By Tony Collins
A National Audit Office memorandum published today on the BBC’s failed £125.9m Digital Media Initiative is a reminder – as in most failed big IT-enabled projects – that the causes have nothing to do with software and everything to do with management and people.
The NAO’s memorandum tells an all too familiar story with government IT (and the BBC is a public sector organisation):
– Over-optimism about the ability to implement
– Over-optimism about the ability to achieve the benefits
– Unclear requirements
– No thorough independent assessment of the technical design to see whether the DMI was technically sound
– The successful completion of the most straightforward of technology releases for the DMI, but these proved an unreliable indicator of progress.
– Technical problems and releases not meeting user expectations which contributed to repeated extensions to the timetable for completing the system, eroding user confidence and undermining the business case.
– Poor internal reporting. “The governance arrangements for the DMI were inadequate for its scale, complexity and risk. The BBC did not appoint a senior responsible owner to act as a single point of accountability and align all elements of the DMI. Reporting arrangements were not fit for purpose,” said the NAO.
– In the same way as the DWP failed with Universal Credit to take full account of recommendations in review reports, the BBC “did not adequately address issues identified by external reviewers during the course of the programme”. The BBC had been aware that business requirements for the DMI were not adequately defined.
The BBC estimates that it spent £125.9m on the DMI. It offset £27.5m of spending on the DMI against transfers of assets, cash and service credits that formed part of its financial settlement with DMI’s previous developer Siemens. This left a net cost of £98.4m.
The BBC cancelled the DMI without examining the technical feasibility or cost of completing it, said the NAO.
The Corporation has written off the value of assets created by the programme, but is exploring how it can develop or redeploy parts of the system to support its future archiving and production needs.
Diane Coyle, Vice Chairman BBC Trust, said:
“We are grateful to the NAO for carrying out this report, which reinforces the conclusions of the PwC review commissioned by the Trust. It is essential that the BBC learns from the losses incurred in the DMI project and applies the lessons to running technology projects in future.
“The NAO’s findings, alongside PwC’s recommendations will help us make sure this happens. As we announced last December, we are working with the Executive to strengthen project management and reporting arrangements within a clearer governance system. This will ensure that serious problems can be spotted and addressed at an earlier stage.”
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today:
“The BBC Executive did not have sufficient grip on its Digital Media Initiative programme. Nor did it commission a thorough independent assessment of the whole system to see whether it was technically sound.
“If the BBC had better governance and reporting for the programme, it would have recognized the difficulties much earlier than May 2012.”
The DMI project is exemplar of all that tends to go wrong in big government IT-enabled projects. Strong independent oversight and independent reviews that were published would have provided the accountability to counterbalance over-optimism. But these things never seems to happen.
There are also questions about why the BBC took on the project from Siemens and turned what could have been a success into a financial disaster.
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Why did they take it on? The cynic in me says that’s easy, a group of trendy digital media types sitting around their trendier coffees, blue-sky thinking themselves into a frenzy of ‘yes we can do this!’ without thinking about all the tedious stuff the NAO points out was lacking.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a trendy coffee and I love thinking outside the box in a blue sky but ultimately it must come down to context and accountability when it’s public funds you’re playing with.
If it’s your money and your start-up the sky can be the limit, blue or otherwise. When it’s not there should be governance.