scale”.

Comment

What a report.

It is easy to see how much work has gone into it. Timmins has coupled his own knowledge of IT-related failure with a thorough investigation into what has gone wrong and what lessons can be learned.

That said it may make no difference. The Institute in its “lessons” report uses phrases such as “government needs to make sure…”. But governments change and new administrations have an abundance – usually a superfluity – of confidence and ambition. They regard learning lessons from the past as putting on brakes or “nay saying”. You have to get with the programme, or quit.

Lessons are always the same

There will always be top-level changes within the DWP. Austerity will always be a factor.  The culture of denial of bad news, over-optimism about what can be achieved by when and how easily it can be achieved, over-expectations of internal capability, over-expectation of what suppliers can deliver, embarking on a huge project without clearly or fully understanding what it will involve, not listening diligently to potential users and ridiculously short timescales are all well-known lessons.

So why do new governments keep repeating them?

When Universal Credit’s successor is started in say 2032, the same mistakes will probably be repeated and the Institute for Government, or its successor, will write another similar report on the lessons to be learned.

When Campaign4Change commented in 2013 that Universal Credit would probably not be delivered before 2020 at the earliest, it was an isolated voice. At the time, the DWP press office – and its ministers – were saying the project was on budget and “on time”.

NPfIT

The National Audit Office has highlighted similar lessons to those in the Timmins report, for example in NAO reports on the NPfIT – the NHS IT programme that was the world’s largest non-military IT scheme until it was dismantled in 2011. It was one of the world’s biggest IT disasters – and none of its lessons was learned on the Universal Credit programme.

The NPfIT had an anti-bad news culture. It did not talk enough to end users. It had ludicrous deadlines and ambitions. The politicians in charge kept changing, as did some of programme leaders. There was little if any effective internal or external challenge. By the time it was dismantled the NPfIT had lost billions.

What the Institute for Government could ask now is, with the emasculation of the Government Digital Service and the absence of a powerful Francis Maude figure, what will stop government departments including the DWP making exactly the mistakes the IfG identifies on big future IT-enabled programmes?

In future somebody needs the power to say that unless there is adequate internal and external challenge this programme must STOP – even if this means contradicting a secretary of state or a permanent secretary who have too much personal and emotional equity in the project to allow it to stop. That “somebody” used to be Francis Maude. Now he has no effective replacement.

Victims

It’s also worth noting in the Timmins report that everyone seems to be a victim, including the ministers. But who are perpetrators? Timmins tries to identify them. IDS does not come out the report smelling of roses. His passion for success proved a good and bad thing.

Whether the direction was forwards or backwards IDS  was the fuel that kept Universal Credit going.  On the other hand his passion made it impossible for civil servants to give him bad news – though Timmins raises questions about whether officials would have imparted bad news to any secretary of state, given the DWP’s culture.

Neither does the DWP’s permanent secretary Robert Devereux emerge particularly well from the report.

How it is possible for things to go so badly wrong with there being nobody to blame? The irony is that the only people to have suffered are the genuine innocents – the middle and senior managers who have most contributed to Universal Credit apparent recovery – people like Terry Moran.

Perhaps the Timmins report should be required reading among all involved in future major projects. Competence cannot be made mandatory. An understanding of the common mistakes can.

Thank you to FOI campaigner Dave Orr for alerting me to the Institute’s Universal Credit reports.

Thanks also to IT projects professional John Slater – @AmateurFOI – who has kept me informed of his FOI requests for Universal Credit IT reports that the DWP habitually refuse. 

Update 18.00 6 September 2016

In a tweet today John Slater ( @AmateurFOI ) makes the important point that he asked the DWP and MPA whether either had held a “lessons learned” exercise in the light of the “reset” of the Universal Credit IT programme. The answer was no.

This perhaps reinforces the impression that the DWP is irredeemably complacent, which is not a good position from which to lead major IT projects in future.

Universal Credit – from disaster to recovery?

Learning the lessons from Universal Credit

 

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Coroner criticises hospital’s new IT after boy’s death

By Tony Collins

Avon coroner Maria Voisin said yesterday that a new booking system at the Royal United Bath was responsible for three year-old Samuel Starr not being seen and given timely treatment.

It’s rare for a coroner to criticise a hospital’s new IT in direct terms. It is also rare for evidence to emerge of a link between the introduction of new hospital IT and harm to a patient.

Since patient administration systems began to be installed as part of the National Programme for IT in 2005, the disruption arising from go-lives has led to thousands of patient appointments being delayed at a number of trusts. Usually  trusts contend that no patients have suffered serious harm as a result.

Yesterday at the coroners court near Bristol, the coroner Voisin said: “Due to the failure of the hospital outpatients booking system, there was a five-month delay in Samuel being seen and receiving treatment. Samuel’s heart was disadvantaged and he died following urgent surgery.”

Catherine Holley, Samuel’s mother, said her first warning of Cerner implementation problems came in June 2012, about three months before her son’s death, when the RUH cardiologist’s post clinic letter said:

“I apologised to the parents that I should have seen him in January of this year, but I am afraid a few patients have fallen foul of the Millennium changeover and I suspect this is the case here”.

The RUH installed the Cerner Millennium system at the end of July 2011. After the go-live the trust’s board reports, and a post-implementation review of the system by Pwc in February 2012, raised no serious concerns.

One of Pwc’s main criticisms of the system was the lack of clinical engagement – a common problem with NPfIT deployments.

Some excerpts from Pwc’s report:

“Given the issues and delays there is a still a good deal of uncertainty about whether the planned benefits can be realised. It is therefore important that there is a concerted effort to focus on driving out these benefits, early in 2012.”

“The go live itself did have some issues, but most of those interviewed felt that, relative to other Cerner Millennium implementations, it had gone well. Since the go-live the Trust has been working hard to address the issues, and to help users use the system more effectively…”

“There are a number of issues which arose during the audit which, although not directly covered within the audit objectives, are important in ensuring that the trust realises all the potential benefits from the Cerner Millennium implementation. These are as follows:

“There is a need for greater clinical engagement to ensure that clinicians are using the system in the most effective way – the Trust operates a Clinical Engagement Group which meets on a monthly basis.

“However feedback from a number of interviewees is that this meeting isn’t as productive as it might be and that the Trust needs to think of other ways to improve clinical engagement.”

Pwc said that the trust needed a clinical lead for Cerner Millennium who would focus on key clinical priorities and “sell” the benefits of Millennium to other clinicians. The trust also needed a CIO who would be responsible for IM&T, the Business Intelligence Unit, the Care Records Service team, Records Management, and managing the end of a [local service provider] contract with BT in 2015.

Pwc said the risks included:

  • The end of the contract with BT in 2015
  • Recent issues with BT delivery, with several significant outages of service
  • The issues with clinical engagement.

None of the trust reports – or Pwc’s review –  mentioned any adverse impact of the new system’s implementation on patients.

In 2011, several months after the go-live, the RUH’s “Insight” magazine quoted the Chief Executive James Scott as suggesting the go-live had been a success.

“Thanks to everyone for their hard work and patience during the switchover period,” Scott is quoted as saying. “It has been a major project for the RUH (and our partners BT and Cerner are describing it as the smoothest deployment yet), but we now have the foundation in place to meet the future needs of the Trust and the NHS.”

Care plan?

Catherine Holley expected Samuel to go onto a care plan after he had successful heart surgery at the age of nine months, in 2010. But it proved difficult to arrange an appointment for a scan on the new Cerner Millennium system installed at Royal United Hospital, Bath.

When the scan was eventually carried out Samuel’s heart had deteriorated and he died in September 2012 after an operation that was more complicated than expected.

This week’s three-day inquest at Flax Bourton Coroners Court heard that although Samuel’s medical records had been created on Millennium, no appointments were transferred across.

Speaking after the inquest, Samuel’s parents said they believe the system at Bath failed their son and that mistakes were made.

“It was devastating to hear evidence that an improperly implemented computer appointments system and a series of human errors resulted in the death of our son,”said Paul Starr’s Samuel’s father.

“We accept that mistakes happen but we believe that leaving a child unmonitored for as long as Samuel was, with so many opportunities to attend to him, goes beyond a simple error.

“Our three year old son had a complex cardiac condition and had been scheduled for regular cardiac reviews. In fact he was not properly assessed or nearly 21 months because of further delays.”

A Freedom of Information request revealed that there were 63 missed paediatric cardiac appointments as a result of problems arising from the Cerner implementation – some of which took nearly two years to discover.

Comment

It’s unlikely to have been the Cerner system itself at fault but an  implementation that involved several organisations including the Southern Programme for IT, a branch of the dismantled National Programme for IT.  As such nobody is likely to held responsible for what the coroner called a “failure” of the IT system.

Then again blaming an individual would be pointless.  Learning lessons – the right ones, and not just technical ones – is the objective. It may make a world of difference if those in charge of major go-lives in hospitals acknowledged that delayed appointments, or difficulties arranging them, and a disrupted administration, can harm patients – or worse.

IT in the NHS is seen as an integral part of hospital care when the technology, clinicians, nurses, administrators and other users are working in alignment. But when the IT is not working well, it is seen as something techie which has little or nothing to do with patient care and treatment.

Samuel Starr’s inquest draws attention to the fact that the difference between a good and bad IT implementation in a large hospital can be the difference between life and death.

But hospital deployments of patient administration systems have been going wrong with remarkable regularity for many years.  Isn’t it time to learn the right lessons?   

BBC’s DMI project – another fine mess that was predictable

By Tony Collins

A National Audit Office memorandum published today on the BBC’s failed £125.9m Digital Media Initiative is a reminder – as in most failed big IT-enabled projects – that the causes have nothing to do with software and everything to do with management and people.

The NAO’s memorandum tells an all too familiar story with government IT (and the BBC is a public sector organisation):

– Over-optimism about the ability to implement

– Over-optimism about the ability to achieve the benefits

– Unclear requirements

– No thorough independent assessment of the technical design to see whether the DMI was technically sound

– The successful completion of the most straightforward of technology releases for the DMI, but these proved an unreliable indicator of progress.

– Technical problems and releases not meeting user expectations which contributed to repeated extensions to the timetable for completing the system, eroding user confidence and undermining the business case.

– Poor internal reporting. “The governance arrangements for the DMI were inadequate for its scale, complexity and risk. The BBC did not appoint a senior responsible owner to act as a single point of accountability and align all elements of the DMI. Reporting arrangements were not fit for purpose,” said the NAO.

– In the same way as the DWP failed with Universal Credit to take full account of recommendations in review reports, the BBC “did not adequately address issues identified by external reviewers during the course of the programme”.  The BBC had been aware that business requirements for the DMI were not adequately defined.

The BBC estimates that it spent £125.9m on the DMI. It offset £27.5m of spending on the DMI against transfers of assets, cash and service credits that formed part of its financial settlement with DMI’s previous developer Siemens. This left a net cost of £98.4m.

The BBC cancelled the DMI without examining the technical feasibility or cost of completing it, said the NAO.

The Corporation has written off the value of assets created by the programme, but is exploring how it can develop or redeploy parts of the system to support its future archiving and production needs.

Diane Coyle, Vice Chairman BBC Trust, said:

“We are grateful to the NAO for carrying out this report, which reinforces the conclusions of the PwC review commissioned by the Trust. It is essential that the BBC learns from the losses incurred in the DMI project and applies the lessons to running technology projects in future.

“The NAO’s findings, alongside PwC’s recommendations will help us make sure this happens. As we announced last December, we are working with the Executive to strengthen project management and reporting arrangements within a clearer governance system.  This will ensure that serious problems can be spotted and addressed at an earlier stage.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today:

“The BBC Executive did not have sufficient grip on its Digital Media Initiative programme. Nor did it commission a thorough independent assessment of the whole system to see whether it was technically sound.

“If the BBC had better governance and reporting for the programme, it would have recognized the difficulties much earlier than May 2012.”

Comment

The DMI project is exemplar of all that tends to go wrong in big government IT-enabled projects. Strong independent oversight and independent reviews that were published would have provided the accountability to counterbalance over-optimism.  But these things never seems to happen.

There are also questions about why the BBC took on the project from Siemens  and turned what could have been a success into a financial disaster.

NAO memorandum on the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative

IT suppliers out of control of DWP on Universal Credit?

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said Wood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon added:

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

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

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

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

Hodge: “So is PwC wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devereux: “It is part of my job.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon: “But you didn’t know, did you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MPs dig hard for truth on Universal Credit IT

A reason many govt IT-enabled projects fail?

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

Surprising?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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