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'Conspiracy of optimism' hit rural payments scheme

Tony Collins

A top civil servant with experience of large IT-based programmes has said a "conspiracy of optimism" contributed to the failure of a Rural Payments Agency project which delayed payments to farmers, causing distress for some of them.

Helen Ghosh, permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said last week that the lessons from the problems encountered "will teach other government departments a great deal" about linking IT to the correct business process and ensuring there is the necessary leadership and other skills in place.

Her comments to the Public Accounts Committee raise questions about whether there is over-optimism among ministers about some of central government's other large IT-based schemes, such as the ID cards project and the National Programme for IT in the NHS.

Ghosh told the committee there was a "conspiracy of optimism in terms of the achievability, in the end, of full payments starting in February 2006".

She was referring to the delays in administering the Single Payment Scheme under which farmers were entitled to claim subsidies worth more than £1.5bn by June 2006.

The scheme was designed around a system built by US-based services supplier Accenture. Its implementation was hit by a series of problems, including poor quality data.

By last week 3,000 farmers had still not been paid, and for some the subsidy is a significant source of the family income. "The difficulties in making payments have caused distress to a significant minority of farmers," said the National Audit Office in a report on 16 October.

At a separate hearing in the House of Commons on the Single Payment Scheme, Lord Whitty, a former minister at Defra, said that some of the advice he received from officials was over-optimistic, and sometimes at odds with what he was being told by farmers who were "trying to deal with this system".

He said that he was being lobbied directly by farmers he respected. "I am talking about serious people who wanted the scheme to work telling me that it was not working, and that was contrary to the kind of advice [from officials] that was coming," he said.

He added that some advice from officials had been misleading but not intentionally so. "I think they just took the most optimistic of the outcomes, put them together and felt that that was the message they needed to give to those who were overseeing them."

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