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Tony Collins

Tony Collins is an investigative and campaigning journalist and former Executive Editor at Computer Weekly. With his friend and colleague David Bicknell he wrote "Crash", which found common factors in the world's largest public and private sector IT-related failures. He wrote "Open Verdict", a book on the strange deaths of defence scientists. He writes, and gives talks, on the tensions and disputes between suppliers and users.

Head of HMRC on what went wrong with "huge" NPS project

Dame Lesley Strathie, CE of HMRC, says what went wrong with introduction of National Insurance and PAYE system

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Today's report of the Public Accounts Committee includes the transcript of MPs questioning Dame Lesley Strathie, the CE and Permanent Secretary of HMRC on the failed introduction of new PAYE IT systems, the so-called National Insurance and PAYE Service (NPS).

It's always hard getting to the truth after a large IT-based project or programme has gone wrong so Dame Lesley's summary is useful and rare. 

She suggests that

i) The programme team didn't talk enough to the potential business users of the new system, (which is one of the reasons the NPfIT failed)   

ii) Data quality was poor in the old databases so when taxpayer details were brought together on NPS,  the database contained all the accumulated anomalies of past years.

iii) A critical project to improve the accuracy of data on NPS was "de-scoped" - and nobody of importance noticed. 

iv) HMRC specified in 2003 a system that did not go live until 2009. There were 400 changes in that time. The system delivered largely met the original requirements but wasn't what HMRC wanted in 2009. 


Dame Lesley was answering a question put by Conservative Richard Bacon, a long-standing member of the Public Accounts Committee.

Dame Lesley: 

"Well, Mr Bacon, everything I tell you will be based on my own research, and probably an element of subjectivity...

"In terms of my programme management experience, and I have managed some pretty big programmes, this is the biggest I have ever seen in my life... 

"You specify you want something back here in 2003, you have nearly 400 changes in that time and then you have delivery in 2009. So, sometimes you get what you ask for, but it is not necessarily exactly as you need it. There are very few programmes that I have known that cover a length of period and a scale like this where you get exactly what uou set out to get first time.


"... In terms of going from 12 regional databases with 45 million records on an employer-based system that has been there since 1944 ... and actually to collapse all that into one and convert it into an individual customer account and clean up all that data for over the years, it was huge. 

"...I knew that the programme was in difficulty because it had been delayed twice and indeed, from the first day that I was there, it has been a major focus and a major priority to land. But it is huge. 

Involve end-users in the design

"... If I were to criticise the programme, I would say that the linkages between the programme and the business were not strong enough and, therefore, as we all know in delivering major change, unless you have the end user involved in the design and the testing at every stage you seldom end up with programme delivering what you set out to do with it."


Later in the hearing Dame Lesley conceded that a project to improve the the accuracy the data to be brought together in the NPS was "de-scoped".  She said:

"The tolerance from taking all those years from 1985 and those databases, and bringing it
together, it is absolutely clear that the quality of the data was very poor. The Department had definitely recognised that as something that had to be addressed before this introduction. It had also trialled different ways and set up a programme of data quality. 

"What I do know is that there came a point where that was de-scoped from the programme and it was not formally picked up in the way that it should have been elsewhere. It was a critical dependency ...the data quality is at the heart of this... 

HMRC's big challenge now

"The challenge that we have going forward in this will remain working with all our partners to ensure that we have much higher standards of data quality and much better firebreaks from data that is not full standard going through the system. That is the big challenge."


HMRC caused chaos in the tax system - includes comments by Richard Bacon MP 


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