Tag Archives: government procurement

Can all councils open up like this please – even Barnet?

By Tony Collins

Bitten by misfortune over its outsourcing/joint venture deal with IBM, Somerset County  Council has become more open – which seemed unlikely nearly a decade ago.

In 2007 the council and IBM formed Southwest One, a joint services company owned by IBM. The deal was characterised by official secrecy. Even non-confidential financial information on the deal was off-limits.

That’s no longer the case. Humbled a little by a failure of the outsourcing deal (including a legal action launched by IBM that cost the council’s taxpayers at least £5.9m)  local officials and their lawyers don’t automatically reach for the screens when things go wrong.

In 2014 Somerset County Council published a useful report on the lessons learnt from its Southwest One contract.

The latest disclosure is a report to the council’s audit committee meeting in June. The report focuses on the poor management and lack of oversight by some of Somerset’s officers of a range of contractor contracts. The council has 800 contracts, 87 of which are worth over £1m and some worth a lot more.

Given that the Council is committed to becoming an increasingly commissioning authority, it is likely that the total value of contracts will increase in the medium term, says the audit report by the excellent South West Audit Partnership (SWAP).

SWAP put the risk of contracts not being delivered within budget as “high”, but council officers had put this risk initially at only “medium”. SWAP found that the risk of services falling below expected standards or not delivering was “high” but, at the start of the audit assessment, council officers had put the risk at only “medium”.

somerset county council2One contract costing more than £10m a year had no performance indicators that were being actively monitored, said SWAP.

None of the contracts reviewed had an up-to-date risk register to inform performance monitoring.

No corporate contract performance framework was in place for managing contracts above defined thresholds.

“Some key risks are not well managed,” says the report.

“It is acknowledged that the Council has implemented new contract procedural rules from May 2015 which post-dates the contracts reviewed in this audit; however these procedural rules contain only ‘headline’ statements relating to contract management.

“Most notable in the audit work undertaken was the lack of consistency in terms of the approach to contract management across the contracts reviewed. Whilst good practice was found to be in place in several areas, the level of and approach to management of contracts varied greatly.

“No rationale based on proportionality, value, or risk for this variation was found to be in place. The largest contract reviewed had an annual value of over £10 million but no performance indicators were currently being actively monitored.”

Report withdrawn

Soon after the report was published the council withdrew it from its website. It says the Audit Committee meeting for 3 May has been postponed until June. It’s expected that the audit report will be published (again) shortly before that meeting.

Fortunately campaigner Dave Orr downloaded the audit report before it was taken down.

Comment

How many councils manage outsourcing and other contracts as unpredictably as Somerset but keep quiet about it?

Why, for example, have Barnet’s officers and ruling councillors not made public any full audit reports on the council’s performance in managing its contracts with Capita?

It could be that councils up and down the country are not properly managing their contracts – or are leaving it to the outsourcing companies to reveal when things go wrong.

Would that regular SWAP reports were published for every council.

All public authorities have internal auditors who may well do a good job but their findings, particularly if they are critical of the management of suppliers, are usually kept confidential.

Freedom of information legislation has made councils more open generally, as has guidance the Department for Communities and Local Government issued in 2014.

But none of this has made councils such as Barnet more open about any problems on its outsourcing deals.

Indeed clear and perceptive audit reports such as the one from SWAP are rare in the world of local government.

All of which raises the question of whether one reason some councils love outsourcing is that they can pass responsibility to suppliers for things that go wrong knowing the public may never find out the full truth because secrecy is still endemic in local government.

Thank you to Dave Orr for drawing my attention to the audit report – and its (temporary) withdrawal.

Somerset Council’s (withdrawn) Audit Committee report

Southwest One – the complete story by Dave Orr

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Has 8 years of IT-based outsourcing really come to this?

By Tony Collins

In public, in the past, Taunton Deane Borough Council’s IT-based outsourcing deal has always been a success. Two years ago council officers and an executive at IBM were particularly upbeat about the success of their partnership.

“Service delivery … viewed in the round, is broadly on track. The majority of services perform well or extremely well…”

Now that the 10-year contract is 2 years away from expiry, which encourages officers to consider what happens then,  more of the truth is emerging.

A council report this month reveals that:

Savings are less than half those first envisaged – £3m against £10m projected. The £3m is an “identified” rather than actual saving.  The projected savings are “now out of alignment with our new financial circumstances and savings requirements”.

– Costs of exiting the contract with the IBM-run Southwest One partnership will be “significant”.

– Unravelling a shared services contract and reallocating work to the 50 council staff seconded to Southwest One will be “complex”. Says the report: “Any disaggregation from the shared service model will be complex and resource intensive and will also be challenging for SWO [Southwest One] as it attempts to satisfy the requirements of three partners whilst protecting and maximising its own financial position”.

– Use of lawyers will be intensive and already consultants have been engaged to advise on the implications of the contract’s ending. Funding this work will mean dipping into the council’s financial reserves.

– the joint venture with IBM has “not attracted new partner authorities” as first envisaged.

– IBM’s global strategy has changed, as has the council’s. Says Taunton Deane’s report of 10 March 2015: “Whilst central government once heralded large scale, multi agency and multi service partnerships with the private sector as the future, their advice now appears to be changing (in favour of) sustained competition, disaggregated services, small short contracts, transparency and diverse supply.”

– Technology strategies have changed. “Computer data centres are being replaced by cloud solutions and mobile technologies have become the norm in many business environments”.

It also emerges that the council is deeply unhappy with its SAP-based transformation, which was directed and implemented by IBM.  The SAP system is “costly”, “complex”, “not responsive to TDBC requirements”, and “resource intensive”.

The SAP system is also a “barrier to sharing services with other district councils”, and “does not support the customer access agenda in respect of channel shift as the SAP Citizen Portal (website) is inadequate”.

The “system is overly complex and users find the processes inefficient”.

Ending the contract means considering in depth:
– staffing implications
– premises and accommodation
– asset & third-party contract transfers
– communications
– logistics, technical infrastructure and system security and access
– intellectual property and authority data
– work in progress transfer
– service transition and knowledge transfer
– company dissolution

The council will also need to consider its service delivery options, which will involve:
– costed business case and recommendations
– understanding risks
– contractual implications and legal advice
– financial implications
– exploratory negotiations with SWO and discussions with the public
partners
– a detailed review to identify the options and costs for potential
replacement systems for the SAP system

Says the council report:

“Preparing for and implementing contract end and potentially exit from SWO [Southwest One] will require a significant amount of time and effort from the authorities due to the volume of work required, some of which is contractual and cannot be avoided.

“Contract end will require robust project governance and the appointment of an authority exit management team including work-streams around: exit management, HR, legal/contract representation, commercial, project management, communications, finance, technology and procurement.

“The resource requirement will be similar whichever future delivery option is selected.”

Comment

Councils that are considering large IT-based outsourcing deals could learn much from Taunton Deane’s experiences. At the start of such deals clients and suppliers find it easy to talk about what they’ll deliver – they need prove nothing by actions at this stage.

Taunton Deane and Somerset County Council, its lead partner in Southwest One, blew the trumpet in advance of their deal with IBM. Big savings were promised, and a transformation programme that would be led by a world-class supplier.

Barnet Council’s leading councillors  and officers also published numerous upbeat reports and gave zestful speeches in praise their forthcoming outsourcing deal with Capita.

At Taunton Deane, over time, expensive actions replaced cheap words. Partners did not join the partnership so economies of scale did not materialise. The transformation proved more complex than first envisaged. Reality overwhelmed aspirations.

Nobody could escape from the fact that the council was passing across to IBM a host of conflicting realities and expectations. Beyond the rosy Disney world of pre-contract euphoria was a harsh landscape.

Officers and councillors were actually passing across costs that were unlikely to decrease, and savings requirements that were likely to become more demanding. On top of this the supplier had to make a profit.

How can big savings and costly IT-led transformations not be in conflict with the inbuilt demands of suppliers whose share price is sensitive to the exacting expectations of investors who require ever increasing returns?

Councils will continue to outsource because their officers and lead councillors are unlikely to be in place in the later stages of a contract when they could otherwise be accountable for an administrative, financial and technological mess. In the early stages nobody need be held accountable for anything.  Words are sufficient. Promises cannot be tested yet.  Guarantees sound impressive.

It’s only actions that are hard to achieve.

Perhaps the answer is for auditors to become more proactive. The National Audit Office has this week published well considered guidelines for local authority auditors which calls for “professional scepticism”.  Auditors can stop councils making mistakes. They can see through promises and so-called guarantees.  It’s actions that matter.

At the start of a contract when the supplier’s executives, council officers and lead councillors are all in love they’ll say anything to reassure to each other. But everyone knows that when expectations are at their peak there is only one way to go – Taunton Deane has discovered to its cost.

Thank you to openness campaigner Dave Orr for providing the information on which this blog is based. 

TDBC SW1 contract exit planning Item 10 March 2015 (2)

How well is new passport IT coping with high demand?

By T0ny Collins

In 1989 when the Passport Agency introduced new systems avoidable chaos ensued. A decade later, in 1999, officials introduced a new passport system and avoidable chaos ensued. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, apologised to the House of Commons.

Last year HM Passport Office introduced, after delays,  a replacement passport system, the Application Management System. It was built with the help of the Passport Office’s main IT supplier CSC under a 10-year £385m contract awarded in 2009.

The Passport Office said at the time the new system was designed “to be easier to use and enable cases to be examined more efficiently”. So how well is the system coping with unusually high demand, given that an objective was to help passport staff deal with applications more efficiently?

The answer is that we don’t know: open government has yet to reach HM Passport Office. It publishes no regular updates on how well it is performing, how many passports it is processing each month or how long it is taking on average to process them. It has published no information on the performance of the Application Management System or how much it has cost.

All we know is that the system was due to be rolled out in 2012 but concerns about how well it would perform after go-live led to the roll-out being delayed a year. In the past 18 months it has been fully rolled out.

Comment

Has there been a repeat of the IT problems that seriously delayed the processing of applications in 1989 and 1999? In both years, passport officials had inadequate contingency arrangements to cope with a surge in demand, according to National Audit Office reports.

Clearly the same thing has happened for a third time: there have been inadequate contingency arrangements to cope with an unexpectedly high surge in demand.

How is it the passport office can repeatedly build up excessive backlogs without telling anyone? One answer is that there is a structural secrecy about internal performance.

Despite attempts by Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office to make departments and agencies more open about their performance, the Passport Office is more secretive than ever.

It appears that even the Home Secretary Theresa May was kept in the dark about the latest backlogs.  She gave reassuring statistics to the House of Commons about passport applications being processed on time – and only days later conceded there were backlogs.

It’s a familiar story: administrative problems in a government agency are denied until the truth can be hidden no longer because of the number of constituents who are contacting their MPs.

David Cameron said this week that up to 30,000 passport applications may be delayed.

One man who contacted the BBC said he had applied for a passport 7 weeks before he was due to travel. The passport office website said he should get a new passport in 3 weeks. When it had not arrived after 6 weeks he called the passport office and was told he’d be called back within 48 hours. He wasn’t, so he called again and was told the same thing. In the end he lost his holiday.

In 1989 the IT-related disaster was avoidable because managers continued a roll-out even though tests at the Glasgow office had shown it was taking longer to process passport applications on computers than clerically. Backlogs built up and deteriorating relations with staff culminated in industrial action

In 1999 electronic scanning of passport applications and added security checks imposed by the new systems caused delays and lowered productivity.  Even so a national roll-out continued. Contingency plans were inadequate, said the National Audit Office.

Does the “new” Application Management System show down processing of applications? We don’t know. The Passport Office is keeping its 2014 statistics to itself.

Decades of observing failures in government administration have taught me that chaos always seems to take officialdom by surprise.

If departments and agencies had to account publicly for their performance on a monthly and not just an annual basis, the public, MPs, ministers and officials themselves, would know when chaos is looming. But openness won’t happen unless the culture of the Passport Office changes.

For the time being its preoccupation seems to be finding whoever published photos of masses of files of passport applications seemingly awaiting processing.

The taking and publication of the photos seems to be regarded as a greater crime than the backlogs themselves.  To discourage such leaks the Passport Office has sent a threatening letter to staff.

But innocuous leaks are an essential part of the democratic process. They help ministers find out what’s going on in their departments and agencies.  Has government administration really come to this?

 

Whitehall defies NAO and Cameron on publishing status of big projects

By Tony Collins

Government action to cut the number of failures of big projects including those with a major ICT component has made a difference, the National Audit Office reports today.

In its report “Assurance for major projects”  the NAO is largely supportive of actions by the Government, , the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority and the Treasury in setting up reviews of major high-risk projects, including ICT-based programmes, to ensure that if they are failing they are put back on track or cancelled.

The NAO says the Government’s decision to “dismantle” the NPfIT was taken after the project was assessed by the Major Projects Authority.

But the report also shows how civil servants have managed to defy a mandate from the Prime Minister, and a separate NAO recommendation in 2010, for information on the status of big ICT and other high-risk projects to be published.

Says the NAO report

“The ambition to publish project information, as part of the government’s transparency agenda, has not been met.

“Our 2010 report recommended that the government should publicly report project status. We consider that public reporting of project information is key to providing greater accountability for projects and improving project outcomes… Regular transparent reporting of performance which highlights successes and non-compliance would also help to build an enduring assurance system.”

Separately in the report the NAO says

“There has been a lack of progress on transparency.  The [Cabinet Office’s Major Projects] Authority has not yet met its commitment to publish project information in line with government’s transparency agenda. The Authority cannot deliver this objective on its own. Senior level discussions are ongoing, between Cabinet Office, HM Treasury and departments, on the arrangements for public reporting.”

Should ministers intevene to force publication?

But the NAO report does not raise the question of why ministers have not intervened to force civil servants to publish the status information on high-risk projects.

Campaign4Changehas argued that publishing status reports on big ICT projects and programmes would be the most effective single action any government could take to reduce the number of failures. (see “Comment” below)

Prime Minister’s 2011 mandate

The NAO’s 2010 recommendation for status information on major projects to be published was backed by a mandate from the Prime Minister in January 2011 which included the undertaking to “require publication of project information consistent with the Coalition’s transparency agenda”.

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has recommended that departments publish information on the state of their major IT-based projects and programmes; and the Information Commissioner has rejected civil service arguments for not publishing such information.

In addition Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said, when in opposition, that the Conservatives, if they gained power,  would publish “Gateway” review reports soon after they are completed.  Gateway reports are similar to the assurance reviews carried out for the Major Projects Authority.

Yet none of this has happened.

The “rebel” civil servants

How is it that a group of civil servants who are opposed to publishing information on the status of large risky projects can defy the Prime Minister, Francis Maude, the National Audit Office, and the all-party Public Accounts Committee? Those recalcitrant civil servants argue that assurance reviewers would not tell the whole truth if they knew their assessments would be made public.

But how do we know they tell the whole truth when the reports are kept confidential? The Information Commissioner has pointed out in the past that civil servants have a public duty to be candid and honest. If they are not because their reports are to be published, they are failing in their public duty.

Today’s NAO report says there are differences of opinion among civil servants over whether to publish status information on projects.

Says the NAO

“There has been some support for greater transparency from departments who believe that tracking and publishing major milestones could create helpful tension in the system.

“However, concerns have been raised that increased transparency could limit the value of assurance, as it could inhibit assurance reviewers and project staff holding full and frank discussions.

“Some senior project staff also have concerns that public reporting could have a negative commercial impact, and would prefer delayed rather than real-time public reporting.”

The Cabinet Office told Campaign4Change in 2010 and 2011 that instead of publishing status reports on each major project, it will publish an annual report on the state of its programmes.

But that hasn’t happened either.

Says the NAO:

As well as the objective to publish project information, the [Major Projects] Authority has not yet met its objective to publish an annual report on government’s major projects.

“The Authority initially expected to publish an annual report in December 2011 but is now expecting the report to be published in May or June 2012. The format of the annual report, and the information it will contain, has yet to be decided.”

Comment:

Many times over the last 20 years I have said that publishing status reports on major IT-based projects and programmes would be the most effective single action any government could take to deter departments from going ahead with overly ambitious schemes that are doomed to fail. If, against good sense, impractical schemes are approved, publishing status information will make all the difference.

Permanent secretaries will not lose sleep over a failing project, but they will not want information on it published – which is why that information should be published.

Publishing status information would give civil servants a good reason to tackle weaknesses as they developed.  Permanent secretaries may not mind losing public money on a failing project or programme. They will always fear embarrassment, however.

Who is really in control of Whitehall – civil servants or No 10? David Cameron’s office has issued a mandate that requires status information on projects to be published. The NAO has issued a similar recommendation. How long can the civil service hold out against the political will?

Links:

NAO report – Assurance for major projects

Firecontrol – same mistakes repeated on other projects

Lessons from “stupid” NHS IT scheme – Logica boss

Some wise words from Andy Green, CE of Logica, on lessons from the NPfIT and other failures

By Tony Collins

Andy Green, CE, Logica

Andy Green, chief executive of Logica, speaking to the BBC’s Evan Davis about the NHS National Programme for IT, NPfIT, said:

“It is a stupid thing for the supply chain to have answered, and it’s a stupid thing for the customer to have asked for.”

Green was speaking on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line about corporate “cock-ups and conspiracies”. Other guests were Phil Smith, chief executive of Cisco UK and Ireland, and entrepreneur Luke Johnson.

Green, who joined Logica as CEO in January 2008, said he was in one of the bidders for the NPfIT when he was at BT.

The plan, he said, had been to put the same system into every hospital but later foundation hospitals were able to opt out of the NPfIT.

“Half way through [the NHS IT programme] foundation hospitals were invented,  and suddenly foundation hospitals did not have to go with what the NHS said at all”.

He added: “There were fundamental errors in the whole procurement process, and then real difficulty in delivering what had been promised.”

Evan Davis said the NHS IT scheme had cost billions, achieved little and had been running for years. He asked Green: “What’s the story?”

Green said some things went well including the supply of a network that connects pharmacies and doctors. But …

“What  had been promised by the supply chain was fantastic software that had not been designed yet that was going to completely revolutionise hospitals and delivering that proved to be horrendous… in the end it is foolish to set out on a programme that is going to take seven years with a fixed procurement up front, which says we all know everything about it …”

Lessons

Green spoke of the need for the supplier to understand exactly what the customer wants and whether it is deliverable before the parties agree to draw up a project specification.

“I think the world is beginning to learn about incrementalism. Let’s do something that we can all see and understand.

“Some of our clients we now work with in common teams – we call it co-management – and only when we have worked out exactly what is going to work in the client, and we can deliver, do we specify it as a project.

“Those things tend to go a lot better. We have got used to the fact that we don’t know everything.”

Luke Johnson

Luke Johnson, who is a former chairman of Channel 4, criticised IT suppliers for not getting it right often enough.  “I have bought quite a lot of projects and been involved as a customer many times… As a customer it is a very scary thing because clearly you are not an expert. Your providers are experts and yet they do not seem to be able to get it right often enough it seems to me, given how much they charge.”

Green said there is a high failure rate in the IT industry. “The client sets out one view at the beginning and then they have to change. The sensible defence to this is the partitioning into smaller items and relationships.

“We bluntly always think of our clients over the long run. You need to know people so that you can sit down and have a decent conversation. Too often when these things start to go wrong everybody runs for the contract. Experienced buyers and sellers do not do that: they run for each other and they talk it through, and they work it out, and they put it back on track.

“It’s value that matters. It’s doing something that really changes Patisserie Valerie’s business. [Luke Johnson is chairman of Patisserie Valerie.] What can you do that would transform that. If you can get that done, then if it over-runs by 20% it probably does not matter.”

Luke Johnson: “It depends how much money you’ve got.”

Lowest-price bids

Phil Smith, Cisco

Phil Smith of Cisco said government often has the biggest problems because “they squeeze so much in procurement there is little good value and goodwill left”.He said that on good projects problems are tackled by cooperation but “if every piece of value has been squeezed out before you procure it, your only option is to get something back from it”.

Beware procurement experts

Johnson said if procurement experts take control, and their mantra is to save money, it can often lead to trouble. “I fear that in many aspects of business, it gets down exclusively to price rather than value.

“Quality is out the window. They [procurement experts] can show a saving so they have justified their bonus but the supplier may be rubbish.”

Green said government is in a difficult position when a project starts to go wrong. “You are stuck in a procurement and the poor individual responsible is almost certainly facing a union or a consumer group or a doctor who doesn’t want the thing to happen anyway.”

Evan Davis made the valid point that the costs of projects in the public sector have to be underestimated to get approved. Realistic estimates would be rejected as too costly.

“… The person who is championing this project has to demonstrate to superiors that it is not too expensive. It is only by taking the cheapest bid and starting the thing off that you can sell the project higher up and of course down the line it costs a heck of a lot more.”

Luke Johnson: “We all know in many sectors there are providers that will take things at cost or even less with a view that they will somehow bulk it out and make a margin on the way. They know the client will need variations.

Innovation means taking risks

Luke Johnson: “If you want an innovative society, if you want one that is willing to take risks, to generate new technologies, new jobs, new businesses, then it involves failures and cock-ups.

“I think the British have got vastly better in recent years in accepting that as part of the journey and that is incredibly healthy.”

BBC R4’s The Bottom Line – Cock-ups and conspiracies.

Some good IT project news from America

By David Bicknell

It’s always good to be able to write about IT project success. So I’m following up on Steve Kelman’s report in Federal Computer Week in the US about an October 2011 GAO report called Critical Factors Underlying Successful Major Acquisitions, which details seven recent government IT systems acquisitions – costing from $35 million to $2 billion – that have met their targets in terms of schedule, cost, and performance.

Aside from its conclusions on the critical success factors, the report says this about Agile software development: 

“….the use of Agile software development was critical to the success of the program. Among other things, Agile enhanced the participation of the end users in the development process and provided for capabilities to be deployed in shorter periods of time.”

As Steve suggests, the report should get wider circulation to show us what we might learn from success instead of from failure.

We’d be interested in your views.

G-Cloud – it’s starting to happen

By Tony Collins

Anti-cloud CIOs should “move on” says Cabinet Office official, “before they have caused too much harm to their business”.

For years Chris Chant, who’s programme director for G Cloud at the Cabinet Office, has campaigned earnestly for lower costs of government IT. Now his work is beginning to pay off.

In a blog post he says that nearly 300 suppliers have submitted offers for about 2,000 separate services, and he is “amazed” at the prices. Departments with conventionally-good rates from suppliers pay about £700-£1,000 a month per server in the IL3 environment, a standard which operates at the “restricted” security level. Average costs to departments are about £1,500-a-month per server, says Chant.

“Cloud prices are coming in 25-50% of that price depending on the capabilities needed.”  He adds:

“IT need no longer be delivered under huge contracts dominated by massive, often foreign-owned, suppliers.  Sure, some of what government does is huge, complicated and unique to government.  But much is available elsewhere, already deployed, already used by thousands of companies and that ought to be the new normal.

“Rather than wait six weeks for a server to be commissioned and ready for use, departments will wait maybe a day – and that’s if they haven’t bought from that supplier before (if they have it will be minutes).  When they’re done using the server, they’ll be done – that’s it.  No more spend, no asset write down, no cost of decommissioning.”

Chant says that some CIOs in post have yet to accept that things need to change; and “even fewer suppliers have got their heads around the magnitude of the change that is starting to unfold”.

“In the first 5 years of this century, we had a massive shift to web-enabled computing; in the next 5 the level of change will be even greater.  CIOs in government need to recognise that, plan for it and make it happen.

“Or move on before they have caused too much harm to their business.”

He adds: “Not long from now, I expect at least one CIO to adopt an entirely cloud-based model.  I expect almost all CIOs to at least try out a cloud service in part of their portfolio.

“Some CIOs across government are already tackling the cloud and figuring out how to harness it to deliver real saves – along with real IT.  Some are yet to start.

“Those that have started need to double their efforts; those that haven’t need to get out of the way.”

Cloud will cut government IT costs by 75% says Chris Chant

Chris Chant’s blog post

School report on Govt ICT Strategy – a good start

By Tony Collins

In a review of progress on the Government’s ICT Strategy after six months, the National Audit Office says that the Cabinet Office has made a “positive and productive start to implementing the Strategy”.

The NAO says that at least 70 people from the public sector have worked on the Strategy in the first six months though the public sector will need “at least another 84 people to deliver projects in the Plan”.

The UK Government’s ICT Strategy is more ambitious than the strategies in the US, Australia, Netherlands and Denmark, because it sets out three main aims:

– reducing waste and project failure

– building a common ICT infrastructure

– using ICT to enable and deliver change

The US Government’s ICT Strategy, in contrast, encompasses plans for a common infrastructure only – and these plans have not produced the expected savings, says the NAO.

In a paragraph that may be little noticed in the report, the NAO says that senior managers in central government have plans to award new ICT contracts (perhaps along the pre-coalition lines) in case the common solutions developed for the ICT Strategy are “not available in time”.

The NAO report also says that “suppliers were cautious about investing in new products and services because of government’s poor progress in implementing previous strategies”.

Of 17 actions in the Strategy that were due by September 2011, seven were delivered on time. Work on most of the other actions is underway and a “small number” are still behind schedule says the NAO.

The NAO calls on government to “broaden the focus to driving business change”.

Some successes of the UK’s ICT Strategy as identified by the NAO:

* The Cabinet Office has set up a small CIO Delivery Board led by the Government CIO Joe Harley to implement the ICT Strategy. The Board’s members include the Corporate IT Director at the DWP, CIOs at the Home Office, MoD, HMRC, Ministry of Justice and Department for Health, together with key officials at the Cabinet Office. The departmental CIOs on the Board are responsible directly to Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, for implementing the ICT Strategy in their departments and are accountable to their own minister. No conflicts have arisen

* Senior managers in central government and the ICT industry are willing to align their strategies for ICT with new cross-government solutions and standards but need more detail.

*  Some suppliers have offered help to government to develop its thinking and help accelerate the pace of change in ICT in government.

* The Cabinet Office intended that delivering the Strategy would be resourced from existing budgets. Staff have been redirected from other tasks to work on implementing the Strategy. “We have found collaborative working across departmental boundaries. For example HMRC and the MoD have combined resources to develop a strategy for greener ICT. Teams producing the strategies for cloud computing and common desktops and mobile devices have worked together to reduce the risk of overlap and gaps.

* The BBC has shown the way in managing dozens of suppliers rather than relying on one big company. For BBC’s digital media initiative, the Corporation manages 47 separate suppliers, says the NAO.

* The Cabinet Office intends that departments will buy components of ICT infrastructure from a range of suppliers rather than signing a small number of long-term contracts; and to make sure different systems share data the Cabinet Office is agreeing a set of open technical standards.

* Some of the larger departments have already started to consolidate data centres, though the NAO said that the programme as a whole is moving slowly and no robust business case is yet in place.

* The Cabinet Office is starting to involve SMEs. It has established a baseline of current procurement spending with SMEs – 6.5% of total government spend – and hopes that the amount of work awarded to SMEs will increase to 25%. Government has started talking “directly to SMEs”, says the NAO.

Some problems identified in the NAO report:

* Cloud computing and agile skills are lacking. “Government also lacks key business skills. Although it has ouitsourced ICT systems development and services for many years, our reports have often stated that government is not good at managing commercial relationships and contracts or procurement.”

* Suppliers doubt real change will happen. The NAO says that suppliers doubted whether “government had the appropriate skills to move from using one major supplier to deliver ICT solutions and services, to managing many suppliers of different sizes providing different services”.

* The Government CIO Joe Harley, who promoted collaboration, is leaving in early 2012, as is his deputy Bill McCluggage. The NAO suggests their departures may “adversely affect” new ways of working.

* The NAO interviewed people from departments, agencies and ICT suppliers whose concern was that “short-term financial pressure conflicted with the need for the longer-term reform of public services”.

* The culture change required to implement the Strategy “may be a significant barrier”.

* The Cabinet Office acknowledges that the government does not have a definitive record of ICT spend in central government (which would make it difficult to have a baseline against which cuts could be shown).

* The Cabinet Office has not yet defined how reform and improved efficiency in public services will be measured across central government, as business outcomes against an agreed baseline.

**

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today: ” ICT is going to play an increasingly important role in changing how government works and how services are provided.

“The Government’s ICT Strategy is in its early days and initial signs are good. However, new ways of working are as dependent on developing the skills of people in the public sector as they are on changes to technology and processes; the big challenge is to ensure that the Strategy delivers value in each of these areas.”

NAO report:  Implementing the Government ICT Strategy: six-month review of progress.

HM Courts Service hides “Libra” IT’s new shortcomings

By Tony Collins

A report published today by the National Audit Office highlights how limitations in Libra, a case management IT system in use across magistrates’ courts, has contributed towards  HM Courts Service’s inability to provide basic financial information to support the accounts.

HM Courts Service claimed a success for the troubled Libra system in 2008 – but the failure of the system was more enduring and deep-rooted than thought. The problems were kept hidden until today’s NAO report because the present and past governments have kept “Gateway” progress reports on IT-based projects confidential.

In an unusual step, the head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, has “disclaimed” his audit opinion on the accounts of the HM Courts Service, largely because of a lack of financial information.

Disclaiming an audit opinion is more serious than qualifying the accounts of a government department or agency. Qualifying the accounts means that Morse has reservations on whether figures presented to the NAO are accurate. Disclaiming an audit opinion means that Morse lacks the basic information on which to give any opinion on the accounts.

MP Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, says that disclaiming an audit opinion is the “auditor’s nuclear button”.

The NAO report today puts the focus on inadequacies in the “Libra” system which is supplied by Fujitsu and STL, with integration work by Accenture.

Fujitsu originally estimated the cost of Libra, a case management system for magistrates’ courts, at £146m. By March the estimated costs were £447m and were expected to rise further. The Libra project took 16 years to complete.

Problems and cost increases on the Libra system were well known in 2003 when the NAO criticised the management of the project. After that all went quiet until in 2008 when HM Courts Service declared Libra a success.

Now the NAO’s Morse says:

“Because of limitations in the underlying systems, HM Courts Service has not been able to provide me with proper accounting records relating to the collection of fines, confiscation orders and penalties. I have therefore disclaimed my audit opinion on its Trust Statement accounts.”

In a statement the NAO criticises the Libra system directly:

“Today’s report highlights how limitations in Libra, the case management IT system in use across magistrates’ courts, and similar systems have contributed towards  HM Courts Service’s inability to provide information at an individual transactions level to support the accounts.”

The NAO says that the Ministry of Justice plans to investigate further the functionality of Libra to determine whether it is possible to provide evidence to support accruals-based financial reporting.

Says the NAO:

“In particular, the Ministry and HMCTS [HM Courts and Tribunals Service] believe that it may be possible to obtain evidence over fines and confiscation orders if a suitable report is run shortly after the month end.

“ However, the Ministry and HMCTS have informed me that they may not be able to address these fundamental issues until Libra is significantly enhanced or replaced with a new case management and accounting system. The timing of this enhancement or replacement is currently uncertain. However, the Ministry have committed to ensuring that any replacement for Libra includes accounting functionality to enable financial reporting.”

MP Richard Bacon, who has followed the Libra project for many years, says:

“This is a disgraceful position for the Courts Service to have reached.  It is true that the Libra computer system is both expensive and useless but we have known this for many years (Cost of Courts’ IT system triples) and public bodies still have a duty to keep proper records.

“We are now looking at a possible £1.4 billion loss in uncollected fines and penalties partly because of the longstanding shambles that passes for record-keeping in the courts service.

“For centuries, people have kept accurate records and accounts using pen and paper. This could still be done now if needed and if there were sufficient will to do it.”

Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:

“It is really worrying that HM Courts and Tribunals Service can’t produce basic financial records.  HM Courts Service is responsible for collecting fines and penalties, but we can’t tell if this money is accounted for properly.

“The Comptroller and Auditor General has taken the rare step of disclaiming his audit opinion – the Committee will be looking for HM Courts and Tribunals Service to improve.”

Comment:

It is astonishing that HM Courts Service has been able to continue in operation without MPs having idea until today that the costly Libra computer system was unable to provide basic financial information.

Parliament was kept in the dark about Libra’s new shortcomings because “Gateway” review reports in IT-based projects and programmes are kept confidential. It is a pity for taxpayers and accountability on major projects that ministers are surrendering to the wishes of civil servants who want Gateway reports kept confidential.

NAO report on Courts Service.

Officials pay supplier invoices – then raise purchase orders

This morning the National Audit Office has published a report that says the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in up to 35% of cases, raises its purchase order after it gets the invoice from suppliers.

It’s unlikely that any private sector company could survive if it didn’t know what it owed, didn’t know what it had bought, and had to wait for an invoice from the supplier to raise the purchase order.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, says in his report today:

“While I welcome the considerable improvements that the Commission has made in its controls over procurement, there are still areas where it needs to make improvements. In particular, up to 35% of the Commission’s purchase orders are still not raised until after the Commission has received an invoice for goods and services.

“This means that Commission staff are committing funds without going through proper processes and are avoiding some of the checking processes. Consequently the Commission does not have an accurate understanding of its committed expenditure at any one point in time.

“The Chief Executive has made it clear that he takes noncompliance with these processes seriously such that in cases of repeated non-compliance delegations will be withdrawn.”

A common practice? 

Is this absence of proper accounting worryingly common in central government and its agencies, particularly on IT contracts?

Auditors told us that in the case of NPfIT contracts they found some invoices that were paid when they came in, awaiting reconciliation with any past paperwork.

This, perhaps, ties in with the experiences of Conservative MP Richard Bacon, a member of Public Accounts Committee who, when asking civil servants for a breakdown of IT spending has, in the past, been referred to the department’s IT supplier.

On the C-Nomis IT project for prisons, the National Offender Management Service paid £161m without keeping any record of what the payments were for.

The Cabinet Office wants to cut the £17bn or so spent every year on public sector IT. But before departments, agencies and other organisations cut their costs they’ll need to know what those costs are. Maybe they should ask their major IT suppliers? We wonder if the domination of GovIT by a small number of suppliers has got to the stage where it’s the suppliers managing the civil service IT budgets. If that’s the case it is not the fault of suppliers.