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GDS gets it in the neck from MPs over Rural Payments Agency farce

Public Accounts Committee says civil servants' turf war caused mega IT cock-up

The Government Digital Service's reset of the Rural Payments Agency's IT system, which ended in disaster last year, was “inappropriate for farmers”, according to a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report.

Last March a failure to integrate the digital front-end with the back-end system of the Common Agricultural Policy IT system meant farmers were forced to go back to pen and paper to complete their forms.

The system, intended to be a GDS digital exemplar, has now gone over budget by 40 per cent, now having cost the taxpayer £215m, and will incur penalties from the EU of £180m per year in the early years of the Common Agricultural Policy system as a result of disallowance payments.

The report said: "The Government Digital Service was created to help improve IT projects, but instead hindered delivery of this programme."

In January 2013 the programme was reset, as a “digital exemplar” project, as part of the Cabinet Office Transformation Programme. This led to the introduction of seven fundamental changes. Those changes significantly increased the delivery risk and the chief executive of the RPA admitted they had created difficulties for the programme, said the PAC in a report today.

The RPA paid only 38 per cent of farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015, compared with more than 90 per cent in previous years.

The PAC report said the Cabinet Office, through GDS, focused on trying to encourage digital innovation, reduce costs and develop learning across government.

GDS’s focus on developing a digital front-end to allow farmers to apply online, which was not a European Commission requirement, was inappropriate for farmers, who have a lower average level of digital literacy than the general population and there is poor broadband coverage in many rural areas.

GDS introduced a level of innovation and risk to the Programme, without assessing whether the Department was capable of managing the changes, and did not provide sufficient support during implementation.

We welcome digital innovation but it must be introduced appropriately, taking into account the capability of the department concerned and its customers. In this case, GDS failed to take account of these considerations or provide adequate support. It lost sight of the outcome – which was that farmers be paid as quickly as possible.

Reiterating a hearing in December, the PAC blamed the deeply dysfunctional relationship between GDS and the Rural Payments Agency for the failure of the system.

“Highly paid public servants need to get the job done and such behaviour is unacceptable.”

Mark Grimshaw, chief exec of the RPA, is paid between £160,000 - £164,999 per year; Liam Maxwell, the previous senior responsible owner of the project, and government chief technology officer at the Cabinet Office, earns £140,000 - £144,999; and former GDS head Mike Bracken, who was heavily involved in the programme's “reset” earned 155,000-159,999 per year before leaving Whitehall last year.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said today: “It was frankly embarrassing to learn of senior and highly paid civil servants arguing to the detriment of hard-pressed farmers. Explanations such as ‘We worked on different floors’ and ‘We dressed differently’ are a slap in the face to them and a dismal excuse for failures that could severely hit the public purse.”

She added: “The enduring mental image is of managers, having seemingly lost sight of the purpose of the project, devoting their energies to a childish turf war instead.

The PAC report recommended that in the future GDS should "comprehensively assess departments’ capabilities to deliver any changes it imposes and ensure that it provides an appropriate level of support for those changes.

It also said the department "should review its approach to tackling serious failures of management and put in place measures to stop this ever happening again." ®

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