Martin Read report – Exclusive! How Spend Matters got it published

Last week, a report by Martin Read, ex CEO of Logica, into government data was published. It wasn’t picked up on very widely, and no-one has asked the question – as it was dated July 2012, why has it only now surfaced?

That’s because certain people, probably civil servants, probably in Treasury, but I can’t be sure, didn’t want it published because it exposes just how bad the government’s management of data is – or, I suppose we should say, how bad it was a year ago.  And here’s the story of why it has now emerged...

Francis Maude mentioned the review in a speech back last Spring, and data being core to improving government procurement of course, I noted that and waited for its publication with interest. When we got into the Autumn  and nothing appeared, I asked some questions. It quickly became obvious that no-one really wanted to talk about it, so I fired off an Freedom of Information request on December 7th. On 9th January they told me they needed more time to reply, (hard to see why, unless the request caused some consternation) , then on the 20th February they told me they weren’t going to let me see it because they intended to publish it in their own time.

That is the response you often get to FOIs in two situations.

1. There really is a plan to publish soon so you’ll have to wait for that – fine.

2. Rats! We didn’t want to publish this, but at least if we say we plan to do so, then that buys us a bit of time to work out how to mitigate the risk / damage from publication.

I’ll leave you to guess which one applied here. I have a pretty good idea!  And the press release which focused very much on what has been done already to address Read’s points shows the benefits of delay – giving officials time to both take real actions on some points and think of good rebuttals and excuses for others.

Far from me to suggest that some of the historical control freakery of Treasury has survived from the Brown years, but whilst I do think Francis Maude and most of his Cabinet Office staff have a genuine belief in openness and transparency, I’m not sure that has percolated into Treasury.  Anyway, I asked a couple of times since I got the response to make sure they didn’t forget.. and finally it appeared last week!

Why, you might ask, were people so unwilling to publish? Well, we’ll look at the report in more detail later this week but here are a couple of quotes. This one sums up nicely on one key issue that many would feel is wrong about the civil service.

“One senior finance leader provided feedback that their board would not be interested in seeing any details of expenditure on the department’s £250+ million operational expenditure because these costs are dwarfed by the billions of pounds worth of grants distributed by the department to wider public sector bodies (which are outside the departmental accounting boundary)”.

Read identified many shortcomings – here’s another which does have procurement relevance

“It is not possible for departments to benchmark their performance meaningfully against other departments unless use common data standards for their management information. This is not generally the case at present. Indeed, there are only limited instances where common data definitions are applied consistently (for example, headcount). Coalescence towards common data standards has been very slow”

Anyway, more to come, and the proposals for data release in the future look positive ... and you can read the report here.

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Voices (3)

  1. Ellen:

    I think a lot of the mismanagement comes down to a lack of ownership. If no-one has overall responsibility for the delivery ( which ultimately boils down to cost effectiveness) of a project – then actually every person involved will happily consider that element to be someone else’s job. That’s just human nature. Get the accountability right and the right people (ie those who will actually use software) involved in the first place – and you’re more than halfway there.

  2. Dave Orr:

    If you can’t “follow the data” (information) then you can’t “follow the money” either and you certainly cannot be managing effectively, as your “digital dashboard” instrument panel is displaying wrong stuff or even nothing!

    I suspect that the professional IT press will be interested in following up on this report as well.

    Councils too have also been historically slow to recognise the importance of “Information Management” and it takes an incident with social care records on a memory stick to provide the reputational damage incentive.

    Not to mention the serious issues around child protection from poorly managed and badly shared data up to and including avoidable death.

    In mitigation, I guess when a Council is facing choices like this:

    “Street lights may be turned off to help fund elderly care, councils warn”

    then spending limited budgets on “Information Management” is never going to be a priority, without a much better understanding that bad data equals bad management equals potentially a child protection issue or an avoidable death (NHS too).

    Do Government and Councils need to ring fence the Information management budget?

    Should the audit role (NAO & Audit Commission & NHS) specifically and assertively check up on Information Management practice within an assessment of (say) “Use of Resources”?

    Should the training courses for every professional body (CIPFA, Social Care, BMA, Civil Service etc) ensure that the next generation of managers are digitally trained for the 21st century with specific syllabus on Information Management?

  3. Toni:

    Well done in following this report through!

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