Tag Archives: Francis Maude

Whitehall renews facade of openness on major IT projects

By Tony Collins

Headlines yesterday on the state of major government IT projects were mixed.

Government Computing said,

“IPA: Whitehall major projects show ‘slow and steady’ delivery improvement”

Computer Weekly said,

“Government IT projects improving – but several still in doubt”

The Register said,

“One-quarter of UK.gov IT projects at high risk of failure – Digital borders, digital tax and raft of MoJ projects singled out”

The headlines were prompted by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s annual report which was published yesterday.

The report listed the RAG – red/amber/green – status of each of 143 major projects in the government’s  £455bn major projects portfolio. Thirty-nine of these are ICT projects, worth a total of £18.6bn.

Publication of the projects’ red/amber/green status – called the “Delivery Confidence Assessment” – seemed a sign that the government was being open over the state of its major IT and other projects.

A reversal of decades of secrecy over the progress or otherwise of major IT projects and programmes?

In a foreword to the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s report, two ministers referred twice to the government’s commitment to openness and accountability.

MP Caroline Nokes, Cabinet Office minister, and MP Andrew Jones, a Treasury minister, said in their joint foreword,

“The government is also committed to transparency, and to being responsive and accountable to the public we serve.

“Accordingly, we have collected and published this data consistently over the past five years, enabling us to track the progress of projects on the GMPP [Government Major Projects Portfolio] over time.

“We will continue to be responsive and accountable to the public.”

But the report says nothing about the current state of major IT projects. The delivery confidence assessments are dated September 2016. They are 10 months out of date.

This is because senior civil servants – some of whom may be the “dinosaurs” that former minister Francis Maude referred to last month – have refused to allow politicians to publish the red/amber/gtreen status of major projects (including the Universal Credit programme and the smart meters rollout) unless the information, when published, is at least six months old.

[Perhaps one reason is to give departmental and agency press officers an opportunity to respond to journalists’ questions by saying that the red, red/amber of amber status of a particular major project is out of date.]

Amber – but why?

An amber rating means that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist” though any problems “appear resolvable”.

In September 2016 the Universal Credit programme was at amber but we don’t know why. Neither the IPA or the Department for Work and Pensions mention any of the “issues”.

The £11bn smart meters rollout is also at amber and again we don’t know why. Neither the IPA nor the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy mention any of the “issues”. Permanent secretaries are allowed to keep under wraps the IPA’s reasons for the red/amber/green assessments.

Even FOI requests for basic project information have been refused.  Computer Weekly said,

“Costs for the Verify programme were also withheld from the IPA report, again citing exemptions under FOI.”

Comment

The senior civil servants who, in practice, set the rules for what the Infrastructure and Projects Authority can and cannot publish on major government projects and programmes are likely to be the “dinosaurs” that former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude referred to last month.

Maude said that Whtehall reforms require that new ministers “face down the obstruction and prevarication from the self-interested dinosaur tendency in the mandarinate.”

Clearly that hasn’t happened yet.

The real information about Universal Credit’s progress and problems will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Work and Pensions – but from local authoritities, housing associations, landlord organistions, charities and consumer groups such the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (which has called for Universal Credit to be halted), the local press, the National Audit Office and Parliamentary committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and Work and Pensions Committee.

On the smart meter rollout, the real information will come not from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority – or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – but from business journalist Paul Lewis, consumer advocate Martin Lewis, business organistions such as the Institute of Directors,  experts such as Nick Hunn, the Energy and Climate Change Committee and even energy companies such as EDF.

Much of this “real” information will almost certainly be denied by Whitehall press officers. They’ll be briefed by senior officials to give business journalists only selected “good news” facts on a project’s progress and costs.

All of this means that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority may have good advice for departments and agencies on how to avoid project failures – and its tact and deference will be welcomed by permanent secretaries – but it’s likely the IPA will be all but useless in providing early warnings to Parliament and the public of incipient project disasters.

Ministers and some senior civil servants talk regularly about the government’s commitment to openness and accountability. When it will start applying to major government IT projects?

 

UK.gov watchdog didn’t red flag any IT projects. And that alone should be a red flag to everyone

 

 

 

 

MPs suggest Cabinet Office is losing its grip on departments – but does it care?

By Tony Collins

The Register has an excellent piece by Kat Hall on how the Cabinet Office is losing its grip on Government departments.

Citing the annual report of the all-party Public Accounts Committee, Hall says there are issues where “departments repeatedly don’t do what they have been told or asked to do by the centre”.

An analysis by The Register found that

“government departments are winning significantly more exemptions to splash the cash on expensive IT projects since the departure of former Cabinet Office minister Francis “Mad Frankie” Maude last year”.

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier said: “After my second year as Chair I am increasingly concerned about the long-term accountability of senior civil servants.

“The game of musical chairs starts as one Permanent Secretary moves on and they all change jobs in the system. And few are in post long enough to have a vested interest in the long-term aims of their department or a project.

“And there is the age-old tension between a department and central Whitehall through the Cabinet Office.”

Universal Credit and HMRC’s plans to overhaul its Aspire IT contract – the biggest in Europe – were outlined as being two areas of concern. As was the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network.

“The Home Office seemed to downplay the risks to the contract and its being caught unawares by the contractor does not reassure us that the Department is on top of the contract or this project. This could cost the taxpayer dear,” it said.

Comment:

It’s hard to argue with a comment on Hall’s piece by @JagPatel3 who suggests that some in Whitehall are as preoccupied with spin as with the efficient delivery of public services.

“… Government is preoccupied with presentation, manipulation of words and the dark art of spinning – instead of working on its programme of reform to deliver public services efficiently, to satisfy the wants, needs and expectations of the electorate.

“The political imperative of needing to put a positive slant on everything the Government does or will do, irrespective of whether it is true or not, is the reason why spin has become the centrepiece of this Government’s communications strategy.

“And because Government has got a monopoly on inside information (enabling it to maintain extremely tight control), it uses spin to divert attention away from the key issues that really matter to citizens …

“the eagerness with which senior Civil Servants have complied with their political masters’ desire to see policy announcements framed around presentation and spin, at the expense of substance, would explain why their skills set has been narrowed down to this single, dark art.”

The commentator also says that the “intense focus of attention on presentation alone has resulted in a massive gap opening up between the leadership and lower ranks of the Civil Service, who have to deal with the reality of delivering public services on the ground, on a day-to-day basis, which has in itself, led to alienation and disaffection”.

A good summary. Many ordinary civil servants are doing the hard work of delivering public services while a few of their masters are preoccupied with keeping what they do secret and justifying or defending all else that is published in National Audit Office reports, other third-party reports or leaked emails.

It’s hardly surprising the Cabinet Office is losing control of departments. Since Maude’s departure it doesn’t want control. It has become clear that it wants, in a hassle-free way,  to continue with Sir Humphrey’s non-integrated approach to government.

The Cabinet Office is just another Whitehall department. Why would it want to be an “enforcer?”

Some officials “smuggle their often half-baked proposals past ministers” says Cabinet Office adviser who quits

By Tony Collins

Jerry Fishenden has resigned from the Cabinet Office‘s Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group after nearly six years. First he was its chairman and more recently co-chairman.

The Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group comprises privacy and security experts who give the government independent analysis and guidance on personal data and privacy initiatives by departments, agencies and other public sector bodies. This includes GOV.UK Verify.

The group’s advice has had the citizens’ interests in mind. But the group might have been seen by some Whitehall officials as having an open and frank “outsiders” culture.

Francis Maude, then Cabinet Office minister, helped to set up the group but he left in 2015 and none of his replacements has had a comparable willingness to challenge the civil service culture.

Maude welcomed the help of outsiders in trying to change the civil service.  He tried to bring down the costs of Government IT and sought to stop unnecessary or failing projects and programmes. He also wanted to end the “oligopoly” of a handful of large IT suppliers. But Maude’s initiatives have had little continuing support among some Whitehall officials.

Fishenden said in a blog post this week that Maude had wanted the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group to be a “critical friend” – a canary that could detect and help fix policy and technology issues before they were too far down the policy / Bill process.

“The idea was to try to avoid a repeat of previous fiascos, such as the Identity Card Act, where Whitehall generalists found themselves notably out of their depth on complex technical issues and left Ministers to pick up the pieces.”

He added that “since Francis Maude’s departure, there has been only one meeting” with subsequent Cabinet Office ministers.

“Without such backing, those officials who find the group’s expert reviews and analyses “challenging” have found it easier to ignore, attempting instead to smuggle their often half-baked proposals past Ministers without the benefit of the group’s independent assistance…

“Let’s just hope that after the election the value of the group will be rediscovered and government will breathe life back into the canary. Doing so would help realise Francis Maude’s original purpose – and bring significant benefits to us all, whether inside or outside of government.”

Comment

One of the Privacy and Consumer Group’s strengths has been its independent view of Government IT-related initiatives  – which is probably the main reason it has been marginalised.

Fishenden’s departure is further confirmation that since Maude’s departure, the Cabinet Office – apart from the Government Digital Service – has settled back into the decades-old Whitehall culture of tinkering with the system while opposing radical change.

While Whitehall’s culture remains unreformable, central government will continue to lose the best IT people from the private sector. Some of these include the former Government Digital Service executive director Mike Bracken, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who took over from Bracken, Janet Hughes, programme director of Verify,  Andy Beale, GDS’s chief technology officer, Paul Maltby, GDS’s director of data and former Whitehall chief information officers Joe Harley, Steve Lamey, Andy Nelson and Mark Dearnley.

The unfortunate thing is that a few powerful career civil servants, including some permanent secretaries, will be delighted to lose such outsiders.

Jerry Fishenden is simply the latest casualty of a civil service tradition that puts the needs of the department before those of the citizen.

It’s a culture that hasn’t changed for decades.

The canary that ceased to be – Jerry Fishenden’s blog on his departure

Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group

Large suppliers still dominate government IT

By Tony Collins

In 2012, the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, lamented the high costs of government IT and spoke of an “oligopoly” of large suppliers. He suggested things would change.

“… contracts were consistently awarded to a limited number of very large suppliers on long-term exclusive contracts.

“As a result there was inadequate competition and an abdication of control. The concept of having one supplier, aggregated supply, increased project risk and removed competitive tension.

“The Government repeatedly found itself paying large amounts for systems that were delivered late, over budget and which often did not fully meet the original policy requirement.  If indeed, they were delivered at all. There are plenty of well-documented disasters – such as DH’s now terminated National programme for IT.

“Ultimately, the last Government lost control of IT – it outsourced not only delivery, but its entire strategy and ability to shape the future of our public services.

“At the same time smaller, more innovative and efficient suppliers were finding themselves locked out of the supply of services to Government because of what was described by Parliament as a powerful “oligopoly” of large suppliers.

“Procurements took so long only the big companies could absorb the cost – which they naturally passed on to us.

“All in all, we had an approach that was bad for users, bad for the taxpayer and bad for growth.”

Public sector IT spending was up to £20bn a year, he said, adding that “public sector productivity was actually declining”.  He outlined how things were changing.

What has happened since?

A report published today by the National Audit “Digital Transformation in Government” raises a question of how much has changed.

Efforts to boost the SME share of government IT business “have had some impact”, says the National Audit Office, but it adds that “most government procurement with digital and technology suppliers continues to be with large organisations”.

“In 2015-16, 94% of such spending was with large enterprises, a fall of less than one percentage point since 2012-13.”

Today’s NAO report is mainly about the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service – GDS. It points out GDS’s strengths and weaknesses but in general does not give any advice on the sensitive point of whether it should have more or less influence on government IT.

On digital transformation, it says that the work of the NAO shows that attempts to transform government have had mixed success.

“Many public services appear increasingly unsustainable. Those responsible for major programmes have continued to exhibit over-optimism and make slow progress towards their objectives.”

It adds,

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs.

“GDS has also struggled to demonstrate the value of its own flagship initiatives such as Verify, or to set out clear priorities between departmental and cross-government objectives.

“GDS’s renewed approach aims to address many of these concerns as it expands and develops into a more established part of government. But there continues to be a risk that GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities.

“To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

Comment

The National Audit Office report is strong on facts and quality of research but avoids the big question of how GDS can bring about change when the top brass in departments prefer autonomy to what they see as GDS’s interference.

GDS’s existence goes to the heart of how the civil service runs. It is one part of the civil service trying to bring about change in other parts of the civil service.

And the evidence so far is that the civil service doesn’t like change.

The NAO report disappoints because it doesn’t address how government IT is to change if departments are to continue to run empires unchallenged by GDS or the heads of the civil service. Sir Humphrey is still king.

GDS scrutinises departmental IT spending – spending applications are reviewed by a team of eight people within GDS’s Standards Assurance team – but, much to Sir Humphrey’s delight, GDS’s influence seems to be waning.

When Jack Straw was Justice secretary, he told MPs in 2007 that when he abandoned projects there was a fuss at first and soon nobody noticed the project did not exist.

“There is always the option to abandon things. I did that in the Foreign Office with much complaint that the world might end.

“What happened was that we saved a lot of money and no one ever noticed the fact that that scheme did not exist…it is very frustrating that so many people, including the private sector, are taken in by snake oil salesmen from IT contractor who are not necessarily very competent and make a lot of money out of these things. I am pretty intolerant of this.”

How much has changed? Outsiders including Jack Straw and Francis Maude, together with insiders such as Chris Chant have pointed to the need for major changes in the way departments manage huge IT budgets and there have been some improvements: HMRC’s is breaking up its monolithic “Aspire” contract, citizens may notice that it is possible now to renew passports and driving licences online and GDS has had an impact in making departments think hard about whether they really need to spend the amounts they do on major IT contracts.

But major change in the costs of government IT seems not just a long way off but unattainable while the dominance of Sir Humphrey remains unchallenged.

Digital Transformation in Government – NAO report

Crazy – millions of citizens offered two competing government identity systems

 

From HMRC’s website on Gov.UK … Which should you choose to confirm your identity?
HMRC and other government departments are offering millions of citizens the choice of two “competing” identity systems – the Cabinet Office’s GOV.UK Verify, or HMRC’s Government Gateway.
There’s no guidance offered on which to choose; and no explanation for the absence of joined-up thinking.

By Tony Collins

When Whitehall departments do their own thing, the public rarely notices the duplicated time, effort and cost, at least when it comes to IT.  Now the “silo” approach has spilled out into the public arena.

The Government Digital Service – part of the Cabinet Office – developed GOV.UK Verify to enable people to confirm their identify when they want to use government services online.

At the same time, HMRC continued to work on a separate identity system: Government Gateway.

The cost of the two developments isn’t known.

HMRC prefers its own development work on Government Gateway because it enables companies as well as individuals to identify themselves. Verify is designed for individual use.

But instead of adapting one or the other to serve individuals and companies, or using Government Gateway for companies only, central departments are offering both  – with no guidance on which system citizens should choose; and there’s no explanation for the absence of a joined-up approach to IT.

The BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones says of the two separate identity systems that GDS and HMRC are engaged in a “bitter turf war”.

Comment

Today I went online to renew a driving licence and was shepherded by DVLA to use the Government Gateway identity system. A few weeks ago I had already successfully registered with GOV.UK Verify.

Government Gateway didn’t work properly, for me at least, although I had all the correct documents.

When I registered to use a different government service a few weeks I had no choice but to use GOV.UK Verify to confirm my identity. Verify was thorough, seamless and worked perfectly. Impressive. It left the impression of a system that had been well thought out, with the citizen in mind.

Putting aside the fact that Government Gateway did not work for me, it seemed dated, much less thorough than Verify, and left an impression of transience – that it was a temporary “make-do” system. For instance, the help screens were not tailored to the particular question being asked. Not impressive.

For me. GOV.UK Verify is the identity system of choice. It could surely be adapted to confirm the identities of companies – unless HMRC would rather continue to do its own thing.

It’s ludicrous that central government is spending billions of IT annually without a joined-up approach. Ministers keep promising it. Officials at conferences keep promising it. Whitehall press releases promise it.

A few weeks ago departments were offering only Government Gateway or GOV.UK Verify. Now many of them are offering both.

That’s progress?

Disturbing

A wider point of Whitehall’s dual IT approach to identity verification is that it’s the tip of the iceberg (apologies for the cliché but it’s apt).

With their ICT budgets, collectively, of billions of pounds a year, central departments are, in the main, doing their own thing.

A politician with the clout of Francis Maude may be needed to bang the heads of permanent secretaries together. But even if Maude’s replacement Ben Gummer had that clout – and he doesn’t – permanent secretaries and departmental boards would complain that the Cabinet Office was interfering.

Complaints along these lines would be made, perhaps, in off-the-record briefings to friendly journalists and to the National Audit Office in departmental responses to NAO surveys of senior officials, with the result that the Cabinet Office would end up backing away from trying to enforce a joined up IT approach.

That a genuine joined-up approach to government IT has been talked about for decades and hasn’t happened is largely because, outside of determining of the size of budgets, it is the permanent secretaries and their senior officials who hold power in Whitehall,  not transient politicians.

And bureaucracies always want to keep their departmental empires as intact as possible.

The current two top Whitehall officials, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, are consensus-seeking people, not at all confrontational. Probably their lack of a controversial edge is one of the main reasons they were chosen for their jobs.

All of which means there’s no chance of permanent secretary heads being banged together in an effort to cut costs and help bring about joined up government IT .

In 2012, Francis Maude, then Cabinet Office minister,  said, in a speech to the FT Innovate Conference,

“In the last decade our IT costs have gone up – while our services remained patchy. According to some estimates, we spend more on IT per capita than any other government.”

Is government ICT spending much less today? Perhaps HMRC’s Government Gateway officials would let us know.

**

Some Twitter comments





Central buying of IT and other services is a bit of a shambles – just what Sir Humphrey wants?

By Tony Collins

Cabinet Office entrance

Cabinet Office entrance

Like the Government Digital Service, the Crown Commercial Service was set up as a laudable attempt to cut the huge costs of running central government.

The Cabinet Office under Francis Maude set up the Crown Commercial Service [CCS] in 2014 to cut the costs of buying common products and services for Whitehall and the wider public sector including the NHS and police.

It has a mandate to buy commodity IT, other products and services and whatever can be bought in bulk. It has had some success – for example with negotiating lower prices for software licences needed across Whitehall. The skills and knowledge of its civil servants are well regarded.

But, like the Government Digital Service, CCS has had limited support from permanent secretaries and other senior officials who’d prefer to protect their autonomy.

It has also been hindered by unachievable promises of billions of pounds in savings. Even CCS’s own managers at the time regarded the Cabinet Office’s plans for huge savings as over-optimistic.

Yesterday [13 December 2016] the National Audit Office published a report that questioned whether CCS has paid its way, let alone cut public sector costs beyond what civil and public servants could have achieved without it.

CCS employed 790 full-time equivalent staff in 2015/16 and had operating costs in one year alone of £66.3m

This was the National Audit Office’s conclusion:

“CCS has not achieved value for money. The Cabinet Office underestimated the difficulty of implementing joint buying for government. With no business case or implementation plan CCS ran into difficulties. Net benefits have not been tracked so it cannot be shown that CCS has achieved more than the former Government Procurement Service would have.

“However, the strategic argument for joint buying remains strong and CCS is making significant changes to improve future services.”

Some of the NAO’s detailed findings:

  • The public sector spends £2.5bn directly with CCS – £8bn less than originally forecast.
  • Seven departments buy directly through CCS – 10 fewer than originally forecast
  • The forecast of £3.3bn net benefits from the creation of CCS over the four years to 2017-18 are  unlikely to materialise.
  • The National Audit Office says the actual net benefits of CCS to date are “unknown”.
  • The Cabinet Office did not track the overall benefits of creating CCS.
  • Most of the planned transfers of procurement staff from central departments and the wider public sector to CCS haven’t happened.
  • Where some of the workforce has transferred, some departments have rehired staff to replace those who transferred.
  • Departments continue to manage their own procurement teams, although they use CCS’s frameworks.
  • CCS was set up with the power to force central departments to use its bulk buying services. But that power wasn’t enforced.
  • The National Audit Office says it is “no longer clear whether CCS has a clear mandate that requires all departments to use it for direct buying… it no longer has a clear timetable or expectation that further departments will transfer staff or buying functions to CCS”.

It’s all a far cry from the expectations set by a Cabinet Office announcement in 2013 which said that CCS will “ensure maximum value for the taxpayer is extracted from every commercial relationship”.

The then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the time,

“The new Crown Commercial Service will ensure a step change in our commercial capability, giving government a much tighter grip on all aspects of its commercial performance, from market engagement through to contract management.”

Comment

Why CCS has failed so far to make much difference to Whitehall’s costs is not clear. It seems to have been hit by a combination of poor management at the outset, a high turnover of senior officials and ludicrously high expectations, combined with a civil service reluctance in central departments and the wider public sector to cede control over procurement to CCS –  even when it comes to common products and services.

The NAO report is a reminder of a fundamental flaw in the way government works: central departments can’t in practice be forced to do anything. They are a power unto themselves. The Cabinet Office has powers to mandate a change of practice and behaviour in central departments – to which Sir Humphrey can shrug his shoulders and change nothing

Even the Prime Minister is, in practice, powerless to force departments to do something they don’t want to do (except in the case of the miscarriage of justice that involved two Chinook pilots who were eventually cleared of gross negligence because the then defence secretary Liam Fox, through a series of manoeuvres, forced the MoD to set the finding aside).

The CCS may be doomed to failure unless the Cabinet Office rigorously enforces its mandate to make government departments use its buying services.

If the Cabinet Office does not enforce its power, Sir Humphrey will always protect his turf by arguing that the products and services his officials buy – including IT in general – are specific and are usually tailored to the department’s unique and complex needs.

Much to the relief of Sir Humphrey, Francis Maude, the battle-hardened enforcer at the Cabinet Office, has left the House of Commons. He has no comparable replacement.

Are all central initiatives aimed at making  a real dent in the costs of running Whitehall now doomed to failure?

Sir Humphrey knows the answer to that; and he’s wearing a knowing grin.

Crown Commercial Service – National Audit Office report

 

Barnet Council claims £31m savings with Capita – and not an auditor in sight.

By Tony Collins

capita

It’s commendable that Barnet Council has published much material on its three-year review of a £322m 10-year outsourcing contract with Capita.

More than a dozen council reports and appendices cover every aspect of the contract.

The quantity of material seems, on the face of it, to answer critics of the outsourcing deal, among them local bloggers, who have pointed to the lack of reliable evidence of the savings achieved. The suspicion is that costs have increased and council services including ICT have deteriorated since Capita took over in 2013.

Now the council has ostensibly proved that the opposite is the case. Barnet’s press release says,

Barnet Council and Capita contract delivers £31m savings

“A review of a contract between Barnet Council and Capita has demonstrated it is delivering significant benefits to the borough with overall savings of £31 million achieved alongside increased resident satisfaction…

“In terms of satisfaction with services provided, the review, showed 76 per cent of residents were satisfied with the outward-facing customer services, up from 52 per cent before the contract was established.

“This increase was even more significant in respect of face to face services, as 96 per cent of residents who engaged with the council in this way said they were satisfied compared with a previous 35 per cent.

“The review also showed that the cost of delivering the bundle of services provided in the contract is now £6m a year less than before the contract was signed and that 90 per cent of the contract’s key performance indicators being met or exceeded.”

The press release quotes two leaders of the council saying how pleased they were with the contract. Capita calls it a “positive review”.

The review has various mentions of items of additional spending including £9m on ICT and it’s not clear whether the extra sums are taken into account in the savings figures.

Among the review’s suggestions is that the council pay Capita’s annual management fee of £25m up front – a year in advance – instead of every quarter in return for extra savings.

The review also raises the possibility of extending the contract beyond the 10 years in return for additional savings. Capita is “keen” to explore this suggestion (though it could tie the hands of a future council administration).

The review reports were compiled by council officers who reported to a working group of Tory and Labour councillors, under a much-respected Tory chairman. By a small margin, Conservatives run the council.

Lack of independent challenge?

It’s unclear why the council did not commission its audit committee, or auditors, to review the contract. In the past the audit committee has been critical of some aspects of the contract.

For this reason the reports are unlikely to silence critics of Barnet’s outsourcing deal. Council officers compiled the review’s findings, not auditors.

As a result, despite the volume of published written material, there is no evidence that the figures for savings have been independently verified as accurate.

Neither is there independent verification of the methods used by officers for obtaining the figures.

Further, some observers may question the positive tone of the review findings. The “good news” tone may be said to be at odds with the factual neutrality of, say, reports of the National Audit Office.

There are also questions about whether the council is providing enough effective challenge to Capita’s decisions and figures.

At a council committee meeting in November 2016 to discuss the review reports, the most informed challenges to the findings appear to have come not from Barnet councillors but two local bloggers, Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable, who questioned whether the claimed savings could be more than wiped out by additional spending – including an extra £9m on ICT. They appear to have received no clear answers.

Concerns of some officials

The body of the review reports outline some of the concerns of staff and directors. Mrs Angry quotes some of the concerns from the review reports:

“Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend were raised as key concerns. It was felt that CSG [Barnet’s Customer and Support Group, for which Capita is responsible] are often reluctant to go above and beyond the requirements of the contract without additional charges.

“Directors reported that the council needs to be more confident that solutions suggested by CSG, particularly for projects and capital spend are best value.

“Concerns were raised that CSG has a disproportionate focus on the delivery of process and KPIs over outcomes, creating a more contractual rather than partnership relationship between CSG and the council. Directors noted that many KPIs are not relevant and their reporting does not reflect actual service performance.”

The Capita contract began in September 2013, under which it provides finance, ICT, HR, Customer Services, Revenues and Benefits, Procurement, Estates and Corporate Programmes.

Comment

On the face of it, Barnet Council’s review of the Capita contract looks comprehensive and impressively detailed.

Looked at closely it’s disappointing – a wasted opportunity.

Had the council wanted the review’s findings to be widely believed, it would have made it uncompromisingly independent, in line with reports by the National Audit Office.

As it is, the review was carried out by council officers who reported to a working group of councillors. The working group comprised Labour as well as Tory councillors but the facts and figures were compiled by officers.

Nearly every page of every Barnet review report has a “good news” feel. There’s an impression that negative findings are played down.

Example:

“It should be noted that the failure to meet the target for KPI 30 related to one quarter only [my italics] and discussions are continuing regarding the application of the above service credit.”

Some negative findings are immediately countered by positive statements:

“CIPFA benchmarking data shows that the cost of the ICT service is slightly above the median, but below upper quartile in terms of the cost of the service as a percentage of organisational running costs.”

Another example of a negative finding immediately countered by a positive one, which may be said to be one hallmark of a non-independent report:

“One key area of concern in terms of overall performance is internal customer satisfaction… Survey results in respect of the financial year 2015/16 were universally poor, with all services failing to meet the target of upper quartile customer satisfaction. As a result, service credits to a total value of £116k have been applied in respect of these KPIs.

“To some extent, a degree of dissatisfaction amongst internal service users is to be expected, given the fact that cost reductions have been achieved to a large extent through increased self-service for both managers and staff, along with more restrictive processes and controls over things like the payment of invoices and the appointment of staff.

“Despite the survey outcomes indicating a low level of satisfaction, the interviews conducted with staff and managers as part of this Review suggest that services are generally considered to be improving.”

Integra ERP financial system a “success” – ?

The review report describes Capita’s introduction of the Integra financial system as “successful”. Elsewhere, however, it says,

“Many users raised issues with the Integra finance system, describing it as clunky and not user-friendly or intuitive.”

Double counting?

There’s no evidence that savings figures have been checked for possible inadvertent double counting on overlapping services. Double counting of savings is regularly found in National Audit Office reports.

“There are no standardised way for departments to evidence the reductions in ongoing expenditure,” said the National Audit Office in a report on Cabinet Office savings in July 2014. “Departments provided poor evidence, and double counting was highly likely as projects reduced staff or estates requirements.”

In a separate report on claimed savings in central government, the National Audit Office quoted the findings of an internal audit …

“A number of errors (instances where the evidence did not support the assertion) were found during our review and total adjusted accordingly … In addition, a number of savings were double counted with other savings categories and these have now been removed…

“We assessed some £200m of other savings as Red because they were double counted due to the same savings having been claimed by different units or, for example, because savings on staff were also claimed through reductions in average case costs.”

Omitted costs?

The omission of relevant costs could skew savings figures. It’s unclear from Barnet’s review reports whether extra spending of millions of pounds on, for example, ICT have been taken into account. Barnet blogger Mr Reasonable, who has a business background, raises the question of whether £65m of additional spending has been taken into account in the savings figures.

Reverse Sir Humphrey phenomenon?

The biggest single flaw in the review reports is that they appear worded to please the councillors who made the decision to outsource – the reverse of the “Sir Humphrey” caricature. The positive tone of Barnet’s reports implies that officers are – naturally – deferring to their political leaders.

In a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Whitehall, former minister Peter Lilley talked about how some officials spend part of their working lives trying to please their political leaders.

“Officials are trying to work out how to interpret and apply policy in line with what the minister’s views on the policy is …. They can only take their minister’s written or spoken word for it and that has a ripple effect on the department far greater than you imagine… Making speeches is the official policy of the department and that creates action.”

Another former minister Francis Maude told the BBC he found that too few officials were willing to say anything the minister did not want to hear.

“The way it should work is for civil servants give very candid well informed advice to ministers about what it is ministers want to do – the risks and difficulties,” said Maude. “My experience this time round in government, 20 years on from when I was previously government, is that the civil service was much less ready to do that.

“There were brilliant civil servants who were perfectly ready to tell you things that they thought you might not want to hear but there were too few of them.”

Barnet’s reviewing officers might have been dispassionately independent in reporting their findings and double checking the supplied figures – but who can tell without any expert independent assessment of the review?

The US Sabanes-Oxley Act, which the Bush administration introduced after a series of financial scandals, defines what is meant by an “independent” audit. The Act prohibits auditing by anyone who has been involved in a management function or provided expert services for the organisation being audited.

That would disqualify every Barnet officer from being involved in an independent audit of their own council’s contract with Capita.

The Act also says that the auditor must not have been an employee of the organisation being audited. Again that would disqualify every Barnet officer from an independent audit of their own council’s contract.

Review a waste of time and money?

It would be wrong to imply that the review is a pointless exercise. It identifies what works well and what doesn’t. It will help officers negotiate changes to the contract and to key performance indicators. For example it’s of little value having a KPI to answer phone calls within 60 seconds if the operator is unable to help the caller.

What the review does not provide is proof of the claimed savings. Barnet’s press release announcing savings of £31m is just that – a press release. It does not pretend to be politically neutral.

But without independent evidence of the claimed savings, it’s impossible for the disinterested observer to say that the Capita contract so far has been a success. Neither does evidence exist it has failed.

Capita share price at 10-year low

What is clear is that fixing some of the more serious problems identified in the report, such as obsolescent IT, will not be easy given the conflict between the continuing need for savings and Capita’s pressing need to improve the value of its business for shareholders, against a backdrop of difficulties on a number of its major contracts [Transport for London, Co-op Bank, NHS] and a share price that was yesterday [30 November 2016] at a ten-year low.

The review also raises a wider question: are most of a council’s busy councillors who come to council meetings in their free time equipped to read through and digest a succession of detailed reports on the three-year interim results of a complex outsourcing contract?

If they do glance through them, will they have enough of a close interest in the subject, and a good understanding of it,  to provide effective challenge to council officers and their political leaders?

If nothing else, the Barnet review shows that councillors in general cannot provide proper accountability on an outsourcing contract as complex as Capita’s deal with Barnet.

Either council tax payers have to put their faith in officers, irrespective of the obvious pressure for officialdom to tell its political leaders what they want to hear, or council taxpayers can put their faith in an independent audit.

Barnet Council has not given its residents any choice.

It’s a pity that when it comes to claimed savings of £31m there’s not an auditor in sight.

Barnet declares its contract a success – Barnet and Whetstone Press

Mr Reasonable – important questions on the Capita review

Mrs Angry – who writes compellingly on the council meeting where the review reports were discussed.

Long may Government Digital Service bring about “creative tension” in Whitehall

By Tony Collins

In a report published yesterday (25 October 2016) the National Audit Office said it will shortly be undertaking a review of the Government Digital Service.

It will study GDS’s “achievements and the  challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is  supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government”.

It mentioned its review of GDS in a report on Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. Among other things the report looked at the IT that is supposed to support payments of farmer subsidies.

With GDS’s help Defra’s Rural Payments Agency adopted an agile approach to paying subsidies but the two parties fell out and GDS stopped working on the programme.

The NAO’s report suggests that the Rural Payments Agency is glad to be rid of GDS.

“The GDS no longer has significant involvement in the Programme and the Rural Payments Agency told us it has not sought any further support.

“Its distance from the Programme has allowed the Department [DEFRA] to shift from a focus on agile and digital delivery to an approach that combines agile software development with programme management and governance arrangements with which the RPA is more familiar.”

Government Computing has a good analysis of the NAO report.

Mandarin power

Francis Maude, meanwhile, has warned that the work of GDS, which has helped to “stop the wrong things happening”, is being undermined, reports Public Finance.

Maude, who set up GDS in 2011, blamed mandarins who were trying to reassert their autonomy.

Maude said that developments such  as controls on spending and improvements in service standard assessment processes do not happen spontaneously.

“You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.

“Just at the moment when the UK has just recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well,” said Maude.

“This is, for me, a pity – there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”

He said there was a “continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening.”

Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said any dismantling of GDS illustrated “government’s extraordinary propensity to self harm”.

He said it was very odd that GDS was being “scaled back and unwound at just the moment that it appears to be successful”.

In August 2016 Maude warned that it would be a “black day” if GDS were dismantled.

That said, GDS has its critics.

Comment

A clash of cultures between GDS and the Rural Payments Agency made it almost inevitable that the two sides would fall out. This is also what happened between GDS and the DWP.

Agile-wedded idealists?

If some senior civil servants had their way, particularly at the DWP, GDS would slowly lose its identity and its staff gradually dispersed throughout the civil and public services.

Clearly civil servants at the Rural Payments Agency looked at GDS  as comprising mostly agile-wedded idealists obsessed with technological innovation rather than paying subsidies to farmers.

But long before the arrival of GDS, the RPA had a history of IT failure. Perhaps the RPA would rather be left on its own to fail without GDS’s help?

The latest NAO report is a little more positive about the RPA’s achievements than some past reports.

But this week’s Farmers Weekly, which has reported extensively on delays of correct subsidy payments to farmers, quoted the National Farmers Union as saying that problems from 2015 claims were still far from over.

The future of GDS?

How easy is it for senior officials in any large central department to work closely with the Government Digital Service?

Departments – particularly HMRC and the DWP – cherish their autonomy, so GDS is seen by some permanent secretaries as an unnecessary interference.

And when it comes to the IT of central departments, GDS has no clear role.

But GDS’s creation was a good idea. Without it, departments will be left alone to continue IT spending on a vast scale.

GDS’s admittedly brief challenge at the Rural Payments Agency and at the DWP on the Universal Credit IT programme has, arguably, slightly modernised IT approaches within those departments.

And even if the costs of big Whitehall IT contracts have not changed much, there’s no doubt that the public face of government IT has improved noticeably (eg using digital passport photos for online driving licence renewals),

The more its people are resented by high-ranking civil servants, the better job GDS is probably doing on behalf of the public.

Consensus can sometimes mean complacency. Long may GDS’s relationship with departments be characterised by a state of creative, noble tension.

National Audit Office report “Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme”.

GDS’s departure from CAP programme leads RPA to ditch agile approach – Government Computing

Is Sir Humphrey trying to kill off GDS and the innovations it stands for?

 

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

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