BBC TV reports on "another" government IT failure

When a producer at BBC’s “Ten O’Clock News” contacted me about “another government computer project that has gone wrong” she was genuinely interested to know why failures cannot be prevented.

I gave the producer a choice of comments and she sent a cameraman to record them. This was the comment the Ten O’Clock News decided to broadcast on Friday evening [4 July 2008] in a short film on delays with school exam tests:

“You don’t have the scrutiny in the public sector that you do need to have,” I said. “There ought to be reports to Parliament about how these projects are going. Unfortunately the government is extraordinarily secretive about big IT projects.”

I had then pointed out that the government had even gone to the High Court to stop gateway reviews – independent assessments of risky IT and other projects – from being published. This last sentence wasn’t used though.

It’s a familiar story. For weeks ministers and civil servants have received warnings from head teachers that things were going wrong, and had dismissed the critics as unduly negative, just as ministers have given an imperious wave of their hand when confronted with criticism of the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

The truth is that ministers did not really know what was going on. They were having to accept assurances from their advisers who don’t seem to have known much more than the head-teachers who complained they’d been kept in the dark.

Nothing had been published about progress and problems with a new online system for handling the SAT tests for 11 to 14 year-olds. As often happens MPs don’t know how bad things are with a major new system until their constituents write to them.

A year ago the National Assessment Agency, part of the Department for Education and Skills, awarded ETS Europe a £156m contract to manage the marking of SAT tests. The deadline for the marks is 8 July – but it has been postponed.

Head-teacher Sylvia Morris at Cathedral School told the 10 O’Clock News:

“It was totally denied 4 or 5 weeks ago, “no, we don’t have a problem”, and hey-ho we have got a problem and a very serious one. It is going to have a significant impact on our trust and confidence in the system”.

The Ten O’Clock News said: “Hundreds of markers could not register in time causing long delays. Even when they did get their test papers and finished marking, there were further difficulties processing the marks into grades. Many SATS markers complained of ongoing problems.”

The volume of complaints rose in May, when the training process began, and again when many test papers were delivered to markers’ homes late or not at all. Some markers even received batches of the wrong scripts. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and the qualifications authorities said steps had been taken “to get things back on track”.

In the film a BBC reporter said that more than a million children across England will now have to wait for their school test results.

Schools minister Jim Knight told the Ten O’Clock News:

“We have been let down because everyone was prepared for the 8th of July deadline and that is not going to be met and that’s a considerable inconvenience to schools that I am extremely concerned about.”

Separately, Knight told the BBC: “I have had regular meetings with the agency responsible. They’ve given me consistent reassurance that they would be able to meet the 8 July deadline.

“In the last couple of weeks, they’ve expressed concerns they wouldn’t be able to for the Key Stage 3 English – but it’s only in the last two days that the story changed dramatically so that we lost all confidence that we would be able to meet the Tuesday 8 July deadline.”

The Ten O’Clock News said that this is the latest computer calamity. It pointed to a system for the armed forces running £182m over budget, the tax credits “fiasco” which affected thousands, and it said a “new NHS database is four years behind schedule

Links:

 

Delays with exam results – BBC story on the ETS problems

Should test marking problems have been foreseen? – The Guardian plus reader comments

Epolitix.com – on delays with SATS results  

Ten O’Clock News – BBC website

 

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So here we have yet another failure for the OGC's Gateway Review process. Given this was a national programme, with a high impact on schools and pupils, One wonders what the outcome of the Gateway 4 (Readiness for Service) Review was. This has considerable parallels with the New Tax Credits (NTC) rollout - a brand new process, requiring registration - as the BBC says "Hundreds of markers could not register in time causing long delays" which is similar to hundred of taxpayers not registering as early as the project team expected for NTC.

Again despite published advice on major IT projects this appears to have been a "big bang" implementation - all SATs results for 2008 being processed through the brand new system.

So did this project have a realistic implementation plan, what were the plans to manage the registration process and monitor 'take-up' against plan, were the delays in marker registration a consequence of late system availability or initial poor system performance?

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