Rural payment problems cause U-turn for flagship 'digital by default' service

Government forced into U-turn as flagship 'digital by default' service for payments to farmers resorts to paper forms following an IT failure

The government has been forced into a U-turn as one of its flagship “digital by default” services – for payments to farmers – has had to resort to paper forms, due to problems with the system.

Rural Payments Agency (RPA) chief executive Mark Grimshaw suspended the use of the digital service and asked farmers to use paper forms instead, after users were frustrated in attempts to use a mapping tool to support their claims.

“Having listened to feedback, the RPA will now combine existing forms that farming businesses are used to, with data that the Rural Payments system already has. This will mean that everyone who is registered and wants to complete a 2015 Basic Payment Scheme claim can do so,” said Grimshaw.

The European Commission (EC) has extended its deadline to 15 June for applications for the new Basic Payments Scheme – part of the European Union (EU) Common Agricultural Policy, whereby farmers can claim rebates according to their land use - although the extension is not related to the problems at RPA.

System slows with greater numbers

Contrary to some reports, the £155m RPA system has not been scrapped entirely. According to the RPA 80% of farmers have already registered using existing online and telephone services. But farmers have reported difficulty in using the digital mapping system to make claims. A report in the Gazette & Herald last month said: “The more farmers go online, the slower the speed of the software”. Some farmers reported taking hours to use the mapping tool, and that simply using pen and paper proved quicker for them.

Read more about the RPA IT systems

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has promoted RPA as one of its flagship digital services. GDS chief Mike Bracken wrote in a blog post in December 2014: “I am really impressed to see how much work the team has put in to make things better for users.

“It’s really important to not be blinded by how complicated things are, but instead focus on how simple you’re going to make them.” 

Troubleshooters set to work at Defra

GDS troubleshooters have been working with digital teams at the RPA and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to try to resolve the current problem.

However, the system is not officially fully live – under the GDS “digital by default service standard”, the system is still in beta test phase – despite being opened up to all 110,000 farmers and 1,200 land agents. A status report on the Gov.uk website about the RPA system said one of the challenges it still faces is “scalable deployment practices”.

RPA was also the first service to use GDS’s identity assurance system, called Gov.uk Verify. Here too there were early teething troubles, as some farmers attempting to use Verify to register with RPA found it too difficult to use. “This couldn’t be more complicated if you tried, we are farmers – not computer experts,” said one user.

The embarrassment is further compounded by the troubled history of the RPA’s IT systems. The digital service was designed to replace the £350m single payment scheme, started in 2005 and which eventually cost more than four times the original estimate of £75m, with extra costs of £680m to administer the system. Farmers were paid the wrong amounts or did not receive funds they were entitled to.

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