Category Archives: Universal Credit

What Google looks for when hiring staff … traits Whitehall’s culture abhors?

By Tony Collins

The contrast between what Google looks for when hiring staff and what Whitehall looks for when making some of its top appointments, could give clues as to why many government IT-based projects and programmes fail.

First, the strengths Google looks for.  These were set out yesterday on BBC R4 by Laszlo Bock,  human resources chief at Google for 10 years.

Google was named “Best Company to Work For” more than 30 times around the world and received over 100 awards as a top employer during Bock’s time.

In 2010, he was named “Human Resources Executive of the Year”. Under him, Google changed its clunky, arduous recruitment processes that relied on gimmicks like maths puzzles to those that helped the company grow to about 60,000 employees in less than two decades.

In 2015 he  published his first book, The New York Times bestseller Work Rules!, a practical guide to help people find meaning in work and improve the way they live and lead. He resigned from Google in 2016.

On the BBC  “Analysis” programme on Monday evening – which looked at intelligence and talent and what they mean, if anything, in job interviews –  Bock said the least important attribute Google screens for is whether someone knows about the job they are taking on. Crunching the data on successful hiring led Google instead to look for these characteristics:

  • Humility
  • Conscientiousness
  • A sense of responsibility not to quit until the job is done well
  • Comfort with ambiguity
  • A sense of fun
  • Courage

Why courage?

Bock said,

“It’s about the importance of people being able to raise their voices in organisations. One of the things that happens is, when organisations get large, people stop raising their voices and really bad things happen as a result. That’s where you get whistleblowing, insider trading, all kinds of things.

“Human beings are evolved, biologically, as social, hierarchy-seeking animals. We tend to conform. So courage is important because the really innovative, creative stuff comes from ‘I got this crazy idea’ and the bad problems get flagged by people who are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t think this is a good thing to do’.

“Without that you can’t do great things.”

Comment

It’s too easy to generalise about the hiring and appointment of senior civil servants. But it’s possible to understand a little about the hiring culture within Whitehall’s biggest department, the Department for Work and Pensions.

An insight into DWP culture and thinking can be gleaned from the many Lever arch folders of documents filed by the DWP as part of an FOI case in which it spent several years fighting to stop the release of documents about the Universal Credit IT programme.

The documents include DWP witness statements on the “harm” that would be caused if the IT documents in question were published.

The judge in the case, Chris Ryan, challenged most of the DWP’s arguments.

In one of his rulings, Judge Ryan described the DWP’s claims as:

  • alarming and surprising
  • overstated
  • unconvincing
  • close to fanciful

He said that public confidence in the Universal Credit IT programme had been maintained for some time “on a false basis”; and he raised the possibility that an “unhealthily collegiate relationship had developed” between the DWP and private sector IT suppliers. [Campaign4Change will publish a separate blog post on this ruling in the next few days.]

As well as the insight into DWP culture that one can gain from the FOI case, it’s possible to gauge culture and thinking within Whitehall departments from the talented, free-thinking IT individualists who have joined the top layer of the civil service, quit and returned to the private sector.

It would be invidious to pick out some names as there are so many.

What all this suggests is that Whitehall’s culture appreciates conformity and consensus and shuns boat-rocking.

When top IT professionals who joined HMRC and the DWP spoke publicly at conferences about institutional problems that needed to be tackled, mandarins reacted quickly – and such disclosures were never repeated.

And after a leak to the Guardian about the results of a DWP staff survey of morale on the Universal Credit IT programme, the department launched a formal leak inquiry headed by a senior member of the security services.

At the same time, Universal Credit IT programme documents were no longer emailed but transferred around in taxis.

This bout of nervous introspection (the judge described the DWP’s arguments in the FOI case as “defensive”) when taken together with what else we know, indicate that Whitehall’s culture is insular, distrustful and inimical to open challenge and problem-solving (though there are some within the senior Whitehall ranks who successfully defy that culture).

When Bock talks of conformity being a danger within large organisations he would not have had the DWP in mind – but he aptly describes its culture.

When he speaks about the “importance of people being able to raise their voices in organisations” he was probably unaware of the extent to which Whitehall culture abhors raised voices.

As Bock says, when people don’t raise their voices “really bad things happen as a result”. Perhaps the lack of internal challenge was one reason the NHS IT programme – NPfIT – lost billions of pounds, and the DWP’s Universal Credit programme went badly awry for several years.

When Bock says the “really innovative, creative stuff comes from ‘I got this crazy idea’, he could have been describing the culture of the Government Digital Service. But that refreshing GDS culture is being slowly choked by the conservatism of traditional Whitehall departments.

As Bock says, “the bad problems get flagged by people who are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I don’t think this is a good thing to do’.”  But bad problems are things senior civil servants avoid talking about, even internally. A Disneyland”good news” culture pervades central departments.

A National Audit Office report on the Universal Credit programme referred to a “fortress mentality” within the DWP.

Maybe the consensus-seeking John Manzoni, head of the civil service, and his colleague Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary, could seek to employ Bock as an adviser on appointments and recruitment.

Bock’s brief? To turn around the senior civil service’s culture of conformity, groupthink, denial, selective use of “good news” facts and a lack of open challenge.

Recognising the destructiveness within a big organisation of having the wrong culture – as Bock does – could be the start of a genuine Whitehall transformation.

BBC R4 “Analysis” on talent, intelligence and recruitment

Laszlo Bock steps down

Whitehall’s outsourcing of IT a “bad mistake” – and other Universal Credit lessons – by ex-DWP minister

By Tony Collins

Lord Freud, former Conservative minister at the Department for Work and Pensions – who is described as the “architect” of Universal Credit – said yesterday that outsourcing IT across government had been a “bad mistake”.

He announced in December 2016 that was retiring from government. Having been the minister for welfare reform who oversaw the Universal Credit programme, Lord Freud yesterday went before the Work and Pensions Committee to answer questions on the troubled scheme.

He said,

“The implementation was harder than I had expected. Maybe that was my own naivety. What I didn’t know, and I don’t think anyone knew, was how bad a mistake it had been for all of government to have sent out their IT.

“It happened in the 1990s and early 2000s. You went to these big firms to build your IT. I think that was a most fundamental mistake, right across government and probably across government in the western world…

We talk about IT as something separate but it isn’t. It is part of your operating system. It’s a tool within a much better system. If you get rid of it, and lose control of it, you don’t know how to build these systems.

“So we had an IT department but it was actually an IT commissioning department. It didn’t know how to do the IT.

“What we actually discovered through the (UC) process was that you had to bring the IT back on board. The department has been rebuilding itself in order to do that. That is a massive job.”

But didn’t DWP civil servants make it clear at the outset that there wasn’t the in-house capability to build Universal Credit?

“The civil service thought it had the capacity because it could commission the big firms – the HPs and the IBMs – to do it. They did not see the problem, and government as a whole did not see the problem of doing it.

“It’s only when you get into building something big you discover what a problem that was…”

Accountability needed

But it was known at the launch of Universal Credit that government IT projects had a history of going wrong. Why hadn’t people [the DWP] learnt those lessons?

“I agree with you. People have found it very hard to work out what was the problem… you need someone doing it who is accountable. But when you commission out, you don’t have that process.

“You need a lot of continuity and that’s not something in our governance process. Ministers turn over very regularly and more importantly civil servants tend to turn over rather regularly because of the pay restrictions – they only get more pay when they are promoted – so there is a two-year promotion round for good people.

“Effectively we had a programme that had been built outside, or with a lot of companies helping us build it.”

Lord Freud explained differences between the two Universal Credit systems being rolled out.

First there is the “live” system [built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds that interfaces with legacy benefit systems but is not interactive beyond the initial application form].

The DWP is also rolling out in some pilot areas such as Croydon a “full system” [built at a cost of less than £10m, run on agile principles and is interactive beyond the initial application form].

Lord Freud said,

“The difference between the two is that the live system has all of the essential features of Universal Credit – you get paid an amount at a certain time – but interaction with the system after the initial application is through the telephone or through the post.

“The interactive [“full”] system has the features of Universal Credit but interaction with it is much faster because it’s on the internet. That’s the difference…

“How would I have done it in retrospect?

“The other thing I have discovered about big organisations that I hadn’t understood was it’s very difficult for them to deal with something that’s purely conceptual.

“You need something on the ground. What you should do is get something on the ground quickly – small, maybe imperfect – but the organisation can start coalescing around it, understand it, and start working it.

“Oddly, not having an all-singing, all-dancing system that is now going out, was essential for the organisation to understand what it had and how to adapt it. The IT is only a very small element. Most of the work is around your operations and organisation and how you apply it.

“The second thing we introduced in the 2013 reset was “test and learn”. It’s a phrase but what it means is that you have a system you understand and then test and test, instead of going out with a big system at once. You test all the elements because it’s impossible to envisage how something as big (as Universal Credit) unless you do it like that.

Lessons for government as a whole?

“It was a mistake putting IT out. You have to bring it back in. It’s quite hard to bring it back in because the image of government with the IT industry is not great so you have to set up an atmosphere of getting really good people in, so it’s an attractive place to work; you have to pay them appropriately.

“Our pay scales are not representative of what happens in some of these industries.

Scarce skills

“There are three areas of specialisation that government finds it very hard to buy: various bits of IT, running contracts and project management. Those are three really scarce skills in our economy. We need in government to pay for those specialisms if we are to do big projects.”

Other lessons?

“There’s an odd structure which I don’t quite believe in any more, which is the relationship between the politician – the minister – and the civil service.

“The concept is that the politicians decide what their objectives are and the civil service delivers it. I don’t believe that you can divide policy and implementation in that way. That’s a very big issue because our whole government is built up with that concept and has been for more than 100 years.”

Where does project management fit?

“In theory the civil service produces the project management but it’s an odd circumstance. It didn’t quite happen with Universal Credit. In my first five years I had no fewer than six senior responsible owners and six project managers.

“You can imagine what that was like with something as complicated as Universal Credit when the senior people hadn’t had the time to understand what it was they were dealing with; and what that implied for the minister – me – in terms of holding that together.”

Lord Freud suggested that he was acting as the permanent project manager although he had his normal ministerial duties as well – including being the government’s spokesman in the House of Lords on welfare reform matters.

“As a minister you don’t have time to do project manage a big project. I was sending teams out to make sure we were on top of particular things, which were then reincorporated into the whole process. But it was a very difficult time as we built the department into a capability to do this. There is now a very capable team doing it.”

Comment:

Two of the questions raised by Lord Freud’s comments are: If outsourcing IT is now considered such a bad idea for central government, why is it councils continue to outsource IT?

Would it be better for taxpayers in the long run if the Department for Communities and Local Government intervened to stop such deals going ahead?

Lord Freud’s evidence on Universal Credit programme in full

 

 

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1992

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

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

2006

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

2008

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

2011

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

2013

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

2015

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

He said at the time,

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Ambulance Service hit by new year fault – BBC online

 

 

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

By Tony Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overspend

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

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

Lessons

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

It said,

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

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

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

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

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

Trust

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Hide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 11.05 17 November 2016

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

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

 

Atos pleased after it’s cleared of “sharp practice”

By Tony Collins

atos

A Cabinet Office review of the Whitehall contracts of IT services company Atos following a Public Accounts Committee allegation of “sharp practice” has more than  exonerated the supplier.

After looking at 12 Atos government contracts, the Cabinet Office has written to the Public Accounts Committee praising Atos for going beyond its contractual obligations. Where the company has fallen short, it has taken remedial steps.

Rarely are any government statements on an IT supplier replete with praise.

It’s likely the vindication will take some MPs by surprise after failings in a project to gather and collect in one place data from all the various GP practice systems – the so-called General Practice Extraction Service.

Now Atos may in future be a position to use the statement as evidence, when bidding, of its success in delivering government IT services and projects.

Millions written off

In December 2015 the Public Accounts Committee was highly critical of Atos in its report on the extraction service project.

The NHS Information Centre accepted the system from Atos although it didn’t work properly. The Centre also made public announcements at the time on the system’s success.  In fact the system had “fundamental design flaws” and millions of pounds was written off.

The Committee said,

“Very common mistakes from past projects were repeated, such as failing to adopt the right contracting approach, failing to ensure continuity of key staff on the project, and failing to undertake proper testing before accepting the system.

“GPES [General Practice Extraction Service] started some five years later than planned; it is over-budget; and it still does not provide the full service required.

“Atos, supplier for a key part of the system, may have met the letter of its contractual obligations but took advantage of a weak client by taking the client’s money while knowing full well that the whole system had not been properly tested.”

The Committee said that the NHS official who was chief executive of the Information Centre when it accepted the flawed system was “awarded total emoluments of £470,000 for the financial year 2012–2013 including a redundancy payment of £330,000”.

Tests

The Committee found that in its approach to the project, “Atos did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer”.

“We are not satisfied Atos provided proper professional support to an inexpert client and are very concerned that it appears to have acted solely with its own short term best interests in mind.

“Atos admitted that end-to-end testing should always be undertaken and that it was supposed to have happened in this case. However, NHS IC and Atos agreed a more limited test of the Atos component due to delays in completing other parts of the system.

“The Atos software passed this test, but after NHS IC accepted the system—and to Atos’s professed surprise—the system as a whole was found not to work. Atos claims it fixed the issues relating to its software at its own expense and that the additional £1.9 million it received while doing so was for additional work related to 15 new features.

“We found that Atos’s chief executive, Mr Adrian Gregory—the company’s witness in our enquiry—appeared rather indifferent to the plight of the client; we expect more from those contracting with government and receiving funds from the taxpayer.”

“Sharp practice”

The Committee recommended that the Cabinet Office undertake a “full review of Atos’s relationships as a supplier to the Crown”.

“We expect the Cabinet Office to note carefully this example of sharp practice when determining what obligations a duty of care on contractors should entail and what sanctions would apply when performance falls short.”

The government agreed to have a review.

Findings of Cabinet Office review of Atos contracts

The Cabinet Office found no “examples of behaviour that might be described as sharp commercial practice in the course of this review”.

The review team looked at 12 Atos contracts worth a total of more than £500m a year – 80% of Atos’s work with central government.

 

No: Department Contract Name
1 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
2 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Government Gateway Agreement
3 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ICT in support of medical assessments
4 HM Treasury (HMT) National Savings and Investments (NS&I)
5 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) Development, Innovation and Support Contracts (DISC) Infrastructure Services Agreement
6 Ministry of Justice (MOJ) End User Computing Services (EUCS)
7 Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) Shared Service Alliance
8 Home Office (HO) IND Procurement of Infrastructure Development and Support (IPIDS) Agreement
9 Home Office (HO) Contain Agreement
10 Department of Health (DH) Information Management Services (IMS 3)
11 Ministry of Defence (MOD) Strategic Partner Framework Defence Core Network Services (DCNS01)
12 Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) ICT Managed Services Agreement (IS2003)

Far from finding examples of sharp practice, the review team found “examples to the contrary”. In some of the contracts, Atos was “working at risk” and going “beyond their contractual obligations to act in the client’s interests”.

“Specific examples include expediting change control notices at the client’s request in advance of formal approval, taking financial risk ahead of contract extensions and proactively supporting the redeployment of resource to assist in the avoidance of client cost. On one contract, a notice period for a number of major decommissioning events lapsed and Atos continued to deliver the services flexibly to the client’s requirements until the service could be safely decommissioned.”

Where Atos did not meet monthly performance targets, service penalties were incurred and charged to Atos. “It was evident that when operational performance fell short appropriate sanctions were applied.”

Commitment

The Cabinet Office went on to say that Atos proactively and constructively engaged in the review and provided information as requested, “sometimes over and above their contractual commitments”.

The review team added,

“It is clear that Atos values its relationship as a supplier to the Crown; it has a comprehensive approach to the governance of all the contracts reviewed and the Atos leadership team shows commitment to its customers.

“In response to the PAC [Public Accounts Committee] hearing Atos has undertaken a number of initiatives to address PAC’s concerns.

“The Atos corporate programme ‘Client at the Heart’ aims to deepen the client-focussed culture within the organisation by embedding a set of values and action plans to deliver improved service for each contract they run, including all government contracts.

“In addition, whilst employees have always been recognised for achievement in quantitative and qualitative objectives, financial targets vary but typically account for only a small proportion of total reward packages.

“We see this as evidence that Atos client executives are incentivised to provide the appropriate professional support.”

An Atos spokesman told civilserviceworld that the company was “proud to be a trusted supplier” and had welcomed the review as an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of its services.

“We are pleased that the Cabinet Office has concluded that we deliver the appropriate level of professional support to our government clients,” he said.

Comment

It’s clear that Atos deserves credit for going beyond the call of duty on some contracts. It is also clear that those departmental officials the Cabinet Office spoke to as part of the review were happy with Atos.

What’s not so clear is the extent to which civil servants in general are in a position to know how well their major IT suppliers are performing.

Evidence from National Audit Office reports is that departments may not always have comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information – and enough staff time – to give sound judgements on how well a major IT supplier is performing on a complex contract.

Indeed the National Audit Office can be scathing about the quality of contract management within departments.

In 2013 the Audit Office, in its report “Universal Credit: early progress” identified a series of astonishing failings that, taken together,  suggested that the DWP had little understanding of what its major IT suppliers were charging for, or why, let alone what their performance was like.

The DWP is the largest central government department – which leaves one to wonder whether some other departments, which have smaller budgets and fewer staff, are better or worse off in terms of understanding their IT contracts.

These were some of the contract management weaknesses at the DWP as identified by the National Audit Office in 2013:

  • Over-reliance on performance information that was provided by suppliers without Department validation.
  • Inadequate controls over what would be supplied, when and at what cost because deliverables were not always defined before contracts were signed.
  • Weak contractual relationships with supplier
  • 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.
  • Limited line of sight on cost of delivery, in particular between expenditure incurred and progress made in delivering outputs.
  • Poorly managed and documented financial governance, including for delegated financial authorities and approvals; for example 94 per cent of spending was approved by just four people but there is limited evidence that this was reviewed and challenged.
  • Limited IT capability and ‘intelligent client’ function leading to a risk of supplier self-review.
  • 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.
  • Ministers had insufficient information to assess the value for money of contracts before approving them.
  • Insufficient challenge of supplier-driven changes in costs and forecasts because the programme team did not fully understand the assumptions driving changes.

The Cabinet Office, in its review of Atos, found “inconsistencies” in departmental compliance with guidelines on contract management. It said,

“Where the evidence suggests that contract management is inconsistent [with National Audit Office guidelines on contract management] the Cabinet Office is discussing improvements with the contract owners in the Departments concerned.”

Praise where praise is due and Atos may well be a good – and perhaps outstanding – IT supplier to central government.

But if departments don’t have enough solid information on how well their major IT suppliers are performing, to what extent is any Cabinet Office statement praising an IT supplier likely to be a hopeful panegyric, based on what officials in departments believe they are expected to say?

Cabinet Office statement on Atos to the Public Accounts Committee – 8 September 2016

Public Accounts Committee report on Atos and the General Practice Extraction Service – December 2015

 

DWP derides claimant complaints over digital rollout of Universal Credit

By Tony Collins

dwpLess than 24 hours after the Institute for Government criticised the DWP’s “tendency not to acknowledge bad news”, the department’s press office has poured scorn on complaints to an MP about problems with the rollout of Universal Credit’s “digital” system.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions has described as “anecdotal” complaints by the public about the “full” digital Universal Credit system in south London.

The DWP has declined to publish reports that would give a factual account of the performance of the Universal Credit digital system during rollout.  Its spokespeople can therefore describe claimant complaints as “anecdotal”.

Cheap

Ministers hope that the in-house and cheaply-developed “full”  digital system will ultimately replace a “live” service that has many workarounds, has cost hundreds of millions of pounds,  has been built by the DWP’s traditional IT suppliers, and deals with only limited groups of claimants.

But the agile-developed digital system has had its problems at a pilot site in Scotland – where the DWP described claimant complaints of being left penniless as “small-scale”.

Now similar problems with the digital system have emerged in south London.

Carshalton and Wallington Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake told the Guardian yesterday that “on a weekly basis I see residents who don’t receive payments or are forced to use a clunky system which is unusable and unsuitable for people with disabilities.”

He added,

“Every day new problems arise as a result of poor staff training, IT failures and poor IT systems.”  He said problems with a local pilot scheme of the digital system is having a serious effect on many people’s lives.

Problems highlighted by Brake include:

  • Flaws in the online system that prevent people from uploading copies of bank statements and other documents needed to secure payments for childcare places.
  • Long administrative delays and mix-ups over payments to claimants, frequently resulting in their running up arrears or being forced to turn to food banks.
  • Failure to pay, or abruptly ceasing without warning to pay, housing costs on behalf of vulnerable claimants, leaving them at risk of eviction.

A DWP spokesman told the Guardian, “It’s misleading to draw wider conclusions from the anecdotal evidence of a small number of people.

“The reality is people claiming universal credit are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system. We are rolling out the UC service to all types of benefit claimants in a safe and controlled way so we can ensure it is working effectively for everyone.”

universal creditNot accepting bad news

Yesterday the Institute for Government published two reports on Universal Credit, focusing on the political, managerial and IT aspects. One of the reports “Learning Lessons from Universal Credit” by Emma Norris and Jill Rutter referred to the DWP’s need to combat its ‘no bad news’ culture.

It said the DWP had a “tendency to not acknowledge bad news, or to acknowledge it insufficiently”. It said “good news culture that prevailed within the DWP, with a reluctance to tell ministers of emerging problems, was a real barrier to identifying and addressing them”. 

Two Parliamentary committees, the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions have criticised the DWP’s inability to face up to bad news, and its selective approach to the dissemination of information.

“Burst into tears”

The other Institute for Government report published yesterday on Universal Credit – Universal Credit, from disaster to recovery? –  quoted an insider as saying that some of those in the  DWP’s IT team at Warrington burst into tears, so relieved were they to discover that they could tell someone the truth about problems with Universal Credit’s digital system.

In a DWP paper that an FOI tribunal judge has ruled can be disclosed, the DWP conceded that officials lacked “candour and honesty throughout the [Universal Credit IT] Programme and publicly”.

Comment

Problems with the digital system are to be expected.

What’s not acceptable is the DWP’s patronising or scoffing attitude towards claimants who’ve experienced problems with the systems.

In describing the complaints to MP Tom Brake as “anecdotal” the DWP’s hierarchy is aware that it is keeping secret reports that give the facts on the performance of the digital system at pilot sites.

Indeed the DWP is habitually refusing FOI requests to publish reports on the performance of its IT systems. Which enables it to describe all clamant complaints as “anecdotal”.

Test and see

The DWP is taking a “test and see” approach to the roll-out of Universal Credit’s digital system. This means in essence it is using the public as test guinea pigs.

Harsh though this will sound, the DWP’s testing philosophy is understandable. Trying out the digital system on claimants may be the only practical way to bring to the surface all the possible problems. There may be too many complexities in individual circumstances to conduct realistic tests offline.

But why can’t the DWP be open about its digital test strategy? Are its officials – including press officers – locked forever into the culture of “no bad news”?

This denial culture, if it’s maintained, will require the DWP to mislead Parliamentary committees, MPs in general, the public and even stakeholders such as local authorities.

Two select committee reports have criticised the DWP’s prevarications and obfuscations. A chairwoman of the Work and Pensions Committee Dame Anne Begg referred to the DWP’s  tendency to “sweep things under the carpet”.

The Institute for Government referred to even ministers being kept away from bad news.

Other evidence emerged in July 2016 of the DWP’s deep antipathy to external scrutiny and criticism.

It seems that the DWP, with its culture of denial and accepting good news only, would be more at home operating in the government administrations of China, North Korea or Russia.

Isn’t it time the DWP started acknowledging complaints about Universal Credit systems, apologising and explaining what it was doing about resolving problems?

That’s something the governments of China, North Korea and Russia are unlikely to do when something goes wrong.

For decades the DWP has been defensive, introspective and dismissive of all external criticism. It has misled MPs.

And it has done so with an almost eager, cheerful willingness.

But it’s never too late to change.

Digital Universal Credit system is plagued with errors, says MP

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

Analysis of Universal Credit IT document the DWP didn’t want published

 

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

 

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

dwpBy Tony Collins

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

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

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP's written submission

FOI tribunal grants request to publish DWP’s written submission

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpts from the submission are here.

Analysis and Comment

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

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

Confidential

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

That sensitivity has little to do with protecting personal data.

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

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

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

Individual accountability for failure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understandable?

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

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

Need for openness

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

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

Programme papers“watermarked”

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

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

Concern over leaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Defensive”

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

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

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

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

Were there leaks of particularly sensitive information?

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

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

NPfIT

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

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

Ex-Government CIO wanted more openness on IT projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

MPs and even IT suppliers want openness on IT projects

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

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

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

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

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

DWP headline late and over budget

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

The report said,

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

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

The costs of concealment

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

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

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

“Abysmal”

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

1984

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

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

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

Does it matter if the DWP is paranoid about leaks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red team

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong assumptions

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

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

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

Said Lord Bach,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad news

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

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

Ministers helpless to force openness on unwilling officials?

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

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

Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Excerpts from the DWP submission

Some Twitter comments on this post:

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Paper on Universal Credit IT programme the DWP didn’t want published

By Tony Collins

Below are excerpts from a paper on the Universal Credit IT programme that a judge has ruled can be published.

Judge Chris Ryan has granted my request to publish written evidence that the DWP had submitted to an FOI Tribunal for a hearing in February 2016.

The tribunal was over the DWP’s prolonged refusal to publish three reports on the Universal Credit IT programme. The DWP lost the case and in April 2016 released the reports in question: a risk register, issues log and project assessment review. Subsequently the Government Legal Service, representing the DWP, refused permission for the department’s written evidence to the tribunal to be published.

My comments on the contents of the DWP’s written evidence are in a separate article.

Lawyers for the DWP had argued that its written evidence to an FOI Tribunal was for the purposes of the hearing only. The Government Legal Department told the FOI Tribunal,

“The open justice principle has been in this case; the proceedings were held in public; reporting of the proceedings was permitted; and the issues were ventilated very fully in open court.

“We do not consider that it is necessary to go further and for Mr Collins to be permitted to publish the witness statements themselves, outside of the proceedings for which they were made”.

But Judge Ryan,who had heard the original FOI case, granted my application citing this: Guardian Case – provision of documents used in an appeal

He said there would have been no issue if the evidence in question had been given in full during the hearing. To save time such evidence is not heard in full. Instead written statements are given to the judge, which can make it difficult for reporters or anyone listening to the case in court to pick up what is going on.

Said the judge in ruling,

“I am satisfied that Mr Collins has a genuine journalistic interest in referring to the material in his blog …

“I am satisfied, therefore, that the combination of a public hearing (at which the evidence was not heard) and a published determination (which referred to only parts of the evidence) does not do enough to satisfy the principle of open justice and that the contents of the open witness statements should be generally available, including being quoted in journalistic writing of the kind envisaged by Mr Collins.”

The statement in question

The DWP’s written evidence refers, in part, to the effects on staff and managers of leaks on the Universal Credit IT programme.

The DWP’s argument was, in essence, that the release of sensitive information as a result of leaks or an FOI ruling to disclose the three reports in question, would change the behaviours and attitudes of staff and managers.

The DWP’s written evidence gives a rare insight into how the department dealt with its own fear of leaks.

One interpretation of the DWP’s written evidence is that it shows the extent to which the DWP was careful to control information to the media, the public, stakeholders, MPs and the public to ensure that only the correct information about the Universal Credit IT programme was released, and then only by authorised persons.

Another interpretation is that it shows the extent to which the DWP was preoccupied with control of any bad news about the Universal Credit IT programme, to the point of frightening staff and managers by leak investigations, one led by a former member of the security services.

The leaks the DWP refers to in its evidence related to low-level information such as the results of a staff survey of morale or the release of a “starting gate review” that the DWP had lodged with the House of Commons library.

Part of the written evidence below gives several examples of how the fear of leaks manifested itself. For governance meetings, “all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings attached, whether or not they contain sensitive information”.

In a leak investigation, staff were subjected to detailed interviews and individual mailboxes “reviewed”, as were access rights to electronic shared areas.

Assurance reports (low-level reports on the state of the IT programme including risks and problems) were watermarked, numbered and password protected, and a register kept of who received them. Recommendations in the assurance reports were not circulated.

The submission said managers distrusted staff and there was a “lack of candour and honesty throughout the Programme and publicly”.

People became “paranoid that they might have accidentally caused a leak, for example by leaving information on a printer”.

At one point the permanent secretary posted a message on the DWP intranet informing everyone of the leak investigations and “inviting people to speak to the independent investigator if they had any information”.

(Please note)…

I have left out the names of the senior DWP executives who wrote the submissions. This is because the executives represented the position and views of the department rather than those of any individual. The submissions were given to the tribunal,  “on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions”.

Little in the contents of the evidence is surprising. On the other hand it is rare, and perhaps unprecedented, for the DWP’s preoccupation with controlling information on any of its big IT programmes to be articulated so clearly.

This website would argue that suppressing bad news is not conducive to good project management, and can alienate stakeholders who are likely to view a project with suspicion once they believe they are fed only good news.

Excerpts

Parts of the written statement of a senior executive on the Universal Credit IT programme follow.

The executive has been a civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions, and its predecessor departments and agencies, for more than 25 years.

“I therefore have a very good understanding of the general workings and culture of the DWP as a whole…”

The executive also has a “considerable experience of delivering large change programmes (although none as large as UC, which is unique in scale).

“Within my change management experience I have reviewed and managed risk registers and issue logs as part of the Senior Management team.”

The executive explained that the Universal Credit programme constitutes a massive investment of public money.

It is being delivered by a central programme staff of about 500 at present and eventually by “thousands of staff in our operational sites”.

The UC programme went through a “reset” instigated by the Major Projects Authority in 2013.

“This meant a considerable amount of re-planning and scrutiny from other Government Departments.

“There are very few senior level staff still working in the Department who worked on the Universal Credit Programme in 2011/2012. I have been asked to provide this witness statement as I joined the Programme in 2012 and have a good understanding of what happened on the Programme before that date as well as of DWP more generally.”

When joining the Universal Credit IT programme, the executive found that many of the senior management team were relatively new and, as colleagues were taken on board, “we were expected to learn about the Programme and deliver our critical areas of work simultaneously”.

“I was placed on temporary promotion … and asked to take on a fact-finding/troubleshooter role on behalf of the Programme Director, undertaking a stocktake and reporting back within 6 weeks on areas of known concern.

“As a Director I was also a member of the senior management team of the (Universal Credit) programme. It rapidly became apparent that many issues were being addressed within the Programme but that there were significant problems in some areas – including my area of expertise.

Significant problems

“I worked closely with the Secretary of State’s Special Adviser (Stephen Brien) and other security specialists to investigate the position. In summary, we concluded (just before Christmas 2012) that the IT system that had been developed for the launch of UC had significant problems.

“This was difficult news for the Programme and our conclusions were very sensitive. Having been told and having understood our discussions, ministers and the programme leaders (including me) needed to consider how the rollout of UC could proceed and the “art of the possible” in respect of launching UC in April 2013 as previously planned and announced. This was under discussion in late December/January.

“The Major Projects Authority undertook a review of the Programme in February 2013, where all Programme leaders and others, including me, were interviewed.

“The decision was taken that the Programme would be reset under the leadership of David Pitchford, then the Chief Executive of the Major Prpojects Authority. We were told that he would bring his own team with him and our own role remained uncertain for a few weeks. On arrival Mr Pitchford convened a workshop of all senior leaders of the Programme to set out the way forward for the Programme.

Mr Pitchford and his MPA team were in place for 13 weeks. I attended workshops and discussions with them and made them aware of the issues in relation to the Programme that my pre-Christmas stocktake had uncovered.

“I also continued to work with DWP teams to decide what recovery and improvement action was needed to support UC in the future, whatever the reset outcome. During this period Mr Pitchford was appointed as ‘Chief Executive of Universal Credit’, and suspended other governance meetings with decisions made by him at the centre of the Programme.

“In February 2013 an extraordinary ‘Ministerial Oversight Group’ was put in place, which was made up of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Secretary and very senior officials from each of the Departments concerned. I presented to this group on the issues I had been working on. This group met a small number of times during 2013 to monitor progress of the Programme.

“Mr Pitchford and his team departed in May 2013, leaving what they referred to as a ‘blueprint’ for the Programme for Ann Harris (the new programme Director) and Howard Shiplee (the new SRO).

On taking up appointment Mrs Harris and Mr Shiplee further reviewed staffing levels and expenditure on contracted resource, reducing both significantly.

“This inevitably created further confusion and concern in some areas of the Programme. They also re-established formal governance, a new Programme Board with an external non-executive chair and strong project management structures, including risks and issues management, and realised that further planning was required. As well as being part of the senior management team under Mr Pitchford’s direction, I was also part if the new senior management team from May 2013…

“I make these statements not only to describe my work on the Programme – and therefore my good understanding of the sort of pressures the Programme faced, and the nature of the culture within the Programme – but also more generally to try and give a picture of the extreme pressures that working on a Programme of sort of size and complexity can create.

“I also believe that those pressures emphasise the very great importance of ensuring that in the teeth of management change, and external and internal pressure, those responsible for the programme can nevertheless be assured that they receive accurate, frank and timely advice and information about the state of the programme. These sorts of pressures made it more difficult to ensure that this type of advice can be provided and is available for those who need it, even though it is vitally required…

The effect of Freedom of Information disclosures

“I will now turn to the effect of disclosing information that DWP seems sensitive under the FOI Act. It is very difficult to document actual cases of the effect of disclosure as, in my experience, the exemptions under the Act and decisions of the Information Commissioner and Tribunals mean that such sensitive information does not get released in the first place.

“It is therefore inevitable that the effect of disclosure has to be inferred from other types of disclosure (e.g. leaks); from knowledge of human behaviour under the sort of pressures that arise in the Programme of this kind: and from knowledge of departmental behaviour and culture.

“To give a flavour of this, if we take 2012 as an example (as the year that these requests were made) DWP disagreed with the decisions to order the release of information in just 7 cases which came before the Information Commissioner. This is out of a caseload of 4,778 FOIA requests that year.

“Of the cases where we disagreed with the decisions, 2 are the ones before the Tribunal now, 3 are joined with each other as they relate to the same information and are scheduled before the Court of Appeal in June 2016 and on the remaining 2 the Tribunal agreed with the DWP’s judgement and the information did not get released.

“It is therefore difficult for me to give examples of where inappropriate disclosure has caused harm, precisely because the mechanisms designed to protect against that are generally effective.

“Whilst there will undoubtedly be specific reasons relating to each case, considering PARs [project assessment reviews], Risk and Issues Registers in general terms, release of the sensitive information commonly held in these documents would inhibit candour .

“In lookalike cases across government this position has been supported by the Information Commissioner and Tribunals, or the government has as I understand it decided to use the executive override (the FOI “veto”) under section 53 of FOIA.

“DWP rarely receives requests for a PAR or Risk or Isssues Register relating to a major programme and has not released one to date.

“The initial requests for information in these cases also included the request for the Universal Credit milestone schedule. This was released by the Department earlier this year (2015), so I should explain here why we did not feel its release would unduly affect candour.

“Previous submissions from the Department have clearly stated that the “chilling effect” applies in a very minor way to milestone schedules, as they are by their nature a lit of milestones and dates to achieve those milestones.

“A limited chilling effect may occur if information disclosures led to future milestone schedules containing vaguely labelled milestones and deadlines that were unrealistically long, but this sort of minor chilling effect is likely to be picked up by the robust Programme Management which we have in place. Given that, and the passage of time that has now elapsed since the milestone schedule was requested, I agree that it was appropriate to release that document rather than continue to withhold it.

“Given the lack of evidence that I am able to draw on regarding the damage caused by the release of information through FOI, the evidence I can present must come from a different source, namely that of unauthorised leaks of information. Both leaks and disclosure of sensitive information through FOI result in civil servants losing trust in the sanctity of the information sharing systems and processes, resulting in a loss of trust and diminished openness and candour.

“Whilst this is different for FOIs and leaks in that one can be planned for and managed, the damage to trust is still essentially the same. Leaks caused additional damage in that trust of colleagues is also undermined, which is unlikely to be the case with the release of sensitive information under FOI (though there may be a little distrust in colleagues, as some people contributing to risk registers and issues registers may not be aware of FOI rules so may think colleagues have chosen to release documents inappropriately).

My own experience, and those of my colleagues, on the effect of leaks.

I now turn to my own experience of leaks and how they have undermined candour. During 2011 and through to 2013 there were a number of leaks and unauthorised disclosures that came out of the Programme.

“Leaks cannot be managed and considered in the same way as freedom of information requests. Leaks are managed in a reactive and defensive way: however, the impact on staff can be similar. With leaks, staff grow to distrust their colleagues and managers; with the release of data through FOIs, staff grow distrustful of the system and, if they are aware their work can be released this way, will be less candid in the information they record.

Major Projects Authority Review

“In 2011, the Major Projects Authority undertook an independent review of Universal Credit – this was a Starting Gate Review on behalf of the Senior Responsible Owner. The report of the review is confidential to the SRO, and if it is to be helpful it must contain candid advice, both in terms of processes and individuals.

“In this instance the Universal Credit Programme underwent a Programme Assurance Review from the Major Projects Review Group (MPRG), (Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and invited independent experts). The meeting was to provide further recommendations to the SRO and to write to HM Treasury in support of the Treasury Approval Point, which was the ultimate source of funding for the Programme.

“After the meeting of MPRG the Starting Gate Review report and elements of the costs and benefits for Universal Credit were leaked in the Daily Telegraph. These documents are clearly marked as confidential and sensitive. The Business Case provides the economic, commercial and financial argument to allow Government to make key decisions on investment when it comes to large Programmes. It contains sensitive financial and commercial information.

“The various leaks took place at a time (late 2011) when there was press speculation about ‘tension’ between DWP and HM Treasury officials over Universal Credit, and the MPA report was candid in its appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the Programme, identifying areas for improvement, and risk areas to manage.

“The leaking of these various documents made DWP officials feel more defensive and built a sense of being ‘under siege’ and having to take extreme care about what information was being shared and with whom. This was observed by others such as the National Audit Office (NAO), who felt that the Universal Credit Programme was building a ‘fortress culture’.

“The extreme care that was taken had particular consequences. One was that it was harder for people on the Programme, and throughout Government, to obtain the information they needed to do their jobs – even the members of the Programme Board could no longer receive their papers electronically, which meant twenty packs of up to 200 pages delivered by hand every month.

“As is clear from this example, extra time had to be taken in relation to protecting information when the time needed to be spent on introducing UC.

“Valuable resource, both people and time, was taken up ensuring all documents were marked securely in the correct way, all papers were numbered and signed for, any that were sent were ‘double-enveloped’, and any papers that needed to be retained were ‘signed back in’. People were focused on physically protecting information when the time needed to be spent on planning and delivering UC.

“This, then, was the effect of leaking the Starting Gate Review, which for the reasons I have already explained above was a less sensitive document and leaked at a much less sensitive time than either the PAR report in this case, or indeed the Risk Register, or Issues Register.

Pulse Survey

In 2013, the results of a Universal Credit ‘Pulse Survey’ were shared with the Programme. A Pulse Survey is used to gain a quick and simple snapshot of how people feel about the workplace.

“The covering note, sent only to UC staff, acknowledged how difficult it had been to work in the Programme, but explained that there had been a lot of work done to develop a more positive culture, that things were improving and that the leadership team were committed to improving this. There was an embedded file in the note that included personal comments made by the staff in response to some of the questions, and some of these comments were very negative in nature.

“These were included to give an honest picture of how it felt to work in the Programme to ensure staff recognised that their concerns were understood and that changes would be made for the better. The letter and comments were leaked to the Guardian Newspaper and made the front page. The comments in the Guardian included:

Working on UC was ‘soul-destroying’ and ‘unbelievably frustrating’.

People were under so much pressure that they could only engage in ‘fire-fighting and panic management’.

One civil servant writes of a ‘near complete absence of anything that looks like strategic leadership in the programme’.

‘There is a divisive culture of secrecy around current programme developments and very little in the way of meaningful messages for staff or stakeholders explaining what will happen and when.’

‘I have never worked somewhere where decision making was so apparently poor at senior levels …’

“As a consequence of these leaks and others a number of leak investigations were instigated by the Permanent Secretary and the Secretary of State. One was led by a former member of the Security Services. They involved detailed interviews with a wide variety of staff – where direct questions were asked about colleagues – and interrogation of email systems and reviews of staff access to documents.

“People became suspicious of their colleagues – even those they worked closely with. There was a lack of trust and people were very careful about being honest with their colleagues. People were very careful who they shared information with, and became paranoid that they might have accidentally caused a leak, for example by leaving information on a printer.

“People also stopped sharing comments which could be interpreted as criticism of the Programme, even when those comments would be useful as part of something like an MPA review.

“Colleagues also became concerned about the sanctity of the information systems and processes – which were also examined as part of the investigation where elements such as access rights to electronic shared areas and individual mailboxes were reviewed.

“The leaks had a considerable impact on the member of staff who sent out the note on the pulse survey and those that read the note, including those who contributed the anonymous comments in the embedded document.

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

“People, even now, struggle to trust colleagues with sensitive information and are still; fearful that anything that is sent out via email will be misused. For all governance meetings, all documents are sent out as password protected, with official security markings included, whether or not they contain sensitive information.

How did it change the way we did things?

“All future MPAs, other assurance reports, risk registers and issues registers were all treated with utmost care.

“For assurance reports, only the SRO and Programme Director could have electronic copies (and the password protected) and other recipients received printed, watermarked, numbered copies, with a register kept of who had received them.

“While the business case tem has copies of the recommendations, these were not circulated, and while the team did pursue progress against this clearly could not be set in the full context of the report outside a small number of people.

“This was damaging to the programme because people felt management did not trust them, leading to a lack of loyalty and commitment and further distrust of the system. Releasing what Programme staff would have seen as sensitive and ‘official’ information in the form of the PAR report or risk or issues register at that time would have exacerbated an already difficult situation in the Programme.

“At the time of the leaks and the investigations that followed, Programme senior leaders were expected to speak to their teams about what had happened and what the ‘lines to take’ were.

“The lines to take were also added to the Rolling Brief (an internal update document) and circulated to senior leaders in the Programme, press office, special advisors and so on. The lines were a ‘defensive’ approach to media requests, emphasising the positive in terms of progress in the Programme without acknowledging the issues identified in leaked stories.

“This positive approach to briefing and media management built on the effect of the leaks and led to a lack of candour and honesty throughout the Programme and publically – it contributed to the to the ‘fortress mentality’ spoken of by the National Audit Office.

“Subsequent to the various leaks, the Permanent Secretary posted a message on the DWP internal intranet informing every one of the investigations and inviting people to speak to the independent investigator if they had any information. This was at a time when the Permanent Secretary needed to give as much focus as possible to the Programme itself.

“The arrangements around sensitive documents, such as assurance reports, business cases and risk logs, are still tightly controlled in the Universal Credit programme, both as a consequence of the leaks and the investigations and because of the perception that these fostered that anything that did not reflect well on the Programme was likely to be leaked.

“Further release of information, either through the FOI route or another leak would have piled pressure both on management and on the Programme staff, with everyone feeling limited in what they could say, and how honest they could be when recording their concerns about Programme progress.

“One of the broader consequences of this was that the level and frequency of communications was reduced because of this lack of trust in systems for recording information. ‘Temperature checks’ and similar ‘pulse surveys’ were no longer carried out.

“This led to people feeling ‘disengaged’ and the level of commitment from people reduced. This low level of engagement was evident in the 2013 and 2014 People Survey results, with those feeling proud of working in the Programme being significantly less than those who were proud of working for the Department as a whole.

“Part of this lack of candour caused by leaks relates to dedicated civil servants not wanting to harm the Programme and risk its delivery. Universal Credit is the most profound change to the welfare state that most will work on in their career. The benefits that will stem from the change will have a significant impact on millions of lives and save billions of pounds.

“Undermining trust in the information-sharing systems and processes that are used by a group of people dedicated to wanting to see this positive change will almost certainly result in them stepping back from the frankness and candour that is so necessary for effective Programme Management.

“This may be done with the best of intentions. Officials will not want to be the source of information made public, that reflects badly on a Programme they consider will have a positive effect on so many. But (to give one example) toning down, even unconsciously, the wording of a risk makes effective programme management much harder.

“This in turn increases the risk of issues occurring, which might otherwise have been drawn out, planned for and avoided. This may be a relatively slight issue in a small programme with a small number of staff, but on a Programme the size and scale of Universal Credit, that candour is vital to ensure we make the most effective decisions, since they ultimately affect the lives of millions of citizens.

The above facts are true to the best of my knowledge and belief.

Signed electronically

6th November 2015

I make this statement on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions in support of the DWP’s position in three appeals under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).”

My submission to the tribunal, which includes responses to the above DWP points is here:  Tony Collins statement to FOI DWP tribunal January 2016.doc

[Thank you to FOI campaigner and IT projects professional John Salter [@AmateurFOI] who provided invaluable help with my submissions to the FOI tribunal. It was largely through Slater’s efforts – including his own submissions and attendance at two FOI tribunal hearings where he cross examined DWP witnesses  – that the DWP eventually released the reports in dispute.]

Comment and analysis on the DWP’s written evidence.

Aspire: eight lessons from the UK’s biggest IT contract

By Tony Collins

How do you quit a £10bn IT contract in which suppliers have become limbs of your organisation?

Thanks to reports by the National Audit Office, the questioning of HMRC civil servants by the Public Accounts Committee, answers to FOI requests, and job adverts for senior HMRC posts, it’s possible to gain a rare insight into some of the sensitive commercial matters that are usually hidden when the end of a huge IT contract draws closer.

Partly because of the footnotes, the latest National Audit Office memorandum on Aspire (June 2016) has insights that make it one of the most incisive reports it has produced on the department’s IT in more than 30 years.

Soaring costs?

Aspire is the government’s biggest IT-related contract. Inland Revenue, as it was then, signed a 10-year outsourcing deal with HP (then EDS) in 1994, and transferred about 2,000 civil servants to the company. The deal was expected to cost £2bn over 10 years.

After Customs and Excise, with its Fujitsu VME-based IT estate, was merged with Inland Revenue’s in 2005, the cost of the total outsourcing deal with HP rose to about £3bn.

In 2004 most of the IT staff and HMRC’s assets transferred to Capgemini under a contract known as Aspire – Acquiring Strategic Partners for Inland Revenue. Aspire’s main subcontractors were Accenture and Fujitsu.

In subsequent years the cost of the 10-year Aspire contract shot up from about £3bn to about £8bn, yielding combined profits to Capgemini and Fujitsu of £1.2bn – more than double the £500m originally modelled. The profit margin was 15.8% compared to 12.3% originally modelled.

The National Audit Office said in a report on Aspire in 2014 that HMRC had not handled costs well. The NAO now estimates the cost of the extended (13-year) Aspire contract from 2004 to 2017 to be about £10bn.

Between April 2006 and March 2014, Aspire accounted for about 84% of HMRC’s total spending on technology.

Servers that typically cost £30,000 a year to run under Aspire – and there are about 4,000 servers at HMRC today – cost between £6,000 when run internally or as low as £4,000 a year in the commodity market.

How could the Aspire spend continue – and without a modernisation of the IT estate?

A good service

HMRC has been generally pleased with the quality of service from Aspire’s suppliers.  Major systems have run with reducing amounts of downtime, and Capgemini has helped to build many new systems.

Where things have gone wrong, HMRC appears to have been as much to blame as the suppliers, partly because development work was hit routinely by a plethora of changes to the agreed specifications.

Arguably the two biggest problems with Aspire have been cost and lack of control.  In the 10 years between 2004 and 2014 HMRC paid an average of £813m a year to Aspire’s suppliers.  And it paid above market rates, according to the National Audit Office.

By the time the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group announced in 2014 that it was seeking to outlaw “bloated and wasteful” contracts, especially ones over £100m, HMRC had already taken steps to end Aspire.

It decided to break up its IT systems into chunks it could manage, control and, to some extent, commoditise.

HMRC’s senior managers expected an end to Aspire by 2017. But unexpected events at the Department for Work and Pensions put paid to HMRC’s plan …

Eight lessons from Aspire

1. Your IT may not be transformed by outsourcing.  That may be the intention at the outset. But it didn’t happen when Somerset County Council outsourced IT to IBM in 2007 and it hasn’t happened in the 12 years of the Aspire contract.

 “The Aspire contract has provided stable but expensive IT systems. The contract has contributed to HMRC’s technology becoming out of date,” said the National Audit Office in its June 2016 memorandum.

Mark DearnleyAnd Mark Dearnley, HMRC’s Chief Digital Information Officer and main board member, told the Public Accounts Committee last week,

“Some of the technology we use is definitely past its best-before date.”

2. You won’t realise how little you understand your outsourced IT until you look at ending a long-term deal.

Confidently and openly answering a series of trenchant questions from MP Richard Bacon at last week’s Public Accounts Committee hearing, Dearnley said,

“It’s inevitable in any large black box outsourcing deal that there are details when you get right into it that you don’t know what’s going on. So yes, that’s what we’re learning.”

3. Suppliers may seem almost philanthropic in the run-up to a large outsourcing deal because they accept losses in the early part of a contract and make up for them in later years.

Dearnley said,

“What we are finding is that it [the break-up of Aspire] is forcing us to have much cleaner commercial conversations, not getting into some of the traditional arrangements.

” If I go away from Aspire and talk about the typical outsourcing industry of the last ten years most contracts lost money in their first few years for the supplier, and the supplier relied on making money in the later years of the contract.

“What that tended to mean was that as time moved on and you wanted to change the contract the supplier was not particularly incented to want to change it because they wanted to make their money at the end.

“What we’re focusing on is making sure the deals are clean, simple, really easy to understand, and don’t mortgage the future and that we can change as the environment evolves and the world changes.”

4. If you want deeper-than-expected costs in the later years of the contract, expect suppliers to make up the money in contract extensions.

Aspire was due originally to end in 2004. Then it went to 2017 after suppliers negotiated a three-year extension in 2007. Now completion of the exit is not planned until 2020, though some services have already been insourced and more will be over the next four years.

The National Audit Office’s June 2016 memorandum reveals how the contract extension from 2017 to 2020 came about.

HMRC had a non-binding agreement with Capgemini to exit from all Aspire services by June 2017. But HMRC had little choice but to soften this approach when Capgemini’s negotiating position was unexpectedly strengthened by IT deals being struck by other departments, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions.

Cabinet Office “red lines” said that government would not extend existing contracts without a compelling case. But the DWP found that instead of being able to exit a large hosting contract with HP in February 2015 it would have to consider a variation to the contract to enable a controlled disaggregation of services from February 2015 to February 2018.

When the DWP announced it was planning to extend its IT contract with its prime supplier HP Enterprise, HMRC was already in the process of agreeing with Capgemini the contract changes necessary to formalise their agreement to exit the Aspire deal in 2017.

“Capgemini considered that this extension, combined with other public bodies planning to extend their IT contracts, meant that the government had changed its position on extensions…

“Capgemini therefore pushed for contract extensions for some Aspire services as a condition of agreeing to other services being transferred to HMRC before the end of the Aspire contract,” said the NAO’s June 2016 memo.

5. It’s naïve to expect a large IT contract to transfer risks to the supplier (s).

At last week’s Public Accounts Committee hearing, Richard Bacon wanted to know if HMRC was taking on more risk by replacing the Aspire contract with a mixture of insourced IT and smaller commoditised contracts of no more than three years. Asked by Bacon whether HMRC is taking on more risk Dearnley replied,

“Yes and no – the risk was always ours. We had some of it backed of it backed off in contract. You can debate just how valuable contract backing off is relative to £500bn (the annual amount of tax collected).  We will never back all of that off. We are much closer and much more on top of the service, the delivery, the projects and the ownership (in the gradual replacement of Aspire).”

6. Few organisations seeking to end monolithic outsourcing deals will have the transition overseen by someone as clear-sighted as Mark Dearnley.

His plain speaking appeared to impress even the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier who asked him at the end of last week’s hearing,

Meg Hillier

Meg Hillier

“And what are your plans? One of the problems we often see in this Committee is people in very senior positions such as yours moving on very quickly. You have had a stellar career in the private sector…

“We hope that those negotiations move apace, because I suspect – and it is perhaps unfair to ask Mr Dearnley to comment – that to lose someone senior at this point would not be good news, given the challenges outlined in the [NAO] Report,” asked Hillier.

Dearnley then gave a slightly embarrassed look to Jon Thomson, HMRC’s chief executive and first permanent secretary. Dearnley replied,

“Jon and I are looking at each other because you are right. Technically my contract finishes at the end of September because I was here for three years. As Jon has just arrived, it is a conversation we have just begun.”

Hiller said,

“I would hope that you are going to have that conversation.”

Richard Bacon added,

“Get your skates on, Mr Thompson; we want to keep him.”

Thompson said,

“We all share the same aspiration. We are in negotiations.”

7. Be prepared to set aside millions of pounds – in addition to the normal costs of the outsourcing – on exiting.

HMRC is setting aside a gigantic sum – £700m. Around a quarter of this, said the National Audit Office, is accounted for by optimism bias. The estimates also include costs that HMRC will only incur if certain risks materialise.

In particular, HMRC has allowed around £100m for the costs of transferring data from servers currently managed by Aspire suppliers to providers that will make use of cloud computing technology. This cost will only be incurred if a second HMRC programme – which focuses on how HMRC exploits cloud technology – is unsuccessful.

Other costs of the so-called Columbus programme to replace Aspire include the cost of buying back assets, plus staff, consultancy and legal costs.

8. Projected savings from quitting a large contract could dwarf the exit costs.

HMRC has estimated the possible minimum and possible maximum savings from replacing Aspire. Even the minimum estimated savings would more than justify the organisational time involved and the challenge of building up new corporate cultures and skills in-house while keeping new and existing services running smoothly.

By replacing Aspire and improving the way IT services are organised and delivered, HMRC expects to save – each year – about £200m net, after taking into account the possible exit costs of £700m.

The National Audit Office said most of the savings are calculated on the basis of removing supplier profit margins and overheads on services being brought in-house, and reducing margins on other services from contract changes.

Even if the savings don’t materialise as expected and costs equal savings the benefits of exiting are clear. The alternative is allowing costs to continue to soar while you allow the future of your IT to be determined by what your major suppliers can or will do within reasonable cost limits.

Comment

HMRC is leading the way for other government departments, councils, the police and other public bodies.

Dearnley’s approach of breaking IT into smaller manageable chunks that can be managed, controlled, optimised and to some extent commoditised is impressive.  On the cloud alone he is setting up an internal team of 50.

In the past, IT empires were built and retained by senior officials arguing that their systems were unique – too bespoke and complex to be broken up and treated as a commodity to be put into the cloud.

Dearnley’s evidence to the Public Accounts Committee exposes pompous justifications for the status quo as Sir Humphrey-speak.

Both Richard Feynman and Einstein said something to the effect that the more you understand a subject, the simpler you can explain it.

What Dearnley doesn’t yet understand about the HMRC systems that are still run by Capgemini he will doubtless find out about – provided his contract is renewed before September this year.

No doubt HMRC will continue to have its Parliamentary and other critics who will say that the risks of breaking up HMRC’s proven IT systems are a step too far. But the risks to the public purse of keeping the IT largely as it is are, arguably, much greater.

The Department for Work and Pensions has proved that it’s possible to innovate with the so-called digital solution for Universal Credit, without risking payments to vulnerable people.

If the agile approach to Universal Credit fails, existing benefit systems will continue, or a much more expensive waterfall development by the DWP’s major suppliers will probably be used instead.

It is possible to innovate cheaply without endangering existing tax collection and benefit systems.

Imagine the billions that could be saved if every central government department had a Dearnley on the board. HMRC has had decades of largely negative National Audit Office reports on its IT.  Is that about to change?

Update:

This morning (22 June 2016) on LinkedIn, management troubleshooter and board adviser Colin Beveridge wrote,

“Good analysis of Aspire and outsourcing challenges. I have seen too many business cases in my career, be they a case for outsourcing, provider transition or insourcing.

“The common factor in all the proposals has been the absence of strategy end of life costs. In other words, the eventual transition costs that will be incurred when the sourcing strategy itself goes end of life. Such costs are never reflected in the original business case, even though their inevitability will have an important impact on the overall integrity of the sourcing strategy business case.

“My rule of thumb is to look for the end of strategy provision in the business case, prior to transition approval. If there is no provision for the eventual sourcing strategy change, then expect to pay dearly in the end.”

June 2016 memorandum on Aspire – National Audit Office

Dearney’s evidence to the Public Accounts Committee