Are Whitehall IT business cases largely fictional?

By Tony Collins

Today’s report on the e-Borders programme by John Vine, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, is a reminder that central government business cases for major IT-based projects can be largely fictional.

Says the Vine report:

“The failure to identify these risks in the 2007 business plan meant that the original data collection targets, set out in the e-Borders delivery plan, were unrealistic and were always likely to be missed.”

It adds:

“The e-Borders programme business case indicated that e-Borders would allow foreign national passengers to be counted in and counted out of the UK, providing more reliable data for the purposes of migration and population statistics, and in planning the provision of public services. However, we found that the data set collected by e-Borders was not extensive enough for these purposes.”

And:

“Management information shows that between January and September 2012, 2,200 arrests took place as a direct result of the identification of wanted persons. This was less than the original estimate provided in the 2007 business case, which had anticipated 8,200 arrests per year based on the Semaphore pilot.”

One Whitehall insider said that experts are employed to write business cases to a template.  But do any of the promises in the business cases have to be fulfilled? It seems not.  Do business cases have to be realistic? The history of IT-based projects and programmes in central government shows that they don’t have to be.  

Business cases make promises on targets, any savings and costs.  When the targets in the business prove unachievable a new business case is written, and when the revised targets also prove unachievable another is written and so forth.

By the time assumptions in the business case have been properly tested the writers of the business cases are likely to have moved to other departments. Nobody is ever held responsible for writing a business case that proves to have been fictional. And why should they be? The writers of the business cases are in no way responsible for delivering the results.

The National Programme for IT in the NHS – NPfIT –had so many revised business cases nobody counted them.  Perhaps officials at the Department of Health knew they were largely fictional or, to put it more politely, aspirational. But the Treasury requires tick-box business cases to be written to justify money allocated to a project. Is there any point in a business case that’s not realistic? Perhaps. It allows money to be spent on a project that, based on realistic assumptions, would probably not be approved.

Below are the results of the e-Borders business case of 2007. Most of the promises haven’t been fulfilled.

The e-Borders system was based on Project Semaphore which was delivered by IBM in 2004 and it’s clear from the Vine report that the system  has been a success. Project Semaphore is still used because its replacement, which was commissioned in 2007, has been a standard government IT-based disaster with suppliers claiming that government kept changing its mind and the requirements, and the government saying milestones were not met.  In July 2010 the e-borders contract with “Trusted Borders” was terminated.

Vine’s report today,  Exporting the border’? An inspection of e-Borders October 2012 – March 2013, has a table (figure 18) that shows how much the Border Force has been able to meet the promises in the 2007 business case for the e-borders programme:  

1. Improved security by supporting the security and intelligence agencies to track and analyse the activities of terrorists and other national security targets across the border. Delivered? Partially.

2. Increased ability to identify and arrest those of interest to the police. Delivered? Yes.

3. Improved effectiveness and efficiency of border control activity by providing a risk assessment of passengers, facilitating expedited processing of passengers at the border and providing a platform for automated clearance services. Delivered? No.

4. Benefits will accrue from process cost savings as a result of the phasing
out of landing cards and the ability to access electronic movement
records when determining applications for extensions of stay. Delivered? No.

5. Enable the identification of those involved in excise duty avoidance and
impact on the market penetration of smuggled goods. Delivered? Partially.

6. Enable HMRC and DWP to establish the length of time spent in the
UK by an individual permitting easy identification of benefit claimants
living outside the UK and those falsely claiming non domicile status for
income tax purposes. Delivered? No.

7. Benefits to ports and carriers such as:
• reductions in removal and detention costs of those refused entry
(subject to implementation of an authority to carry scheme);
• more effective use of detention space at ports, provided free of
rent to control agencies; and
• remove requirement to procure and administer landing cards.

Delivered? No.

8. The ability to count all foreign national passengers into and out of the
UK enabling the provision of accurate statistical data to support the
provision of services. Delivered? No.

**

The Home Office is now writing a further business case for a new e-Borders programme, and will appoint a new IT supplier. Are its business case  authors expecting their work to be published under fiction or non-fiction? History, it seems, will provide the answer.

[The Home Office said its e-Borders technology was the most advanced in Europe – which says much for the 2004 IBM Semaphore system.]

John Vine’s report.

JohnVine “surprised” by findings

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