Multi-billion pound gov tech contracts could end up in toilet - MPA

Projects meant to save costs might cost us

A raft of government reforms, including eight major IT projects, are at risk of failure, according to a report from the Major Projects Authority (MPA).

The MPA was formed within the Cabinet Office's Efficiency & Reform Group (ERG) in 2011 to help government get a better handle on the multi-billion pound contracts handled by civil servants.

The MPA's assessment of 191 projects, worth a total of £357.7bn, was slipped out by the Cabinet Office at 5pm last Friday, with 32 programmes branded as needing urgent action to get back on track.

Eight projects were classified as “red”, meaning "successful delivery appears unachievable" and may require "re-scoping", or having their "overall viability reassessed".

The Ministry of Justice's £127m Shared Services Programme was given a red rating.

The project involves an ERP implementation and related tech stacks designed to rationalise disparate back office teams, cut costs and improve service.

The MPA said there had been "slippage" in the scheme: "Due to delays in the programme deployment dates, costs for the deployment of the new ERP system have risen.

"The programme has therefore been reviewing alternative lower cost options as part of the business case submission… a pause in development activity has also been implemented whilst the business case options are being assessed," the MPA added.

The £5bn Defence Core Network Services project and the £1bn Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle project were also given a red rating.

Another 23 large contracts across government were classified as “amber/red” by MPA, indicating that "successful delivery … is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible".

The Cabinet Office-backed G-Cloud procurement framework was branded as amber/red, the Authority said. The scheme was designed to consolidate data centres and includes CloudStore - an online catalogue of suppliers' services.

MPA claimed the concept had generated an "enthusiastic response from suppliers, particularly SMEs that have not previously had access to government".

MPA also noted a pick-up in sales after the initial lull, and said anecdotal evidence indicates CloudStore has driven "considerable savings through transparent pricing".

The scheme, however, still has "significant challenges to overcome" if it is to achieve its intended savings of £340m over its lifespan, and to change buying habits across government.

Some weeks ago, the Cabinet Office formalised plans for the public sector to buy its tech via the cloud first.

The whole framework, including the app store, will cost the taxpayer £4.93m when the project ends by June 2015.

"In particular, departments have yet to fully change their culture in terms of approach to ICT as old ways of doing things are so deeply engrained," said MPA.

"Crucial to large scale take-up will be working with departments and the Cabinet Office spending controls team to enforce use of the CloudStore across central government," it added.

"Scaling G-Cloud has been difficult to achieve to date due to the team’s focus on the start up activities and the lack of appropriate funds and resources," MPA concluded.

Responding to a blog by Government Chief Technology Officer Liam Maxwell in February, former G-Cloud director Chris Chant said that members of the G-Cloud team were "flogging away evenings and weekends" to deliver the service, and it was time the Cabinet Office dug a little deeper to raise funding.

According to sources G-Cloud needed around 20 staff to run the service, but has just five. Plans are afoot to move G-Cloud under the glare of Government Digital Services but this was as yet unconfirmed.

Other projects tarnished with the amber/red rating included the Department of Work & Pensions' £12.8bn Universal Credit Programme (UCP), due for completion by the end of 2017.

The programme has seen changes at its top, following the death of chief exec Philip Langsdale amid a warning the massive IT project was facing problems.

The MPA's rating on UCP dates back to September 2012. Since then "significant progress", has been made the group said, including the appointment of Howard Shiplee, who headed the building of the London Olympic Park, and the rollout of the Pathfinder housing scheme in Greater Manchester and Cheshire.

Another DWP project, the £77m Fraud and Error Programme, due to end in March 2015, was also graded amber/red.

MPA said actions are underway to improve delivery, including restructuring the board on the project, filling the majority of vacancies, and boosting the senior leadership team in programme management and IT delivery.

The Child Maintenance Group Change was also slapped down with an amber/red rating, for a projected overspend. Precise details were not given. Part of the CMGC project is to overhaul its "fractured and outdated" IT system.

David Pitchford, head of the MPA, said: "I’ve led major projects around the world and I have to say that when I started this job in the UK, standards were not great."

He said things were improving considerably and MPA reports would help to keep the delivery of projects on course.

"The MPA has real power to intervene in failing projects and stop taxpayers’ money being wasted. Of course it’s just the start, we must keep up the pressure all the time – our annual report will make sure that happens," he added. ®

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