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A terrible price for the Government's love of IT complexity?


“Some farmers have actually committed suicide because they’ve been given money and then abruptly been told it’s an overpayment and monies have been demanded back” – Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee.

George Dunn, Chief Executive of the Tenants Farmers’ Association, was a member of the stakeholder group that advised the government on setting up of what became the disastrous Single Payment Scheme.

He said the group was presented with options ranging from the simple to the complex. The Government chose the most complex.


Hearing this on BBC R4’s File on 4, I wondered why Accenture, the mainIT supplier at Defra’s Rural Payments Agency, didn’t say “no – it won’twork”?  

george dunn tenant farmers ass picture.jpg

This is what Dunn told File on 4:

“I was a member of a government stakeholder group that was looking atCAP [Common Agricultural Policy] reform process.

“We were presented with options [for the IT system] and they rangedfrom simple to complex. We worked our way through [and] when we got to bottomof list there was palpable laughter that we would ever consider usingthe most complex, given the nightmare we would have in trying toimplement it.”

File on 4: And what happened?

Dunn: “They chose the bottom of the list.”

File on 4: The one you thought was laughable?

Dunn: The government chose the last one.

File on 4: Did you politely tell them you thought this was an error?

Dunn: “I don’t think I was very polite at the time. I did tell tell they’dchosen the complex [option] and why didn’t they take the advice of their owncivil servants, their own RPA [Rural Payments Agency] staff,  that if they chose the mostcomplex it would be a nightmare  to administer. The response was theRPA would do what the RPA was told to do by Defra.”

But why would Accenture say no?

On reflection, why would the incumbent IT supplier Accenture have said “no” to the immensely complex Single Payments Scheme?

Defrathought the Single Payment Scheme was technically feasible. Ministersthought so too. So Accenture would have been foolish to say: “we don’twant your millions, thank you”.

The National Audit Office reported that taxpayers were paying 100 Accenture consultants at a rate of an average £200,000 each a year.

TonyCooper, the Chief Executive of the Rural Payments Agency, who wasbrought in in 2006 to rescue the Single Payments Scheme, defends thepayments to Accenture, saying his staff pay for a piece of developmentwork, and not for manpower on a day rate.

He tells File on 4:”They [Accenture] determine how many people they need for the contractprice that we engage with them on for the IT …”

It appearsthat no smaller, technically-innovative supplier was even consideredbecause  Accenture was the incumbent: ministers saw no need toconsider anyone else, especially as the system needed to be installedquite quickly. 

**

Single Payment Scheme IT and data problems continue

In January 2010, Farmers Weekly reported that “farm leaders are to write to the government in protest at continuing delays to single farm payments”.

NationalFarmers Union single payment adviser Richard Wordsworth said asignificant number of farmers had still not been paid in full for 2007and 2008. “The big problem is – and we see this time and time again -is the RPA computer system.”

Wordsworth says: “We have claimswhere parts are OK, but other parts are simply considered too complexby the computer to produce the right figure.”

The BBC reports that the data in the Rural Payments Agency’s system is wrong, which means the payments are also bound to be wrong.

Public Accounts Committee seeks new explanation from ministers

Edward Leigh,the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, asked the government towrite to his committee by the end of January 2010 to explain how it wasgoing to put the payments system right. He is not happy with thegovernment’s response – but he may have to let the matter drop becausehis committee will soon be disbanded, in advance of a general election.

Leigh said:

“They[the government] don’t seem to have an action plan to show  how theywill get out of this hole. We’re now going to summon them back again. Idon’t think it will be this Parliament but in the successor committeeto this in next parliament.

“So they’ll have to come back[before the Public Accounts Committee] for a fourth time, which I mean,frankly, why should we waste our time on this we only have 60 hearingsa year. We have to look at Health, Foreign Office, Defence. Why shouldwe have four hearings on one small agency just paying out a relativelysimple amount of  money?”

**

If the whole truth doesn’t emerge,  how can lessons be learnt?

I am not surethe Public Accounts Committee will ever establish the whole truth. TheNAO has had enough trouble. Last year the NAO told the Public AccountsCommittee that, for the first time in recent memory, it had been unableto agree its report on the Single Payment Scheme with Defra under what is known as the “clearance process“.

Defra’s press office told me several times that it had agreed the NAO report. I went back to the NAO which told me that Defra had definitely not agreedthe report. The NAO emphasized that it had not received anyconfirmation letter from Defra which agreed the NAO report. Defra againinsisted it had sent the NAO such a letter.

If the NAO and Defracannot agree on something as fundamental as whether they agreed thefacts in an NAO report, how can they both explain, and learn from, themistakes of the Single Payment Scheme?

Links:

NAO urges DEFRA to replace £350m system that’s only 4 years old – ComputerWeekly.com

The IT problems hurting farmers – BBC R4 File on 4

NAO 2nd report report on Single Payment Scheme – NAO website  

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"I am not sure the Public Accounts Committee will ever establish the whole truth."

They won't. I'm still not sure how much of what went wrong was incompetence on Accenture's part, and how much was deliberately making things over-complicated to ensure a revenue lock-in. I am sure both were involved, perhaps sympathetically.

Regardless, the situation is that it is in the interests of RPA management (and ex-management) to support Accenture, and vice versa, to prevent the real depths of the mess, and the early awareness of it (and alerting to it) by RPA's independent IT consultants reviewing Accenture's and RPA's technical proposals, from being fully exposed.

If it wasn't government, legal clerks might be digging through tons of archived emails for evidence to support suing various parties to recover costs - and they'd find plenty - or at least discover the depth of awareness that things were well off the rails from early on - and that management chose to ignore concerns - but that kind of investigation costs lots of money.

So no - the whole truth will never be known.

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