Tag Archives: Major Projects Authority

Universal Credit – the ace up Duncan Smith’s sleeve?

By Tony Collins

Some people, including those in the know, suspect  Universal Credit will be a failed IT-based project, among them Francis Maude. As Cabinet Office minister Maude is ultimately responsible for the Major Projects Authority which has the job, among other things, of averting major project failures.

But Iain Duncan Smith, the DWP secretary of state, has an ace up his sleeve: the initial go-live of Universal Credit is so limited in scope that claims could be managed by hand, at least in part.

The DWP’s FAQs suggest that Universal Credit will handle, in its first phase due to start in October 2013, only new claims  – and only those from the unemployed.  Under such a light load the system is unlikely to fail, as any particularly complicated claims could managed clerically. 

The second phase of Universal Credit, which is due to begin in April 2014, is the important one, in terms of number of claimants. But this phase may be delayed with a general election approaching, according to Government Computing, which quotes the FT.

This is from the DWP’s website:

“Universal Credit will start to take new claims from unemployed people in October 2013.”

It continues:

“For people in work this process will begin in April 2014. The remainder of current claims will be moved to Universal Credit from 2014, with the process being complete by 2017.”


The projected costs of real-time information, an HMRC project on which the success of Universal Credit depends, have increased by tens of millions from an initial estimate of £108m, according to Ruth Owen, Director General, Personal Tax, HMRC.  At least HMRC is being open about RTI – relative to the DWP which continues to deny FOI requests for the risk register or independent assessments of the progress or otherwise of the Universal Credit IT project.

Auditors at the National Audit Office found that the Rural Payment Agency’s Single Payment Scheme for farmers dealt with so few claims that it could have been handled manually for a fraction of the cost of an IT system that went awry. Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith has learnt from that episode.

As Universal Credit phase one will handle only new claims from the unemployed, there may be no need initially for complicated monthly interactions with HMRC’s Real-time information [PAYE] systems. 

There may be further restrictions on go-live UC candidates. The DWP may insist that unemployed new claimants are single, childless, between certain ages and not receiving certain benefits or tax credits. They may have to have a valid bank account.

So the numbers of claimants and simplified processing will maximise the chances of a go-live success.

This may explain why the Major Projects Authority has not intervened (yet) to delay the October 2013 go-live date.   

It makes sense to minimise complications when going live. But the Passport Agency found that although the go-live of new systems in 1999 went well, extra IT-related security checks slowed down the issuing of passports, such that backlogs built up, people lost their holidays and queues built up at passport offices. It was a project disaster. 

The real test of the agile-based Universal Credit project will be when existing benefit claimants move onto the new systems in large numbers. This will not happen before the next general election. The plan is for the roll-out to be completed by the end of 2017.

Meanwhile does Iain Duncan Smith plan to claim a victory for the go-live of Universal Credit when the initial transactions are so simple, and the numbers involved  so insignificant, they could be managed clerically if necessary?

 As long as Universal Credit does not reduce payments to the genuinely disabled and the most needy, it is generally regarded as a good idea. It should cut fraud and administrative costs. 

It’s a pity though that no central department can be open about the progress of its major  IT-related projects; and on forcing these progress reports out of dark departmental corners the coalition has made no difference at all.

Will GDS delay Universal Credit by a year? – David Moss’s blog

All change for police IT – again?

By Tony Collins

Police IT is supposed to have undergone a transformation over the past 13 years, thanks in part to a Home Office national police IT programme called NSPIS – for which Securicor Information Systems was awarded contracts worth more than £140m.

NSPIS contracts awarded in 1999 included:

– Case preparation: acquisition and delivery of forms, photographs, police reports, statements and other materials required in court for trying cases.

– Custody: booking in, tracking and monitoring of individuals held in police cells.

– Command and control: coordination and management of police operations.

– Crime: analysis of case histories and crime statistics.

With some reluctance, dozens of police forces took NSPIS systems with mixed success. The national transformation did not happen, though large sums were spent. NSPIS [National Strategy for Police Information Systems] was followed by another national IT-led transformation programme ISIS [Information Systems Improvement Strategy].

Now the government plans another police IT-led transformation. It is setting up a new company to improve police IT [as if the last so-called transformation programmes had not existed].

In a joint statement, the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities say the new company will give strategic ICT advice to forces and procure, implement and manage ICT solutions for forces.

The company will “help police forces to improve their information technology and get better value for money from contracts”.

The police ICT company Ltd is now owned by the Association of Police Authorities and the Home Office but will be handed over to police and crime commissioners following elections in November.

In setting up the company Nick Herbert, the policing minister, says

“While some police IT is good, such as the new Police National Database, much of it is not.  There are 2,000 systems between the 43 forces of England and Wales, and individual forces have not always driven the most effective deals.

“We need a new, more collaborative approach and greater accountability, utilising expertise in IT procurement and freeing police officers to focus on fighting crime.

“By harnessing the purchasing power of police forces, the new company will be able to drive down costs, save taxpayers’ money, and help to improve police and potentially wider criminal justice IT systems in future.”

Chairman of the Association of Police Authorities Councillor Mark Burns-Williamson says that when the new company is handed over to police and crime commissioners “we want it to be fit for purpose and efficient in delivering IT tasks”.

The aim of the new company, says the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities, is to “free chief officers from in-depth involvement in ICT management and enable greater innovation so officers have access to new technology to save time and ensure better value for the taxpayer”.

Police IT in a poor state?

UKAuthority.com reports that Tom Winsor, the new chief inspector of police, is “staggered” at the ineffectiveness of police IT.

Giving evidence to MPs he said

“I was staggered when I did my field work, in the police pay review, at just how low-tech the technology of the police is in volume crime and so on. It is extraordinary. They have computer screens that resemble those that we saw in the early 1980s. I mentioned the police officers doing their own two-finger typing and so on.

“It is the most extraordinarily archaic system. I think it is part of HMIC‘s role to expose inefficiency – and that surely is massively inefficient.”

Winsor said he had watched police officers standing in a queue for up to four hours at a time to book in a suspect. The private sector would not tolerate such delays, and would quickly change the system, he said.


With 43 forces buying their own IT it seemed sensible for the Home Office to try and introduce national systems.  As Neil Howell, the then IT Director at Hampshire Police Authority, said in March 2006, there was “political pressure to take up some systems – e.g. NSPIS Case and Custody ” but some national systems did not “match current level of functionality or requirements …”

In the NHS, several national IT-led transformation programmes preceded the NPfIT, but nobody in power wanted to know about the past when NPfIT was launched in 2003.

An extraordinary effort – and money – went into NSPIS  but police forces resented being told what to buy and in general were happy with own IT choices. Many were particularly happy with NSPIS rival systems from Canadian company Niche.

Perhaps the Home Office should accept that, apart from natural national systems such as the  Police National Database, Automated Numberplate Recognition, and the “Impact” intelligence sharing system, police IT is too complicated to be done nationally.

Mandating rarely works

Mandation rarely if ever works in the public sector. The Home Office and its agents cannot tell 43 autonomous police forces what technology to buy and implement.  Public bodies can, and do, circumvent mandation, sometimes by simply ignoring it, as National Audit Office reports point out.

The Department of Health  tried to tell trusts what to buy under the NPfIT and that didn’t work. Like police forces NHS trusts are largely autonomous.

Governments don’t have memories when it comes to failed IT-led transformation programmes. It may be good for civil servants and suppliers to learn new skills and experiment with IT on recycled transformation programmes.

But should suppliers learn at the expense of taxpayers? And should new ministers and civil servants keep launching new and exciting IT-led transformation programmes that fail as miserably as the last – giving excuses for a replacement set of ministers and civil servants to renew the cycle?

The Department of Health has finally learnt that what’s needed before the launch of any major  IT-led initiative is a frank appraisal of what has gone wrong in the past, and what can be learnt.  The DH achieves this in the “Impact Assessment” section of its latest IT strategy.  It’s not beyond the wit of police forces, the Home Office and the Association of Police Authorities to follow the DH’s example.

Unless they do, perhaps David Pitchford’s Major Projects Authority at the Cabinet Office should think twice before allowing large sums to be spent on new police IT.

Joint statement of Home Office and Association of Police Authorities

Cabinet Office promises unprecedented openness on risky projects

By Tony Collins

The Cabinet Office has defended its decision not to publish “Gateway” review reports on the progress or otherwise of large and risky IT and construction projects.

Gateway reviews are regular, short and independent audits on the state of medium and high-risk projects. Their publication would allow  MPs and the public to have an early warning of a major project in trouble – rather than know of a project failure only after it has happened.

Campaigners have sought for a decade to have the review reports published; and the  Information Commissioner, in requiring the publishing of ID Card gateway reviews under FOI,  dismissed the generalised arguments put forward by officials for Gateway reviews to remain confidential.

The Conservatives, when in opposition, promised to publish Gateway review reports if they came to power. But departmental heads and senior officials have stopped this happening.

Now the Cabinet Office, in a statement to The Guardian, has suggested that the first annual report of the Major Projects Authority will more than compensate for the non-publication of Gateway review reports.

The statement says that the Authority’s ( delayed)  first annual report will “bring unprecedented scrutiny and transparency to our most expensive and highest risk programmes, changing forever the culture of secrecy that has allowed failure to be swept under the carpet”.

The statement continues:

“Historically, fewer than a third of government major projects have delivered to original estimates of time, cost and quality. Since April 2011 the Major Projects Authority has enforced a tough new assurance regime and begun raising leadership standards within the Civil Service.”

The Guardian asked the Cabinet Office whether the traffic light red/amber/green status of Gateway reviews will be published.  The spokesman replied:

“The annual report will contain details of the status of major projects.“


We applaud the Major Projects Authority in scrutinising, and in rare cases helping to stop,  departmental projects that don’t have adequate business cases. The Authority’s work is vital in pre-empting ridiculous schemes such as the NPfIT.

But project  disasters that rely on  IT continue, at the Ministry of Justice for example.  Like the National Audit Office, the  Major Projects Authority has limited resources and cannot scrutinise everything. Even if it could, the system of government is not set up in such a way as to allow the Authority to have final say over whether a project is stopped, curbed or re-negotiated.

Preventing failure

Gateway review reports are a critical component in preventing IT-related project failures. If officials know the whistle is going to be authoritatively blown on their failing schemes they are likely to do all they can to avoid failure in the first place. If they know that nobody will be aware of doomed schemes until those involved have left or moved, they will have less incentive to make projects a success.

An annual report is no substitute for the contemporaneous publishing of Gateway review reports. Each Gateway review is several pages and puts into context the traffic light red/amber/green status of the project. An annual report will not contain every Gateway review report. If just the traffic light status is published that will be a start, but without the context of the report what will it mean?

[And it’s worth bearing in mind that the first annual report of the Major Projects Authority is already six months late.]

The non-publication of Gateway review reports is  a victory by senior officials over ministerial promises.  How can we believe that the coalition is committed to unprecedented openness when the final say remains with Sir Humphrey?

Cabinet Office promises to challenge culture of secrecy on IT projects.

Whitehall to relent on secrecy over mega projects?

Firecontrol shows how much Major Projects Authority is needed

When an investigative team from BBC File on 4 went to a business estate near Taunton, they saw an empty “hi-tech fortress” that looked like a NASA control room.

Nobody was working there. Nearly an entire wall of the control room was fitted with 50-inch monitors – 20 of them. They were blank.

That centre – and a further eight purpose-built buildings like it – remain empty because control room software has yet to be installed.

The £469m wasted on the centres and the failed IT project to support them – together called Firecontrol – was the subject yesterday of a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee.

Mistaken recommendation

At the hearing Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, said that officials made a “mistaken” recommendation to go-ahead of a new IT and control centres for fire services.  

Kerslake accepted points made the Committee’s chair Margaret Hodge that officials recommended the go-ahead of the Firecontrol IT project without reliable figures on likely costs, savings or benefits

No finalised business case or project plan 

Also absent when the IT procurement went ahead was a finalised project plan or business case, MPs heard yesterday. The full business case for Firecontrol wasn’t published until June 2007, three years after the start of the IT project. A revised business case was published in 2009, the year before the project was cancelled. 

Rush to buy new systems – as with the NHS IT scheme

The Committee was told that procurement of new systems was underway by May 2004, amid a deep level of ignorance, because officials were in a rush.

It was a similar story on the NPfIT: officials were in a hurry to complete the procurement of new systems. And as with the NPfIT, there was no local buy-in. “Firecontrol was flawed from the outset because it did not have the support of the majority of those essential to its success – its users,” said the NAO.

Local fire services were under no statutory duty to use the regional control centres. As with the NPfIT, central government officials thought they could persuade local services to use the centres. They failed.

Firecontrol has lost a minimum of £469m, according to the NAO. The Department cancelled the scheme in December 2010 because of continued uncertainties. The coalition has approved a new project due to cost about £84m – which prompted MPs to ask yesterday why the original scheme could not have been done much cheaper.

What about the officials who made the flawed recommendation to go ahead?

Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, asked Kerslake why his department did not seek a “ministerial direction” before embarking on a project that was so flawed. Ministerial directions are issued by departments’ most senior civil servants when they disagree with their minister’s decision so strongly that they refuse to be accountable for it.

Kerslake replied that no ministerial direction was issued because it was officials who were recommending the project’s go-ahead.

Said Kerslake: 

“I don’t think it came to that [Ministerial Direction] because the view of officials was to recommend, with some of issues identified as concerns, that the scheme went ahead. This was not a case where a Direction would have applied because the recommendation from officials, as I understand it, was to go ahead with the scheme.”

MPs heard that Kerslake was a non-executive director at the department when the decision was taken to go ahead with Firecontrol. Didn’t he object to the scheme’s approval?

Kerslake said he raised concerns to the board about the large scale of the investment compared to the problem. “The concern I had at the time, whether fire and rescue services were willing to take on this technology, were all points that were discussed. The view of the officials on balance at the time was that the benefits of doing the scheme outweighed the risks and costs.”

Kerslake said that as a non-executive he was on the board in an advisory role.

Conservative MP Richard Bacon, a long-standing member of the committee, asked Kerslake if his scepticism as a non-executive was recorded.

“It was clearly part of the discussion. I have not gone back and checked every note of the meetings.”


MP Richard Bacon suggested yesterday that the only accountability for the failure of the project was Sir Robert Kerslake’s having an uncomfortable two hours before the Public Accounts Committee.

As for his officials, the only accountability for the waste of £469m was to sit in seats behind him, periodically passing him notes. An observer at the hearing said public seats in the committee room “seemed to be packed full of advisers passing notes to the four people hauled before the committee”.

It’s a civil service tradition that officials are not generally held responsible for recommendations because the final decision on major projects is taken by the department’s minister; yet ministers will tend to know only what they are told by department’s civil servants. 

If the officials are incompetent in drawing up their recommendations, they may be incompetent in the briefings they give their ministers.

Even so it would be a brave minister who rejected the recommendation of permanent and supposedly expert staff.

That’s why the coalition’s setting up of the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority is such a good move: it will challenge departmental complacency and over-confidence in its own abilities and decisions. 

Cabinet Office Francis Maude announced on 31 March 2011 that “from today all major projects will be scrutinised by the new Major Projects Authority”. 

Most importantly it has powers from the Prime Minister to oversee and direct the effective management of all large-scale projects. Though there are still uncertainties among Cabinet Office officials about the extent to which the Major Projects Authority can intervene in major projects, it has an enforceable mandate from Cameron to scrutinise proposals for major projects; and the Authority is run by the redoubtable Australian David Pitchford who reports to the Cabinet Office’s Chief Operating Officer Ian Watmore whose brief includes making efficiency savings.

With the Major Projects Authority central government has the chance to stop flawed projects such as Firecontrol going ahead. Yesterday’s PAC hearing showed how badly the Authority is needed as an independent challenge. The existence of the Authority is one of the most important developments in government IT for decades – provided it makes effective use of the PM’s mandate. 

Firecontrol chiefs list reasons for project’s collapse.

Prime Minister David Cameron intervenes on future of NPfIT

By David Bicknell

My Campaign4Change colleague Tony Collins has written an interesting piece on his ComputerworldUK blog about Prime Minister David Cameron’s intervention in the future of the NPfIT.

In his piece, Tony argues that perhaps the most important part of Cameron’s statement was that a new deal cannot be signed with CSC until it has been reviewed by the Major Projects Authority, which is a partnership between the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.