Truths, half-truths and reports on big Gov't IT projects

A common factor in big, flawed IT projects is the insistence of those involved that all is well. Critics of the project are depicted as cavilling, ill-informed, disaffected or politically-motivated. Or all four.Hence the National Programme...

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A common factor in big, flawed IT projects is the insistence of those involved that all is well. 

Critics of the project are depicted as cavilling, ill-informed, disaffected or politically-motivated. Or all four.

Hence the National Programme for IT in the NHS, the NPfIT, has always been, for NHS Connecting for Health, a success. CfH’s senior officials would take the conference platform and put the programme’s problems down to an ill-informed media that wanted to write off the NPfIT instead of write up its successes.

It was a similar story when a project to build new air traffic control systems at the New En Route Centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, was running several years late and tens of millions over budget. 

In reports to the Board on the project’s progress, those in charge nullified the effect of each negative statement by contiguously qualifying it with a positive one, according to an independent consultancy report by Arthur D Little. Thus there was no such thing internally as bad news. And what appeared in the media and in Hansard was considered to be all wrong, unless it was positive news.

Contradictory reports over the RPA’s Single Payment Scheme?

Now we have two apparently contradictory reports about the Rural Payments Agency’s IT-based Single Payment Scheme. This was a scheme that was said to be driving farmers to suicide. The BBC reported on the “IT problems hurting farmers” last March.

Farmers driven to suicide by wrong IT payments?

The BBC quoted the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Edward Leigh, as saying of the Single Payment Scheme:

"Some farmers have actually committed suicide because they've been given money and then abruptly been told it's an overpayment and monies have been demanded back".

Each claim made by farmers for a subsidy was costing about £1,700 to process in England. In Scotland a much simpler system was costing one-sixth to process - £285 a claim.

The cost of the IT system increased from £53.8m to £350m, said the BBC. 100 contractors from the system's main supplier Accenture cost taxpayers an average of £200,000 each in a single year, said the National Audit Office. 

But getting to the truth about what had gone wrong has always proved difficult. Even the National Audit Office reached an impasse with Defra, the parent organisation of the Rural Payments Agency. For the first time in recent years the NAO published a value-for-money report without the agreement of the target organisation, in this case Defra.

Is the Oracle-based SPS system fixed now?

Now all is apparently well, or nearly well.

The authoritative Farmers Weekly Interactive published an article on Wednesday 4 February 2011 with the headline:

                                    RPA hits single farm payment target

Said the article:

“More than 90,000 English farmers received their single farm payment by the end of December 2010, according to the Rural Payments Agency.

"The latest figures published this week showed 85.5% of eligible claimants had been paid, ahead of the agency's target.”

But ...

The day before this article was published, the BBC Online carried this:

                            Unpaid subsidies see farmers 'at risk of eviction'

"Somerset farmers are at 'risk of eviction and cannot afford to pay for feed' while they wait for thousands of pounds in owed subsidies, an MP said.

"Wells MP Tessa Munt said 12 farmers had contacted her about money owed to them by the Rural Payments Agency.

"The Lib Dem MP also told parliament 10 farmers were owed about £295,000.

"Conservative Agriculture Minister James Paice said he was determined the RPA could move forward to "put cash in their hands as soon as possible".

"The RPA, which is responsible for subsidies to farmers and is an executive agency of Defra, has been hit by computer problems which have led to many payments being severely delayed...

"An RPA spokesperson said: “The more complex cases, often the higher value ones and claims involving issues such as the transfer of entitlements, can require significantly more processing activity so these take longer to process."

So is the Single Payment Scheme a success or still an IT disaster?

The answer is that both stories are probably correct: the RPA has met its targets and still some farmers are going unpaid.

With the coalition’s commitment to openness one would have thought that it would publish the internal audit and SPS steering group minutes, as well as Gateway reviews. At least then farmers, MPs and others would have an idea of how well or otherwise the SPS systems are working and are being managed.

But none of these reports are published. In an era of so-called transparency departments remain extraordinarily secretive about their projects, the SPS included.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose


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