What went wrong with Defra's rural payments system?

A £154m system to process payments to farmers has been forced to resort to paper forms. What went wrong – and is this a digital disaster?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: What went wrong with the IT for farmers' rural payments?:

Government IT has made the headlines again for all the wrong reasons, as a £154m system to process claims for EU subsidy payments to farmers hit problems, forcing applicants to resort to paper forms. But what actually went wrong – and is this really the digital disaster some are portraying it to be?

After successive software releases failed to resolve problems with a digital mapping tool used by farmers for the subsidy payment system – and with servers hitting 100% utilisation rates with only a few users online – a final upgrade last weekend was intended to sort the issue once and for all.

But Monday arrived, the problems continued – and developers had no idea how to fix it. As a result, ministers were forced into a U-turn on the Cabinet Office's "digital by default" policy, resorting to plan B – using paper forms.

There was always going to be sensitivity around the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) digital service, given the disastrous history of its IT systems. The digital service was designed to replace the £350m single payment scheme (SPS), 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 the funds they were entitled to. The legacy of SPS among farmers is still fresh in many minds, even if its troubles started a decade ago.

Agile system to cope with changing EU rules

The RPA needed the new system to deal with changed rules from the EU about claiming farm subsidies – the complex guidelines for the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) runs to 84 pages. But by the time the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was ready to start development in 2012, the situation differed considerably from the days of SPS.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) introduced new controls over IT projects, designed to avoid big, costly developments depending on contracts with large suppliers. When Defra/RPA went to GDS with its initial proposal – a 300-page business case, according to one source – it was quickly knocked back. 

Staff from GDS were brought in to put RPA on the digital path, and the rural payments system was subsequently selected as one of 25 exemplars – the high-volume government transactions to be re-developed according to the Cabinet Office's “digital by default” standards.

Instead of a few big suppliers – Steria and Accenture were two of the SPS contractors, for example – RPA would be agile and user-led, with multiple small- and medium-sized suppliers. The aim was to use modern digital mapping tools to replace paper forms, so farmers could identify their land use with an online map, supported by a back-end rules engine to reduce the complexity of the claims process.

One of the suppliers involved in developing the digital mapping system was Kainos, a Belfast company that uses offshore developers in Gdansk, Poland, where some of the work on RPA has been done. Kainos said in a press release in 2014 that it was the sole delivery partner for the original prototype phase between October 2012 and January 2013. That release, in April 2014, said Kainos had been “commended” by Defra for its role.

But Kainos is not the only supplier – there are “hundreds of IT experts” involved, according to Kainos. Sources say there are also multiple products involved that need integrating – more than 100, according to one insider.

Defra and GDS launch public beta

RPA went through the phases of the GDS delivery process – the discovery phase was completed in September 2012; the alpha prototype by the end of 2013; and a private beta test concluded in July 2014.

With a deadline approaching for BPS applications, Defra and GDS launched the public beta version to farmers this year – but this was not the finished product. The public beta is still a testing phase, where developers take feedback from users and make regular software releases on an iterative basis.

Scalability of the system had already been identified as one of the biggest challenges. GDS chief Mike Bracken acknowledged the complexity involved in a blog post in December 2014. “It’s not just the policy that’s complex. For this exemplar alone, we’re talking about roughly 110,000 farmers and 1,200 land agents,” he wrote.

“Farmers themselves are a diverse group of people, whose properties can range from a smallholding to an industrial-scale business. The average age of farmers in the UK is also quite high, with many in their 60s and 70s.

“It’s also important not to focus on the edge cases when building a digital service. We don’t go for a one-size-fits-all approach, because we recognise that edge cases exist. But by building services to meet the needs for the bulk of users, we create simpler, clearer and faster services for them, and have the time and financial flexibility to offer case-by-case support for edge case users.”

GDS knew it was a challenging user base – the service was given a “complexity rating” of eight out of 10, the joint highest of all the digital exemplars. “This means a user will need to be a confident user of online services, often using digital tools in their everyday lives,” according to a December 2014 report by GDS. There must have been question marks around how less digitally literate farmers would cope.

Early problems emerge

Farmers were reporting problems as early as February 2015: “The more farmers that go online, the slower the speed of the software. Our experience is to avoid the middle of the day if you can when there is a bit of a traffic jam,” said one farm agent in the Gazette & Herald.

Monday arrived and the release wasn’t working and they had no idea how to fix it

A government IT insider

“The system was closed down for part of last weekend to try to improve the mapping tool but frankly, at the time of writing, we have abandoned using it for the time being. Another problem with the mapping functionality is the display of areas to four decimal places instead of two, which has been past practice. The software writers are apparently making amendments to bring it back to the standard two decimal places and until this happens, leave well alone.”

The iterative development process was also causing problems for farmers. “The system is frequently going down at short notice for upgrades, making it difficult for farmers and agents to make progress on their maps,” said a report in Farmers Guardian.

Broadband access in remote rural areas was another issue, said the magazine: “Many claimants are also struggling with insufficient broadband speed. Defra said last year 1Mbps would be enough to process mapping, but it is now clear that at least twice as much is needed to process land-based changes without any severe delays or problems.”

RPA was the first service to use GDS’s identity assurance system, 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. But Verify was not the cause of the problems that led to the U-turn.

Problems continue with mapping tool

As the project progressed, GDS continued its involvement, working with the digital team at Defra. However, the importance of RPA to the GDS strategy was reflected in government CTO Liam Maxwell remaining as the senior responsible owner overseeing progress.

However, successive software releases failed to resolve the problems with the mapping tool. According to one source, even with very few users, back-end servers would quickly reach 100% utilisation and “fall over”.

The core of the problem was identified as the interface between the mapping portal and the back-end rules engine software. That one problem remained consistently unstable and exerted a negative effect on the rest of the service. A final software release last weekend was intended to resolve the problem, but failed.

“Monday arrived and the release wasn’t working and they had no idea how to fix it - despite a big team having worked incredibly hard on this for many months, so no question the effort was going in, it just wasn’t translating to output,” said a source. 

As a result, ministers were forced to resort to plan B and go back to paper-based forms. An alternative solution to the problems is being developed and, all being well, it will support next year’s annual BPS claims – but for this year, the digital service was not up to scratch in time.

Read more about the digital by default strategy

So far, £73.4m has been spent on the system – considerably less than the disastrous SPS project, but significant for Defra and for GDS, given that RPA is one of the most complex of its digital exemplars.

The focus now for Defra is making sure farmers’ claims can be submitted and processed in time for the EU deadline of 15 June 2015.

Scrutiny on digital strategy

“We’re building services, not websites; I’m excited to see rural payments show the results of making things as simple as possible for users,” Mike Bracken wrote in his blog post in December 2014. Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, but the challenge for GDS now is to show it has learned lessons from RPA.

For example, another digital exemplar with the same complexity rating of eight is HM Revenue & Customs’ online personal tax accounts – promoted this week by chancellor George Osborne in the Budget to support one of his headline announcements of scrapping tax returns. The scrutiny on the “digital by default” plan is only going to increase.

The government will need to demonstrate that its digital strategy – which has been widely lauded, but not without its critics – can stand up to the most complex of public services.

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