By Tony Collins
Public Accounts Committee MPs today criticise HM Revenue and Customs for not preparing well or quickly enough for a planned switch from one main long-term IT contract to a new model of many short-duration contracts with multiple suppliers.
It’s a big and risky change in IT strategy for HMRC that could put the safe collection of the nation’s taxes at risk, say the MPs in a report “Managing and replacing the Aspire contract”.
But the Committee doesn’t much consider the benefits of switching from one large contract to smaller ones, potentially with SMEs.
Is the risk of breaking up the huge “Aspire” contract with Capgemini, and its subcontractors Fujitsu and Accenture, worth taking?
Suppliers “outmanoeuvre” HMRC
The PAC’s report makes some important points. It says that HMRC has been “outmanoeuvred by suppliers at key moments in the Aspire contract, hindering its ability to get long term value for money”.
The costs of the Aspire deal have soared, in part because of extra work. Before it merged with Customs and Excise, Inland Revenue spent about £200m a year on its IT outsourcing contract with EDS, now HP. Customs and Excise’s contract with Fujitsu cost about £100m a year.
After the Revenue and Customs merged, and a new deal was signed with Capgemini, the money spent on IT services soared to about £800m a year – arguably out of control.
HM Revenue and Customs spent £7.9bn on the Aspire contract from July 2004 to March 2014, giving a combined profit to Capgemini and Fujitsu of £1.2bn, equal to 16% of the contract value paid to these suppliers.
HMRC considers the contract to have been expensive, and pressure to find cost savings in the short-term led it to trade away important value for money controls, says the PAC report.
“For example, in a series of disastrous concessions, HMRC conceded its rights to withdraw activities from Aspire, to benchmark the contract prices against the market to determine whether they were reasonable,” says the report.
“It also gave up its right to share in any excess profits. In 2007, HMRC negotiated a three-year extension to the Aspire contract just three years after the contract was let, extending the end of the contract from 2014 to 2017.
“The Department has still not renegotiated the terms of the contract in line with a memorandum of agreement it signed in 2012 designed to separate Capgemini’s role in service provision from its role as service integrator and introduce more competition.”
Big or small IT suppliers?
The Aspire contract between HMRC and Capgemini is the government’s largest
technology contract. It accounts for for 84% of HMRC’s total spend on ICT.
Today’s report says that Aspire has delivered certainty and continuity over the past decade but HMRC now plans a change in IT strategy in line with the Cabinet Office’s plan to break up monopolistic contracts.
In 2010, the Cabinet Office announced that long-term contracts with one main supplier do not deliver optimal levels of innovation, value for money or pace of change.
In 2014, it announced new rules to limit the value, length and structure of ICT contracts. No contract should exceed £100m and no single supplier should provide both services and systems integration to the same area of government. Existing contracts should not be extended without a compelling case.
The Cabinet Office says that smaller contracts should allow many more companies to bid, including SMEs, and provide an increase in competition.
HMRC agrees. So it doesn’t plan to appoint a single main supplier when Aspire expires in 2017. But PAC members are worried that the switch to smaller contracts could jeopardize the collection of taxes. Says the PAC report:
“HMRC has made little progress in defining its needs and has still not presented a business case to government. Once funding is agreed, it will have only two years to recruit the skills and procure the services it will need.
“Moreover, HMRC’s record in managing the Aspire contract and other IT contractors gives us little confidence that HMRC can successfully achieve this transition or that it can manage the proposed model effectively to maximise value for money.
“HMRC also demonstrates little appreciation of the scale of the challenge it faces or the substantial risks to tax collection if the transition fails. Failure to collect taxes efficiently would create havoc with the public finances.”
The PAC recommends that HMRC “move quickly to develop a coherent business case, setting out the commercial and operational model it intends to put in place to replace the Aspire contract. This should include a robust transition plan and budget”.
Richard Bacon, a long-standing member of the PAC, said HMRC has yet to produce a detailed business case for the change in IT strategy.
“HMRC faces an enormous challenge in moving to a new contracting model by 2017, with many short-duration contracts with multiple suppliers, and appears complacent given the scale of the transformation required.
“Moreover, HMRC’s record in managing IT contractors gives us little confidence that HMRC can successfully achieve this transition or that it can manage the proposed model effectively to maximise value for money.”
The PAC has a duty to express its concerns. HMRC needs stable and proven systems to do its main job of collecting taxes. A switch from a single, safe contract with a big supplier to multiple, smaller contracts could be destablizing.
But it needn’t be. The Department for Work and Pensions is making huge IT – and organisational – changes in bringing in Universal Credit. That is a high-risk programme. And at one time it was badly managed, according to the National Audit Office. But the gradual introduction of new systems hasn’t hit the stability of payments to existing DWP claimants.
This is, perhaps, because the DWP is doing 4 things at once: running existing benefit systems, building something entirely new (the so-called digital service), introducing hybrid legacy/new systems to pay some new claimants Universal Credit, and is asking its staff to do some things manually to calculate UC payments. Expensive – but safe.
The DWP’s mostly vulnerable claimants should continue to be paid whatever happens with the new IT. So the risks of major change within the department are financial. The DWP has written off tens of millions of pounds on the UC programme so far, says the NAO. Many more tens of millions may yet be wasted.
But many regard the risks as worth taking to simplify the benefits system. It could work out a lot cheaper in the end.
At HMRC the potential benefits of a major change in IT strategy are enormous too. Billions more than expected has already been spent on having one main supplier tied into the long-term Aspire contract (13 years). Isn’t it worth spending a few tens of millions extra running parallel processes and systems during the transition from Aspire to smaller multiple contracts?
It could end up costing much less in the end. And running parallel new and existing systems and processes should ensure the safe collection of taxes.
If government departments are not prepared to take risks they’ll never change – and monolithic contracts and out-of-control costs will continue. Is there anything more risky than for HMRC to stay as it is, locked into Aspire, or a similar long-term commitment?