Don't be the one who gets the blame - the Home Office's biggest lesson in UK borders IT

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” or so the oft-repeated quote from philosopher George Santayana goes. Where the UK’s Home Office is concerned, a far more meta version is required, maybe something along the lines of, “Those who do not learn that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, are doomed to repeat it over and over again.”

If that sounds confusing to you, then you’re probably well suited to work on the Home Office’s 17-year programme to update the IT systems protecting the UK borders.

If you weren’t aware, our borders depend on two ageing IT systems – one 16 years old, the other more than 20, that as long ago as 2013 were described as containing “critical system vulnerabilities” by the official watchdog.

This week, following a scathing National Audit Office (NAO) report, MPs described the latest attempt to replace those systems as having “utterly failed to learn from the mistakes made” in the previous attempt. The project is running three years late and £173m over budget. And even then, the Home Office “still faces significant risks in delivering and integrating its new systems against a challenging timetable.”

If we jump, Back to the Future style, back to December 2015, you might not even notice the difference. E-borders, the previous Home Office project to replace its ageing borders IT systems, was slammed for “failure to understand the ambition and achievability of the vision,” after going hundreds of millions of pounds over budget, running years late, and delivering very little.

Back then, the NAO cited constant changes in project leadership as a significant contributory factor. Jump back to 2020, and the NAO cited constant changes in project leadership as a significant contributory factor. Between the two initiatives, there have been at least 14 different programme owners or directors.

In many years of reporting on government IT disasters, Computer Weekly has rarely seen a worse example of failure to learn from past mistakes. Read the 2015 NAO report alongside the 2020 equivalent, and it’s like only the dates and names have changed. The UK is about to go through the biggest change to its borders in a generation, and despite 17 years of a constant, rolling IT project, the Home Office has still not replaced the border systems it decided to replace in 2003.

“The Home Office utterly failed to learn from the mistakes it made with the e-Borders project. It once again lost sight of the programme’s core purpose, trying to add more and more features like baubles on a Christmas tree,” said Public Accounts Committee chair, Meg Hillier.

Where is the accountability for the billions spent, the delays, the inability to deliver, and the risks this brings to UK borders? Anyone? We can only conclude that Home Office management has learned the most valuable history lesson of all – make sure you don’t stick around long enough to be the one who gets the blame.

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