A new old-style government IT disaster?
By Tony Collins
While officials in the Cabinet Office offcials try to simplify and cut costs of Government IT, a part of the Department for Work and Pensions has commissioned a system with 90,000 requirements in phase one.
The projected costs of the child maintenance system have risen by 85% and the delivery date has slipped by more than two years.
Even with 90,000 requirements, phase one, which is due to go live in October, excludes 70 requirements that are “deemed critical” says a report published today by the National Audit Office.
The NAO report indicates that the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission has commissioned an old-style large IT system using traditional developing techniques and relying on large companies.
G-Cloud and SMEs have not featured in the Commission’s IT strategy – and it abandoned agile techniques last year on its child maintenance project.
The Commission put the cost of its new child maintenance system at £149m in January 2011. Ten months later it put the cost at £275m, an 85% increase. The Commission was unable to give the NAO a full explanation for the difference.
Lessons from past failures not learned?
Today’s NAO report says there is a risk the Commission will repeat mistakes by the Child Support Agency whose IT system and business processes were criticised in several Parliamentary reports. The Commission takes in the work of the Child Support Agency – and indeed runs its own systems and the Child Support Agency’s in parallel.
Officials at the Commission told the NAO they have a good track record of holding back IT releases until they are satisfied they will work. “Nevertheless, we found that the Commission is at risk of repeating many of the mistakes of 2003,” said the NAO. Those mistakes include over-optimism and a lack of internal expertise to handle suppliers.
Mixing “agile” and “waterfall” doesn’t work
Initially civil servants at the Commission tried to “mix and match” agile and traditional developing techniques – which Agile advocates say should not be attempted.
In 2011 the Commission gave up on agile and “reverted to a more traditional approach to system development” says the NAO report.
The mix and match approach meant there were two distinct routes for specifying requirements and “resulted in duplicated, conflicting and ambiguous specifications”. The Commission did not have previous experience of using the agile approach.
The Commission’s child maintenance system was due to go live in April 2010 but the delivery date has slipped three times. Phase one is now due to go live in October 2012 and phase two in July next year but the NAO report raises questions about whether the go-lives will happen successfully. The Commission has not planned in its financial estimates for the failure of the system.
The NAO finds that the Commission has struggled to make its requirements for the new system clear. The Commission’s main developer Tata Consulting Services has had protracted discussions over the meaning and implementation of requirements.
The NAO also hints that IT costs may be out of control. It says the Commission may not secure value for money without properly considering alternative options for restructuring and “adequately controlling its IT development …”
These are some of the NAO’s findings:
IT costs could increase further
“The new system is based on ‘commercial off-the-shelf’ products. However, a recent audit by Oracle identified that the performance, maintainability and adaptability of the new system would be key risks. This could increase the cost of supporting the system. The scheme does not yet include plans for the integration with HM Revenue & Customs’ Real Time Information system due to be implemented in 2013, or introducing Universal Credit because of the differing timescales,” says the NAO which adds:
“Achieving the Commission’s plans without further cost increases or delays appears unlikely. The Commission reported to the audit committee in October 2011 on the high risk that the change programme may not deliver phase two functionality within agreed timescales … The Commission did not develop a benefits realisation plan until November 2011.”
103,000 of Commission’s 1.1m cases are handled manually
“Ongoing technical problems have resulted in a large number of cases being removed from the IT system and managed manually. These are known as clerical cases … The Commission has had to operate the ‘old’ and ‘current’ schemes in parallel. Due to flaws in the IT systems for each scheme, some 100,000 cases have had to be processe:d separately by clerical staff at a cost of £48 million,” says the NAO. It takes 900 contractors to manage the clerical cases.
Despite numerous NAO reports on failures of Government IT-based projects over the past 30 years the disasters are still happening, with the same mistakes repeated: over-optimism in every aspect of the project including timetables and financial estimates; excessive complexity and over-specification, no sign of cost-consciousness and, worst of all, an apparent indifference to being held accountable for a major failure.
A glance at the monthly outgoings of the Commission (well done to the coalition for requiring departments and agencies to publish contracts over £25,000) show sizeable and regular payments to familiar names among the large suppliers: HP Enterprise Services (formerly EDS), Capgemini, Tata Consultancy Services, BT Global Services and Capita. There is hardly an SME in sight and no sign of imaginative thinking.
Meanwhile some senior officials at the Commission put in monthly expenses for thousands of pounds in travel, accomodation and subsistence for “Commission meetings”. One wonders: to what useful effect?
Officials at the Cabinet Office are trying to change the culture of departments and agencies. They are encouraging departmental heads to do things differently. They advocate the use of SMEs to show how new ways of working can trounce traditional approaches to projects.
But the Cabinet Office has little influence on the Department of Work and Pensions. Indeed the DWP has lost its impressive chief innovator James Gardner.
We praise the NAO for noting that the Commission risks repeating the IT-related and project management mistakes of the Child Support Agency. But we note with concern that the NAO still puts up with Whitehall’s non-publication of Gateway reviews, which are independent reports on the progress or otherwise of big and risky IT-based projects.
Would the Commission have been so apparently careless of the risks if it had known that regular Gateway reports on its shortcomings would be published?
How many more government IT-based projects are late, over budget and at risk of failing, their weaknesses hidden by an unwritten agreement between the coalition and civil servants to keep Gateway reviews secret?