Officials write off £874,000 on "rushed" website

Officials have blamed a write-off of £874,000 on a failed website on rushing the development and putting the supplier under too much pressure. A spokesman at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is part of the Home Office,...

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Officials have blamed a write-off of £874,000 on a failed website on rushing the development and putting the supplier under too much pressure. 

A spokesman at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is part of the Home Office, told ComputerworldUK.com that almost as soon as the website went live it was unstable. After a prolonged crash, no assurances were forthcoming that it wouldn’t happen again. At this point the Commission replaced the website, using content already established.

Details of the write off are disclosed in the Commission’s 2009/10 annual report which was published yesterday. The National Audit Office published its own account of the Commission’s problems yesterday.

The NAO found that the Commission failed to seek authorisation for writing off £874,000 on the failed website’s costs. The Commission should have obtained approval from its sponsor department, the Government Equalities Office, which is part of the Home Office.

The Commission said yesterday that its original website supplier Parity, which teamed with Microsoft, was brought in to build a public-facing website that went live when the Commission became operational in October 2007.

Mark Ogle, a spokesman for the Commission, said the website crashed periodically and some end-users complained about its stability.

Said Ogle: “One of the main lessons learned was it was set up far too quickly. There was a huge amount of pressure on the internal and Parity team to deliver the website in time for the commission opening its doors.” He added that the scope of the website was “too ambitious”.

The mistakes, as perceived by the Government Equalities Office, are that the website “suffered from much ambition but poor specification”, and the “understanding of what went wrong was not helped by incomplete documentation”.

After a prolonged crash in May 2009, the Commission took the view that the site could not be restored or used further.

The replacement website gives the public and employers information on ensuring equality and human rights on age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. It is now run by Precedent says the Commission.

Is the Commission fit to handle public money?

In its report yesterday, the NAO said that the Commission is now better able to handle public money than when it was set up but “deep-seated” problems remain. The NAO qualified the Commission’s 2009/10 accounts because of a variety of irregular payments. Said the head of the NAO Amyas Morse:

“In general the Commission continues to be over-reliant on interim staff. Four out of the seven members of the Senior Management Team and eight of the 19 Directors are interim appointments, including the Finance and IT Directors. Other key staff in Corporate Services, such as the Head of Procurement and the Finance Project Manager, are also interim appointments.

"I am concerned that once these interim staff depart, there is a risk that the improvements in controls that they have delivered will lapse.”

One of the key posts occupied on an interim basis up to June 2011 was the Chief Executive. The Commission now has a permanent chief executive.

But, said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, “I remain concerned, too, about the culture of the Commission with regard to financial and administrative controls. It is clear that there is little general financial understanding or competence in the organisation, and that many managers have limited experience of the effective management of public money.”

Questions about how fit the Commission's staff are to manage public money are likely to be asked at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee on the NAO's report.

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