Tag Archives: government IT

DWP in court next week to stop Universal Credit reports being published

By Tony Collins

dwpAt an FOI tribunal next week at Leicester Magistrates Court  (Monday, 22 February 2016) a legal team paid for by taxpayers will do their best to convince a judge that three reports on the Universal Credit IT programme must not be published.

It will be the latest hearing in a succession of DWP legal actions to stop a risk register, issues register and a Major Projects Authority project assessment review being published.

Lawyers for the DWP have compiled a series of “bundles” – case folders. The volume of this legal paperwork hints at the mounting costs of the case which dates back three years.

In 2012 IT projects professional John Slater made an FOI request for three Universal Credit reports: the risk register,  issues register and milestone schedule.   Separately, but around the same time, I requested the project assessment review.

The DWP released the milestone schedule last year after refusing several times to disclose it. The DWP is still refusing to release the other three reports. Hence next week’s hearing in which the Information Commissioner is opposing the DWP’s case to keep the reports confidential.

“Safe space”

Although the reports in question have been superseded several times, the DWP is arguing they should not be published because of the “chilling effect”.

It claims that civil servants who write the reports or contribute to them need a “safe space” to be completely candid in their criticisms, without fear that their comments will be misinterpreted or taken out of context by a hostile media.

The Robert Walpole government in the 18th century used similar arguments to ban newspaper reports of debates in the House of Commons.

Concerned that hostile newspapers would misinterpret MPs’ speeches or report negative comments out of context, the House of Commons passed a resolution in April 1738 declaring that it was a “high indignity and a notorious breach of privilege” to report what was said in the Chamber, even when it was in recess (see separate post).

At next week’s hearing the Information Commissioner’s lawyers will argue that although the concerns of the DWP about the chilling effect were reasonable they did not over-ride the strong public interest in publishing the reports.

In their submission to the tribunal, the Information Commissioner’s lawyers emphasise the importance of the public’s ability to scrutinise high-cost, innovative and risky schemes such as the Universal Credit programme.

Had the reports been published when requested (in 2012) it would have enhanced the public’s chances of influencing the DWP’s actions on the programme.

Disclosure would have enabled the public to hold ministers and officials to account “at an appropriate time”, says the Commisioner’s submission.

The National Audit Office did not publish a report on Universal Credit’s early progress until September 2013. Before that DWP ministers and officials were confidently assuring the media, parliament and the public that the UC programme was on time and to budget.

If after the tribunal next week the judge orders disclosure of the reports – which is what happened at a previous “first-tier” FOI tribunal – the DWP will almost certainly appeal. It could be years before the case reaches a final conclusion.

But even if the DWP exhausts all its appeal options, ministers may be able to issue a “veto” to stop disclosure – though that could itself be challenged in the courts.


It’s appropriate that the FOI tribunal is being heard next week in a magistrates court, for the costs of the case so far border on the criminal.

I’ll post a fuller comment tomorrow on the similarities between the DWP’s arguments to the FOI tribunal and the arguments used in the 18th century to try and stop newspaper reporting of parliamentary debates.

FOI hearing today on DWP’s refusal to publish Universal Credit reports

By Tony Collins

External lawyers acting for the Department for Work and Pensions are due to appear before an FOI Upper Tribunal judge in London today to argue why four reports on Universal Credit should not be published.

It’s the latest step in a costly legal battle that has lasted two years so far.

A first-tier FOI tribunal judge in 2014 ordered the four reports to be published. The DWP asked for permission to appeal that decision and lost its case.  The DWP then asked an Upper Tribunal for permission to appeal and lost that case as well.

Then it asked a different Upper Tribunal judge for permission to appeal .  As a result, a 1 day hearing is taking place today.

The case takes in evidence from the DWP, the Information Commissioner, John Slater who requested 3 of the reports in question and me. Slater requested in 2012 a Universal Credit risks register, milestone schedule and issues register (which set out problems that had materialised with the Universal Credit programme).  I requested a project assessment review carried out in 2011 on the Universal Credit programme by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

The DWP has refused to publish the four reports – and millions of pounds worth of other similar reports.

Today the DWP will argue that the judge in an earlier Upper FOI Tribunal did not fully consider the “chilling effect” that disclosure of the reports would have on the behaviours of civil servants or consultants who helped to write the reports in question.

In essence the DWP’s lawyers are asking the judge to accept the arguments put forward against disclosure by Sarah Cox, the DWP’s main witness in the case. Cox is a former programme assurance director for Universal Credit.

Cox submitted 49 pages of evidence – plus secret evidence during a closed hearing – on why the UC reports should not be published.  She said that civil servants must be able to think the unthinkable and record the outcome of these thoughts without hesitation or fear of disclosure.

If contributors feared the reports would be routinely disclosed the documents could become “bland records” prepared with half an eye to how they would be received in the public domain.

She said the danger of damage to the public interest cannot be overstated.

Disclosure could adversely affect management of the Universal Credit programme – and “failure of proper programme management may be catastrophic”.

Emphasising the importance of effective management of risk, she referred to the banking system prior to the credit crunch and the stability of the Bank of England in that period.

“Inappropriate or premature disclosure of the information in the risk registers or the issues registers could lead to those failures occurring in government risk management with broader parallels for other project management tools.”

She then referred to “disaster myopia” – a phenomenon she said was well established in cognitive psychology.  It referred to “an underestimation of the likelihood of low frequency but high risk damage risks”.

She added: “This can result in a lack of appropriate mitigating actions, increasing the likelihood of the risk becoming an issue. In this case fear of disclosure and misinterpretation can exacerbate this myopia, leading to the toning down of the direct and forceful language used to describe risks, or worse, risks not being identified at all”.

If civil servants or consultants writing reports on projects were to downplay the risks because of a fear of disclosure, problems may be overlooked, solutions not found, or not found promptly. “Such an outcome would be seriously detrimental to the delivery of major projects.”

Cox’s evidence could appear to some to suggest the DWP was preoccupied with its image, and the image of the Universal Credit programme, in the media, and among MPs and the public. She said routine disclosure of such reports as those in question “will distract civil servants from their tasks at a crucial point in the process of programme management.

“Instead of concentrating on implementing the changes, they will be required to address stakeholder, press or wider public concerns which have been provoked by the premature disclosure of material.”

It would be unhelpful if “attention is focused on clarifying positions with stakeholders and addressing the concerns of media, opposition and interest groups in order to correct the often misleading impression created by premature disclosure”.

This issue is “magnified in a programme with as many delivery partners as Universal Credit, covering both central and local government, with implications for all territories in the UK”.

That is because of the “implications of issues for different partners are often slightly different, so that each partner may need to be given a slightly different, and tailored, response”.

This concern should not be understated, she said.

“From my experience of high profile matters which emerge with little warning, I can say that ministers and senior officials are likely to be forced to clear their diaries, cancelling planned meetings, events and other important engagements, to attend rapidly-convened meetings to discuss the handling of the premature disclosure.

“Officials in the relevant policy areas (and lawyers as appropriate) would need to set aside other essential and pressing work to prepare briefings on the likely impact of disclosure and options for next steps. ‘Lines to take’ and a stakeholder and media-handling strategy would need to be discussed, agreed and signed off by ministers.

“Ministers could also be called to respond to urgent questions tabled in Parliament, especially where the disclosure  is made in respect of a high-profile policy area. The media might press for interviews with ministers and/or senior officials, which require careful preparation…”

But, as the Information Commissioner has pointed out, disclosure of the documents under FOI is not the same as a leak to the media.

And the reports in question are now four years old and so massive media interest is unlikely. Any media interest could be managed by DWP press officers without distracting project managers.

Cox said disclosure could harm rather than assist public debate.

“Material that requires civil servants to think the unthinkable, or to consider unusual or highly unlikely events, using intentionally vivid and forceful language, at a single point in time, potentially pre-dating attempts to mitigate the position could easily distort the public perception of the real or likely situation and encourage sensationalist rather than responsible and balanced reporting.”

She said that officials may have to release further information to counteract any misunderstandings (from a misreading of the disclosed reports). But the “world of media” may ignore this further information.

Lawyers for the Information Commissioner, in their submission to today’s hearing, will argue that an earlier tribunal had not found any existence of a “chilling effect” in this case. The tribunal had not been persuaded by what the DWP had said.

The earlier tribunal had not dismissed all of the DWP’s concerns as entirely without merit. It accepted that disclosure of the documents in question “may not be a painless process for the DWP” and that there “may be some prejudice to the conduct of government of one or more of the kinds asserted by the DWP”. The tribunal was simply unpersuaded by the extent of those prejudices.

The Commissioner’s lawyers will say the earlier tribunal gave due weight to the evidence of Ms Cox but it was not obliged to agree with her.

There was no observable chilling effect from disclosures in the past where a chilling effect had been envisaged. The DWP had not provided any evidence that a chilling effect existed.

Indeed a Starting Gate Review on the Universal Credit project had been published (by Campaign4Change) after the DWP refused to release the document under FOI. The DWP had refused to publish the Starting Gate Review because of the chilling effect it would have on the contributors to such reports.

But there was no chilling effect in consequence of publication of the Starting Gate review, say the Information Commissioner’s lawyers.

The incident “illustrates that it is perfectly within the bounds of reason to be sceptical about the DWP’s assertions about the chilling effect and the like,” says the Information Commissioner’s submission to today’s hearing.

On Ms Cox’s point that disclosure of the reports in question would change behaviours of civil servants and consultants compiling the documents, the earlier tribunal had concluded that the public was entitled to expect from senior officials – and no doubt generally gets – a large measure of courage, frankness and independence in their assessments of risk and provision of advice.

The Information  Commissioner’s lawyers will today ask the judge to dismiss the DWP’s appeal.


The DWP’s evidence suggests that the reports in question today are critical to the effective delivery of Universal Credit. The reality is that excessive secrecy can make bureaucracies complacent and, in the the DWP’s case, somewhat chaotic.

When Campaign4Change asked the DWP under FOI for two Universal Credit reports – an end to end technical review carried out by IBM at a cost of £49,240 and a “delivery model assessment phases one and two” carried by McKinsey and Partners at a cost of £350,000 – the DWP mistakenly denied that the reports existed.

When we provided evidence the reports did exist the DWP said eventually that it had found them.  The DWP said in essence that the documents had been held so securely nobody knew until searching for them that they existed.

So much for the DWP’s argument that such reports are critical to the effective management of major projects.

And when Campaign4Change asked the DWP, under FOI, to supply a project assessment review report on the Universal Credit programme, officials mistakenly supplied an incorrect version of the report (a draft) to an FOI tribunal.  Officials later apologised for their mistake.

National Audit Office reports on Universal Credit do little to portray the DWP as a professional, competent and well-managed organisation.

Which all suggests that excessive secrecy within the DWP has made officials complacent and disorganised.

Continued excessive secrecy within the department could reinforce a suspicion, justified or not, that the department may not be in a strong position to run a programme as large and complex as Universal Credit.



Does Barnet know if it’s saving money with Capita?

By Tony Collins

Are council outsourcing contracts becoming so unfathomably complex that officials and leading councillors have no real idea whether they’re saving money?

A Somerset County Council report on the lessons learnt from its troubled outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM emphasized the importance  of “not making  contracts overly complicated”.

The report said:

” Both the provider [IBM] and the Council would agree that the contract is incredibly complicated. A contract with over 3,000 pages was drawn up back in 2007 which was considered necessary at the time given the range of services and the partnership and contractual arrangements created…

“The sheer size and complexity of this contract has proven difficult to manage.”

For years there have been arguments in Somerset over whether the council has saved or spent more as a result of the relationship with IBM.  The absence of audited figures means nobody knows for certain.

It seems to be the same at Barnet. An absence of audited figures – the council does not have to produce them for an outsourcing contract – means that nobody knows for certain if Capita is costing or saving money.

It’s likely that councillors who supported the outsourcing to Capita, and critics of the deal, will never agree on whether local residents are better or worse off.

Now a Barnet resident and respected blogger Mr Reasonable, who studies the accounts of the local council as part of his efforts to be more open and accountable, has offered £250 to charity if the Tory leader Richard Cornelius provides evidence of how Capita is making savings as promised.

Mr Reasonable made the offer on 24 May 2015 and has heard nothing. His request to Barnet was followed up by Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator at the Guardian. The council didn’t reply within his deadline. Says Chakrabortty:

“If you want to see the world of outsourcing at its most illogical, spend a bit of time with detail-hunters like Mr Reasonable.

“He tells me about phoning his local library to see if a children’s book was in stock. The call was of course routed to a Capita call centre in Coventry, where staff spent ages unable to help before connecting him back to the librarians just down the road. By his calculations, for that wasted call Capita would charge Barnet £8.

“Outsourcing is full of these invented costs, which is how the privateers make their billions.

“Mr Reasonable can tell you about how Barnet now pays £800 for a day’s training in how to take minutes, or £14,628 for just two months of occupational health assessments. In both cases these are services that would previously have been provided in-house for minimal cost…

“These examples would be comic, if they didn’t cost blameless taxpayers so much money…”

Commercial confidentiality

Mr Reasonable says all the commercially sensitive elements of Barnet’s contracts with Capita are redacted and there are “numerous clauses relating to incentives and penalties which would have made publishing a single payments schedule almost impossible”.

It’s also impossible he says to know what Capita has billed for or not.

“I have asked repeatedly to see the evidence of precisely what we are paying for and a detailed explanation of why the payments are so high. Whilst a few promises of evidence were made when the previous COO was in place, none actually materialised.”

Open day?

He adds:

“If Barnet Council is serious about openness then why not host an open day where they go through the contract in detail so that we can understand exactly what we are paying for?

“I would have thought it would have made sense for Capita to get involved with this, to work through the contract with interested citizens and to demonstrate clearly how much money they are saving.

“So I hereby throw down a challenge to the Chief Executive Mr Travers, to Richard Cornelius and to Capita – host an open day, bring bloggers and critics in and show them what you are doing, how the contract is working in reality what money is being paid to whom and how much is really being saved – evidence is essential.

“Indeed a few Conservative councillors might want to come along as well seeing as they voted for this contract. I know some of them privately had serious concerns about the contract but were worried about making those views public.

“And to put my money where my mouth is, I will donate £250 to a charity of Richard Cornelius’ choice if he makes this contract open day happen.”


Outsourcing deals should be signed on the basis of pure pragmatism, never because of an ideology.

Barnet’s deal with Capita (and Somerset’s) was signed for largely ideological reasons. Somerset wanted to “go beyond excellence” and Barnet’s ruling councillors want to be immortalised by establishing a new frontier for local government – a “commissioning council” whereby all services are bought in.

It might have been cheaper for Barnet’s residents if the council had given its ruling councillors immortality by building statutes of them in the council’s grounds.

Will council officers have enough time or understanding of the nuances of the contract, with its maze of incentives and penalties,  to know whether they are saving money or not?

In any case how accurate were the pre-outsourcing baseline figures and assumptions on which to make a comparison between what services were costing then, and what they are costing now?

There is no equivalent in local government of the National Audit Office, no organisation that will audit a local government outsourcing deal and publish the results.

This means councillors can say what they like in public about the success of a deal without fear of authoritative contradiction. Their critics can only speculate on what is really happening while they try to shine a light at the dense fog that is commercial confidentiality.

It appears that more and more councils are seriously considering large-scale outsourcing, perhaps on the basis that they can promise guaranteed savings without anyone being able to hold them to account on whether genuine savings materialise.

The first we’ll know anything is awry is when a council report, years into a contract, reveals some of the difficulties and says a resolution is being discussed with the supplier; and it’s another year or two before the contract is terminated at considerable extra cost to the council – and nobody is in post from the time of the original contract to be held accountable.

Is this really the shape of local government outsourcing to come?

Mr Reas0nable


DWP gives out “selective” information on welfare reform even to its auditors

By Tony Collins

If the National Audit Office cannot obtain reliable and comprehensive information from the DWP, who can?

The NAO is the department’s auditor. Its head Amyas Morse signs off (or rather qualifies) the DWP’s accounts. His staff also produce regular “value for money” reports on the DWP’s projects and performance.

But an NAO report published today on welfare reform gives more than a hint of the problems its auditors face when trying to verify the information the DWP gives them.

The report “Welfare reform – lessons learned says the DWP failed twice to answer the NAO’s questions. Then, when the NAO gave the department its draft report, the DWP provided some information – which the NAO describes as “selective”. It is worth quoting the NAO’s comment in full:

“We have relied largely on our past audit reports to understand the implementation of welfare reform. Past work provides a sufficiently strong and comparable evidence base to identify different approaches and what works well and less well.

“We requested audit evidence from the Department for Work & Pensions (the Department) in August and November 2014.

“This would have allowed us to validate or comment on the Department’s performance more broadly and how they have subsequently addressed issues identified in previous reports. However, the Department failed to send the evidence despite requests.

“Following receipt of a draft report in April 2015, the Department provided some evidence on how it has tried to address issues identified in previous reports and how other welfare reforms have considered these themes.

“In the Department’s view it has made progress across programmes since the time of our initial reports. This includes addressing concerns about programme management on Universal Credit and reducing the time taken to process Personal Independence Payment claims.

“Given the selective nature of the evidence provided and the limited time to review a wide range of programmes, we were unable to audit the evidence or consider the additional information in detail…”

Separately, the DWP is in a protracted legal case to prevent the publication under FOI of four old – 2012 – reports on the Universal Credit programme.  A one-day hearing will be held in London on 15 July 2015.


The DWP is astonishingly thin-skinned. Its officials are probably not hiding anything – they just don’t want anybody knowing how well, or how badly, they are managing projects and programmes such as Universal Credit.

Since Universal Credit went live press officers have been allowed to give out only selective information on Universal Credit. It has  been difficult to establish from them that the programme has had 6 programme directors and 6 senior responsible owners since 2010.

The NAO’s latest report says the DWP needs to “recognise openly” when it has not met expectations. It needs greater internal challenge, says the NAO.

But the DWP seems unable to change its culture of defensiveness and the selective release of information to Parliament, the public and even its own auditors.

Why is it spending so much public money on trying to stop the release of the four UC reports?

Better than anyone else the late Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham has summed up the need for openness:

“… Modern democratic government means government of the people by the people for the people. But there can be no government by the people if they are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments.

“The business of government is not an activity about which only those professionally engaged are entitled to receive information and express opinions.

“It is, or should be, a participatory process. But there can be no assurance that government is carried out for the people unless the facts are made known, the issues publicly ventilated.

“Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice.

“Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public. Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant.

“Where abuses are exposed, they can be remedied. Even where abuses have already been remedied, the public may be entitled to know that they occurred.” R v Shayler(2002) UKHL 11, (2003)1 AC 247.

Thank you to John Slater for providing Lord Bingham’s quote.

Welfare reform – lessons learned

DWP wastes money on another Universal Credit FOI appeal

DWP tells Universal Credit trainees: just keep rebooting

By Tony Collins

IDS says Universal Credit IT is working – but C4 Dispatches asks: is it?

In a documentary broadcast yesterday [9 March 2015] undercover reporter Karl Eriksson got a job working for the Department for Work and Pensions, training as a Universal Credit call centre adviser.

While filming secretly for several weeks he heard several loudspeaker announcements about parts of the main IT systems going down – on one occasion for a whole day. An example:

“The only thing we can suggest at the moment is keep rebooting and try again. There is nothing official out there at all.”

The Dispatches documentary contrasted the statements by Iain Duncan Smith that the IT is working with the reality in a DWP office.

The programme raises the question of whether a national broadcaster should have to film undercover to establish whether UC systems are working well.

When Channel 4 put it to the DWP that its IT is struggling to cope with 35,000 claimants let alone the 2 million the systems are supposed to be handling by now, the spokesman said:

“None of the examples of IT issues [in the Dispatches broadcast] related specifically to Universal Credit and on the rare occasion a problem occurs it is fixed as a matter of urgency.”

Does it matter, though, which systems are failing if the DWP’s IT infrastructure cannot cope with even a low level of Universal Credit claims?

Everyone expects teething problems with a new system, especially as Universal Credit has the enormous challenge of rolling six benefits into one.

But Dispatches raises the question of whether UC will ever be able to handle 7 million claimants which ultimately it will need to do – for such numbers cannot be managed with the amount of manual intervention that is currently needed, according to a National Audit Office report.

More importantly the Dispatches programmme raises a question of how open government can survive when a major government department says, with impunity, one thing  – that its IT is working well – while staff and claimants are apparently experiencing the opposite.

These are some of the announcements and staff comments the uncover reporter recorded while working at the DWP:

– Loudspeaker: “This is an IT announcement. We are currently aware of issues with all FMO icons that go through your published desktop via the cloud. There seem to be issues all down the country about it. The only thing we can suggest at the moment is keep rebooting and try again. There is nothing official out there at all. So if you can just try that and if it doesn’t work we’ll take it further. Thank you.”

– Staff comment: “Sometimes the Universal Credit portal just blocks, stops running… it is clogging up for some reason. So somebody centrally now has to try and unclog it all…It can happen when you’re on the phone. You have to tell the customer to phone you back if that happens.” [It can cost up to 40p a minute to dial the UC 0345 helpline and one claimant told C4 he’d spent £25 that month alone on ringing the helpline.]

– Loudspeaker: “This is an IT announcement. Just to let you that there is a major incident out at the moment with Universal Jobmatch and with access issues and it is affecting the Benefits Directorate and the Local Services Directorate. The current update at the moment is that it is affecting the telephony agents and other staff who use UJ at the moment.”

– Staff comment: “I will have to load my screen again. It has crashed again.”

– Loudspeaker: “Attention please. Attention please. Camlite is being taken offline so the system can be rebooted. This will take approximately 50 minutes. Please can all users log out of Camlite and stay out until further notice.” Trainee: “How do you take a call then?” Answer: “You can’t. You have to say phone back in 50 minutes on that one.”

[CAMLite is an enquiry and work management system for Universal Credit which pulls information from other DWP computer systems.]

– Staff comment to a claimant who has received a DWP letter wrongly stopping a Universal Credit claim: “It’s a letter that has been sent out because it has been closed down wrongly and the system has done it. Sometimes they do shut themselves down and we have to rebuild it. In the meantime it is done manually.”

The undercover reporter witnessed 9 separate system failures. Dispatches quoted a PCS union survey which said that 9 out of 10 members questioned had said the IT was not up to the job. The DWP’s reply was that only 13% of the 2,700 people working on UC responded to the union survey.

The DWP spokesman said:

“At the beginning of February 2015 we deployed a planned upgrade which impacted the service for 3 days and has since had no issues. This upgrade resulted in an improved performance, up to 37 times faster.

“None of the examples of IT issues related specifically to UC and on the rare occasion a problem occurs it is fixed as a matter of urgency. We have robust checks in place to ensure payments are made correctly and on time.”

Channel 4 Dispatches

Universal Credit staff say IT systems inadequate



Universal Credit full business case “a long way from Treasury approval”

By Tony Collins

Yesterday in Parliament Iain Duncan Smith gave a statement on Universal Credit – then MPs asked him questions.  Conservative MP Nigel Mills asked IDS a straightforward question:

“Can the secretary of state confirm that the Treasury has now signed off the whole business case and laid to rest that fear that they were not going to do that?”

IDS gave a clear reply: “That is exactly what was being asked before the summer break and the answer is they have …”

But the UC programme has not received Treasury approval for the full business case, nor even the outline business case. Today’s National Audit Office report “Universal Credit: progress update” says that the UC programme received approval in September 2014 for the “strategic outline business case” only.

An NAO official says this is a “long way from Treasury approval” of the full business case.

Until the full business case is approved, UC has no formal funding beyond the current spending review. Meanwhile the Treasury has been funding UC in “small increments” according to the NAO.

The Department of Work and Pensions is due to produce the outline business case next summer, before the next government’s spending review.

The “outline” business case is supposed to set out how the programme is affordable and will be successfully delivered. It summarises the results so far and sets out the case for proceeding to a formal procurement phase.

The “full” business case documents the contractual arrangements,
confirms funding and affordability and sets out the detailed management
arrangements and plans for successful delivery and post evaluation.

The absence of approval for the outline or full business case underlines the uncertainties still in the UC programme. Indeed the latest NAO report says it’s too early to tell whether UC will prove value for money.

But the DWP has reduced risks by extending the roll-out. The programme is now not expected to be completed before 2020. The original completion date was 2017.

The DWP has a twin-track approach to the UC IT programme. It is paying its existing main IT suppliers to support the introduction of UC – the so-called “live” service – while an agile team develops a fully-automated “digital” service that is designed to do all that the “live” service cannot do without manual intervention.

The agile system has yet to be tested – but it has cost only about £8m compared with more than £90m spent on the “live service”.


Labour MP Glenda Jackson, who is a member of the Work and Pensions committee, suggested to IDS yesterday that his promises to MPs on Universal Credit’s roll-out have all been broken and that he has told the House of Commons “porky pies”.

IDS replied that his intention is to ensure that UC is rolled out in a safe and secure way.


You’d never know from IDS’s replies to MPs yesterday that the Universal Credit programme doesn’t yet have either outline business case approval or full business case approval.

In other words, the Treasury has yet to be convinced the UC programme is feasible or affordable. It is paying for the programme in increments.

IDS told MPs the programme has business case approval. He did not make it  clear that the programme has the early-stage strategic outline business case approval.

His comments reinforce the need for the National Audit Office to scrutinise the Universal Credit programme. Left to the Department for Work and Pensions, the facts about the programme’s progress, problems and challenges would probably not emerge, not in the House of Commons at least.

Some MPs have said for years that Parliament is the last place to look for the truth.

IDS also said yesterday that the original deadline for completion of UC by 2017 was “artificial” – though he has quoted the 2017 date to MPs on several occasions.

Will UC succeed?

UC as an IT-based programme is not doing too badly, to judge from today’s NAO report.

Indeed it seems that the Department for Work and Pensions, when under intense scrutiny, can start to get things right.

Though existing systems from major suppliers look increasingly unlikely to be able to handle the predicted volumes without a large and expensive amount of manual intervention, the agile digital system, though delayed by 6 months, looks promising, at a fraction of the cost of the conventional “live” system.


The NAO is scrutinising the programme. The DWP’s own auditors seem to be doing a good job. The Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is making useful recommendations. And the programme has an independently-chaired board. [The NAO says the programme board has been hampered by limited information and suggests this is because the DWP gives the board “good news” statements rather than facts.]

All this scrutiny is powering the programme in the right direction, though the uncertainties remain massive. As Campaign4Change predicted, the programme will not be complete before 2020. But who cares, if it works well in the end and losses are minimised?

DWP officials are learning lessons – and UC could end up as a template for big government IT-enabled programmes  The twin-track approach of using existing suppliers to deliver support for major business changes that yield problems and lessons  that then feed into an entirely new agile-based system is not a cheap way to develop government IT –  but it may work.

What DWP officials have yet to learn is how to be open and truthful to Parliament, the media – and even its own programme board.

Universal Credit: progress update

Some highlights of today’s NAO report

NAO warns over costs of further Universal Credit digital delay

Universal Credit: watchdog warns of costs of further delays

Government may have to write off more than £200m invested in IT on Universal Credit

Whitehall has taken on 100 technology experts over past year

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office says that government departments have taken on more than  100 IT experts over the past year.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) led the recruitment as part of a plan to raise technology-related skills in the civil service.

One appointment is of former Credit Suisse CIO Magnus Falk as the Government’s new Deputy Chief Technology Officer, reporting to Government CTO Liam Maxwell. Other recent technology recruits include:

  • MOJ Chief Technology Officer Ian Sayer, who was Global Chief Information Officer at Electrolux; and
  • Government Chief Technical Architect Kevin Humphries, former Chief Technical Architect at Qatarlyst.

Chief Digital Officer appointments include:

  • HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer Mark Dearnley, formerly CIO of Vodafone;
  • MOJ CDO Paul Shelter, who previously co-founded two start-ups and was CTO for banking at Oracle;
  • ONS’s Laura Dewis, Deputy Director Digital Publishing, who was Head of Online Commissioning at The Open University;
  • Jacqueline Steed, former Managing Director and CIO for BT Wholesale, who starts as CDO at the Student Loan Company next week; and
  • DWP CDO Kevin Cunnington, who was previously Global Head of Online at Vodafone.


It’s encouraging that the Cabinet Office, through the GDS, is overseeing the recruitment of IT leaders in government departments. It means the recruits will see their roles as cross-governmental. In the past the civil service culture has required that CIOs show an almost filial respect for their departmental seniors.

It’s a good idea that GDS tries to change age-old behaviours from within by recruiting technology experts with a wide range of experience from the private sector. But how long will they last?

Their challenge will be converting the words “transformation”, “innovation” and “fundamental change” from board papers, press releases, strategy documents, and conference speeches, into actions.

New deputy CTO role in central government – Government Computing



IDS confirms that UC “full” business case not approved

Tony Collins

For the first time Iain Duncan Smith has made the distinction between the full business for Universal Credit, which has not been approved, and the strategic outline business case which has been approved.

The truth emerged after a question in the House of Commons this afternoon by Chris Bryant, shadow minister for welfare reform.

On previous occasions when ministers had been asked whether the business case for UC had been approved they replied that the strategic outline business case had been approved. They omitted to say that the full business case, which assures long-term finance for the programme, has not yet been approved.

Now IDS has confirmed to Bryant that approval of the full business case for UC is due “very shortly”. Bryant had asked IDS whether the business case had been approved – yes or no? IDS gave a lengthy reply before answering the question.  He said:

“The Treasury have approved the funding for Universal Credit in 2013, 2014, and 2015 [though not beyond that] in line with the plan I announced in December last year… the final stage in this process, and the logical point is now, has always been to approve and sign off the full business case covering the full, long lifetime of this programme going on beyond this Parliament.

“We are in discussions over that and will eventually bring the £35bn economic benefits to society … and my right honourable friend (in the Treasury) I am certain will approve that very soon.”

Approval of the full business case is far from guaranteed. Withholding consent gives the Cabinet Office, Major Projects Authority and the Treasury a continued say over how the UC programme develops.

Once approval of the full business is given, the centre of government will have less influence over the programme.

Opposition MPs also asked IDS this afternoon whether he would publish the UC business case. He said that no government has previously published business cases but he would consider the matter and discuss it with MPs.

The DWP has not published any of its internal or commissioned UC reports.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr who drew my attention to the UC debate in the House of Commons today.

Minister did not lie over UC business case – but did officials deliberately mislead?

Millions of pounds of secret DWP reports

DWP – and Cabinet Office – hide new Universal Credit secrets

By Tony Collins

In 2009 Francis Maude promised, if the Conservatives came to power,  that his party would publish “Gateway” reviews on the progress or otherwise or big IT-based projects.

He was surprised when I told him that civil servants wouldn’t allow it, that they wouldn’t want Parliament and the media knowing how badly their big programmes were being managed. Maude said he couldn’t see a problem in publishing the reports.

When Maude and the Conservatives won power, the Cabinet Office promised in its forward plans to publish Gateway reviews but it never happened.

The Cabinet Office told me its forward plans were “draft” (although they were not marked “draft”) and the commitment to publishing Gateway reviews was no longer included. It didn’t say why.

Still Maude worked privately within government to persuade departmental ministers to at least publish the “traffic light” status of major projects – red, amber or green. Eventually this happened – sort of.

Senior civil servants and their ministers agreed to publish the traffic light status of major projects only if the disclosures were at least six months old by the time they were published.

Maude agreed – and last year the Major Projects Authority published its delayed 2013 annual report. It revealed the out-of-date traffic light status of big projects.

Today the 2014 Major Projects Authority annual report is published. Alongside publication, departments are publishing the traffic light status of major projects – except the Universal Credit programme.

Where the DWP should be publishing the red, amber or green designation of the UC programme the spreadsheet says “reset”.

Therefore the DWP is avoiding not only the publication of Universal Credit reports as part of a 2-year FOI legal battle, it has stopped publishing the traffic light status of the Universal Credit programme.

Secrecy over the state of the UC programme is deepening, which could be said to make a mockery of the Cabinet Office’s attempts to bring about open government.

It seems that the DWP is happy for MPs, journalists and the public to speculate on the state of the Universal Credit programme. But it is determined to deny its critics authoritative information on the state of the programme.

Universal Credit is looking to me rather like a programme disaster of the type seen during Labour’s administration. And the detail is being kept hidden – as it was under Labour.

The DWP argues that UC reports cannot be published because of the “chilling effect” on civil servants who contribute to the reports. In other words they will not be candid in their assessments if they know their comments will be published.

What’s remarkable about this claim is the assumption that the status quo works. The DWP assumes that publication of the UC reports – even if there is a demonstrable chilling effect – will have a bad effect on the UC programme. But how could things be worse than they are? The National Audit Office report “Universal Credit – early progress” showed that the programme was being poorly managed.

The absence of a chilling effect has not served the UC programme well. Will the non-publication of a traffic light status for UC serve the programme well?

It may be that more rigorous Parliamentary scrutiny – by well informed MPs – is essential for the UC programme’s welfare.

But for that to happen IDS and the DWP’s ministers and senior civil servants will need to be dragged kicking and screaming towards the door marked “open government”. Will it ever happen? I doubt it.

PS: It appears that the Cabinet Office and its Major Projects Authority have agreed with departments that the MPA’s Annual Report will be published today – a Friday before a Bank Holiday weekend . Is this to reduce the chances it will be noticed by the trade press and national media?  


Shortly after publishing the blog post above a DWP press officer gave me the following statement:

“Universal Credit is on track. The reset is not new but refers to the shift in the delivery plan and change in management back in early 2013.

“The reality is that Universal Credit is already making work pay as we roll it out in a careful and controlled way.

“It’s already operating in 10 areas and will start expanding to the rest of the North West in June. Jobseekers in other areas are already benefiting from some of its positive impacts through help from a work coach, more digital facilities in jobcentres, and a written agreement setting out what they will do to find work.”

The DWP says the “reset” rating reflects the fact that the Secretary of State decided to reset the programme in 2013, with a clear plan developed since then to deliver the programme.

Now this reset has taken place, future Major Projects Authority reports will give a traffic light status, says the DWP.


Why the DWP wants Universal Credit reports kept secret

By Tony Collins

Yesterday the Department for Work and Pensions, via Andrew Robertson, a lawyer in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, issued the grounds for its appeal against an Information Tribunal ruling that four reports on Universal Credit be released.

The four reports in question are:

– A project assessment review on the state of the project in November 2011, as assessed by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.

– A risk register of possible risks to the development or eventual operation of UC as perceived by those involved.

– An issues register of problems that have materialised, why and how they can be minimised or eliminated.

– A milestone schedule of progress and times by which activities should be completed.

The DWP keeps losing appeals to stop the reports being published– but public money being no object when it comes to justifying departmental secrecy, it keeps spending on appeals. The latest appeal is to the “Upper Tribunal”. A decision on whether the appeal can go to the Upper Tribunal will come shortly from the “First-tier” tribunal.

The DWP says its main grounds for appeal is that the Information tribunal “wholly misunderstood the nature and/or manifestation of any ‘chilling effect’. [The chilling effect suggests that public servants will not tell the whole truth in project reviews if they know the reports will be published. The counter argument is that it is the job and duty of public servants to tell the truth, which they are more likely to do if the reports are published and they could be held accountable if it transpires later they had not told the whole truth.]

The DWP said the Tribunal’s misunderstanding about the chilling effect “amounted to an error in law” and was “perverse”.

The DWP’s appeal document is here: Application for Permission to Appeal & Grounds of Appeal 16.04.14 (as fi…


The DWP’s appeal document shows the ease with which its lawyers could credibly argue – with an entirely straight face – that day is night, and night is day, on the basis that daylight in one part of the world always signifies darkness in another part of the world.

The DWP’s lawyers could also credibly argue that black is white, and white is black, on the basis that colour is simply a perception based on the light reflected back to our eyes and that if an object can reflect back all the light we see it is white, and black will be perceived only superficially since it is necessary to doubt everything when assessing the world from a fresh perspective, clear of any preconceived notions.

It is in this Orwell-parodying vein that the DWP’s lawyers argue that four Universal Credit reports need to be kept secret. Below are 2 extracts from the DWP’s appeal document. Anyone who understands what either of these paragraphs means deserves a prominent place in the DWP legal team. Here’s a clue. Having read the paragraphs below three times I think they’re saying that it is difficult to prove whether a leaked document has had a chilling effect.

Says the DWP appeal:

“Any argument as to the ‘chilling effect’ of disclosure is necessarily speculative, because it makes assumptions about the future effect of an event that has not yet occurred (i.e. the future effect of disclosure of particular information). Any argument as to the ‘chilling effect’ of disclosure in the past of any ‘chilling effect’ is likely to be the assertion of persons whose experience in particular working environments has enabled them to assess and evaluate how candour and frankness may alter, or may have altered, in the light of premature disclosure of information…”

Here’s another excruciating extract from the DWP’s appeal document:

“The Tribunal’s assumption that it would be ‘quite easy to assemble’ a ‘before’ and ‘after’ documentary comparison itself exemplifies its erroneous understanding of how a ‘chilling effect’ can be proved. Far from being easy, it would in the majority of cases be impossible to demonstrate that a particular type of document had changed fundamentally as a result of disclosure. That is because the likely effect of disclosure will very probably not be a change in the form in which a document (such as a risk register) is produced. It will rather be a change in the substantive content of the register, as a result of a conscious or subconscious decrease in the candour of those contributing to it. But it will equally be impossible to show what those contributors might have said, had it not been for disclosure: because they will not, in fact, have said it.”

Jonathan Swift, in perhaps the best satirical book of all time, Gulliver’s Travels, described lawyers as a society of men “bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid”.

It’s not that the DWP’s lawyers lie. They don’t need to. This latest appeal is a legal nicety, a way of stringing things out, a display of conformance with the FOI game. Nothing will convince the DWP that it should publish the UC reports in question. Nothing will convince the DWP that it should publish any of its reports on any of its major IT-related projects or programmes.

If they need to, Iain Duncan Smith or Lord Freud, his minister, will simply sign a ministerial veto preventing publication of the UC reports under the FOI Act. If there is a legal challenge to the veto, as with the veto on the release of Prince Charles’ letters, IDS will be pleased to have the matter kicked into touch; and while the legalities stretch out over years the UC reports will continue to moulder in locked DWP cupboards.. Eventually they may be released – when they are so old nobody will care what they say. Or they will have disintegrated ( and no, the DWP doesn’t always keep its most secret reports electronically).

That’s what open government means to the DWP… precisely nothing.

Millions of pounds of secret DWP reports

Judge rules that key Universal Credit reports should be published

DWP throws money at keeping Universal Credit reports secret

Too much dishonesty and secrecy over Universal Credit project?

DWP criticised for “worrying” secrecy

DWP refused to release Universal Credit report to MPs

“Outrageous” secrecy at DWP (2005) 

MPs criticise secrecy in DWP IT probe (2004)