Who was, is or will be "responsible", and to whom, for IT success in DWP?

The recriminations as to whether the “The Minister” or “the Permanent Secretary” was “to blame” for the current situation regarding the Universal Credit programme raises some basic issues of responsibility and accountability. The PAC report blames the Permanent Secretary because Ministers are responsible only for policy. They are supposed to leave implementation to their officials. The Permanent Secretary is the most senior official and the “accounting officer” responsible for spend and delivery. But is the “responsibility” of the “accounting officer” as nominal “senior responsible owner” more than a convenient fiction?

The churn of staff at the top of the project since the departures of the world class CIO and CTO who were in charge when the programme was announced meant that no-one was subsequently “in charge” until the appointment of the late Philip Langdale. So who was responsible for the premature departure of both CIO and CTO, the lack of succession planning and the consequent interregnum?

The decision to use Oracle Policy Automation approach, as used for the Australian Centrelink Service was not necessarily wrong. The approach enables in-house staff to use practical experience to develop rules based systems. It was compatible with the pathway approach expected by ministers. So why were all the rapid payback,skunk-work trials killed off? How did it come about that Cabinet Office was asked to agree that the £hundred million limit could be exceeded before the first of the pathways were trialled?

There are fundamental questions regarding how to handle the overlapping responsibilities of politicians and officials if the iterative approach that is inherant in agile methodologies is to be taken seriously – with rules changed if they produce perverse results when trialled. If we really believe that Ministers (and Parliament) are responsible for policy and officials for implementation then agile cannot be applied other than to trivial systems, unless we have a routine for Select Committees, for example, to review the Statutory Instruments that may be necessary to authorise such changes.

The consequence of sticking with delayed big bang (alias waterfall) contracts with major systems integrators is, however, that the requirement will have moved on, long before implementation – and £billions, instead of £hundreds of millions, will be wasted.

We have to find new ways forward. Success in doing so depends on addressing issues related to people skills and processes. This was well summarised at the recent Govnet conference when Mark Thompson, delivering Liam Maxwell’s script because he had been called away, also made clear that “open”, “inter-operable” and “re-usable” referred to processes, not just technology.   

The problem with preserving the fiction that Ministers should agree policy and leave officials to handle implementation is not, of course, confined to DWP. It also lies behind the deepening controversies over the future of BDUK with the indications that officials, or at least the recruitment agency they have retained, expect leadership to be passed to BDUK as a procurement agency.
Nor is it new that policies are implemented in such a way as to achieve the opposite of what Ministers expected. The ways round are equally old – provided politicians and officals work together to bind their respective successors: on both sides of the Whitehall – Westminster divide. A very modest example was when I was drafting the computers in schools section of the policy studies for Sir Keith Joseph back in 1978. A very senior civil servant asked me to include targets which could not be achieved in ways which negated the objective: hence the proposal for a micro-computer in every school by 1982 with the support and materials to go with it. We got the computers on time from DTI funds but it was some years later before we got the materials and support – and on a far smaller scale than proposed.
What is new is the rise of social media means that despite efforts to hide them, problems now commonly surface in time for action to be taken.  How do we turn this into opportunities to deliver better value for money and not just to grab media headlines or play political Punch and Judy.

The idea that Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service should be responsible for the IT side of major change programmes adds, however, a new dimension. If the proposals for a GDS organised, cloud-based benefits systems were to be agreed, would it be Cabinet Office Ministers or Officials appearing before the public accounts committee when the result is as successful as the Obamacare website because the user trials were skipped in order to meet the deadline for going live?