Warning flags were raised over GDS farm payments system – yet it still failed

Maybe they shouldn't be trusted with complex systems

The scrapped Common Agricultural Policy IT system was flagged as being at risk of failing by a government project watchdog last year, due to the “inherent high risk" of the showcase digital project.

In March the digital interface of the £154m project to provide CAP payments to farmers was scrapped in an embarrassing U-turn, resulting in a return to paper forms. The system was supposed to showcase the Government Digital Service’s ability to apply digital and agile ways of working to complex systems.

After the Major Project Authority's "amber/red" risk assessment in September 2014, additional senior people and specialist resources from the GDS were brought in "to enhance the application of the agile delivery model used by the programme", it said.

However, the MPA report said: “At the beginning of 2015, the programme encountered significant challenges in delivering to time and quality some of the key IT functionality required for a fully Digital By Default service."

The online mapping portal capability was subsequently considered too high risk to go live.

Lorna Hermin, principal architect from Kainos – one of the key companies to work on the project – acknowledged that complexity had been one of the main issues.

Speaking at the Westminster Forum yesterday, she said: “The challenges for a system like rural payments were integrations [around] legacy, third-party supplier and [the challenge] of a department being the system integrator for the first time and getting used to working in an agile way.” Those issues continue to be a challenge, she said.

The report said the project's £154m budget was being revised upward to reflect the "emerging budget pressures" following the contingency plan. It said there will be a "revised business case.”

Sources told El Reg in March that costs had already escalated to £177m.

The CAP system itself has had a troubled delivery history, having wasted hundreds of millions in IT write-offs over the last decade and causing a £600m EU fine, due to mispayments.

However, the experience of the CAP IT exemplar raises a number of concerns over the serious challenges facing GDS, particularly as it begins to tackle the highly complex and ambitious task of joining up all pan-government IT systems. ®

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