Category Archives: reducing cost strategically

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”

 

 

 

Should Liverpool Council smile now it’s ending BT joint venture?

By Tony Collins

Liverpool Direct Ltd describes itself as the largest public/private partnership of its kind in the UK. BT and Liverpool City Council formed the joint venture in 2001. At one point it employed more than 1,300 people.

Last year the joint venture had a visit from  Prince Edward who met its apprentices and trainees.

Now Liverpool City Council is taking full ownership of the joint venture. BT is handing back its 60% share in Liverpool Direct to the council. But the way the dissolution is being handled is like a theatre compere smiling exaggeratedly at the audience while he pushes off stage a performer who has overstayed his welcome.

Indeed the council’s report on why BT is being pushed out has an oversized grin on every page. Too much self-conscious praise for BT, perhaps. Which may show how political outsourcing deals have become.

This is the first sentence of the council’s report on why the joint venture with BT is ending:

“BT and Liverpool City Council have enjoyed a long and successful partnership through the joint venture company Liverpool Direct Limited.”

And then:

“The ethos of the Partnership was to place the ‘customer at the heart’ of the organisation through the development of innovative new ways of working building on BT’s global brand and reputation.”

There’s much more praise for BT. From the council’s report:

Groundbreaking achievements have included:

  • Establishment of the first ever 24x7x365 local government contact centre including a call centre which is top quartile
  • The only ‘Benefits Plus’ service in the UK.
  • A comprehensive and integrated network of One Stop Shops serving 350,000 visitors each year.
  • First class ICT infrastructure.
  • Creation of 300 new jobs supporting 3nd party business won by LDL.

But there’s a give-away line in one of the sets of bullet points on some of the benefits of the partnership. In 2011 came a refresh of the 10 year-old deal. The benefits of the refresh:

  • Further price reduction of £22.5m.
  • Increased share of third party business. Potential investment of £17m.
  • Continued sponsorship of ( e.g. BT Convention Centre 2012-2017)
  • The ‘write off’ by both parties of potential legal claims against Liverpool City Council estimated by BT of approximately £56m.
  • Increased ownership level from 20% to 40% in favour of the council.

Spot the anomaly – a write-of legal claims against each other of £56m? So the partnership wasn’t quite so wonderful. But that was 2011. Why is the council now pushing out BT from the Liverpool Direct joint venture – what the council calls officially “The Way Forward”?

Amid all the praise for BT it is not easy to see at first glance why Liverpool Direct is being taken into the council’s full ownership. It turns out that austerity is the reason. The council needs to make more cuts than BT is willing to make, and it recognises that BT needs to make a profit. Which raises the question of whether the council was willing to pay BT a decent profit during bountiful times until cuts began to bite.

From Liverpool Council’s report:

“In the early Autumn of 2013, both parties were in active discussions in an effort to resolve the serious financial savings Liverpool City Council needed to make between 2014 and 2017.

“As a result of these discussions and negotiations, BT agreed a further price reduction of £5m contribution to the budget process for 2014/15 together with a further £5m for the following financial year.

“Whilst the Council really appreciated BT’s continued commitment to the city, the current budget deficit would require a far more substantive financial contribution from the Contract both for 2014/15 and for future years.

“Unfortunately BT feels unable to commit to any further price reduction within the Contract as they need to sustain their own financial position. Moreover, the City Council is now well placed, as a result of the long collaboration with BT and the learning gained from the Partnership, to continue to drive forward business transformation and run the services with consequent cost savings to the city.”

The result is that negotiations will continue with a view to transferring BT’s 60% share in Liverpool Direct to the council by 31 March 2014; and the good news doesn’t stop there.

“The City Council and BT both believe that the transfer will enable additional savings to flow to the council including all income from third party contracts.

“BT remains committed to serving residents and businesses in Liverpool and its long and successful relationship with Liverpool City Council will carry on with BT continuing to provide a range of services to the council. During negotiations in late 2013 BT announced it plans to recruit a further 240 staff in Liverpool to support the growth of high-speed broadband services and has recently committed to being a major sponsor of the 2014 International Festival of Business.”

A dark side?

Behind the smiles Liverpool City Council has, it seems, an unusually secretive side.   Richard Kemp CBE has been a member of Liverpool City Council for 30 years having held major portfolios in both control and opposition. He is leader of the Liberal Democrats on the Council. He was Vice Chair of the Local Government Association of England & Wales for more than 6 years.

He says on his blog that has “taken the very unusual step of asking for two independent enquiries into activities of Liverpool City Council”. He adds: “The cases are related and refer to the tangled web of relationships which surround the Liverpool/Liverpool Direct Ltd/Lancashire/One Call Ltd/BT activities.

“In the first instance I have asked that the Lancashire Police extend their Lancashire investigation into Liverpool. In the second I have asked the Information Commissioner to look at the appalling record of the council in responding to freedom of information requests about any matter relating to Liverpool Direct Ltd.”

He says the council has an excellent record of responding to FOI requests – except when it comes to LDL. “When I raised this with the Mayor at the Mayoral Select Committee I didn’t get any answers …”

He also says:

“I find it amazing that I have been told that no contract exists between Liverpool, Lancashire and BT only to find that there is a legal agreement! As a layman I am unclear as to what the difference is between these two positions.

“We now need external scrutiny and investigation to examine these tangled relationships and work out not only who agreed what and when but also whether Liverpool and Lancashire tax payers are getting value for money for this deal.

“In a system where there is no internal scrutiny, Liverpool Labour members have to ask permission to raise issues in the scrutiny process, I feel that I have no alternative but to ask for help in looking at these affairs outside the council.

“In my career I have not only been a councillor for a long time but also asked to work in other councils which were in severe difficulties with their governance structures. Liverpool feels as bad as any council that I have worked in. There is no clear definition of Member and Officer roles.

“ No effective challenges exist within the system and a centralised almost Stalinist decision-making process pertains … I hope that these external investigations will take place and then that they force change in this secretive and opaque council.”

Infighting

A local paper, the Liverpool Echo, has also been investigating the council and its deal with BT.

It says the deal “has been dogged by accusations of infighting between BT and the Council, after top QCs were brought in to settle disputes over how much work would be awarded to LDL under the terms of its contract”.

An internal council report obtained by the Echo before agreement for the contract refresh in 2011 “showed the it took place amid the threat of costly legal claims by BT if city bosses pulled the plug and did not stay in partnership with them until 2017”.

Private/public deals too secretive – MPs today

A report by the Public Accounts Committee published today Private Contractors and Public Spending says private and public partnerships are too secretive – and they lie largely outside the FOI Act. Indeed a BBC File on 4 investigation into the growing influence of accountancy companies such as Capita in public life reached similar conclusions. File on 4 suggested that even if the contract between Service Birmingham, Capita and Birmingham City Council were published in full it could prove impenetrably complicated.

Margaret Hodge MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Commitee, said today:

 “There is a lack of transparency and openness around Government’s contracts with private providers, with ‘commercial confidentiality’ frequently invoked as an excuse to withhold information.

“It is vital that Parliament and the public are able to follow the taxpayers’ pound to ensure value for money. So, today we are calling for three basic transparency measures:

– the extension of Freedom of Information to public contracts with private providers;

– access rights for the National Audit Office; and

– a requirement for contractors to open their books up to scrutiny by officials.

Comment:

It’s remarkable how council outsourcing deals are becoming more cabalistic despite many initiatives toward more open government.

It’s a pity that things have reached a point where Richard Kemp, a Liverpool councillor of 30 years, ends up reporting his authority to the police and the Information Commissioner.

Meanwhile Liverpool City Council, which is one of the most self-image-protecting authorities in the UK, ends a long-standing joint venture with BT by giving the supplier nothing but praise – in public.

Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally, either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Clearly that’s not happening properly in Liverpool – or  some other parts of local government.

Reasons I have asked police and Information Commissioner to come in 

BT ad Capita  –  outsourcing joint ventures under pressure in Liverpool and Birmingham 

Private contractors and public spending – Public Accounts Committee report published today

BBC World at One’s focus on Government IT

By Tony Collins

The lead item on BBC R4’s World at One on Friday was about Government IT contracts.

On the programme were the government’s Chief Procurement Officer Bill Crothers, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Margaret Hodge, the UK IT Association, and me.

Some of the points made:

–  Bill Crothers gave an example of what he called “abuse” by some big IT suppliers. He said a young man who works for him lost his power cable. The supplier quoted £65 for a replacement. The price should have been £5 or £6.  When Crothers queried it, the supplier justified its price on grounds of security. Crothers could not believe that a power lead had security implications so he questioned the price again and received several pages of explanation from the supplier, which he did not read. Eventually the supplier “was good enough to reduce the price to £37”.

– HMRC was charged £30,000 for changing some text on its website.

– Francis Maude said a DWP team and a further 12 people from the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service had built – in only three months – a prototype of a digital solution to support the introduction of Universal Credit. The system cost just over £1m, he said. [Separately big IT suppliers at DWP have been paid £303m up to March 2013 for Universal Credit work.] Maude declined to predict the outcome of the “twin-track” work on the UC project.

– Some big legacy systems may soon need replacing – those that pay about £60bn a year in state pensions and collect nearly £100bn a year in VAT. “Those are going to be big projects,” said Margaret Hodge. “I don’t think we have seen the end of big projects, or the end of disasters.”

World at One in detail

Presenter Shaun Ley and BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins focused on government IT because of an announcement by the Cabinet Office that it is drawing the line on “bloated and wasteful IT contracts”. The Cabinet Office was pitching its announcement as marking a “massive change,” said Hawkins.

Ley said Francis Maude announced the safeguards  in an attempt to ensure that IT contracts don’t become multi-billion pound failures. He said that the abandoned NPfIT had cost close to £10bn.

Hawkins quoted the UK IT Association as saying that  government did not know how to do deals with smaller suppliers. On the government’s relationship with big suppliers UKITA said the government was like a “battered wife or husband who doesn’t seem to know how to leave.”

Appalling

Hawkins said Crothers has the air of a man going to war. Crothers’ conclusion on the way things are at the moment:

“This is about the oligopoly, the cluster of big suppliers that have had it took good for too long. It’s reflective of monopolistic or oligopolistic behaviour.  It is not acting as if they are in hungry and in a competitive market.  That’s appalling.”

Universal Credit

Hawkins asked Francis Maude how confident he was that what was being put in place on Universal Credit would work.

“I hope it will work,” said Maude. “The digital solution was created by a team within DWP with a dozen or so GDS [Government Digital Service] staff assisting.

“They created a working prototype for a digital solution within 3 months at a cost of only a bit over £1m. That certainly can be basis of a successful long-term solution.”

Hawkins [to Maude] “I asked you whether you were confident the approach with DWP would work and you said you hoped it would. That suggests to me that maybe you are not (confident).”

Maude: “N0-one knows with these things. Anyone who says you are certain everything is going to succeed … the way we do things now is build something quickly, test it, prove it, test it with users, and so you can’t have certainty about any of these outcomes.”

Outsourcing failures

Hawkins said “We have had story after embarrassing story about outsourcing failures [such as the] government being charged for tagging dead people … now ministers  have an interest in coming out on the front foot and just for once being on the attack and having a whack at the IT companies.

“You don’t need to be a political genius to work out why they would like to do that rather than be endlessly explaining themselves after embarrassing stories in the papers.”

Ley (to me): “Is this the best way to deal with the problems government has experienced? The journalist Tony Collins has written widely  about project failures in IT in both the public and private sectors.”

I replied that big companies have sometimes charged a lot to make small software changes.  The Cabinet Office’s “red lines” were a good idea though they were a formalising of restrictions that had been in place some time.

The Cabinet Office doesn’t have the power to make changes happen because departments are accountable to Parliament for their spend and so don’t want much interference from the Cabinet Office. But the Cabinet Office is right to try and reduce the amounts spent on big projects.

Ley: “What will be the effect of breaking up contracts?”

I said I hoped the Cabinet Office’s restrictions would bring about a change in culture in departments against the assumption that big is beautiful. Big projects should be split into components which would give SMEs a greater involvement and could reduce the risks of projects failing.

More project disasters?

Hodge gave her reaction to the Cabinet Office’s restrictions in the context of the Universal Credit project.

“Francis Maude and Cabinet Office have been trying really hard to get some sense into the way that project has developed. But sadly the news we have had lately suggests to me that they have failed. It is about £400m so far on IT.

“What went wrong there was that the department [DWP] thought it [UC] was a big IT project instead of thinking:  we are going to be changing our business; we are going to get 6 benefits rolled into one. They [the DWP] have not written off that money [£303m] which is what my committee thinks they should have done, because they want to save face. Down the line I think we’ll see some disasters there.

“There are a lot of projects around  government, what are called legacy projects, where old systems need to be replaced . They are big projects – pensions in DWP where £60bn is given out a year;  VAT receipts  in HMRC where nearly £100bn is collected. Those are going to be big projects. I don’t think we have seen the end of big projects, or the end of disasters.”

Ley: “What about breaking them up into smaller projects? Won’t that reduce potential risks?”

Hodge: “The important thing is what Tony Collins was saying to you. What we find is that the skills don’t exist within departments, either to commission the IT properly or to manage the suppliers once they have the IT in place.

“We are about to examine the army recruitment contract – I think that is what we’ll find.  The MoD hasn’t got the skills to manage it.

Ley: “Do you welcome the ending of automatic contract extensions?”

“I warmly welcome that. This is a small step in the right direction. Having an expert as we have in Bill Crothers in the Cabinet Office is really important. What we haven’t got are skills in the departments. It is not like a business. If it was, Bill Crothers would probably run IT across the whole of government. Our departments run in silos. They haven’t got the skills. They have this demand for big, big programmes in the future and I don’t think we have seen, sadly, the end of IT disasters.”

Update

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to an excellent piece on the World at One item by procurement expert Peter Smith who concludes:

“… There is a big issue – large suppliers have not covered themselves in glory, but small suppliers just can’t develop huge systems for DWP or MOD.

“The large suppliers must have a role, but we have to manage these contracts better. And the answer can’t just be a small hit squad in Cabinet Office. This needs real capability development across government, which we haven’t really seen as yet in a coordinated fashion.”

BBC World at One – Government IT contracts

Bill Crothers on BBC Radio 4 – suppliers get another good kicking

Defra’s agile plan with multiple suppliers risky says NAO

By Tony Collins

The National Audit Office says in a report published today that Defra’s agile plan which involves outsourcing to multiple IT suppliers has “significant” risks.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to implement a single integrated £80m Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system built on agile methodologies.

Defra has been working with the Government Digital Service (GDS) to plan an agile implementation and learn from the lessons of the past, the department’s chief operating officer Ian Trenholm told Computer Weekly in January 2013.

Today’s NAO report on Defra’s 2012/13 accounts says that the department is planning the procurement, development and implementation of new systems in line with changes to the way the common agricultural policy operates.

“Development and implementation of these [new systems] will present a number of challenges, including the requirement that data cleansing is completed on time, in order to ensure that accurate and complete data is transferred to the new systems,” says the NAO.

It adds that the IT element of the change programme “will be delivered through an agile approach which involves outsourcing to multiple IT providers”. The NAO says that Defra has recognised a number of significant risks relating to the Programme. “It will need a strong relationship between the Programme team and other important stakeholders, and appropriate governance arrangements, to ensure that these risks are adequately managed and that the Department learns the lessons from the implementation of CAP 2005.”

NAO report on Defra’s 2012/13 accounts.

Comment

Defra and its Rural Payments Agency had a disaster with the Single Payment Scheme which was built on conventional lines through one main supplier. If there are risks with the new agile approach involving multiple suppliers they cannot be as great as spending hundreds of millions of pounds with one company; and working through those new agile-related risks may help other departments find a different and much cheaper way of buying IT, and implementing important policy-related business change.

Francis Maude boasts of £10bn savings but …

By Tony Collins 

This morning Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude held a press conference with his senior officials to announce that civil servants have radically changed the way they work to save £10bn in 2012/13.

The savings are nearly £2bn higher than originally planned and, according to the Cabinet Office, have been “reviewed and verified” by independent auditors.

With a little journalistic licence Maude says: “…we are on the way to managing our finances like the best-run FTSE100 businesses.”

The breakdown of the £10bn savings:

Procurement   £3.8bn
Centralisation of procurement for common goods and services  £1.0bn
Centrally renegotiating large government contracts  £0.8bn
Limiting expenditure on marketing and advertising, consultants and temporary agency staff   £1.9bn
Transformation savings   £1.1bn
IT spend controls and moving government services and transactions onto digital platforms  £0.5bn
Optimising the government’s property portfolio  £0.6bn
Project savings   £1.7bn
Reviewing performance of major government projects  £1.2bn
Taking waste out of the construction process  £0.4bn
Workforce savings   £3.4bn
Reducing the size of the Civil Service   £2.2bn
Increasing contributions to public sector pensions   £1.1bn

Comment

It’s good news and the figures don’t seem plucked out of thin air which sometimes happens when central government announces savings.

The big question is whether the savings are sustainable. Maude has inspired the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group to be motivated and hard-working. But bringing about long-term change in Whitehall – as opposed to restricting consultancy contracts and cutting annual costs of supplier contracts by reducing what’s delivered – is like peddling uphill. How long can you do it without losing motivation and energy? It’s not just parts of the civil service that are resistant to the savings agenda – it is also some IT suppliers, according to Government Computing.

It’s likely that only profound changes in central government operations and working practices will outlast the next general election. At the moment the civil service is like a rubber band that has been stretched a little. It wants to return to its standard shape, which the next government may allow it to do.

The National Audit Office said in its report in April 2012 on the Efficiency and Reform Group in 2011/12:

“Savings to date have differing degrees of sustainability.”

The NAO also said this:

“It is not fully clear how ERG intends to make the reforms necessary to secure enough savings over the rest of the spending review. ERG has yet to translate its ambition for saving £20 billion by 2014-15 into more detailed plans.

“ERG has made progress in developing strategies across its wide range of responsibilities, and is focusing on core activities likely to produce savings. However, until recently ERG’s focus has mainly been on the savings themselves, with less emphasis on delivery of the longer-term changes and improvement in efficiency necessary to make them sustainable.”

And this:

“Departments have still tended to lack a clear strategic vision of what they are to do, what they are not, and the most cost-effective way of delivering it. Much of departments’ 2014-15 savings are likely to come from further reductions in staff. Sustainability of these savings will depend on developing skills and working in new ways while maintaining staff motivation and engagement.”

But the NAO was generally positive about the ERG’s contribution to savings.

“ERG’s actions to date, particularly its spending controls, have helped departments deliver substantial spending reductions.”

We hope the Cabinet Office’s diligent efforts continue  – sustainably.

Efficiency and Reform 2012/13 savings. Summary report.

Some suppliers still resistant to change? – Government Computing.

Francis Maude –“unacceptable” civil service practices

By Tony Collins

Francis Maude laments civil service inaction over a cabinet committee mandate for centralising procurement. It “corrodes trust in the system”.

Gus O’Donnell, the former head of the civil service,  confronted Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of civil service reform, on BBC R4’s In Defence of Bureaucracy last week.

The irreconcilable differences between O’Donnell and Maude were obvious and may be a sign of how difficult it will be for the minister to make lasting and deep cuts in IT-based spending, simplify overly complex processes, and reduce duplication.

O’Donnell spoke of the virtues of the civil service that have served the country for more than a century, particularly its impartiality.  But Maude said the “value of impartiality can sometimes turn into indifference”.

O’Donnell said: “We need to be proud and passionate about the public sector ethos…” and confronted Maude for saying things about the civil service “that are not always totally positive”.

Indeed Maude said,

“Most of the civil servants I deal with are terrific, work hard and do really good work.  It is not universal.”

O’Donnell then confronted Maude for saying that ministers in this and previous government have too often found that decisions they have made don’t get implemented. Is that the fault of ministers or civil servants, asked O’Donnell.

“I’d be astonished if it’s ministers,” said Maude who added,

“ I had a meeting the other day around this table …  where a decision was made by a cabinet committee, more than a year ago, on the centralising of procurement. It had happened to a very minimal extent.

“If there is a problem with it, that can be flagged up and tell us. Just to go away and not do it is unacceptable … it is protection of the system. This is the speaking truth unto power thing. What is unacceptable is not to challenge a ministerial position but then not to implement it. That is what corrodes trust in the system.”

About £230bn a year – nearly a third of everything government spends – is on public sector procurement.  In 2010, Nigel Smith, then CEO of the Office of Government Commerce, spoke to the “Smartgov” conference about the need for major reform in the way government buys things.

He spoke of the need for re-useable software, open source if possible, and said that suppliers regularly use fragmentation within government to maximise profits. “This has got to change,” says Smith.

He said there were 44,000 buying organisations in the public sector which buy “roughly the same things, or similar things, in basic commodity categories” such as IT and office supplies.

Massive duplication

He spoke of “massive duplication”, high tendering costs on suppliers, and a loss of value due to a lack of true aggregation. He said suppliers had little forward look of opportunities to tender and offer innovative solutions for required outcomes.

“Contract management with supplier relationship management is inconsistent, with too little attention paid to continuous improvement and benefits capture within contract.

“The opportunity to improve outcomes and efficiency gains should not be constrained by contract terms and innovations should not stop at the point of contract signature.

“If we miss this opportunity [to reform] we need shooting.”

So it is clear procurement [and much else] needs reforming. But in the R4 broadcast last week (which unfortunately is no longer available) O’Donnell portrays a civil service that is almost as good as it gets.

He speaks of its permanence in contrast to transient ministers. His broadcast attacks the US system of government in which public service leaders change every time there is a new government.  The suggestion is that the US system is like a ship that veers crazily from side to side, as one set of idealogues take the captain’s wheel from another. O’Donnell implies that in the UK civil service stability lasts for decades, even centuries.

The virtues he most admires in the UK civil service are what he calls the 4 “Ps” – Pace, Passion, Professionalism and Pride.  His broadcast speaks of the UK civil service as a responsible, effective, continual and reliable form of administration.  

Comment

O’Donnell’s most striking criticism of Maude’s intended reforms of central government goes to the heart of what Maude is trying to do: change what is happening in departments.

When, in the broadcast, Maude suggested that civil servants were not challenging ministerial decisions and were not implementing them either, O’Donnell replied that Maude was “overstating the issue”. But O’Donnell went much further and added a comment that implied Maude should leave departments alone.

O’Donnell said

“These sorts of problems mainly arise when ministers at the centre of government want to impose their will on secretaries of state who want to be left alone to run their departments as they see fit.”

Is O’Donnell giving permanent secretaries and departmental ministers his support if they continue to snub Cabinet Office reforms?

It is hardly surprising Maude is a bundle of frustrations. Central government administration cannot be reformed if departments have the autonomy to refuse to implement decisions of a cabinet committee.

It is ironic that cabinet committee decisions are binding on the entire Cabinet – but not, it seems, on departments.

Perhaps the gap between political and civil service leaders at the centre, and senior civil servants in departments, is as irreconcilable as ever. Today’s UK civil service is more than ever “Yes Minister” without the jokes.  Should this be the dysfunctional basis for coalition reforms of central government?

Perhaps this explains why Maude is trying to implement open standards, make government procurement friendly to SMEs and encourage the use of G-Cloud while the Department for Work and Pensions and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are  agreeing new mega-contracts,  with the same handful of monolithic suppliers.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary,  is perhaps a little more Maude-friendly than O’Donnell when he says in the R4 broadcast,

“There are lots of things we need to do better. Too many projects that we undertake are delayed, are over budget and don’t deliver on all the benefits that were promised. We are not as digital as the most effective private sector organisations are. We have been slow to embrace the digital revolution.”

Fine words. But if a cabinet committee’s decision on centralising procurement has little effect, how is Sir Jeremy going to convert his words into action? Or Francis Maude’s?

Big IT suppliers and their Whitehall “hostages”

By Tony Collins

Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, ICT futures advisor to the Cabinet Office and strategy director at consultancy Methods.

Last month he said in a Guardian comment that central government departments are “increasingly being held hostage by a handful of huge, often overseas, suppliers of customised all-or-nothing IT systems”.

Some senior officials are happy to be held captive.

“Unfortunately, hostage and hostage taker have become closely aligned in Stockholm-syndrome fashion.

“Many people in the public sector now design, procure, manage and evaluate these IT systems and ignore the exploitative nature of the relationship,” said Thompson.

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages bond with their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.

This month the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued  a pre-tender notice for Oracle ERP systems. Worth between £250m and £750m, the framework will be open to all central government departments, arms length bodies and agencies and will replace the current “Prism” contract with Capgemini.  

It’s an old-style centralised framework that, says Chris Chant, former Executive Director at the Cabinet Office who was its head of G-Cloud, will have Oracle popping champagne corks. 

“This is a 1993 answer to a 2013 problem,” he told Computer Weekly.

In the same vein, Georgina O’Toole at Techmarketview says that central departments are staying with big Oracle ERP systems.   

She said the framework “appears to support departments continuing to run Oracle or, indeed, choosing to move to Oracle”. This is “surprising as when the Shared Services strategy was published in December, the Cabinet Office continued to highlight the cost of running Oracle ERP…”

She said the framework sends a  message that the Cabinet Office has had to accept that some departments and agencies are not going to move away from Oracle or SAP.

“The best the Cabinet Office can do is ensure they are getting the best deal. There’s no doubt there will be plenty of SIs looking to protect their existing relationships by getting a place on the FCO framework.”

G-Cloud and open standards?

Is the FCO framework another sign that the Cabinet Office, in trying to cut the high costs of central government IT, cannot break the bond – the willing hostage-captive relationship –  between big suppliers and central departments?

The framework appears to bypass G-Cloud in which departments are not tied to a particular company. It also appears to cock a snook at the idea of replacing  proprietary with open systems.

Mark Thompson said in his Guardian comment: 

– Administrative IT systems, which cost 1% of GDP, have become a byword for complexity, opacity, expense and poor delivery.

– Departments can break free from the straitjackets of their existing systems and begin to procure technology in smaller, standardised building blocks, creating demand for standard components across government. This will provide opportunities for less expensive SMEs and stimulate the local economy.

– Open, interoperable platforms for government IT will help avoid the mass duplication of proprietary processes and systems across departments that currently waste billions.

–  A negative reaction to the government’s open standards policy from some monopolistic suppliers is not surprising.

Comment

It seems that Oracle and the FCO have convinced each other that the new framework represents change.  But, as Chris Chant says, it is more of the same.

If there is an exit door from captivity the big suppliers are ushering senior officials in departments towards it saying politely “you first” and the officials are equally deferential saying “no – you first”. In the end they agree to stay where they are.

Will Thompson’s comments make any difference?

Some top officials in central departments – highly respected individuals – will dismiss Thompson’s criticisms of government IT because they believe the civil service and its experienced suppliers are doing a good job: they are keeping systems of labyrinthine complexity running unnoticeably smoothly for the millions of people who rely on government IT.

Those officials don’t want to mess too much with existing systems and big IT contracts in case government systems start to become unreliable which, they argue, could badly affect millions of people.

These same officials will advocate reform of systems of lesser importance such as those involving government websites; and they will champion agile and IT-related reforms that don’t affect them or their big IT contracts.

In a sense they are right. But they ignore the fact that government IT costs much too much. They may also exaggerate the extent to which government IT works well. Indeed they are too quick to dismiss criticisms of government IT including those made by the National Audit Office.

In numerous reports the NAO has drawn attention to weaknesses such as the lack of reliable management information and unacceptable levels of fraud and internal error in the big departments. The NAO has qualified the accounts of the two biggest non-military IT spending departments, the DWP and HMRC.

Ostensible reformers are barriers to genuine change.  They need to be replaced with fresh-thinking civil servants who recognise the impossibility of living with mega IT contracts.

Mark Thompson’s Guardian article.

Lessons from Birmingham Council’s joint venture with Capita

By Tony Collins

A report on Service Birmingham – Capita’s joint venture with Birmingham City Council – shows that the deal has been largely successful so far but that trust and relationships may be breaking down in some areas.

The “High-Level” review of Service Birmingham by the Best Practice Group could be read in two ways: as a qualified endorsement of the deal so far, or as a warning that a deteriorating relationship in some areas could end up, in years to come, as a legal dispute.

The report’s authors suggest that the council and Capita have little choice but to make improvements given that the contract lasts another nine years. They say:

“Given the fact that the commercial partnership has a further nine years to operate, there is an inherent risk that unless a core focus for both parties is re-established, the commercial trust between BCC [Birmingham City Council and SB [Service Birmingham] will continue to deteriorate.

“Neither party will benefit from the relationship if this situation is permitted to manifest itself.”

In another part of its report the Best Practice Group says:

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

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

Below are verbatim extracts from the Best Practice Group’s report which highlight some of the lessons arising from of the joint venture so far. The sub-headings (in italics) are mine.

Extracts from Best Practice Group’s report:

Service Birmingham charges a fee even when the council implements services outside the joint venture – poor value and reputedly poor practice?

“SB has an on-going contractual duty to ensure it provides independently benchmarked best value in the services it delivers to BCC [Birmingham City Council]. As part of these arrangements, BCC can request specific third party services (outside SB’s own delivery capability) with SB applying a fee for ‘contract management’.

“However, these situations vary considerably, raising the question of how to maximise value. The contract management fee would be considered high value when BCC gives SB a service outcome it wants to achieve, and SB researches the market, provides options and recommendations to BCC, sources the best value vendor, and ensures the solution is implemented and the business outcomes achieved.

“In other situations, BCC already knows the outcome to be achieved, how to achieve it and who the best value vendor is, and can implement the solution itself. However, the same contract management percentage still applies to these cases. This causes resentment for the service area involved because they cannot see how SB has added to the process, and in real terms, is perceived by BCC as very poor value. Although the sums involved are minimal compared with the relationship’s overall cost, it is highly visible as an area of poor value and reputedly bad practice, and needs to be realigned.”

Service Birmingham needs to make a significant return for its shareholders

“Given the relationship challenges between BCC and SB, there are a couple of fundamental points to address, namely that: (a) certain individuals within the Council need to understand that SB is not a social enterprise, a public sector mutual, or a charity, and needs to make a significant return on its capital for its shareholders, and (b) SB needs to understand that the Council is in a significantly deteriorating financial position due to Government cutbacks.”

SB drops its prices when challenged

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

A hardened commercial stance in some circumstances?

“… these obvious and immediate savings are now being met with a hardened commercial stance for anything that falls outside of the core deliverables by SB.”

The cloud imposes hidden costs for SB

“Regardless of whether a scale of mark-up can be achieved, one issue that is clear from the interviews undertaken is that SB/BCC needs to educate the BCC service areas at all levels around what the contract management mark-up actually buys for the Council from SB. At present, for example, there is a lack of understanding within BCC service areas that having ‘cloud’ delivered solutions within the overall portfolio does still incur hidden costs for SB in supporting the overall infrastructure and managing the intermediate fault–reporting service.”

Staff survey on SB – mixed results

“With regards to the survey, 63% stated that they talk ‘positively’ about SB to their colleagues. Slightly less, 59%, believe SB understands the requirements and support needed to deliver the Council’s services. However, when asked if they would naturally think to contact SB for help and advice in situations where they were thinking about undertaking new ICT related work, only 33% of the Council respondents said that they would…

“When asked the direct question of how satisfied they were overall with the service delivered by SB, only 15% of the respondents felt that the service was less than satisfactory. However, only 10% believed that it was excellent with 39% rating it as satisfactory and 36% rating the service received as good.”

Project concerns

“There is a feeling which was voiced by several interviewees from the Council that project implementation often runs behind schedule and ultimately it is the ‘loudest project to shout’ which will then have the scarce resources allocated to it at the cost of other projects.”

Lack of commercial trust

“…there are elements of the KPI [key performance indicator] reporting received from SB that BCC need clarity on . This, coupled with the general lack of commercial trust between the parties and the fact that BCC have shown that SB have reported some data incorrectly (after discussion around interpretation), means that the KPIs are not fully aligned to the business outcomes BCC now needs to achieve in the current financial climate.”

Seeds of a possible legal dispute in future years between the two sides?

“One point that should be highlighted is that we believe there is a misalignment between both parties view of what partnership working actually entails. From the perspective of some service areas within BCC, they view certain individuals within SB as uncooperative. In a similar vein, there are certain individuals within SB who view specific BCC staff also as uncooperative. It should be noted that these individuals within both BCC and SB are in the minority.

“However, such un-cooperation is manifesting itself into a perception of a lack of commercial trust in both camps. Some BCC individuals are not really taking into account, or understanding, that SB is a commercial organisation that has a majority shareholding by a publically listed company. Its commercial shareholders need to see financial returns from SB that increase annually…

“In the early stages, the working relationship was put firmly on the rails by having a ‘great common cause’. The transformation requirements of BCC were so fundamental, it seems many differences of opinion were set aside and both parties worked very hard to overcome the obstacles in ensuring the transformation was successful. Largely, that was achieved. Now that the original transformation process has almost all been completed, the parties working relationship seems to have deteriorated in certain instances. This pattern of behaviour is normal in most strategic vendor relationships.”

SB more expensive than the average in certain areas?

“SB appear to be significantly more expensive than average in the areas of voice, data and converged service provision (KPI-17). The most significant of the three costs provided is the provision of Data services where SB are the worst value of all of the respondents in the SOCITM survey with a cost of £227 per data outlet (capital + support) compared to a median of £118. At the time of writing this report, no clarification had been provided as to the reasons for the significant difference between the SB provided cost and the survey median. When KPI-17 is reviewed as a cost per user, SB fairs much better across the service types. It has a cost of £321 per user compared to a median of £290 per user. However if you consider that this £31 per user per year, it actually represents over £600k per annum above average.”

Council concerns over SAP work going abroad

“Different parties within BCC perceived that in the interest of cost savings, SB was passing some work on SAP projects to an off-shore organisation, rather than using the UK workforce. It should be noted that the contract allows for the off-shoring of SAP work, but only where such work does not adversely impact jobs in the UK.

“A high level review of the SAP project work has identified that SAP work has only been off-shored when the UK workforce does not have the required expertise. In addition, we requested specific evidence from individuals to support their view that work was being off-shored that could have been undertaken by the UK workforce, but this could not be provided.”

The Council was paying for unused phone lines

“… Ultimately, the Council kept receiving invoices from the line provider for what were essentially unused telephone lines. The process ceased promptly after BCC and SB addressed the escalation of the issue.”

Stagnating innovation could widen the divide between the two sides

“It is clear that both parties will continue to feel significant frustration until they can resolve how to share the innovation process, provide resources to help the generation of sound business cases and provide formalised and comprehensive feedback to allow for the implementation of suggestions. These suggestions need to become acceptable to the Council as realistic deliverable solutions. If this does not happen, then innovation between the partners will continue to stagnate, driving a widening divide between the organisations.”

KPIs not always useful?

In the case of the BCC and SB agreement, despite an abundance of KPIs being in place, the Council perceives the contract could be better aligned in order to maximise the behaviours from SB that it needs.

Comment:

The report gives the impression that those running the joint venture must overcome the many problems because the contract still has nine years left to run. Both sides, it seems, are locked into the relationship. In some areas it works. In others it doesn’t.

Capita, clearly, has been trying hard to make the relationship work. Some within the council have too. Some are not so enthusiastic and have been “making noise” according to the report’s authors. Do those making a noise have a point, or are they simply making trouble against the joint venture? The report suggests removing those making a noise. But will that remove some of those who are providing an independent challenge?

So far the relationship has been largely successful; and the survey of staff is generally positive. But there are signs of serious trouble. Innovation is stagnating, the council’s finances are deteriorating and Capita needs to make a profit from the venture. Are these fundamental incompatibilities? Will the relationship really last another nine years, especially if there is more political change within the council?

High-Level Review of Service Birmingham

Lessons from a government agile success

By Tony Collins

Some central government departments spend a great deal with large suppliers on the development and maintenance of their websites (more on this in a separate post).  They could save millions of pounds if they followed the example of the Government Digital Service (and were not locked into mega-outsourcing contracts that include website development).

Agile teams within the GDS are responsible for GOV.UK, which largely replaces Directgov and offers a one-stop site for government services and information.

Simple, clear, fast

The guiding principles for GDS’s agile teams were “simple, clear, fast”. Lessons from the open-source project are on the GDS website. These are some of them:

“When things get tough and you want to go back to old ways, go more agile, not less”.

Less is more (a rare attribute for a government IT project).

Use independently-verifiable data to track your programme

Agile can work at scale. “We’ve embraced it culturally and organisationally…”

The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said:

“In stark contrast to the way IT has been delivered in government in the past, GOV.UK can rapidly accommodate new standards for development and security, catering to emerging technologies and user requirements quickly and effectively. It has been built the way Amazon built Amazon, and in the way that BA transformed their online business, by being agile, iterative and focused on users.

“GOV.UK has also been built using open source technology, which means we don’t have to pay expensive software licensing costs.”

Comment:

A good result for the Government Digital Service. Will others in central government follow?

What we’ve learnt about scaling agile – Government Digital Service

Agile can fix failed GovIT says lawyer

 

Government Digital Service sets an example on cloud

By Tony Collins

The Government Digital Service is putting its money where its mouth is. A leading public sector advocate of the cloud, GDS says that the first cloud hosting provider it is working with is Skyscape.

Mark O’Neill, Head of Service Delivery and Innovation at GDS, which is a team of innovators based at the Cabinet Office, writes that GDS is building GOV.UK, currently in beta at http://www.gov.uk.

“In the past, we might have looked at dedicated servers or possibly even our own rack in a datacentre somewhere. We would then have had to decide if we wanted to own the servers or if we should rent them some time to break out amortisation tables and spreadsheets.

“We would have to make sure that we were not locked in if we needed to move servers, so it would be necessary to negotiate break clauses in contracts; we would need to arrange access to server rooms for security accreditation; we would need to… well, the list goes on and on.

“The cloud has transformed all of this. Through the G-Cloud framework we are able to simply and rapidly buy highly reliable, highly cost-effective hosting services.

“Colleagues in GDS put together a statement of our requirements based on the experience we had gained during the alpha and the ongoing beta releases of GOV.UK and experience from the delivery of other major online services, both public and private sector.

“We then tested that statement of requirements against the list of suppliers on the G-Cloud framework. This allowed us to sift the number of potential providers down to four who met the statement of requirements.

“We then invited each of the suppliers in and used a consistent set of questions to explore their ability to meet our needs, their approach to operational service delivery and how they could provide flexible, scalable services through the cloud.

“To meet the needs of GOV.UK, we are planning to work with a number of different Infrastructure as a Service providers. We are happy to announce that the first cloud hosting provider we are working with is Skyscape.

“We have used G-Cloud previously for a number of small projects covering services like hosting and operations. We were very happy to discover that letting a major service contract for our flagship platform, GOV.UK, was equally straightforward and quick.

“Whilst the GOV.UK contract is the largest we have let so far, it is one of an increasing number we are letting through G-Cloud, which is now our standard way of procuring infrastructure services… If you have not used G-Cloud before then take a look, you will be pleasantly surprised. In the words of a song of my youth, ‘It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it!'”

Introducing a new supplier – Skyscape