Has Matt Hancock based his new NHS IT plans on “Yes Minister”?

By Tony Collins

Matt Hancock

Sir Humphrey ‘s answer to all problems was to set up a committee or new departmental unit.

The idea was to employ more civil servants or create new job titles at higher pay grades – a point perhaps not lost on the health secretary Matt Hancock.

Hancock has announced plans to deal with the problem of NHS IT by setting up a new division. It will create new civil service jobs and give different titles to existing officials.

Is the remit of the new division – called NHSX – set out in terms vague and unaccountable enough to put a smile on Sir Humphrey’s face?

“NHSX will have an open door to allow discussion with health tech industry that is developing products to make sure that we are harnessing the best innovation to improve the NHS,” Hancock told the HSJ.

“Part of its function will be to ensure that we build the best ecosystem for health tech development in the world.”

He said the model now agreed would make NHSX a joint-venture between NHS England/Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care. It would have its own chief executive.

NHSX will have broad responsibility for overseeing hundreds of millions of pounds in central funding for digital technology, handle central IT contracts and set national policy for digital technology.

Senior responsible officers for digital projects, most of whom are currently employed by NHS England, would be moved into NHSX.  HSJ was told this would include NHS chief information officer Will Smart, chief clinical information officer Simon Eccles, and interim chief digital officer Tara Donnelly.

NHSX will second staff from other organisations, primarily NHS England and DHSC. It will begin operating from April and take over full responsibilities by October 2019.

NHS England deputy chief executive Matthew Swindells, who currently has senior responsibility for NHS IT strategy, told HSJ,

“Bringing together the leadership around this exciting agenda in one place will help us deliver the far-reaching practical improvements from the long-term plan, improve the working lives of NHS staff and deliver better, safer care for patients.”

NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson said NHSX will create cohesion, and concentrate work and talent in one unit.

“The program of digital transformation ahead of us is extraordinary in terms of its scale, its complexity and the extent to which it can change lives,” she said.

“It will require sophisticated strategic planning, strong leadership and very tight partnership between organisations across the system.”

Hancock said,

“The tech revolution is coming to the NHS.”

The Register asked whether Hancock’s plan will be the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] mark 2.

Med-tech  Innovation said the NHS IT programme failed because of poor clinical engagement and a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. It asks,

“Have we really learned from our mistakes?”

In answer to that question, says Med-tech Iinnovation, “we might look no further than Matt Hancock’s recently assembled Healthtech Advisory Board  – amongst which, practising clinicians are the most notable absentees.”

Government Computing said in 2018 that NHS IT investment of nearly £13bn was approaching levels of the (notorious) National Programme for IT in the NHS.

Comment: 

With millions of people on waiting lists and rapidly falling decreases in people seen in A&E within four hours, the NHS does not need another pointless IT initiative of the sort we have seen many times over 30 years.

None of these countless and costly national and regional initiatives over three decades has worked as originally intended.

The main NHS IT improvements have been those achieved by autonomous hospitals and GP practices that have implemented effective but non-standardised systems. Hence systems in the NHS don’t usually talk to each other.

Interoperability ought to be the top priority for NHS IT. It’s not.

This is partly because it’s unglamorous for new ministers and Sir Humphreys to focus on “interoperability”. You’ll never hear a minister say, “We need to get the basics right before we try and create global digital exemplars and free wi-fi in GP surgeries.”

The Whitehall fashion is usually for vanity projects: digital statues built to honour the memory of a particular minister. Hence, the attention is on “driving the adoption of innovative technologies” instead of spending relatively small sums to enable clinicians to have systems that communicate across the NHS.

As soon as new ministers have their feet under the desk, they are handed a briefing paper on making the NHS a technological world leader.

The paper will not mean anything or commit the minister to anything, but it will give the incumbent something to talk about at conferences. It may even make ministers feel they are not entirely surplus to requirements. Hancock’s plan is indeed Sir Humphrey’s dream: a new division, more civil servants, new job roles and higher pay grades.

Will NHSX make any difference to you and me? That’s missing the point.  The priority for 30 years has been setting up a new division, putting in place a new leader, writing a new mission statement and preparing a series of business plans. Not forgetting an expansion of the civil service payroll.

Award

Campaign4Change awards Matt Hancock the 2019 “Under The Thumb of Sir Humphrey” award. It’s a pointless award. As pointless as NHSX.

Thank you to @TimMorton2 for alerting me to the HSJ’s interview with Hancock.

Hancock promises industry open door policy at NHSX – HSJ

NHSX – the official remit

Below are some comments that follow HSJ’s article on Hancock’s setting up of NHSX:
  • “We all recall Einstein’s own perspective on insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).
  • “Expecting the same people in the centre to deliver fundamentally different outcomes by moving them to a different team where they must drive radical change through the same people in the NHS is a rare combination of divorced reality and insanity… interruption not disruption will be the outcome.”
  • “The article mentions ‘NHS chief information officer Will Smart, chief clinical information officer Simon Eccles, and interim chief digital officer Tara Donnelly’. Who are all of these people? What do they do that’s different from one another and why is it different? … This is of course completely ludicrous and very typical  … appointing quite insane numbers of directors of this and that and chiefs so and so with blatant overlaps. Bloating at senior levels is hideously rife.”
  • “What would I do? Find the people in the NHS that have a record of successful delivery… You might be looking for a very long time. I can’t think of a single major IT-related project in the NHS that has been delivered on time, in budget and which actually delivered what was initially promised.”

  • “NHSX is the same people in a different box, but seems to be going in completely the opposite direction to the Topol report. If the purpose is to embed digital in NHS thinking, pulling all the people with digital expertise out of NHSEI and putting them in a different box is the last thing we should be doing.”
  • “You have to wonder who benefits from this.”
  • “I think he’d do better making people’s responsibilities and remit more explicit to the existing incumbents rather than inventing another new one. NHSD is the QUANGO setup to handle data but NHSE want to drive. Just look at the fiasco around DSCRO staff. Too many empires with no-one keeping them in line.”
  • “This has to be a welcome move, when it is so difficult to implement IT improvements across such a complex system. I would like to see the principal of openness and transparency applied to other areas of service provision from the independent sector, in particular, the provision of new cancer services.”
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More public sector IT-related failures for which nobody will be accountable – a solution?

The Times front page – 23 January 2019

By Tony Collins

Criminal trials were delayed, jurors unable to enrol and witness statements inaccessible.

Quoting a tweet by the authoritative @BarristerSecret, the BBC said the “entire digital infrastructure” of courts was “broken for days”.

@BarristerSecret added,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In the Spectator, Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers, said,

“Nobody seems to know exactly what has gone wrong or, if they do, they do not like to say.”

His Spectator blog was headlined,

The Spectator – 24 Jan 2019

 

 

“The most irritating fault has been for a few days the near total seizure (or ‘major service degradation’ to use the official non-explanation) of the secure email system (‘CJSM’) which for several years now has been the only authorised means of written communication between the Crown Prosecution Service and defence lawyers, probation, prisons, police and others.”

The Law Society Gazette said,

Law Society Gazette – 22 Jan 2019

 

 

 

The Law Society Gazette gave examples of how the problems had caused disruption and angst in the criminal justice system. It said,

“Major disruption that affected multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems last week continues to cause chaos.

“Lawyers on the front line have told the Gazette that trials have been delayed, jurors have been unable to enrol and practitioners have been prevented from confirming attendance that will enable them to get paid.

“Last week the ministry’s digital and technology team said most systems were improving. However, the Gazette has spoken to practitioners whose experiences suggest otherwise.”

A criminal barrister who spent the day in Leicester Crown Court said  none of the court’s computer systems was operational, jurors could not be enrolled, and no advocates could sign into the Ministry of Justice’s XHIBIT system, an online service that logs lawyers’ attendance so they can get paid.

A lawyer at Lincoln Crown Court said the XHIBIT system was down again. The Crown Court Digital Case System, on which all cases are accessed, was also down.

A criminal defence solicitor arrived at Highbury Magistrates’ Court in London at 9.15am, where there were several clients in the cells. But jailers did not know which courts the cases would be heard in and  because there was no wi-fi in the building magistrates had no access to any papers on their ipads before the hearings.

“The Gazette was told that several people attended Scarborough Magistrates’ Court last week to make statutory declarations in respect of driving matters. ‘Most of these people had come suited and booted, with all the anxiety that marks ordinary members of the public out as different from the frequent flyers who regularly come before the courts.

“These poor souls were left hanging around all morning, until 1pm, when they were advised that the systems were still not back up. Two of them agreed to come back on an adjourned date, 14 days later, but one of them explained that he couldn’t take further time off work. He was asked to come back in the afternoon, in the vain hope that the case management system might be back online.”

Former government chief technology officer Andy Beale quoted The Times in a tweet,

 

 

 

In another tweet, Beale said,

 

 

 

The Guardian reported yesterday (28 January 2019) that the Ministry of Justice knew its court computer systems were “obsolete” and “out of support” long before the network went into meltdown, internal documents have revealed.

The MoJ document, entitled Digital & Technology, said, “Historical under-investment in ageing IT systems has built our technical debt to unacceptable levels and we are carrying significant risk that will result in a large-scale data breach if the vulnerabilities are exploited.”

It added, “We have a Technology 2022 strategy, but it is not funded to help us address the long-term issues with current systems and allow us to make best use of new technologies to improve service delivery.”

It referred to a database used by 16 employment tribunal administrative offices in which the “scale of outage” accounted for 33% of incidents over the previous six months. Users were unable to access systems for a “significant number of hours”.

The report cited problems such as “risk of database corrupted leading to data loss; unable to restore service in a timely manner”, and added: “Judges say they will put tribunal activity on hold because of the poor running of the application.”

Government response

In the Commons, the government’s justice minister Lucy Frazer, responding to an urgent Labour request for a statement on the IT problems, was relaxed in her comments. She said the disruption was “intermittent” and the problems were merely “frustrating”. She added,

“The issue that has arisen relates mainly to email systems. There has been minimal disruption, I am told, to the courts system as a whole.”

She said there had been an “infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre”.

“The Prison Service has not been affected and—to correct inaccurate reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result of the problem. We have been working closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get our systems working again, and yesterday we had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest ones.

“Today (23 January 2019), 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and we expect the remainder of the court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full.

“This afternoon, the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary. I am very grateful to all our staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve the issues.”

Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi asked if Microsoft and Atos have paid any penalties to which Frazer gave a vague, non-committal reply,

“… the permanent secretary is meeting the supplier’s chief executive this afternoon and of course we will look carefully at the contracts, which include penalty clauses.”

Frazer later said the problem related to a “server” which raised questions about how the failure of a single server, or servers, could cause widespread chaos in the courts.

Labour’s Steve McCabe said the server problem was not a  single or unusual event.

“… her Department has been receiving reports of failures in the criminal justice secure email service for at least six months now”.

Police systems

The BBC reported last week that problems with a police IT system were causing some criminals to escape justice.

Nine forces in England and Wales use Athena from Northgate Public Services. They are Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia. The system is designed to help speed up the detection of crimes.

But officers told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that it crashes regularly and is overly complicated, meaning some cases are not built in time or dropped.

Developers Northgate Public Services apologised for problems “in small areas”, which it said it was fixing.

A joint response from nine police forces said Athena – which has cost £35m over the past 10 years – had been “resilient and stable, although no system is perfect”.

The system was introduced following a government directive for forces to share intelligence after the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in 2002.

Officers said the intelligence-sharing function works well but problems arise when they use the system to build cases for the Crown Prosecution Service.

The delays it causes means officers can struggle to get the information together in time to charge suspects or the cases are not up to a high-enough standard and are dropped.

Serving officers at Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex told the programme the process could now take up to twice as long.

The BBC did not name any officers who revealed details of the problems because they could face disciplinary action for speaking out. Their comments included:

  • “The first two weeks it (the system) was brought in were the worst two weeks of my entire career. It’s overly bureaucratic. It doesn’t understand the police investigative process at all. From day one, it malfunctioned. Four years on, it is still malfunctioning”
  • “It often requires information that is totally irrelevant and if you miss just one data entry point (like whether a solicitor is male or female), I have to reject the whole case and send it back to the officer”
  • “Even for a simple shoplift, I probably have to press about 50 buttons, with a 30-second minimum loading time between each task”
  • “There have been incidents where charges have been dropped because of the inadequacies of the system. There have been cases of assaults, albeit fairly minor assaults, but these are still people who should be facing criminal charges”
  • “It slows the whole criminal justice system down. At the moment, it is not fit for purpose. This is the most challenging time I have come across. We’re at breaking point already. This has pushed some officers over the edge”
  • “When you’ve got detainees in a custody block who’ve got various illnesses and ailments, medical conditions that are all recorded on there and they need medication at certain times – it became very dangerous because we were unable to access the records”

The nine forces – which also include those in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia – said in a joint statement that they had been working with the supplier to identify and correct issues as they arose.

“Over the 12 months up to November 2018, there have only been 72 hours of total downtime and there are detailed plans in place of how to manage business when this occurs.”

Northgate Public Services, which created Athena, said 40,000 officers accessed the system and benefited from improved criminal intelligence.

It said it was working to make improvements to the “complex system”.

“We recognise there are a small number of areas of the solution where improvements can be made and we apologise for any difficulties this has caused.

“We are working hard with the customer and other parties to make these improvements as a priority.”

Comment:

As @BarristerSecret said,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In central and local government, accountability means suppliers sometimes have to pay small penalties. Outsourcing supplier Capita last year paid Barnet Council about £4.2m in compensation for poor performance.

It was a fraction of the hundreds of millions Capita has received from Barnet Council.

Sometimes the opposite happens and it is the supplier that wins money from the government after a failure.

The Home Office sacked Raytheon over problems on an e-borders IT systems and ended up paying Raytheon £224m in compensation.

The Department of Heath ended up paying Fujitsu hundreds of millions of pounds after the supplier’s contract to deliver systems under the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was ended.

A major failure in one area of the public sector will not  stop or deter officials from awarding the same supplier a major contract in the same or another part of the public sector.

Were a major failure or legal dispute to preclude a supplier from bidding for further UK public sector work, most if not all major suppliers would today have little UK government business.

A solution?

There is an effective way to encourage IT suppliers and the public sector to avoid public service failures. But the senior civil service isn’t interested.

That solution would be to publish – after every major public services failure – a full, independent third-party report into what went wrong and why.

Some senior officials seem unruffled by public criticism or even contempt after a services failure. But particularly in some of the major departments, there is a high-level fear of the full truth emerging after an administrative disaster.  Departments would do almost anything to avoid IT-related failures if reports on the causes were routinely published.

But unless there is a Parliamentary or public clamour for such internal analyses to be published, they will remain hidden or uncommissioned.

When the National Audit Office publishes a report on a departmental failure, the report has usually been agreed and signed off by the department; and it is usually a one-off report.

When public services descend into chaos, as happened in the court service last week, immense pressure falls on the IT teams to restore normal services urgently. But without the routine publication of reports on major IT-related public service failures, where is the motivation for senior officials to avoid chaos in the first place?

House of Commons debate on the courts’ IT failures

Thank you to Celina Bledowska for her tweet alerting me to the criminal justice IT problems.

“I had no reason to doubt the integrity of the Post Office, given the Governmental involvement.”

By Tony Collins

For nearly 10 years, mystified sub-postmasters have been prosecuted or pursued for money on the basis of information provided by the centrally-run Horizon branch accounting system.

Horizon is run centrally by Fujitsu, in conditions of tight security. Performance data is confidential. Proving that the system has not always performed as expected has proved difficult.  The Post Office has declined to release the log of known errors.

That is set to change. Computer Weekly‘s Karl Flinders, who has reported for years on the Horizon system and the sub-postmasters’ campaign for justice, says thousands of known errors on Horizon are due to be disclosed.

The disclosure is one of the requirements of High Court hearings in which more than 500 sub-postmasters are suing the Post Office for damages and compensation. The sub-postmasters say they were made to pay for shortfalls  that were not real losses but were the result of technical glitches.

The Post Office trusted Horizon’s “evidence”; and its actions led to hundreds of sub-postmasters losing their livelihoods and some their house and marriage. One sub-postmistress, Fiona Cowan,  died from an overdose.  And former sub-postmaster Julian Wilson died while campaigning for justice.

In general Horizon has been regarded as reliable.  It is used successfully in thousands of post offices every working day.

No computer system is 100% dependable though, especially one that has a multiplicity of networked components and has been  patched, modified and updated countless times over more than a decade. The system is also subject to the local post office’s networking idiosyncrasies

Karl Finders’ excellent article on the Post Office’s Known Errors Log is here.

Another campaigning journalist Nick Wallis, who is covering the High Court hearings, reports this week on a former sub-postmaster Helen Walker.

She signed a contract to run a local post office without seeing the full contract.

“I not have sight of the full contract before signing a document saying that I agreed to what was in the full, unseen contract. I was told that this was ‘normal Post Office Practice’ and would receive the full version once my Post Office had opened. Having previously worked indirectly for the Government as a teacher and Council Officer, I felt I had no reason to doubt the integrity of the Post Office, given the Governmental involvement. How naïve I was.”

The contract held her liable for losses shown n the Horizon system.

When her post office opened its doors to customers, Horizon proved, for her, unimpressive.

“Horizon was perpetually unreliable, with both tills ‘freezing’, sometimes several times a day. There was also fault on the phone line that has interfered with the tills from day one of my taking over the counter.

“Despite my pleas to various departments for this problem to be looked at, they never sent anyone out to investigate. I later discovered that everything apart from the lottery terminal had been plugged into the same BT line.

“I established that the two Horizon terminals, the Paystation and the telephone were all using one line via domestic phone ’splitters’. Even the alarm system may have been using this same line, as I was not aware of any other line used for this purpose.

“This would explain why our tills froze for several minutes every time the telephone rang…”

Helen wrote a letter sent to her contracts manager on 7 August 2017.

“…As a whole, I have to say that I expected a better level of overall support from Post Office, and have been left on hold by the Helpline for up to 40 minutes at a time on more than one occasion. I did not expect that my liability for any losses would be determined by a computer system that often produces out of sync statements of the money it expects us to have in the till and the safe…”

Comment:

After a High Court trial that costs millions of pounds, the judge could decide that the Post Office was entitled to do what it did.

But what is lawful is not always right.

It was lawful at one point to take legal action against married women who tried to own their own property or sign their own contract. Taking action against them was obviously wrong.

It was lawful at one point to imprison journalists who reported on the proceedings of Parliament. Taking action against them was obviously wrong.

Post Office officials will know what the law entitles them to do.  But where  is their humanity?

They always had the discretion not to prosecute or pursue sub-postmasters for money. They now have the discretion to stop the High Court case. Do they have the humanity to do so?

Nick Wallis has published Helen’s full story, written in her own words, on his blog postofficetrial.com.

Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed 

 

Businessman whose wife died from overdose has joined group legal action against the Post Office

By Tony Collins

The Post Office does not comment on individual cases. Its general position is that people who own and run local offices under contract to the Post Office take responsibility for any deficits shown on the Horizon  branch accounting system.

Fiona Cowan had such a deficit,. With a friend, she ran a local post office that her businessman husband Phil had bought in Edinburgh. They owned the local post office site but ran it under contract to the Post Office.

After the deficit appeared, the post office was closed and Fiona was asked how soon she could repay £30,000.

Phil asked if there could be a glitch in the Horizon system. He says he was told that, if so, it would be the only sub post office in the country to have such a problem.

Fiona was charged with false accounting. With no post office, the retail side of their post office business dwindled and Phil sold up at a substantial loss. The Post Office took £30,000 out of a redundancy offer.

Fiona, who suffered from on and off bouts of depression, died of an accidental overdose. She was 47.

Now Forecourt Trader has published an article saying that Phil Cowan has joined the group legal action against the post office.

Phil was quoted as saying, “She [Fiona] went to her grave with this criminal charge hanging over her.”

Forecourt Trader reports that the Post Office did not tell the Cowans that the charges had been  dropped.  Phil subsequently joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance which, with solicitors Freeths, brought a group action against the Post Office.

An initial High Court judgment in the case is due later this month.

The FT reported last year that the Post Office dismissed Deirdre Connolly, a sub-postmistress, after an apparent shortfall of £15,600. The alleged deficit was found during an unannounced branch audit.

The FT said that, out of fear, Connolly made up the apparent loss with help from relatives. The Post Office did not prosecute. Her son later attempted suicide, which she attributed to his witnessing the stress she was under.

In 2015 the Daily Mail reported on Martin Griffiths, a sub-postmaster from Chester, who stepped in front of a bus one morning in September 2013.

An inquest heard that Griffiths, 59, was being pursued by the Post Office over an alleged shortfall of tens of thousands of pounds.

The Post Office reached a settlement with his widow and required the terms of it to be kept confidential.

A group legal action by about 560 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses against the Post Office is likely to continue for years if the case goes to appeal. The Post Office has set aside at least £5m in legal fees to fight the case.

It is thought that the Post Office has warned its shareholder – the government – that the legal fees could, ultimately, run into tens of millions of pounds.

The Post Office has said repeatedly that its Horizon system is extremely robust and operates over its entire Post Office network and successfully records millions of transactions each day.

Thank you to journalist Nick Wallis whose Tweet alerted me to the Forecourt Trader article. Wallis is crowdfunded to cover the group legal action in the High Court. He has written extensively on the trial, as has Karl Flinders of Computer Weekly.

Forecourt Trader article on Phil and Fiona Cowan

FT reports on a death following Horizon system shortfall

Another MoD IT-based project in trouble – same old, same old

By Tony Collins

A 43-page report obtained by The Times says that a Ministry of Defence IT network modernisation programme that provides “mission critical” services is about £210m over budget and more than two years late.

The global connectivity programme underpins almost every significant information service used by the MoD.

In 2015 Fujitsu announced that it had won a five-year contract worth more than £550m to provide core global connectivity services.  It was one of two contracts that would “bring savings of £1bn which will be directly reinvested by the MoD in defence capability”.

Fujitsu said at the time (2015),

“The new network will underpin the delivery of current and emerging MoD services both in the UK and overseas. The Fujitsu solution replaces Defence Fixed Telecommunications Service (DFTS) and the LAN services provided by the ATLAS Consortium, with a modern, agile and robust set of network (LAN/WLAN and WAN) services designed to improve service levels and align to the new ways of working demanded by the modern users wherever they operate.”

But a 28% cost overrun is forecast and the project is 26 months behind schedule. The report noted that “cost and time overruns could well worsen”, said The Times.

A race is on to ensure that key networks stay online beyond June, when BT’s contract ends. An extension to the original contract is likely.

The MoD ordered the review by Actica Consulting and PA Consulting last autumn. It identified 66 factors that contributed to the problems and noted that there was no evidence that these had been eliminated. 

It appears from Army IT contractors and the report that the problems have been caused, in the main, by the MoD’s changing specifications.

The Times said that MoD officials were accused of a “failure to understand what is mission- critical”. The report said, “To be clear: current military operations would cease without the network services that the programme is replacing. These services are mission critical.” The authors said of the programme’s services: “Without it the MoD cannot operate. This, however, appears to have been overlooked at key points.”

 Problems were identified early but “permitted to persist until time pressures had become critical”. Other problems included senior team “overstretch” and a “failure of leadership to listen to ‘real world’ technical realities”.

 An MoD spokesman told The Times, “Maintaining a modern military network that is fit for the future and can withstand intensifying cyberthreats is complex but we are already implementing our plan for the way forward.

 “There will be no interruption to network services during this transition and no operations will be at risk.”

Thank you to openness campaigner David Orr for alerting me to The Times’ article.

Comment:

The MoD has a history of failed IT-based projects and programmes. Its multi-billion pound Defence Information Infrastructure was described at one point as an “unmitigated disaster“.

More recently, the MoD hired Capita to provide an army recruitment system that proved disastrous.

Now a Fujitsu IT network modernisation programme that provides “mission critical” services is about £210m over budget, is more than two years late and the problems have not been eliminated.

It’s tempting to blame the failures on the MoD’s age-old convention of awarding oversized contracts to the same old major suppliers.

But MoD IT-based project failures recur for the same reason governments and the public sector generally continue to have major project failures: civil and public servants – and contractors – work in a bubble. They have no fear of the consequences of failure.

In the private sector,  directors care and sometimes worry about the bottom line. In the public sector there is nothing to worry about. Protected from outside scrutiny or even individual identification, senior civil and public servants  have no real accountability.

Success or failure, departmental leaders always get their knighthoods.

If the MoD had to publish progress reports on its major IT-based programmes things would be different. Departments are untroubled by failure. They are bothered by publicised failure. Senior civil servants do not welcome justified bad publicity.

If the MoD had to publish its progress reports on the Fujitsu contract, its senior officials would have an incentive to avoid failure.

As things stand, there is no incentive or disincentive to avoid failure. They have no reason to care, particularly if close to retirement.

Francis Maude, when he was Cabinet Office minister, tried to introduce accountability and openness. Once he left, things went back to normal. The Whitehall bubble re-emerged.

Thus, continued IT-related disasters at the MoD and within the public sector are inevitable and eternal. Why would Whitehall officials try hard to avoid them?

Do some councils serve their own officials and councillors better than they serve the public?

By Tony Collins

Increasing numbers of local government and NHS officials are paying themselves salaries of £100,000 upwards, and some more than £500,000, but competence in handling public money appears to be diminishing.

Today, the outgoing head of the National Audit Office Amyas Morse expresses “shock”. He said,

“I am shocked by the persistent high level of qualified audit reports at local public bodies.

“A qualification is a judgement that something is seriously wrong, but despite these continued warnings, the number of bodies receiving qualifications is trending upwards.

“Let us hear no cries of ‘where were the auditors?’ when things go wrong. The answer will be ‘they did the job, but you weren’t listening’.

“This is not good enough; local bodies need to address their weaknesses, and departments across government should ensure they are challenging local bodies to demonstrate how they are responding.”

Today’s National Audit Office report “Local auditor reporting in England 2018″ says that the number of NHS and local government bodies with significant weaknesses in their arrangements for delivering value for money for taxpayers is “unacceptably high and increasing”.

The report makes no comparison between how well or badly NHS and council organisations are run in comparison with the salaries paid but it makes a point of saying that there are no consequences for councils and other public bodies of having a poor grip on how they spend public money.

Says the National Audit Office,

“There is no direct consequence of receiving a ‘non-standard’ report from a local auditor.

“While departments responsible for the oversight of local bodies may intervene in connection with an issue, such as failure to meet expenditure limits, there are no formal processes for reporting publicly whether bodies are tackling these issues.

“Departments use information from local auditors’ reports to differing extents to inform their understanding of the issues local bodies are facing, but they also need to be able to challenge local bodies to demonstrate that they are taking appropriate action where necessary.

“Given increasing financial and demand pressures on local bodies, they need to take prompt and effective action to strengthen their arrangements and improve their performance when issues are raised.

“The proportion of bodies with insufficient plans for keeping spending within budget or who have significant weaknesses in their governance, is too high.

“This is a risk to public money and undermines confidence in how well local services are managed. Local auditors need to exercise the full range of their additional reporting powers, especially where they consider that local bodies are not taking sufficient action.”

Comment

Anyone who reads the National Audit Office latest findings together with the numerous reports about poorly-run council IT-based outsourcing deals, including ones at Somerset County Council and Barnet Council, and an IT-related fraud involving Barnet council that was spotted by chance,  is entitled to ask: are some council officers and councillors serving themselves better than local communities?

Alongside amounting evidence of poor decision-making – or worse – in local government and the corporate NHS, there is a general lack of openness and, as the National Audit Office points out, widespread failures to act diligently on auditor findings.

Council taxes are rising, spending on important local services is diminishing yet the amounts paid to layers of senior management at councils and within the NHS and NHS England are rising without any link to competent decision-making.

For the most part, top officials cannot be fired. Their jobs are not appraised or at risk as they would be in the private sector.   Indeed some councils change senior job titles regularly and increase the salaries they pay themselves.

There is no sign of austerity when it comes to the pay of departmental leaders in local government.

Published figures indicate that at least 2,500 council officials were paid more than £100,000 each last year — and about 500 of them grossed in excess of £150,000, more than the prime minister earns.

The number whose total remuneration was in six figures has also risen. A report by the Taxpayers’ Alliance found that 16 local government CEOs received more than £300,000 and four grossed in excess of £500,000 in 2016-17.

All of which raises the question in the headline of this post: do some councils serve their own officials and councillors better than the public?

Local government officers defend their pay levels by saying that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

But some primates with large brains work remarkably well in their local communities. Do council departmental chiefs on unjustifiably large salaries always work well for their local communities? Or do they serve their own interests rather better than they serve the public?

Local auditor reporting in England – NAO report

 

Two contrasting New Year stories: an honour for Post Office CEO and misery for a former sub-postmistress

The Post Office says it is delighted to announce that its Group Chief Executive, Paula Vennells, has been awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours list.

The citation accompanying her honour recognises her work for the Post Office and away from it. She is an ordained minister in three local communities, a trustee of the Hymns Ancient and Modern charity, which supports hundreds of smaller charities, and she is committed to a number of other voluntary causes.

Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “This is well deserved recognition for Paula, who has led the turnaround of Post Office Ltd with great skill, passion and determination.

“She cares deeply about the business, its people and its customers, and it is wonderful to see her commitment and success marked in this way. On behalf of everyone at Post Office I send her my warmest congratulations.”

Paula Vennells said: “I am delighted to be receiving this honour. It is a privilege to lead a business that matters to people as much as the Post Office does; in truth, this honour is recognition of the hard work and commitment of so many colleagues across the organisation.”

Paula Vennells has worked for Post Office Limited since 2007 in a number of senior roles, including managing director, becoming chief executive in 2012. She is a non-executive director of Morrisons.

A contrasting New Year’s story – “I am broken”

Another New Year’s story is about Wendy Martin, who ran the Crichton Lane Post Office in York until December 2017.

She is more than £30,000 in debt, suffers anxiety attacks and has been diagnosed with depression. For this, she blames her ordeal while running the local Post Office.

Her tells her story on a blog run by campaigning journalist Nick Wallis who, with crowdfunding, is covering a High Court case in which hundreds of former sub-postmasters are seeking compensation and damages from the Post Office.

Wendy Martin says she is an “empty shell” – not the same person she was  four years ago.

“I am on a waiting list for post-traumatic stress counselling. Even saying that doesn’t sound right. I am not a soldier. I should not need counselling. I was a postmistress working in a post office. I am destroyed both inside and out.

“I started out my career working in an accountants and became a credit controller, but I never really knew what I wanted to do with my life until I found a job in my local post office in February 1999.” She worked at various post offices until she ran one in York.

For a refurbishment of the branch, she borrowed from her family and £22,000 from the bank. She also ploughed her life savings into the branch. “I was stupid. I thought I was securing my future.”

After the refurbishment, which included changes to the communication lines, problems with the Horizon branch accounting computer system began. Horizon is run centrally by Fujitsu under contracts with the Post Office.

“Each day when I checked my cash I had massive discrepancies, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

“You could input the same figures and the discrepancy would alter each time. We were experienced staff and each one of us could not balance our tills. We kept getting told Horizon was not causing our problems…

“I knew Horizon was the problem. I could not believe what they were telling me. To make matters worse they kept closing my case and refusing to send anybody…

“The worry and stress was killing us and we were getting no help from the Post Office …

“I could not even go to the doctors as I spent each day fighting at work and each night phoning and sending emails trying to rectify my problems.”

She closed the local post office in December 2016. “I could no longer deal with the stress. The Post Office responded by keeping my last three months remuneration which amounted to nearly £7,000. They still say I owe them more than £8,000. I am broken. My credit is ruined as I owe more than £30,000 which I cannot repay as I have no income.”

Her health has suffered, her relationship with her partner has broken down, she is awaiting counselling, is in debt and is struggling to find work.

“It has been just over a year since I closed and I still feel exhausted. I am out of fight. I am still shocked by lack of press coverage and lack of concern by the government who own this institution.

“I am still hopeful this will change. I am not alone. Hundreds of postmasters are like me. I hope the Post Office will be brought to account soon.”

The Post Office told Nick Wallis it does not comment on individual cases but its legal position, as explained in court during the recent “common issues” trial, is that what happens in a branch is the postmaster’s responsibility.

Problems with Horizon have to be proved by individual sub-postmasters. The Post Office says that Horizon’s general reliability means that the Post Office can safely assume it is reliable unless a subpostmaster proves otherwise. It has no contractual obligation to investigate its own computer system.

Comment

Paula Vennells is not responsible for the problems suffered by individual former sub postmasters but as the successful Post Office CEO, whose work is recognised in the New Years Honours List, she may have the ability to influence the Post Office’s decision on whether to settle a High Court case that involves hundreds of former sub- postmasters and sub-mistresses whose lives have been ruined.

Some MPs regard the injustices suffered by the sub-postmasters as a national scandal. Paula Vennells has more influence than most within the Post Office. She could try and persuade her board and the Post Office’s lawyers to settle.

A settlement would not end the misery for sub-postmasters whose health has been affected and whose relationships have broken down.

But it would be the right thing to do.

Nick Wallis’s High Court trial blog

 

Capita: where are the apologies?

By Tony Collins

“The current [recruitment] system is outrageous” – army officer

“A catalogue of failure, lost files and incorrect decisions” – MrReasonable.

A British Army officer told the BBC last week that it took him 16 months from applying to join the army to swearing his oath to the Queen.

Asking to remain anonymous, he said: “The current [recruitment] system is outrageous.”

He was referring to Capita’s £495m contract to supply software and manage the recruitment process for the British Army. The National Audit Office criticised the contract in a report published on Friday.

The army officer said, “Fortunately I’m now in my first term of training but it’s not just the wait times – they make critical errors.”

He described how some close friends had been told they could not do the job they wanted for medical reasons, despite being told a month before they had the all-clear.

“Recently one friend got told they couldn’t become an engineer because their colour perception wasn’t up to the desired standard. They later found out this was an mistake in Capita’s own system. Her eyesight was at the correct grade all along.”

A former employee of Capita got in touch with the BBC and was “ashamed” at having worked on the team responsible for the Army recruitment website.

“I didn’t last long because I could see pretty quickly it was doomed to fail,” he said.

Problems from “day one”

James Tyson applied to join the British Army in 2017.

“The website looked clean and modern, so I felt reassured when it first began but there was delay after delay, starting with my education certificates.

“I have a background in sales and I am quite pushy, so I would chase and chase to get problems sorted, but it would take around a month for a response from anyone and it was a different person dealing with your inquiry each time.

“I didn’t realise it was Capita and just thought the Ministry of Defence was an utter shambles.”

Then Capita and the British Army lost James’ data and said he would have to set up a new online account to update his details.

“I had done everything they asked,” he said, “I couldn’t believe it.”

After 18 months of frustration, he turned his back on the process and got another job.

“It felt as if I had given up on a dream,” he said. “I had always had an idea of what my life would be like and had never stopped imagining it.

“I had told all of my family and friends of my plans as I was proud to talk about it, but that meant I felt not only had I failed, I had let them down.”

Still waiting to join

Chloe Burdett wanted to join the British Army as an intelligence officer to make use of  her photography degree. But six months on from starting her application, using Capita’s recruitment system, she is still waiting to join.

“I started my application in June and that first bit seemed quite easy, but almost every day I am being asked to fill out a different form,” she said.

“There was one for how many piercings you have, one for how many tattoos you have… then you get phone calls from so many different people, with some just asking if I am still interested. It’s tiring.”

It took her almost four months to get her GP to send over her medical records, and when they did, the Army lost them, so she started the process again.

She has found another job in the meantime to pay the bills.  She said she can see why people give up applying to join the army.

Comment:

Problems with the British Army’s recruitment system are by no means all Capita’s fault.

But when the directors of a major outsourcing company know that their employees’ work could have a direct impact on people’s lives, they have a special responsibility to understand during the bidding process the scale and complexity of the work they are planning to undertake.

Suppliers can withdraw from the bidding if they believe the customer is not ready or has not fully understood the size and complexity of the work that will be undertaken as part of the contract.

It’s too easy for suppliers to accept the contract and, when it all goes wrong say, in essence, “It wasn’t our fault”.

Indeed, the usual resp0nse of IT suppliers to a critical report of the National Audit Office is to say, “Things have improved now”, as if this justifies the damage to lives caused in the past.

A corporate apology that shows some humility would make no difference to the people whose lives have been affected but it could send a message
that says, “This is a contract in which we have done what we were asked to do although we have a deep concern that things still went wrong”.

Where is there any sign of Capita’s deep concern? Where is an apology?

Cervical screening

Capita was also defensive on its £330m contract with NHS England to provide GP support services.

Last week the Guardian reported that Capita’s failure over cervical screening letters was more extensive than thought. It said that “doctors call for firm to lose [GP support] contract as number of women affected exceeds 50,000”.

Another 3,591 women were not sent information on cervical screening as a result of errors by Capita, NHS England said.

Last month, it emerged that 47,708 women did not receive a smear test invitation, reminder or results between January and June because of Capita’s failure to send out letters.

Last Wednesday, NHS England said the number had risen to more than 50,000 after a review uncovered more correspondence from last year that was not sent.

In response, Capita said about half of the newly identified cases related to test results, but only a small proportion were abnormal result letters. It said those women had received a referral and there was no evidence of any harm resulting from its mistake.

Capita said a senior executive responsible for the contract had left the company. But the Royal College of GPs told The Guardian that Capita had lost the trust of NHS workers.

There was no apology.

Last week it also emerged that Capita “wholeheartedly refutes” the conclusions of a report by Grant Thornton into financial controls in a contract between Capita and Barnet Council.

Again, no apology for an internal fraud that was spotted almost by accident and which led to the council and local taxpayers spending tens of thousands of pounds on an investigation into how it happened.

It is clear in all of these Capita-related contracts that the fault has been partly, and perhaps mainly, with the British Army, NHS England and Barnet Council for not fully understanding what they were doing when they signed the contracts with Capita.

Where are their apologies?

 

British Army and Capita – BBC News

Mr Reasonable

Cervical screening and Capita – The Guardian

Capita “wholeheartedly refutes” findings of Grant Thornton report 

Thank you to FOI campaigner David  Orr for his help on this article.

 

 

Two separate Capita contracts in the news this week

By Tony Collins

  • Capita “wholeheartedly refutes” findings of independent report on aspects of its contracts with Barnet Council
  • National Audit Office criticises Capita’s contract with the British Army. Lessons from many past IT-related project failures not learned

Barnet Council

It’s rare for strongly-worded criticisms by a major IT outsourcing supplier on any subject to come into the public domain. This week Barnet Council published the full version of a report by Grant Thornton on financial controls in Capita’s contracts with Barnet Council.

Full disclosure of the report, which includes Capita’s criticism of the report,  follows freedom of information requests. The council had already published the report in limited form.

In its written response to the Grant Thornton report, Capita says it “wholeheartedly refutes the conclusions of this highly caveated and limited report”.

It says the report’s conclusions regarding financial controls across the council and Capita’s CSG and DRS contracts with Barnet have

“not been independently verified, are not underpinned by clear evidence, and in many instances seem to be based on opinion and hearsay”.

Grant Thornton had criticised:

  • a lack of effective review controls that resulted in a Capita employee being able to request 62 inappropriate payments to personal bank accounts. 
  • a lack of effective review of journal amendments that enabled fraudulent costs to be concealed on the ledger.
  • the “overall financial control environment” which was “not sufficiently robust to ensure that financial control weaknesses were actively identified and mitigated as part of business as usual.”

Grant Thornton also criticised the council’s lack of effective oversight of Capita’s outsourcing contracts.

Barnet’s local bloggers drew the Capita statement to public attention, particularly Barnet Eye.  Another authoritative local blogger Mr Reasonable tweeted on Capita’s statement.

The full Grant Thornton report and Capita statement is here.

Comment:

In its statement, Capita said it accepted that “this case” highlighted failings which “we have worked in partnership with the council to overcome”. It adds that “all the actions raised as a result have already been delivered by Capita and are in the process of being audited”.

But can we be sure Capita will learn from all the failings that Grant Thornton identifies given that it is scathing about Grant Thornton’s report?

We don’t often see a major IT company criticising an independent report commissioned by one of its clients.  Perhaps Capita has grounds for criticising Grant Thornton’s report. Or is Capita being extraordinarily defensive and acting like a company that cannot take criticism?

It is in Capita’s financial interests to have a reputation in the marketplace for accepting – and acting on – constructive criticisms. Throwing words at someone who criticises you is best left to the playground.

British Army

In a report published today (14 December 2018) the National Audit Office has criticised the British Army and its contractor Capita.

The British Army Recruiting Partnering Project was intended to cut the costs of recruiting soldiers and officers. The Army committed £1.36bn to the project over 10 years and agreed to pay Capita £495m for the company’s expertise in recruitment and marketing.

The National Audit Office said,

“Capita has missed the Army’s targets for recruiting new soldiers and officers every year since 2013. The total shortfall each year has ranged from 21% to 45% of the Army’s requirement.”

A core part of the Project was online recruitment but the MoD “failed in its contractual obligation to provide Capita with the necessary IT infrastructure to enable this”.

In January 2014, the MoD passed responsibility for developing the online system to Capita but the complexity of the Army’s requirements delayed system development. The online system was launched four years (52 months) later than originally planned, at a cost of £113m – triple its original budget.

Technical problems continued after the launch. Applicants had difficulties using the system and staff found it hard to process applications. The Army estimates it had 13,000 fewer applications because of the problems.

Capita, and not the Army, owns the online recruitment system. The Army has the right to modify and use it but it has not yet established whether it will be suitable in the future. After 2022, if the contract with Capita is not renewed, the Army will have to create a new system or negotiate a new support contract with Capita.

In April 2017, the Army agreed to lower Capita’s performance targets by 20%  but Capita continues to miss these lower targets for new recruits, said the National Audit Office.

Basic lessons not learned from countless major IT-based projects

The National Audit Office found that:

  •  the Army failed to simplify processes before the project started. This contributed to the long time it takes to complete applications. In 2017-18, 11% of applicants went on to join the Army, but 47% voluntarily dropped out of the process. [Simplifying working process before implementing new IT is a basic lesson from countless past IT-related project disasters.]
  • there was inadequate testing before the recruitment system and some changed processes were implemented
  • the Army cut costs before the project started. [Lessons from past projects have shown that spending on staff and centres need to be increased at the start of major new systems. NHS England cut costs and centres before and during Capita’s introduction of new systems to support GPs. The implementation was a failure.] The Army cut the number of local recruitment centres, from 131 to 68, at the start of the army recruitment project, preferring a more centralised and online approach. However, the Army and Capita realised that this approach did not provide applicants with sufficient support, and that face-to-face contact was crucial in encouraging applicants to join.”

The NAO said the Army has penalised Capita for missing its recruitment targets, applying financial service credit deductions of £26m, 6 per cent of Capita’s total contract payments.

In September 2016, the Army and Capita renegotiated the recruitment targets as the Army considered that there was little prospect of performance improving without agreeing to concessions.

In the last two years applications from potential soldiers and officers have increased but not the number of recruits. This is because of the time it takes to complete the recruitment process, said the National Audit Office. In the first six months of this year,

“Capita recruited only 2,400 regulars, compared to the Army’s target of 5,300…”

The recruitment project will not achieve its planned savings of £267m. The NAO found that the Army has not yet adjusted its forecast savings to take into account the additional people that continue to be involved in the recruitment process.

Comment

Why do senior civil servants, taxpayers  and the general public continue to  suffer the consequences of high-profile failures of IT-related projects and programmes?

The main reason is a simple one. It’s a reason no official report has ever highlighted. Not even the National Audit Office has mentioned it.

That reason is a Whitehall convention that internal and external progress reports on major IT-related projects and programmes are kept secret; therefore nobody knows a project is failing until it fails.

If internal and external reports on a project’s progress and problems were published, the media and armchair auditors would be able to draw attention to the difficulties long before they became manifest in wasted millions and/or a poor service to the public.

Mandarins are terrified of journalists. They give a host of plausible reasons for wanting to keep progress reports secret – such as wanting advisers to have a “safe space” to air candid views – but in reality the mandarins are frightened of having journalists scrutinise their actions and sometimes poor decisions.

But mandarins operate within protective walls that shield them from effective accountability. They know that if they ignore, shrug off or don’t acquaint themselves with the lessons from past project disasters they will not be held responsible. In the civil service, responsibility is shared and non-identifiable. Mandarins like it that way.

In the Brexit debate, a Whitehall convention prevented the government from publishing its legal advice. But Parliament overruled that convention. MPs voted to force the government to publish its legal advice, not just a summary. As a result the full legal advice was published; and journalism reacted by saying, “What was all the fuss about? Why the secrecy?”

If every department and agency published regularly their IT-related project progress reports, journalists whom mandarins are so terrified of would quickly lose interest. After a short time, the published progress reports would go unnoticed and unreported.

But the change in Whitehall would be dramatic. If mandarins were aware their projects were being scrutinised at regular intervals by journalists and armchair auditors, the mandarins would want to be seen to be learning lessons from past projects.

They would not want to be seen ignoring or shrugging off lessons by cutting costs before the new IT is implemented or by failing to simplify working practices before designing the IT.

And Whitehall’s report writers and advisers, far from withholding candid views in fear of a tabloid reaction from journalists, would want to reflect the true problems rather than have their competence questioned by ignoring or not noticing problems that would later become only too obvious.

Indeed we have seen from the National Audit Office’s disclosure from time to time of internal and external progress reports that the current convention of secrecy over progress reports is  worse than useless. It encourages advisers to be soft and chummy with their fellow civil servants. Often projects are given green or amber lights when a red light would be more appropriate.

Will Whitehall ever drop its convention of keeping reports on IT-based projects and programmes secret in the name of preventing more disasters?

Not unless it were forced to do so by a Parliamentary vote.

 

Are sub-postmasters generally happy with the Horizon system?

By Tony Collins

Since complaints of sub-postmasters about the Horizon branch accounting system were first published in 2009, the Post Office has said it is a reliable system used daily by thousands of people and complainants are few.

But, apart from the branch sub-postmasters who have made their concerns about Horizon known to the corporate Post Office, how many others are contented or dissatisfied with Horizon?

The BBC reported yesterday on a former sub-postmistress in Northern Ireland who said she sold her post office after problems with Horizon.

Fiona Elliott ran a  branch from 2004 to 2009. It was attached to a convenience store. She told the BBC,

“At the end of the night, it was telling me that I had maybe minus £80, minus £100 or maybe £120 down.”

She put £8,500 of her own money into the post office to balance the books.  “If the computer system had been balancing properly, I would not have had to put my own money into it.

“This left the shop side of the business struggling so we ended up selling the whole business.”

The Post Office told the BBC, “We have confidence in our network of 11,500 post office branches and the systems underpinning it.

“The Horizon computer system is operated successfully by thousands of employees, postmasters and their staff to process 47 million transactions every week.”

Another sub-postmaster’s Horizon response

Recently I asked a sub-postmaster about the Horizon system a few days before he and his wife sold their village post office.

The sub-postmaster knew me by sight as a regular customer. His post office had been on the market for several months. I spoke to him a few days before he passed it over to the new owners and asked why he was leaving. He did not look of retiring age. He said he did not like the hours and the opportunities to take short breaks were few and far between. He and his wife were going into a different line of work.

In a tone of voice that invited a positive response,  I asked what he thought of the Horizon system.  He was passionate in his criticism. He did not stop giving me his views about Horizon and its frequent updates (while shaking his head now and then) until another customer began queuing behind me.

Not a failure

Given that Horizon has been operating in thousands of post office branches for nearly 20 years and has coped with many major changes, the Post Office could say with authority that the Horizon system has not been a failure.

But is it generally reliable? And are sub-postmasters happy with it? In the absence of any published, authoritative and independent survey of sub-postmaster views, it is impossible to answer either question with any authority.

Ex sub-postmistress “wrongly had to repay 16k” – BBC

Postofficetrial