By Tony Collins
“The current [recruitment] system is outrageous” – army officer
“A catalogue of failure, lost files and incorrect decisions” – MrReasonable.
A British Army officer told the BBC last week that it took him 16 months from applying to join the army to swearing his oath to the Queen.
Asking to remain anonymous, he said: “The current [recruitment] system is outrageous.”
He was referring to Capita’s £495m contract to supply software and manage the recruitment process for the British Army. The National Audit Office criticised the contract in a report published on Friday.
The army officer said, “Fortunately I’m now in my first term of training but it’s not just the wait times – they make critical errors.”
He described how some close friends had been told they could not do the job they wanted for medical reasons, despite being told a month before they had the all-clear.
“Recently one friend got told they couldn’t become an engineer because their colour perception wasn’t up to the desired standard. They later found out this was an mistake in Capita’s own system. Her eyesight was at the correct grade all along.”
A former employee of Capita got in touch with the BBC and was “ashamed” at having worked on the team responsible for the Army recruitment website.
“I didn’t last long because I could see pretty quickly it was doomed to fail,” he said.
Problems from “day one”
James Tyson applied to join the British Army in 2017.
“The website looked clean and modern, so I felt reassured when it first began but there was delay after delay, starting with my education certificates.
“I have a background in sales and I am quite pushy, so I would chase and chase to get problems sorted, but it would take around a month for a response from anyone and it was a different person dealing with your inquiry each time.
“I didn’t realise it was Capita and just thought the Ministry of Defence was an utter shambles.”
Then Capita and the British Army lost James’ data and said he would have to set up a new online account to update his details.
“I had done everything they asked,” he said, “I couldn’t believe it.”
After 18 months of frustration, he turned his back on the process and got another job.
“It felt as if I had given up on a dream,” he said. “I had always had an idea of what my life would be like and had never stopped imagining it.
“I had told all of my family and friends of my plans as I was proud to talk about it, but that meant I felt not only had I failed, I had let them down.”
Still waiting to join
Chloe Burdett wanted to join the British Army as an intelligence officer to make use of her photography degree. But six months on from starting her application, using Capita’s recruitment system, she is still waiting to join.
“I started my application in June and that first bit seemed quite easy, but almost every day I am being asked to fill out a different form,” she said.
“There was one for how many piercings you have, one for how many tattoos you have… then you get phone calls from so many different people, with some just asking if I am still interested. It’s tiring.”
It took her almost four months to get her GP to send over her medical records, and when they did, the Army lost them, so she started the process again.
She has found another job in the meantime to pay the bills. She said she can see why people give up applying to join the army.
Problems with the British Army’s recruitment system are by no means all Capita’s fault.
But when the directors of a major outsourcing company know that their employees’ work could have a direct impact on people’s lives, they have a special responsibility to understand during the bidding process the scale and complexity of the work they are planning to undertake.
Suppliers can withdraw from the bidding if they believe the customer is not ready or has not fully understood the size and complexity of the work that will be undertaken as part of the contract.
It’s too easy for suppliers to accept the contract and, when it all goes wrong say, in essence, “It wasn’t our fault”.
Indeed, the usual resp0nse of IT suppliers to a critical report of the National Audit Office is to say, “Things have improved now”, as if this justifies the damage to lives caused in the past.
A corporate apology that shows some humility would make no difference to the people whose lives have been affected but it could send a message
that says, “This is a contract in which we have done what we were asked to do although we have a deep concern that things still went wrong”.
Where is there any sign of Capita’s deep concern? Where is an apology?
Capita was also defensive on its £330m contract with NHS England to provide GP support services.
Last week the Guardian reported that Capita’s failure over cervical screening letters was more extensive than thought. It said that “doctors call for firm to lose [GP support] contract as number of women affected exceeds 50,000”.
Another 3,591 women were not sent information on cervical screening as a result of errors by Capita, NHS England said.
Last month, it emerged that 47,708 women did not receive a smear test invitation, reminder or results between January and June because of Capita’s failure to send out letters.
Last Wednesday, NHS England said the number had risen to more than 50,000 after a review uncovered more correspondence from last year that was not sent.
In response, Capita said about half of the newly identified cases related to test results, but only a small proportion were abnormal result letters. It said those women had received a referral and there was no evidence of any harm resulting from its mistake.
Capita said a senior executive responsible for the contract had left the company. But the Royal College of GPs told The Guardian that Capita had lost the trust of NHS workers.
There was no apology.
Last week it also emerged that Capita “wholeheartedly refutes” the conclusions of a report by Grant Thornton into financial controls in a contract between Capita and Barnet Council.
Again, no apology for an internal fraud that was spotted almost by accident and which led to the council and local taxpayers spending tens of thousands of pounds on an investigation into how it happened.
It is clear in all of these Capita-related contracts that the fault has been partly, and perhaps mainly, with the British Army, NHS England and Barnet Council for not fully understanding what they were doing when they signed the contracts with Capita.
Where are their apologies?
British Army and Capita – BBC News
Cervical screening and Capita – The Guardian
Thank you to FOI campaigner David Orr for his help on this article.