By Tony Collins
At one level, Capita’s contract to handle most of the BBC’s TV licensing work is, in general, a success, at least according to statements made to the media.
Were it not for the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, a fuller story would not have emerged.
Today in The Guardian, a BBC spokesperson speaks of the Capita TV licensing contract in glowing terms. Through the contract, the BBC has reduced collection costs by 25% and increased revenue for programmes and services.
A Capita spokesperson spoke in similar terms. Capita has helped the BBC to collect more TV licence fee revenue every year since 2010-2011.
The only blip in the contract had seemed to be the heavy-handed tactics of some Capita staff. The Daily Mail reported in February 2017 that vulnerable people were hounded as some Capita staff tried to catch 28 TV licence evaders a week for bonuses of £15,000 a year.
This blip aside, has anything else gone wrong? There’s no hint of any technological problems on Capita’s website – or the BBC’s.
The BBC reported in 2011 that Capita will transform the TV licensing service, “using advances in technology and analytics to increase revenue and reduce costs”.
Capita’s website has a case study on its work for the BBC that refers to cost savings of £220m over the life of the contract, organisation-wide efficiencies and “protected brand image” among other benefits.
In December 2016, Capita described the “partnership” with the BBC as a “success”.
The bigger picture
Capita processes TV licence payments, collects arrears and enforces licence fee collection. Its current contract with the BBC began in July 2012 and, after a recent renegotiation, ends in 2022 with the option to extend by up to a further five years.The BBC paid Capita £59 million in 2015–16.
The BBC has had a long-standing ambition to improve its main TV licensing databases so that they are structured by individual customers rather than households.
This was one of the hopes for the contract with Capita but it hasn’t happened. Capita had partly subcontracted work on the BBC’s legacy databases to CSC Computer Sciences.
The BBC, in its contract with Capita, aimed to upgrade ICT as part of a wider transition programme. The BBC paid Capita £22.9m for parts of the programme that were delivered, including restructuring contact centres, updating the TV Licensing website and upgrading handheld units for field staff.
The Public Accounts Committee says in today’s report,
“However, improvements with a contract value of £27.9m, primarily related to replacing legacy ICT systems, were not delivered by Capita and its subcontractor (CSC), and were not paid for by the BBC.
“As a result of the transition programme being only partly completed and subsequently stopped, the BBC and Capita currently have to do resource-intensive manual workarounds between inefficient ICT systems.
“Capita informed us that it was bearing the additional costs associated with undelivered elements of the transition programme. However, the BBC has had to allocate £9m to Capita to support the ongoing use of legacy systems, costs which the BBC told us were compensated for elsewhere in the renegotiated contract.
“It is unclear to us why ICT database improvements have proved so difficult over the last 15 years, particularly when competitors and other organisations can make similar changes.
“The BBC acknowledges that its current database is not fit for purpose for the future but does not yet have a clear plan to replace it.”
All outsourcing contracts have their strengths and failures – including early promises that don’t come to anything.
But it’s unlikely councils and other public sector organisations that are seriously considering outsourcing will take into account the past failures and broken promises of their potential suppliers.
If officials and councillors want to outsource IT and other services they probably will, whatever the record of their favoured potential suppliers.
They will see reports of the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee as biased towards negative disclosures.
Indeed the BBC and Capita, in their responses to today’s TV licensing report of the Public Accounts Committee, have drawn attention to the positive aspects of the report and not mentioned the technological failures.
Where does this leave councils and other organisations that are considering IT-related outsourcing and are seeking reference sites as part of the bid process?
Will those reference sites give only the positive aspects and not mention, or successfully deprecate, any media, PAC or NAO reports on contract failures?
Negative findings by the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee are usually important. Were it not for their scrutiny would not know how public money is being spent and misspent.
But their reports will have little or no effect as warnings to organisations that want to outsource.
Public Accounts Committee – BBC Licence Fee – 26 April 2017
Amidst all of the hype and dazzle that supports and promotes high-tech P.R., we have, accompanying in the shadows, “resource-intensive manual workaround.”
Says it all. Thank you, Tony.
And that’s a National Audit Office phrase. Thanks for the comment.