After two IT disasters, immigration officials launch £208m agile project

By Tony Collins

In 2001 immigration officials cancelled a £77m system with Siemens for a Casework Application system.

The objective had been to create a “paperless office”, help reduce a backlog of 66,000 asylum cases and provide a “single view” of individuals. But the scope was overambitious and the supplier underestimated the complexities. It proved difficult to automate paper-based processes.

In 2010 immigration officials came up with a similar scheme that also failed to meet expectations.  They developed a business case for a flagship IT programme called Immigration Case Work (ICW).

It was designed to draw together all casework interactions between the business and a person, enabling caseworkers to gain a single accurate view of the person applying. It was expected to replace both the legacy Casework Information Database (CID) and 20 different IT and some paper-based systems by March 2014.

A National Audit Office published today says the ICW programme was closed in
August 2013, having delivered “significantly less than planned for £347m.”

So in the end, while the taxpayer has paid hundreds of millions for caseworking systems for immigration staff, many of the workers are still, says the NAO, relying on paper.  Today’s NAO report says:

“Both directorates [UK Visas and Immigration and Immigration Enforcement, which were formerly the UK Border Agency] rely heavily on paper-based working.

“The Permanent Migration team is 100 per cent paper-based and acknowledge this as a barrier to efficiency.”

Immigration officials use some technology to record personal details of people who pass through the immigration system. But:

• A lack of controls mean staff can leave data fields blank or enter incorrect
information. The NAO found many errors in the database.
• There is a history of systems freezing and being unusable.
• A lack of interfaces with other systems results in manual data transfer or

Agile success?

Now, says the NAO, the Home Office has begun a new agile-based programme, Immigration Platform Technologies  (IPT). It is due to cost £208.7 million by 2016-17.

A tool for online applications for some types of visa has already been rolled-out and is being updated using applicant feedback,” says the NAO.

But support contracts for the existing technology [the legacy Casework Information Database] expire in January 2016, before the scheduled completion of IPT in 2017.

The Home Office is “reviewing options for support contracts to cover this gap”.

Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, says of the agile project: “Given its poor track record, I have little confidence that the further £209 million it is spending on another IT system will be money well spent.”


Is it possible for a genuinely agile project to cost £208m? The point about agile is that it is supposed to be incremental, quick and cheap.  It looks as if the Home Office is running a hybrid conventional/agile programme, as the DWP did with Universal Credit. Either a project is agile or its not. Hybrids, it seems, are not usually successful.

There again is the Home Office congenitally capable of running an agile project?  The Agile Manifesto is based on twelve principles, most of which could be said to be alien to the Home Office’s culture:

1.Customer satisfaction by rapid delivery of useful software
2.Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
3.Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
4.Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
5.Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
6.Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
7.Working software is the principal measure of progress
8.Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
9.Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
10.Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential
11.Self-organizing teams
12.Regular adaptation to changing circumstances

So what’s needed?

Big government IT-based change programmes tend to be introspective and secretive. Those working on them don’t always feel able to challenge, to criticise, to propose doing things differently.

What would be innovative would be openness and independent challenge, and tough and well-informed Parliamentary scrutiny. It rarely happens. Ask the Home Office for any of its progress reports on its IT-base change programmes and it’ll tell you exactly what the DWP says when asked a similar question: “That’s not something we generally release.”

The NAO report points to a culture problem. “… Having a transparent culture was rated as red on the UK Visas and Immigration risk trends in April 2014.”

Will the new agile project be any more successful than the other 2 major immigration IT projects? The Home Office will doubtless claim success as it usually does. Even when the patient dies it tells Parliament the operation was a success.  For you can say publicly whatever you like when you keep the facts confidential – as IDS at the DWP knows.

Reforming the UK border and immigration system – National Audit Office report

7 responses to “After two IT disasters, immigration officials launch £208m agile project

  1. Tony,
    In CMM terms Government Depts are invariably very poor level 1 organisations. Project Management is a level 2 process and Programme Management level 3. Therefore, why are we surprised that Government Depts are incapable of delivering complex Projects and Programmes of any kind. If we add further complexity in the form of approaches such as Agile then they only add to the problem.


  2. And why do IBM escape blame for this?

    As this press release says, they were awarded the contract in 2008:


  3. All the media reports say the project was commissioned in 2010, but I was working at the Home Office in early 2008 and it was already well underway – what happened to the expenditure incurred between 2008 and 2010?


  4. Sadly Government have yet to truly understand what “digital” is as applied to delivery of a service. Again I quote Dr Sally Howes Executive Leader: Digital and Innovation at NAO with her spot on focus ‘Digital is about your business operations’. The end user includes civil servants not just the public and there is raft of requirements not least of which is use of legacy data that needs to be addressed. I have tried in vain to “educate” Cabinet Office but they just do not want to hear. Their R&D is virtually non existent and so when the Labour Party called for views on Digital I responded answering their good questions. Time will tell if they listen but here it is

    So now Home office do “agile” well that can help but here is my advice. First and before the “agile manifesto” is adopted understand what “digital” really is then understand exactly how the supporting technologies actually work to deliver. Along that path you will quickly recognise the skills sets needed to drive delivery of required outcomes. It will be recognised this is a very “business driven” exercise and always remember change will be inevitable so think “adaptive” as a software capability linked to “agile” as a methodology. Think “outside-in” i.e. people first your legacy is the slave to the users’ day to day needs. Trouble with Government they start with legacy the “inside out” approach and doomed to fail! Suggest good research from this forum that discusses such topics


    • Your comment reminds me that if there is no openness or challenge officialdom can continue behind closed doors to make the same mistakes. Thanks for the comment and links.


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