Are poor communications contributing to Whitehall’s IT failures?
Members of the House of Lords’ Communications Committee took an interest today [16 July] in the quality of the Department of Health’s communications over the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].
I was among several journalists who gave evidence to the committee on whether there has been any improvement in openness and trust between the media and government since the recommendations in a review report on government communications by Bob Phillis, former Chief Executive of the Guardian newspaper group. It’s known as the Phillis Review.
The journalists questioned by the committee this morning included Nick Robinson, Chief Political Editor at the BBC; his equivalent at ITV Tom Bradby; Adam Boulton, Political Editor at Sky News; Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor at The Times; and Frank Gardner, Security Correspondent at the BBC.
I confirmed that there had been signs of more aggressive behaviour and amorality in some government communications. Ministers were sometimes given incorrect information. Two ministers had, during a debate on the NPfIT in the House of Commons, and reading from their briefings, incorrectly attributed to the National Audit Office positive statements about the NPfIT that were not made by the NAO.
I also said that officials and press officers do not lie – but information they give can be misleading through omission. For example when I asked the Department of Health about some specific penalties being paid by NPfIT suppliers, officials replied simply that they did not “fine” local service providers. [The NPfIT contracts do not use the word “fines” – but suppliers are sometimes penalised.]
Some officials know only too well that truth can be effectively disguised by releasing a form of words which suggests only one meaning to the questioner – and that meaning is wrong.
I made it clear to the committee that, in my view, the culture of secrecy has continued at the Department of Health, particularly over the National Programme for IT, though with some honourable exceptions.
Not all departments and agencies are unnecessarily secretive. I said there have been good communications of late at the Passport Office, in part because of the standards set by the head of the Identity and Passport Service [James Hall]. He seems to regard the culture of civil service secrecy as a problem to be overcome, not as a means of manipulating messages to the media and the public.
Poor communications between press departments, officials and the media can reflect poor communications at the top of the department, I said. There is evidence that, at board level, officials are unwilling to admit to having problems. They don’t use the word “problem”, preferring the euphemisms “challenge” and “issue” and even then rarely. This Panglossian approach to project management could be contributing to the failures of some major Whitehall IT-based projects and programmes: failures seem to take politicians and heads of departments and agencies by surprise.
Nigel Hawkes at The Times noted that communications from the Department of Health left much to be desired.
There were mixed views among the journalists about whether things have got better or worse since the Phillis review. Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson and Tom Bradby gave evidence on the health or otherwise of the “lobby” system in which political journalists receive unattributable, anonymous information.
Nick Robinson said most briefings are on the record, and in any case, in an internet age, there is pressure on him via emails to be clearer about where he obtains his information. He said that unattributed stories can cause a flurry of online questions about whether his stories are based on reliable information or guesswork.
“It certainly has acted as a discipline on me that there is an increasing sense among the audience that they demand the right to know how we know,” he said.
The inquiry by the House of Lords – Computer Weekly report
Phillis Report – full version
Phillis Review – a useful commentary