By Tony Collins
When senior civil servants know an IT-based project is in trouble and they’re unsure how bad things are, they sometimes offer their minister an all-encompassing euphemism to publicly describe the status of the scheme – teething.
Which may be why the defence secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons in November 2013 that the IT project to support army recruiting was having “teething” problems.
Now Hammond knows more, he says the problems are “big”. He no longer uses the “t” word. Speaking about the £440m 10-year Recruitment Partnering Project in the House of Commons this week Hammond said:
“Yes, there are big problems with the IT and I have told the House on repeated occasions that we have IT challenges…”
Only a few days ago Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude suggested that Government IT was no longer a byword for disaster, though he accepted there were still challenges.
In a speech on how he expected the UK to become the G8’s most digital government by next year (whatever that means) Maude said: “… it’s great news that DVLA is about to launch online driving records which can be used by anyone with a driving licence as well as by the insurance industry.
“Back in 2010 our digital offering was limited at best and government IT was a by-word for disaster … There are still challenges but with the help of the Government Digital Service I am determined that the UK will be the G8’s most digital government by next year.”
A few days later The Times reported on a leaked Gartner report on the army Recruitment Partnering Project. The report expressed concerns about the entire plan, including a poor project management team and delays that were allowed to spiral out of control.
It claimed that the Army’s recruitment division had failed to challenge MoD policy in 2011 that had apparently favoured the less suitable of the two competing bidders chasing the contract.
Hammond is said to be mulling over a £50m payout for Capita to build a new infrastructure for the recruiting system instead of trying to integrate it with systems supplied by the “Atlas” consortium under the Defence Information Infrastructure project. Hammond told the House of Commons this week:
“… there have been initial difficulties with that recruiting process as we transition to the new recruiting arrangements with Capita.
“In particular, we have encountered difficulties with the IT systems supporting the application and enlistment process. The decision to use the legacy Atlas IT platform was deemed at the time to be the quickest and most cost-effective way of delivering the new recruitment programme.
“An option to revert to a Capita hosting solution was included in the contracts as a back-up solution.
“I was made aware in the summer of last year that the Army was encountering problems with the integration of the Capita system into the Atlas platform. Since then we have put in place a number of workarounds and mitigation measures for the old IT platform to simplify the application process, and we have reintroduced military personnel to provide manual intervention to support the process.
“Having visited the Army’s recruitment centre in Upavon [Wiltshire] on 30 October, it became clear to me that, despite the Army putting in place measures to mitigate those problems in the near term, further long-term action was needed to fix the situation.
“It was agreed in principle at that point that the Atlas system was not capable of timely delivery of the Capita-run programme and that we would need to take up the option of reverting to Capita building a new IT platform specifically to run its system, which will be ready early next year.
“… we have already taken action to bring in a range of new initiatives that will make it progressively easier and quicker for applicants … the introduction this month of a new front-end web application for Army recruitment; a simplified online application form; more streamlined medical clearance processes …
“With an improved Army recruitment website, streamlined medicals and an increase in the number of recruiting staff, recruits should see a much-improved experience by the end of this month.
“.. we are looking at further ways of improving the management of the recruiting process in the intervening period before the introduction of the advanced IT system now being developed in partnership with Capita, which is expected to be deployed in February 2015…”
Vernon Croaker, Labour’s defence spokesman, said the recruitment project was an IT fiasco. He wondered why Hammond had initially described the problems as teething.
“Today we have learned [from newspapers] that the problems are even worse than anyone thought and still have not been fixed.
“Will the Defence Secretary tell the House which Minister signed off the deal and who has been responsible for monitoring it?
“… Will the Secretary of State also confirm that £15.5m has been spent building the existing flawed computer system behind the project? Finally, is it correct that this continuing disaster is costing taxpayers £1 million every month?…”
Croaker quoted a minister Andrew Robathan as telling MPs on 10 April 2013 that the “Recruiting Partnering Project with Capita…will lead to a significant increase in recruiting performance”.
Croaker said: “Is there any Member of this House, any member of our armed forces or, indeed, any member of the British public who still believes that?”
In March 2012 Capita announced that the Recruitment Partnering Project was valued at about £44m a year for 10 years and was expected to deliver benefits in excess of £300m to the armed forces. It would “release military recruiters back to the front line” said Capita.
Comment. Francis Maude is probably right: there don’t seem to be as many big IT-based project failures as in previous decades. But then the truth isn’t known because progress reports on big IT-related schemes are not published.
Indeed little would be known about the Capita Recruitment Partnering Project is not for the leaked report to The Times. Without the leak, public information on the state of the project would be confined to Hammond’s “teething problems” comment to MPs last November.
Internal and external reports on the state of the Universal Credit IT project continue to be kept secret. It’s not even clear whether ministers are properly briefed on their big IT projects. Hammond almost certainly wasn’t last year. IDS was left to commission his own “red team” review of Universal Credit IT.
Perhaps the “good news” reporting culture in Whitehall explains why the NHS IT scheme, the NPfIT, continued to die painfully slowly for 7 years before senior officials and ministers started to question whether all was well.
Hammond is still getting wrong information. He described “Atlas” systems in the House of Commons as the “legacy IT platform”.
The Atlas contract for the Defence Information Infrastructure was awarded in 2005 for 10 years. It doesn’t even expire until next year. It may be convenient for officials to suggest that the reason Capita has been unable to link new recruitment systems into the DII network is because DII is old – legacy IT. But the multi-billion pound Atlas DII project cannot be accurately described as “legacy” yet.
If ministers don’t get the truth about their big IT projects until serous problems are so obvious they can no longer be denied, how can Parliament and taxpayers expect to get the truth?
Lessons from NASA?
NASA put in place processes, procedures and rules to ensure engineers were open and deliberately adversarial in challenging assumptions. Even so it has had difficulties getting engineers to express their views freely.
Diane Vaughan in her excellent book “The Challenger Launch Decision” referred to large organisations that proceeded as if nothing was wrong “in the face of evidence that something was wrong”. She said NASA made a series of seemingly harmless decisions that “incrementally moved the space agency towards a catastrophic outcome”.
After the loss of Challenger NASA made many changes. But an investigation into the subsequent tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle indicated that little had actually changed – even though few of the top people who had been exposed to the lessons of Challenger were still in position.
If NASA couldn’t change when lives depended on it, is it likely the UK civil service will ever change? A political heavyweight, Francis Maude has tried and failed to get departments to be more open about progress or otherwise on their big IT-based projects. Permanent secretaries now allow the out-of-date “traffic light” status of some projects to be published in the annual report of the Major Projects Authority. That is not openness.
The failure so far of the Recruitment Partnering Project, the routine suppression of information on technology-based scheme such as this, and the circumscribed “good news” briefings to ministers, suggest that government IT-based project failures are here to stay, despite the best intentions of the Cabinet Office, GDS and the Major Projects Authority.
Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for his email on the recruitment project