Energy policy is one of the most important things for any country to get right. If energy supplies fail, the impact on the population and economy is immediate and potentially disastrous. So you’d think that debate about it would be fairly open, not least because an open debate helps make a fairly arcane subject a little more accessible. But as readers of this blog will know, the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has something of a reputation for secrecy, doing their best to block any Freedom of information requests and refusing to admit any problems with their expensive projects.
In 2011, the previous UK Government set up a Major Project Authority group to try and provide more insight into the portfolio of large, transformative projects. It’s an excellent initiative, which has just produced its third annual report. As well as showing progress, or lack of it, you get a good idea of which departments are least open. Of all the Government departments, you would probably have expected the Ministry of Defence to be the most secretive about its projects. It’s not. DECC stands out as the one which is still withholding most information on its projects. Which makes you wonder why the Department for Keeping the Lights On is so desperate to keep everyone in the dark? Under the MPA’s pressure, they are releasing more information, but recent events suggest their heart’s still not into open disclosure.
In a previous article I commented on DECC’s reaction to a Freedom of Information request – they just redacted most of the document. Here’s an example of what they think is acceptable disclosure:
That fight is still going on, along with a parallel one to find out how much DECC has paid consultants and lawyers to argue their case for not letting this information out.
The level of denial within DECC is well illustrated by the data in the Major Project Authority report. The report shows what the status of individual projects is within different Government departments. It categorises them using a Delivery Confidence Assessment (DCA), which uses a simple traffic light scheme of Green, Amber and Red (with extra detail of Green/Amber and Amber/Red) to show how they’re getting on. Green is good, amber concerning and red indicates a serious problem. It also has a more worrying grey category, which is euphemistically called Exempt, where no data has been published by the Department, “in accordance with the agreed transparency policy”. In this case “transparency”
appears to mean “We’re keeping it secret”.
It’s pretty obvious that in DECC’s case, the historic position in 2012 was not to tell anybody anything unless it was good. Most of it wasn’t. Under pressure from the MPA, they’ve opened up, admitting that most of their projects are in pretty poor shape. What the MPA report doesn’t tell us, is how accurate these assessments are. We know from DECC’s history of announcing multiple delays that they view most of their projects through rose-tinted spectacles, so their claim of satisfactory progress doesn’t give me great confidence in these DCA assessments.
Although the chart initially looks as if they are improving, it’s interesting to see what happens if we normalise the data based on the total number of projects in the departments. Once you do that, it’s obvious that DECC are still digging their heels in as far as transparency is concerned; they continue to withhold more information and have far fewer successful projects than the MoD. Given the MoD’s historic record of delivering major projects late and above budget, that’s a pretty damning indictment of DECC’s capabilities.
This might not be so important if DECC were one of the smaller departments, but they’re not. The data from the MPA report shows that they don’t have the largest number of projects – they rank sixth behind other departments with only ten major projects.
However, these are BIG projects. If we look at the lifetime costs, then DECC will cost the taxpayer more than any other Government department, accounting for almost 35% of all Major Project spending. That’s more than the combined spend of the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health.
That means it’s vitally important to ensure that DECC delivers. Despite the fact that its projects will cost the taxpayer more than those of any other Government department, most of the time DECC is noticeable by its absence in the MPA report. It’s not held up as an example of good practice; it’s not applauded for improving the status of its projects (largely because it isn’t); it’s not cited as transforming our lives. Compared with the other Departments that attract positive comments from the MPA, it’s just not there, which suggests that even in reporting to the Major Project Authority there’s a distinct lack of information being released.
As well as presenting the performance assessments, the MPA’s annual reports contain some interesting and very well judged statements. Last year, in the foreword, Francis Maude, then the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Paymaster General, wrote that “getting major projects right requires a culture of openness and realism, which gives people the confidence to identify challenges at any stage of a project”. This year Tony Meggs, the current CEO of the MPA reiterated that view, writing that “Problems cannot be confronted unless they are fully acknowledged”. Both sound pieces of advice, but ones which it appears DECC may not be heeding.
At much the same time that this year’s MPA report was being finalised, the new Energy Secretary – Amber Rudd, confirmed that Baroness McDonagh would not be reappointed as chairman of Smart Energy GB – the body responsible for the delivery of the Smart Metering Programme. It appears that the Baroness’ error was to question the GB Smart Metering Programme. A few weeks earlier, she had publicly stated that “as we know from experience, governments are not good at big infrastructure projects because it’s not their business”. Unfortunately she got her timing wrong, making this statement two weeks before the MPA report was published, which would have supported what she said. That gave DECC the opportunity to wield the axe and rid itself of the sort of honest pragmatist that the MPA would like to encourage.
It all points to a culture of denial within DECC which should be worrying the MPA. I have long been critical of the smart metering programme, as I believe it is over-complex and will offer few of the claimed benefits. The MPA puts it in the amber category, claiming that it’s still on schedule for 2020. That’s difficult to believe, as the original plan to reach full deployment in 2020 required the utilities to start installing meters in 2012. That’s already been delayed four years, leaving just four years to complete the deployment, instead of the planned eight. I’d put it firmly in the red category, but DECC’s rose tinted spectacles don’t see colours that way. It does make one wonder whether Amber Rudd was appointed just because of her name, as Amber / Red seems a pretty good description of DECC’s project status.
Others are turning a similar spotlight on other DECC projects, such as the Carbon Capture and Storage programme, which has recently been condemned in Private Eye. Baroness McDonagh’s removal suggests that DECC has not changed its approach to openness – it has just learnt how to play the MPA, mouthing the words that are expected of it, whilst denying any problems with its programmes.
As I said at the start, energy is too important for this type of civil service game. Going back to Francis Maude’s foreword to the previous MPA report, “we must identify and address problems early on before they become an issue”. Perhaps they should address the problem of the culture within DECC. It is already an issue. The UK needs an energy policy which works. Instead we have a vacuum that is being whitewashed by a Department of White Elephants and Lost Causes.