Analysis Government departments are winning significantly more exemptions to splash the cash on expensive IT projects since the departure of former Cabinet Office minister Francis “Mad Frankie” Maude last year, according to a Register analysis.
The Department for Work and Pensions alone was given the green light for £200m in IT spending in the last quarter of 2015, twice the amount it was granted in the same period in 2014.
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Back in March 2011, Maude imposed governmental-wide spend controls on recruitment, consultancy, property, advertising and marketing and ICT. All new ICT spending above £5m was subject to Cabinet Office approval, or more than £1m for software systems.
Maude was seen as a key figure in forcing departments to comply with the IT reform agenda. But in February last year he gave up his seat in Parliament. Since then, MPs Matt Hancock and now Ben Gummer have held the role of Cabinet Office Minister.
One government insider who asked not to be named said: "Before Maude would fight other secretaries of state .. but the new lightweight Cabinet Office ministers can't do that.”
Another source said that the situation has got even worse since the departure of the government's chief technology officer, Liam Maxwell, who left the Government Digital Service (GDS) to become a cross-Whitehall digital czar in April.
He said: “The spend controls sound a mess – there is more getting through but also arbitrary challenges. The problem is it sounds like those running the controls don't have enough tech knowledge but are following tick lists, which is only further irritating departments.”
In a Register analysis of the published spending exemptions for the last three months of 2015, almost every major department won significantly more cash for projects. For example, HMRC won £75m to spend on projects, as opposed to £54m the previous year. The Ministry of Defence was awarded £40m, as opposed to £6m the previous year. The former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills obtained approval for £44m up from £23m in 2015.
That spend is in addition to their £6bn annual spending on on-going IT contracts.
Due to missing year-on-year spend figures, it was not possible to compare all departments' figures. For example, the Department of Health won a massive £543m, mainly due to approval for its £429m Health and Social Care Network in December 2015.
In some instances the spend controls and GDS involvement in departments' IT projects have caused serious conflict. The Rural Payments Agency’s Common Agriculture Policy IT system ended in disaster last, with an overspend of £40m and potentially £180m per year in fines imposed by the EU.
David Mowat MP blamed the intervention of GDS in the programme in 2013, which forced the department to reset its proposals to better align the project with its digital agenda.
He said it was a structure of "power without responsibility", with the Cabinet Office holding all the power over project spend but none of the responsibility for delivery. "No wonder there were personality conflicts.”
Nevertheless, the spending controls have been the primary driver in cutting wasteful IT projects. One source said: “Where they worked really well, was when GDS worked with departments and asked them to go back and work out for themselves a more cost-effective alternative. That process has largely worked well.”
Certainly the spend controls provide the most convincing metric for measuring the Cabinet Office’s claim that it has saved billions of pounds through ‘digital transformation’. ®