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A £234m "C-Nomis" IT system for prisons failed in almost every possible way - but the project's main board and ministers were kept unaware of the full problems until it was too late to rescue the original scheme.
The National Audit Office published today an incisive report on the Home Office's National Offender Management Information System [C-Nomis] which showed that bad news about the project failed to go up the ladder of command to those who could have made decisions to rescue it.
In its early stages the project was "consistently" rated as green meaning that it was officially assessed as proceeding to time and to budget, said the NAO. Later, two Gateway reviews of the scheme by the Office of Government Commerce put the project's status at "red". But the NAO found that the OGC's advice was sidelined or not always acted on.
The NAO referred to a "vacuum of leadership" on the project.
Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office, said the C-Nomis initiative to introduce a single offender database "has been expensive and ultimately unsuccessful". He said the problems had been avoidable - officials at the Home Office had failed to follow "basic" project management principles, or establish a realistic budget, timescales and governance.
The NAO concluded that the technical complexity had been "significantly underestimated". C-Nomis was treated as an IT project and not a business-change programme, project management was poor, and contracts with suppliers were weak. There were 800 change requests in 2005 and 2006.
Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said of C-Nomis that "kindergarten mistakes" had been repeated: "This Committee hears of troubled government projects all too frequently. But the litany of failings in this case are in a class of their own.
"All of this mess could have been avoided if good practice in project management had been followed. A new project team has been brought in. They cannot afford to repeat these kindergarten mistakes."
The project began in June 2004. But it was not until the summer of 2007 that senior officials and ministers in the newly-formed Ministry of Justice discovered that C-Nomis was running two years late and that costs had more than doubled from £234m to a projected £690m over the lifetime of the scheme. They suspended the project, and launched a review into how costs could be cut.
Talks with the main supplier EDS began on how C-Nomis could be saved without making it unaffordable.
The NAO said that until the project was suspended in 2007 "we found no evidence of Ministerial involvement beyond them receiving standard summarised briefings". The NAO added: "When delays occurred many stakeholders only found out at the last minute".
It's a similar story to the Rural Payment Agency's IT-based Single Payment Scheme in which ministers were given reassuring reports on progress until it was too late to hide the seriousness of the project's difficulties.
The NAO in its report today found that C-Nomis scheme made the same mistakes as many other failed government IT-based change programmes - yet the Home Office's Programme and Project Management Support Unit had certified that the project was not suffering from the eight common causes of project failures, as defined by the NAO and the Office of Government Commerce.
Such was the near anarchy on the project at times that when a new senior responsible owner was appointed to the project in August 2007, and asked for the Nomis budget, he was told there wasn't one. The new SRO blew the whistle on the project's problems.
The NAO says the full financial impact of the delays to the C-Nomis are likely to be in excess of £41m - but it adds that this is probably an underestimate. The scope of the system has now been greatly reduced but it will still cost at least £513m, more than twice the original price.
The system was commissioned from EDS without a specific open competitive tender, said the NAO. A former project director told the NAO that the decision not to go to competitive tender had been flawed.
The system was designed to amalgamate information on offenders into a single database, giving staff in prisons and the probation service an overview of criminals, and cut the risk of re-offending.
But C-Nomis now is to be installed in prisons only, and not the probation service which will use an existing package "Delius". There will be a read-only sharing of information between prisons and the probation service.
A national rollout of the system is due to begin in prisons in April.
Rural Payment Agency's Single Payment Scheme - an IT disaster with similarities to C-Nomis [ministers not being told the truth]
Report on Nomis - NAO website
Basic project management failures on C-Nomis - Computer Weekly