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Just how screwed is IT at the Home Office?

Ageing systems, Brexit, exodus of contractors, delayed agile projects...

The departure of UK Home Office chief information officer Sarah Wilkinson after two years at the helm comes at an interesting – and crucial – time for the department.

Unlike many other Whitehall bodies, the Home Office is responsible for a number of mission- and life-critical programmes, a number of which are in the process of being overhauled.

Failure of some of the systems underpinning its responsibilities (which include police, fire and rescue services, visas and immigration and national security) would hit the headlines.

The department faces a number of challenges in delivering its IT programmes. So after Wilkinson leaves to become chief exec of NHS Digital in June, her successor may arrive just as the proverbial brown stuff hits the rotating blades.

Communications breakdown

Earlier this week MPs warned that public safety could be threatened by a possible break in emergency services communications. The 4G Emergency Services Network run by EE was intended to replace the radio with the current radio Airwave system.

The Public Accounts Committee report said that in the event of an emergency, including a terrorist attack, the need for the emergency services to communicate is an essential part of keeping the public safe.

But MPs said the emergency services face a “potentially catastrophic” six-month period without a crucial communications system due to potential delays.

“We are greatly concerned that the start date for the new system for communication – the Emergency Services Network – is not only delayed but is not likely to be deliverable,” they said.

It also concluded the department had not budgeted for delays, nor put in place detailed contingency plans to manage them.

Border control

Another potentially headline-grabbing area is the department's immigration systems, even without taking into account the impact of Brexit.

Border systems are something the department has a long and troubled history over. Last year the National Audit Office said the Home Office’s e-Borders project "vital to national security”, will eventually cost the taxpayer more than £1bn and arrive at least eight years late.

The programme started in 2007 and aims to collect and store information on passengers and crew entering and leaving the UK and check those names against terror and criminal watch lists stored on the e-borders database. It was then cancelled by the coalition after £260m had already been spent, with the Home Office having to pay £150m with the supplier Raytheon and £35m on legal fees.

However, the latest digital incarnation of that system does not seem to be going well either. According to one source, the Infrastructure Projects Authority recently slammed its progress.

In addition to that the Home Office's agile-based programme, Immigration Platform Technologies due to cost £208.7m by 2016-17, is reported to be "all over the place" by another source.

Brexit blues

Along with HMRC, the Home Office is one of the most exposed departments to Brexit. It will be interesting to see how the next CIO address something like the still-in-use 2000-era Casework Information Database (CID) been patched many times in haste and changed only when legislation requires.

The CID system was to be replaced by an Immigration Case Work system in December 2008, which was intended to support applications for visas and immigration. But the department was forced to write off £347m spent on ICW four years ago. In 2014 the National Audit Office found that the CID system is plagued by problems such as freezing, a lack of interface with other systems, and a lack of controls.

One source remarked that all the crappy old systems such as CID will that do immigration will need to be replaced because they can’t change them to cope with the new rules post-Brexit. "So they need to come up with the new rules, deliver a system (and logistics - e.g no more blue channels at airports for those flying from a country within the European Union) and then transition in time. Meanwhile, their desktops are from the dark ages, they are mid-migration to things such as Office 365."

Other existing systems are also creaking, with plans to replace the nearly two-decade Atos and Fujitsu programmes yet again behind schedule. Exactly how the department is going to migrate off those big contracts remains unclear.

Contractor exodus

Added to that is the serious lack of skills facing government, exacerbated by the exodus of contractors leaving over changes to self-employment status under recent changes to IR35 legislation.

Both the lead architects for the Common Data Platform have gone as a result of the changes, according to another source. (Although some may view that as not necessarily a bad thing).

Some 200 contractors have left as a result of the way they handled IR35, said the insider, although a proportion have gone back on new deals that put them outside the regulation.

He said: “There is a series of car crash implementations coming that she will dodge but whoever is next isn't going to know how bad it is but will find out in the first 30 days.”

Another contact remarked the whole place is still very much "not fit for purpose." However, he blames the executive team at the department for that situation rather than Wilkinson.

"She was not on the exec team and therefore unable to drive change at the right level (and ultimately she lacked a hard hitting CTO able to make the right things happen on the ground).

"She reported through the chief operating officer - which sums up Home Office's view of tech: something you throw at existing operations, rather than as the way you redesign the department ready for Brexit."

Whoever takes the helm as next CIO would do well to ensure they know exactly what they're letting themselves in for. ®

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