BBC vs ex-CTO Linwood. Who is really to blame for failed DMI?

Although it has been many months since the BBC announced that it would be scrapping its £125 million Digital Media Initiative (DMI), it is only now that the blame game and finger pointing is getting into full swing.


Although it has been many months since the BBC announced that it would be scrapping its £125 million Digital Media Initiative (DMI), it is only now that the blame game and finger pointing is getting into full swing. With legal disputes underway, jobs on the line, reputations at stake and a bunch of angry MPs ready to question BBC executives next week over the debacle, it’s important to ask the question – is ex-CTO John Linwood being used as a scapegoat by the BBC for the failure of a project that was beyond his control?

In written evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, revealed this week, Linwood claims that senior BBC executives 'allowed innaccurate statements' to be made to MPs by saying that the technology he was in charge of didn’t work and the assets were worthless. He says that thousands of BBC employees are currently using parts of DMI and that most of the remaining assets could have been rolled out with further testing. 

Linwood argues that the project failed because the management at the BBC – rather than the technology function – significantly changed the scope and requirements of DMI two years into the project, making it incredibly hard to use the existing code to deliver on what was being asked. The picture he paints is one where the BBC changed its mind at the final hour and without warning, making his project impossible to complete, and then solely blamed him for the failure.

Linwood does admit that there were technical problems with DMI and that there were delays, but he claims that these had largely been resolved by October 2012 and that if he had been given the go ahead to roll-out the remaining assets, the BBC (and taxpayers) would have already realised the benefits of the system.

Is the BBC economical with the truth?

In his written evidence to MPs, Linwood questions the accuracy of the BBC’s statements to the Public Accounts Committee on 10th June 2013 – where Anthony Fry, BBC Trustee, stated that the DMI “kit doesn’t work”.

Fry stated that in the middle of 2012 Accenture was asked to investigate the DMI project after which, Fry expected a revised business case could be put together that would likely cost more taxpayers money to complete DMI. However, he told MPs that the Accenture investigation found that DMI was “worth nothing”.

This is despite saying later when giving evidence that “bits of it were working” and the Accenture report outlining in its executive summary that “more work is required to gain further clarity around DMI’s potential to support a new vision”.

The only area that Accenture was 100% certain on was that the project's  “governance - and scope / requirements management as a prime example –has been a moving target over time as priorities for DMI have shifted.”

After looking at Accenture’s report – which was only made available to the public online three days ago – Computerworld UK couldn’t find any evidence that Accenture found the IT assets to be worthless or that the kit didn’t work.

It is also worth noting that in a letter ahead of his hearing in June to Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Fry wrote that BBC had generated little or no assets because “much of the software and hardware which has been developed could only be used by the BBC if the project were completed”.

One may ask why Fry expected to generate value from a project that wasn’t completed, but he claims that the cancelling of DMI was due to “technological difficulties and changes to business needs”.

Ex-CTO Linwood has also raised doubts over whether the BBC should have written down all of its IT assets, as he claims that thousands of staff are currently using the Metadata Archive/Physical Stock and Loan – which went live in June 2012.

The remainder of the project – the Production Tools and Digital Archive – was intended to deliver standardised tools used across the organisation. However, it was the business that decided that this was no longer appropriate in 2012 as it realised that different departments have different needs. Linwood states that this sudden change in direction would have “significant implications” for the whole of the DMI project as it changed the technical requirements of code that had already been developed. His evidence states that Production Tools, designed as originally required, was delivered and tested and ready to go live in October 2012.

The CTO’s head rolls

John Linwood was fired from the BBC in the New Year and has instigated legal action against the organisation over the DMI debacle. His evidence has raised some serious questions over the role of the business and the role of the technology function, and ultimately who is to blame.

From the outside it makes sense that the CTO, the project's main sponsor, carry the can – even as a gesture that the BBC is making moves to recognise that it got this one (very) wrong. He was generously rewarded  - paid £280,000 a year to make this project work. However, everything that has been revealed thus far suggests that the business also played a significant part in the downfall of DMI.

If it’s true that the BBC bought into the original vision of DMI right up until late 2012, how was Linwood’s technology function expected to deliver anything else but that? Of course his evidence may be being presented with rose tinted glasses and there may have been fundamental problems with the code –even if it had been tested and was ready to be delivered – but everything that has been presented so far, including independent reports from Accenture and PwC, suggests that the problem was largely down to changing requirements and poor governance.

The BBC told Computerworld UK: “"The suggestion that DMI shouldn't have been cancelled is absurd – everyone knows that throwing good money after bad at a failing project isn't a clever thing to do."

It may well be true that business requirements have changed. It may well be true that DMI was misconceived from the start. But does that mean one person, the CTO, is to blame? In years gone by Linwood may have walked off with a pat on the back and some nice retirement money, but in the wake of the scandals surrounding the BBC’s exit packages for senior executives this would have been, unfortunately for Linwood, a PR Disaster.

If the technology that Linwood developed against the BBC’s original business case was ready to go live, is this really the same as being worthless?

These are important questions to be asked. It will be interesting to see on Monday, when the BBC goes up against Hodge and the rest of the Committee, whether it comes up with some clearer answers. If it doesn't it may have to do so in court.

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