Rural payments service failed GDS assessment but still went live

The troubled rural payments digital service failed its most recent assessment by the Government Digital Service, but was still launched to farmers

The troubled rural payments digital service failed its most recent assessment by the Government Digital Service (GDS), but was still launched to farmers to make claims for EU subsidies.

The service proved to have such significant performance problems that it was subsequently withdrawn and replaced by paper forms. The fact that GDS did not give the service its formal approval will raise questions about the processes for checking that “digital by default” services are ready to be released to the public when under pressure to go live to meet a political deadline.

According to the Gov.uk performance website, which publishes details of service performance and their progress through the approvals process, the rural payment service underwent assessment to move from the “alpha” stage to “beta” on 29 January 2015. The beta stage is when a service can be released for public use, but on the basis it is not yet a finished version. 

The rural payments service used by farmers was clearly labelled as a beta version, even though its assessment to be able to move to that stage was rated by GDS as a “not pass”.

New services are assessed against 26 criteria, and the results of the assessment are routinely published on Gov.uk – although the full assessment of rural payments and the reasons why it did not pass have yet to be made available. The objective of the beta stage is “to build a fully working prototype which you test with users”.

Read more about the rural payments system problems

Under the terms of the GDS Service Design Manual that governs the development process, a digital service should not be released to the public until it has reached the beta stage of the development process. However, the rural payments service faced an EU deadline of 15 May (later put back a month), by which time farmers had to submit claims under the Common Agricultural Policy or risk being fined.

Farmers soon complained the online-only system was difficult to use and very slow. Computer Weekly revealed that back-end servers were reaching 100% utilisation and falling over with only a few users online. The system was eventually withdrawn on 20 March and farmers were told to submit paper forms instead.

Environment secretary Liz Truss later admitted to MPs that performance problems meant the system was so slow there was not enough time left before the EU deadline to register all farmers’ claims.

MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have slammed the government for its decision to make rural payment claims from farmers a “digital by default” service, especially when many farmers still suffer from poor rural broadband availability.

Computer Weekly asked the Cabinet Office for more details on the reasons why the rural payments service failed its latest assessment, but rules around civil servants making public statements during the general election campaign meant they were unable to comment or provide further information.

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