Will government ever accept that it needs to learn from its mistakes?

Yesterday, the government reluctantly agreed to share with the public a series of documents on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) controversial Universal Credit programme.

I say reluctantly, because work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, like a stroppy child stomping her feet in protest, said she would not be doing it again, and highlighted that the decision to release the documents was “exceptional”.

It was indeed exceptional, because freedom of information campaigners and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have been fighting the government on access to these documents for donkey’s years. The department has fought tooth and nail to not have, what by now are old, historic reviews of the programme, put in the public domain.

[Warning: before you go on, be aware this does turn into a bit of a rant].

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see the internal project assessment reviews (PARs) on UC published, and it’s definitely a huge win for transparency, but this is just one battle, and the fight is far from over.

Most of the time, it’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it. And just because the government is releasing the documents, it’s not saying yes to transparency.

It’s not the first time it’s been told. This dark cloud of secrecy has been hanging over Universal Credit since the beginning, and it’s faced constant criticism for it. A Computer Weekly headline in 2014, stated: “MPs accuse MPA of disguising Universal Credit in a “veil of secrecy”. In 2016, a similar headline said: “PAC criticises Universal Credit programme for lack of transparency

Also in 2016, civil service CEO John Manzoni stated that lessons learned from digital technologies will help improve the track record of all major projects in government, but have they? Because this isn’t a DWP specific problem, this is a chronic government disease.

IT programme manager and freedom-of-information campaigner John Slater has called it a “fortress mentality”, and I am inclined to agree.

Large government IT projects seem to suffer from many of the same problems. I have several times posed the question: Why are big government IT projects still going wrong? I think I finally have the answer: BLINKERS. This is of course a simplistic answer, and there are many more factors in play, but one thing’s for sure:

It doesn’t matter how many times they are told, or who does the telling. It seems that those running government IT projects often refuse to take any advice or criticism on board. Instead, they just plough ahead.

When news broke that critical border IT systems won’t be ready in time for Brexit for instance, the government simply shrugged its shoulders and went oh well, “risks to the border won’t change immediately.” No need for concern here.

Now, I refuse to believe that they don’t see the problems themselves, or that there aren’t people running around Whitehall tearing their hair out in panic, swearing loudly when something goes wrong. Yet, what the public hears is that it’s all good. Even when it’s clearly not.

If I have one piece of advice to any department planning to run a large government IT project in the future, it’s this: Sometimes, it’s better just to tell the truth. If you admit you’ve messed up, people tend to not be as angry. But playing this whole Stepford Wives game of pretending everything is perfect, won’t work when the cracks start to appear.

Back to the DWP. McVey says that it’s “ critical to the effectiveness of the Infrastructure & Projects Authority assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential”.

And s McVey, you do have a point. Sometimes, there is certain things happening in government that probably should never see the light of day. But there is this thing called redaction. If you want names left out, or certain pieces of information to stay secret, you can take those out. Will that anger some? Sure. But keeping all the information out of the public eye will anger more.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so when will government accept it needs to be more transparent?

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