The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to release documents detailing the performance of key IT suppliers to the Universal Credit programme.
The documents were written as part of the review into problems on Universal Credit that led to scathing criticisms from the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2013.
The reports contain assessments of the value for money of work completed by four key IT suppliers – IBM, HP, Accenture and BT.
Some of the reports were written by the suppliers themselves – a fact cited as a conflict of interest and akin to “marking their own homework” by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee who investigated the troubled Universal Credit project last year.
As recently as December 2013, the NAO further criticised the DWP for failing to achieve value for money during the IT development for Universal Credit.
The DWP had to write off £40m of the IT work delivered on Universal Credit, with a further £90m to be scrapped before the controversial welfare reform programme goes fully live in 2017/18.
Culture of secrecy
Publication of these [reports] would be likely to have a damaging effect
Department for Work and Pensions
The existence of the value for money reports was first revealed in an appendix to the September 2013 NAO report. Computer Weekly requested copies of the documents under freedom of information laws, but the DWP declined, saying their release would not be in the public interest.
Computer Weekly appealed that decision, explaining – at length – the reasons why the value for money of work completed by IT suppliers, on a flagship project that ran into trouble, was clearly in the public interest. But that appeal has now been denied by the DWP.
“The reports were designed to consider the state of readiness and worst-case scenarios; they did not present a balanced picture of the programme for public consumption,” said the response from the DWP freedom of information team.
“The reforms in question are extensive and innovative and the public interest must weigh strongly in favour of ensuring that government is able to access advice from all its key stakeholders and exchange views in an uninhibited way.”
The response added: “Publication of these [reports] would be likely to have a damaging effect on the thoroughness of such reviews in future and their ability to provide a comprehensive and reliable assessment of risk.”
The NAO report itself cited a culture of secrecy surrounding the Universal Credit project as one of the reasons for the early problems that blighted the programme and which forced secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith to initiate a wide-ranging progress review.
As a result of that review, several major interim milestones for the project were put back; a new “twin-track” approach to IT development was introduced; and millions of pounds of existing IT work was thrown away. However, the DWP has consistently said the programme is now back on track and will meet targets for budget and timescales.