Category Archives: Defence

Are Govt IT-based project disasters over? Ask the Army

By Tony Collins

When senior civil servants know an IT-based project is in trouble and they’re unsure how bad things are, they sometimes offer their minister an all-encompassing euphemism to publicly describe the status of the scheme – teething.

Which may be why the defence secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons in November 2013 that the IT project to support army recruiting was having “teething” problems.

Now Hammond knows more, he says the problems are “big”. He no longer uses the “t” word. Speaking about the £440m 10-year Recruitment Partnering Project in the House of Commons this week Hammond said:

“Yes, there are big problems with the IT and I have told the House on repeated occasions that we have IT challenges…”

Only a few days ago Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude suggested that Government IT was no longer a byword for disaster, though he accepted there were still challenges.

In a speech on how he expected the UK to become the G8’s most digital government by next year (whatever that means) Maude said: “… it’s great news that DVLA is about to launch online driving records which can be used by anyone with a driving licence as well as by the insurance industry.

“Back in 2010 our digital offering was limited at best and government IT was a by-word for disaster … There are still challenges but with the help of the Government Digital Service I am determined that the UK will be the G8’s most digital government by next year.”

A few days later The Times reported on a leaked Gartner report on the army Recruitment Partnering Project. The report expressed concerns about the entire plan, including a poor project management team and delays that were allowed to spiral out of control.

It claimed that the Army’s recruitment division had failed to challenge MoD policy in 2011 that had apparently favoured the less suitable of the two competing bidders chasing the contract.

Hammond is said to be mulling over a £50m payout for Capita to build a new infrastructure for the recruiting system instead of trying to integrate it with systems supplied by the “Atlas” consortium under the Defence Information Infrastructure project. Hammond told the House of Commons this week:

“… there have been initial difficulties with that recruiting process as we transition to the new recruiting arrangements with Capita.

“In particular, we have encountered difficulties with the IT systems supporting the application and enlistment process. The decision to use the legacy Atlas IT platform was deemed at the time to be the quickest and most cost-effective way of delivering the new recruitment programme.

“An option to revert to a Capita hosting solution was included in the contracts as a back-up solution.

“I was made aware in the summer of last year that the Army was encountering problems with the integration of the Capita system into the Atlas platform. Since then we have put in place a number of workarounds and mitigation measures for the old IT platform to simplify the application process, and we have reintroduced military personnel to provide manual intervention to support the process.

“Having visited the Army’s recruitment centre in Upavon [Wiltshire] on 30 October, it became clear to me that, despite the Army putting in place measures to mitigate those problems in the near term, further long-term action was needed to fix the situation.

“It was agreed in principle at that point that the Atlas system was not capable of timely delivery of the Capita-run programme and that we would need to take up the option of reverting to Capita building a new IT platform specifically to run its system, which will be ready early next year.

“… we have already taken action to bring in a range of new initiatives that will make it progressively easier and quicker for applicants … the introduction this month of a new front-end web application for Army recruitment; a simplified online application form; more streamlined medical clearance processes …

“With an improved Army recruitment website, streamlined medicals and an increase in the number of recruiting staff, recruits should see a much-improved experience by the end of this month.

“.. we are looking at further ways of improving the management of the recruiting process in the intervening period before the introduction of the advanced IT system now being developed in partnership with Capita, which is expected to be deployed in February 2015…”

Vernon Croaker, Labour’s defence spokesman, said the recruitment project was an IT fiasco. He wondered why Hammond had initially described the problems as teething.

“Today we have learned [from newspapers] that the problems are even worse than anyone thought and still have not been fixed.

“Will the Defence Secretary tell the House which Minister signed off the deal and who has been responsible for monitoring it?

“… Will the Secretary of State also confirm that £15.5m has been spent building the existing flawed computer system behind the project? Finally, is it correct that this continuing disaster is costing taxpayers £1 million every month?…”

Croaker quoted a minister Andrew Robathan as telling MPs on 10 April 2013 that the “Recruiting Partnering Project with Capita…will lead to a significant increase in recruiting performance”.

Croaker said: “Is there any Member of this House, any member of our armed forces or, indeed, any member of the British public who still believes that?”

In March 2012 Capita announced that the Recruitment Partnering Project was valued at about £44m a year for 10 years and was expected to deliver benefits in excess of £300m to the armed forces. It would “release military recruiters back to the front line” said Capita.

Comment. Francis Maude is probably right: there don’t seem to be as many big IT-based project failures as in previous decades. But then the truth isn’t known because progress reports on big IT-related schemes are not published.

Indeed little would be known about the Capita Recruitment Partnering Project is not for the leaked report to The Times. Without the leak, public information on the state of the project would be confined to Hammond’s “teething problems” comment to MPs last November.

Internal and external reports on the state of the Universal Credit IT project continue to be kept secret.  It’s not even clear whether ministers are properly briefed on their big IT projects. Hammond almost certainly wasn’t last year. IDS was left to commission his own “red team” review of Universal Credit IT.

Perhaps the “good news” reporting culture in Whitehall explains why the NHS IT scheme, the NPfIT, continued to die painfully slowly for 7 years before senior officials and ministers started to question whether all was well.

Hammond is still getting wrong information. He described “Atlas” systems in the House of Commons as the “legacy IT platform”.

The Atlas contract for the Defence Information Infrastructure was awarded in 2005 for 10 years. It doesn’t even expire until next year. It may be convenient for officials to suggest that the reason Capita has been unable to link new recruitment systems into the DII network is because DII is old – legacy IT.  But the multi-billion pound Atlas DII project cannot be accurately described as “legacy” yet.

If ministers don’t get the truth about their big IT projects until serous problems are so obvious they can no longer be denied, how can Parliament and taxpayers expect to get the truth?

Lessons from NASA?

NASA put in place processes, procedures and rules to ensure engineers were open and deliberately adversarial in challenging assumptions. Even so it has had difficulties getting engineers to express  their views freely.

Diane Vaughan in her excellent book “The Challenger Launch Decision” referred to large organisations that proceeded as if nothing was wrong “in the face of evidence that something was wrong”.  She said NASA made a series of seemingly harmless decisions that “incrementally moved the space agency towards a catastrophic outcome”.

After the loss of Challenger NASA made many changes. But an investigation into the subsequent tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle indicated that little had actually changed – even though few of the top people who had been exposed to the lessons of Challenger were still in position.

If NASA couldn’t change when lives depended on it, is it likely the UK civil service will ever change?  A political heavyweight,  Francis Maude has tried and failed to get departments to be more open about progress or otherwise on their big IT-based projects.  Permanent secretaries now allow the out-of-date “traffic light” status of some projects to be published in the annual report of the Major Projects Authority. That is not openness.

The failure so far of the Recruitment Partnering Project, the routine suppression of information on technology-based scheme such as this, and the circumscribed “good news” briefings to ministers, suggest that government IT-based project failures are here to stay, despite the best intentions of the Cabinet Office, GDS and the Major Projects Authority.

Thank you to campaigner Dave Orr for his email on the recruitment project

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Why is MoD spending more on IT when its data is poor?

By Tony Collins

The Ministry of Defence and the three services have spent many hundreds of millions of pounds on logistics IT systems over the past 20 years, and new IT projects are planned.

But the National Audit Office, in a report published today – Managing the defence investory –  found that logistics data is so unreliable and limited that it has hampered its investigations into stock levels.

“During the course of our study,” says the NAO, “the Department provided data for our analyses from a number of its inventory systems. However, problems in obtaining reliable information have limited the scope of our analysis…”

The NAO does not ask the question of why the MoD is spending money on more IT while data is unreliable and there are gaps in the information collected.

But the NAO does question whether new IT will solve the MoD’s information problems.

“The Department has acknowledged the information and information systems gaps and committed significant funds to system improvements. However these will not address the risk of failure across all of the inventory systems nor resolve the information shortfall.”

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, who will question defence staff on the NAO report, may wish to ask why the MoD’s is so apparently anxious to hand money to IT suppliers when data is poor and new technology will not plug information gaps.

Comment:

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee found in 2003 (Progress in reducing stocks) that the MoD was buying and storing stock it did not need. Indeed after two major fires at the MoD’s warehouses at Donnington in 1983 and 1988 more than half of the destroyed stock did not need replacing. Not much has changed judging by the NAO’s latest report.

It’s clear that the MoD lacks good management information. Says the NAO in today’s report:

“The summary management and financial information on inventory that is provided to senior staff within Defence Equipment and Support is not sufficient for them to challenge and hold to account the project teams…”

But will throwing money at IT suppliers make much difference? The MoD plans the:

–  Future Logistics Information Services project, which is intended to bring together and replace a number of legacy inventory management systems; and

–  Management of the Joint Deployed Inventory system which will provide the armed services with a common system for the inventory they hold and manage.

But is the  MoD using IT spending as proof of its conviction to improve the quality of data and the management of its inventory?

Managing the defence inventory

US state government and defence IT projects face uncertain future

By David Bicknell

Local newspapers in the US are offering some insight into the cloudy future of two significant IT projects.

In Salem, Oregon, a planned $92 million upgrade of the state’s Department of Revenue computer system is reportedly on hold because the state can’t afford $13 million in start-up costs.

The Register-Guard website says local officials chose to put the  project on hold rather than ask legislators to make a choice between paying for the computer system and paying for public safety and human services.

The computer system is said to be responsible for processing $7 billion a year and 94 percent of Oregon’s general fund revenue, but officials are apparently concerned about its future effectiveness.

The agency’s ability to collect taxes rests on a “myriad of disparate, aging software applications and databases,” according to a 96-page business analysis the Department of Revenue produced in 2010.

Meanwhile,  in Beavercreek, Ohio, a US Air Force computer modernisation project which has already cost $1 billion, is said to be at risk of Washington defence cuts.

US Air Force officials have acknowledged that the Expeditionary Combat Support System project, on which at least $986.5 million has been spent, won’t be completed in 2016 as had been hoped. Work began in 2007, but the local Springfield News-Sun newspaper reports that the completion date has been repeatedly postponed because of delays.

MoD rules out mutual option in reorganisation of Defence Equipment and Support arm

By David Bicknell

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has ruled out choosing a spin-off mutual as one of the three models being considered for a re-organisation of the key Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) organisation.

Campaign4Change recently received a tip-off from an MoD insider who was concerned that the mutuals option had been ruled out.

The MoD has confirmed that there is no mutuals route, and that its three options will be:

*  A Trading Fund: where DE&S continues to be a part of the MoD but has a hard-charging regime. Its staff are civil service employees. 

* An Executive Non-Departmental Public Body: where DE&S remains in the public sector. Staff are public sector employees but not civil servants.

* A Government Owned Contractor Operated (GOCO): A private sector organisation. Staff are private sector employees with potentially some government secondees.

Asked why the mutuals option had been overlooked,  an MoD spokeswoman said, “Further to our conversation about the options that have been proposed for the future of DE&S, I can confirm that we’re not looking at mutuals. The reason for that is that simply, we do not consider it appropriate.

“We have considered a wide range of options for DE&S and centred analysis on three we believe will most suit the requirements of the organisation.  We have kept all stakeholders, including across central Government, aware of this analysis.” 

The MoD says the three options will be presented to ministers in due course who will decide on a preferred way forward.

Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) equips and supports the UK’s armed forces for current and future operations. Employing around 20,000 people, with a budget of some £14 billion, its headquarters is in Bristol with other sites across the UK and overseas.

DE&S acquires and supports equipment and services, including ships, aircraft, vehicles and weapons, information systems and satellite communications. As well as continuing to supply general requirements, food, clothing, medical and temporary accommodation, DE&S is also responsible for HM Naval Bases, the joint support chain and British Forces Post Office.

MPs criticise PFI value for money and the MoD’s failure to invest in effective logistics systems

By David Bicknell

Two parliamentary committees, the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, have today made strong criticisms about the use of private finance initiatives (PFI) and of IT systems for defence logisitics.

In its report, the Treasury Select Committee suggested that PFI funding for new infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, does not provide taxpayers with good value for money and stricter criteria should be introduced to govern its use.

The Committee’s chairman, Andrew Tyrie MP, said:

“PFI means getting something now and paying later. Any Whitehall department could be excused for becoming addicted to that. We can’t carry on as we are, expecting the next generation of taxpayers to pick up the tab. PFI should only be used where we can show clear benefits for the taxpayer. We must first acknowledge we’ve got a problem. This will be tough in the short term but it should benefit the economy and public finances in the longer term.

“PFI should be brought on balance sheet. The Treasury should remove any perverse incentives unrelated to value for money by ensuring that PFI is not used to circumvent departmental budget limits. It should also ask the OBR to include PFI liabilities in future assessments of the fiscal rules. 

We must also impose much more robust criteria on projects that can be eligible for PFI by ensuring that as much as possible of the risk associated with PFI projects is transferred to the private sector and is seen to have been transferred.”

In its report on the defence logistics supply chain, the Public Accounts Committee was critical that the MoD had made little progress in resolving long-standing problems with its supply chain information, despite giving previous assurances to the Committee.

Its recommendations for improving future performance include the following comments:

The Department accepts that historic underinvestment has meant its management information systems and the underlying IT systems are not up to the task. In particular, its spending on IT systems has not kept pace with the need to upgrade those systems.

 “The Department has made investments in new data systems – for example £66 million has been spent on the Management of the Joint Deployed Inventory system which tracks equipment in theatre – and more is planned.

“In 2010, the Department signed an £803 million, 11-year contract with Boeing for the provision of the Future Logistics Information Services project. Under this contract, Boeing is required to bring together 270 different data systems operated by 50 different contractors, which should provide a complete and coherent set of data for managers to use.

“Separately, the Department has now approved an additional £75 million to upgrade some of the defence base inventory management systems that are now at critical risk of failure.

“The implementation of the Future Logistics Information Services project, including the additional upgrade to the warehouse inventory management IT system, will not be complete until 2014. The Department told us it would take a long time to upgrade systems and data, in part because of the need to ‘cleanse’ the data – otherwise the poor quality information the Department currently holds would simply be transferred onto a better IT system.

“We are very concerned that, until the systems are fully rolled out in 2014, the high risk of system failure will remain in systems that are critical to supporting front line troops. To ensure that there is no further slippage in this critical area, the Department has provided us with a plan of the scheduled projects for improving data systems and has promised to report back in six and twelve months on how it is performing against its milestones.”

(Tony Collins is away this week.  But he’ll be back shortly to offer his unique insight on Government and public sector IT projects)