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BBC CTO John Linwood defends role in failed £100m digital project

Bryan Glick

Former BBC chief technology officer John Linwood has defended his role in the broadcaster’s failed £100m digital media project, citing changing requirements from the business as a key factor, and insisting that much of the IT works and is still in use.

Linwood revealed in written evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he is taking legal action against the BBC over his sacking.

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The Digital Media Initiative (DMI) project was scrapped in May 2013, with the BBC writing off nearly £100m of licence fee payers’ money spent on the development. The National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the BBC this week, saying the broadcaster was “too optimistic” and the BBC management team “did not have sufficient grip of the programme”.

DMI was intended to link digital production tools with a central, digital archive for BBC staff to access throughout the production process.

Linwood, the senior IT executive overseeing the project, was initially suspended when the programme was scrapped, and sacked in July 2013.

But in his evidence to MPs on the PAC – in advance of a hearing next week – Linwood acknowledged the project was “difficult and experienced delays”. But he insisted the problems were caused by business executives changing their requirements and failing to engage with the programme.

BBC technology remains in use today

He said the amount of money written off was “too high, because the technology worked and either was being used or could be used”.

“The technology we delivered worked or could, with limited further testing, have worked,” Linwood said in his evidence. "It is either in use in the BBC today (for example, the Metadata Archive) or capable of being used (for example, Production Tools).

“The business decided in October 2012 that its original vision for DMI had changed and it wanted to change direction, so that they no longer wished to use Production Tools (which had been built at their request to standardise their production process).

“The BBC has written off working software and hardware, some of which remains in use today. The BBC has allowed inaccurate statements to be made to the PAC to the effect that the ‘kit doesn’t work’ and is ‘worth nothing’. The BBC has been fully aware, for many months, of the issues raised in this statement – as I have raised them in correspondence and other communications with the BBC.”

Management changed specifications

Linwood explained the first phase of the project, the Metadata Archive, went live six months late in June 2012, citing “the significantly large number of changes requested by the business to the requirements which had been previously specified by them” as the primary cause.

He mentioned problems with the agile development methods initially employed, and stated: “After the business objected to this approach, we stopped.”

Linwood said another major part of the project, called Production Tools, was ready to go live in October 2012, but “the business decided it no longer wished to use Production Tools”.

“The reasons given by the business to the Executive Board in May 2013 was that there had been a change in business direction and the original vision of DMI no longer being valid,” he said.

It became evident the business was not speaking with one voice

Former BBC CTO John Linwood

Lack of responsibility

Later in his evidence, he added: “Over the early months of 2012 it had become evident that the business was not speaking with one voice in relation to its requirements for Production Tools and that there was no senior owner on the business side who would take responsibility for implementation of the technology.”

The decision not to adopt Production Tools had “significant implications” for the entire DMI project, said Linwood.

“By way of analogy, this change was equivalent to removing the first half of a production line in a factory and still expecting the factory to deliver the original products,” he said.

“I believe that the DMI project would have been delivered and the benefits realised by now if the business had wanted to take Production Tools live.”

Linwood claimed the Metadata Archive is still being used by more than 5,000 people at the BBC.

In response to Linwood's claims, a BBC spokesman said: "The suggestion that DMI shouldn't have been cancelled is absurd – everyone knows that throwing good money after bad at a failing project isn't a clever thing to do."

After the NAO report was released, Dominic Coles, the BBC’s director of operations, said: “As we have previously acknowledged, the BBC got this one wrong. We took swift action to overhaul how major projects are managed after we closed DMI last year."

The PAC is conducting a further hearing into DMI on Monday 3 February 2014.


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