By T0ny Collins
In 1989 when the Passport Agency introduced new systems avoidable chaos ensued. A decade later, in 1999, officials introduced a new passport system and avoidable chaos ensued. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary, apologised to the House of Commons.
Last year HM Passport Office introduced, after delays, a replacement passport system, the Application Management System. It was built with the help of the Passport Office’s main IT supplier CSC under a 10-year £385m contract awarded in 2009.
The Passport Office said at the time the new system was designed “to be easier to use and enable cases to be examined more efficiently”. So how well is the system coping with unusually high demand, given that an objective was to help passport staff deal with applications more efficiently?
The answer is that we don’t know: open government has yet to reach HM Passport Office. It publishes no regular updates on how well it is performing, how many passports it is processing each month or how long it is taking on average to process them. It has published no information on the performance of the Application Management System or how much it has cost.
All we know is that the system was due to be rolled out in 2012 but concerns about how well it would perform after go-live led to the roll-out being delayed a year. In the past 18 months it has been fully rolled out.
Has there been a repeat of the IT problems that seriously delayed the processing of applications in 1989 and 1999? In both years, passport officials had inadequate contingency arrangements to cope with a surge in demand, according to National Audit Office reports.
Clearly the same thing has happened for a third time: there have been inadequate contingency arrangements to cope with an unexpectedly high surge in demand.
How is it the passport office can repeatedly build up excessive backlogs without telling anyone? One answer is that there is a structural secrecy about internal performance.
Despite attempts by Francis Maude and the Cabinet Office to make departments and agencies more open about their performance, the Passport Office is more secretive than ever.
It appears that even the Home Secretary Theresa May was kept in the dark about the latest backlogs. She gave reassuring statistics to the House of Commons about passport applications being processed on time – and only days later conceded there were backlogs.
It’s a familiar story: administrative problems in a government agency are denied until the truth can be hidden no longer because of the number of constituents who are contacting their MPs.
David Cameron said this week that up to 30,000 passport applications may be delayed.
One man who contacted the BBC said he had applied for a passport 7 weeks before he was due to travel. The passport office website said he should get a new passport in 3 weeks. When it had not arrived after 6 weeks he called the passport office and was told he’d be called back within 48 hours. He wasn’t, so he called again and was told the same thing. In the end he lost his holiday.
In 1989 the IT-related disaster was avoidable because managers continued a roll-out even though tests at the Glasgow office had shown it was taking longer to process passport applications on computers than clerically. Backlogs built up and deteriorating relations with staff culminated in industrial action
In 1999 electronic scanning of passport applications and added security checks imposed by the new systems caused delays and lowered productivity. Even so a national roll-out continued. Contingency plans were inadequate, said the National Audit Office.
Does the “new” Application Management System show down processing of applications? We don’t know. The Passport Office is keeping its 2014 statistics to itself.
Decades of observing failures in government administration have taught me that chaos always seems to take officialdom by surprise.
If departments and agencies had to account publicly for their performance on a monthly and not just an annual basis, the public, MPs, ministers and officials themselves, would know when chaos is looming. But openness won’t happen unless the culture of the Passport Office changes.
For the time being its preoccupation seems to be finding whoever published photos of masses of files of passport applications seemingly awaiting processing.
The taking and publication of the photos seems to be regarded as a greater crime than the backlogs themselves. To discourage such leaks the Passport Office has sent a threatening letter to staff.
But innocuous leaks are an essential part of the democratic process. They help ministers find out what’s going on in their departments and agencies. Has government administration really come to this?