What’s going on at DWP Digital?

Dear readers, I’d like to ask for your opinion. Let me tell you a story.

In late October, I was approached by a whistleblower in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

This individual, who understandably requested anonymity, claimed that hundreds of IT projects at DWP Digital – the IT department of DWP – had been put on hold and hundreds of IT contractors laid off.

This person said that senior IT managers at DWP had conducted a series of “all hands” meetings to inform staff and contractors of the move, caused – they claimed – by a huge overspend in budget.

Afterwards, I talked to several other contacts – some of whom said they had also been in similar internal meetings, while others knew of colleagues who attended. All of them, independently, told a similar story – about 300 contractors released, as many as 500 IT projects put under review. There were different figures quoted for the alleged overspend – £200m said one, £180m said another, £250m said others; another source claimed that DWP Digital spent the year’s budget in just seven months. Some of these sources named the DWP managers who held the meetings at which this information was announced.

Admittedly, some of these contacts were among the freelancers let go – so it could be said they had a grudge. But I also heard from people still working in the civil service, and their stories were consistent.

When I approached DWP for comment, they strongly denied the budget overspend – but did not dispute the figures around contractors and projects.

The official line from DWP was that it was normal practice to conduct regular reviews of projects to make sure resources are focused on delivering value for money for taxpayers.

The DWP also said that it is “on track to deliver record digital transformation on a scale larger than most FTSE 100 companies” in this financial year.

Soon after, I followed up with DWP again to clarify some of the issues.

I asked for details of which digital projects are due to be completed this year to “deliver record digital transformation”. I was told they don’t release that information.

In the weeks since then I’ve been approached by several other people with links to DWP Digital, all offering fresh information. They mentioned specific IT projects they claimed had been put on hold – including some strategically important initiatives. I was also told about a large systems integrator being brought in to review the operating model for technology.

I put these questions to DWP. The department doesn’t talk about individual projects, they said. But they added that certain projects I’d mentioned were “progressing well” and “on track to deliver.” They work with many different suppliers, they said, but could not comment on their involvement in specific projects.

There was one exception – I asked if it was true that Carer’s Allowance, one of the “exemplar” digital projects, had been put into “maintenance mode” with all current development work paused. That wasn’t denied (or confirmed)  – instead it was pointed out that the service has high levels of customer satisfaction (which I hadn’t asked about).

Previously I had also asked DWP if they could confirm what the annual budget is for DWP Digital. I was told it wasn’t possible to provide a figure, because the budget is associated with so many different projects that it would take too long to work it out. It was suggested that I submit a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, and that way DWP could assess if the information can be provided within the constraints of FoI rules.

We now know that the DWP Digital budget for financial year 2016-17 is £1,032m. That figure was provided in less than 72 hours in response to a parliamentary question submitted by Labour’s shadow digital economy minister, Louise Haigh.

An earlier question from Haigh had revealed that DWP Digital’s year to date spending as at 30 September 2016 was £516.8m. Another question she posed also showed that DWP Digital had reduced the number of IT contractors in use this year from 652 down to 359 as of 2 November.

The spending and budget figures quoted support DWP’s original response that there is no overspend and they asked me to make that absolutely clear.

At this stage all I can add is there are still people claiming potentially significant problems at DWP Digital – knowledgeable sources, independently of each other, offering very similar stories about projects being delayed and raising questions about spending.

MPs have in the past repeatedly criticised DWP and other officials for a “lack of transparency”, a “veil of secrecy” and a “culture of good news” in their dealings over the flagship Universal Credit welfare reform programme.

IT programme manager and freedom-of-information campaigner John Slater spent four years battling DWP to release documents relating to Universal Credit under FoI, before the department was finally ordered to do so by a judge.

And during the period before Universal Credit was “reset” in 2013, journalists were consistently told the project was on track and on budget, despite persistent rumours of significant problems that were subsequently proved correct.

DWP is, however, a different place now – different ministers, in a different government. The department has offered a response to every question I have asked – even if the level of detail provided leaves the situation open to speculation.

So perhaps the people who approached Computer Weekly claiming problems at DWP Digital are, as the department insists, simply wrong.

What do you think?

Update: 22 November

DWP’s chief digital and information officer Mayank Prakash has posted an article on LinkedIn, which is at least partly a response to the story in Computer Weekly discussed above. You can read his article by clicking here.