The Identity and Passport Service [IPS] has cancelled an overly complicated replacement online passport applications system after rising costs and glitches which led to about 5,000 applications becoming stuck in the system.
The IPS told Computer Weekly that it has written of £10.9m in development costs because of the cancellation of the Electronic Passport Application system, known as EPA2.
When the system went live in 2006 passport applications became jammed in the system, there were “quirks in the software”, and performance slowed to the point where a backlog of 5,000 applications built up. The delays put holidays of some applicants at risk. The IPS withdrew EPA2 while staff worked on its re-launch.
But IPS says the costs of a simplified system and an inability to recover the investment before new systems become available in 2011 meant that any further spending on EPA2 could not be justified.
In the absence of the system, the IPS has reverted to using the older EPA1. Compared to EPA2, if it were functioning correctly, EPA1 has no facility for paying online, is much slower because applications can take up to four weeks, and it requires paperwork with applicants to be exchanged in the post.
The IPS has also owned up to what went wrong on two other major IT projects last year. But unusually for any government department, the IPS has published the lessons.
Bernard Herdan, its Executive Director for Service Planning and Delivery, has told Computer Weekly he wants others working on major IT-based projects and programmes to avoid similar mistakes.
This month the IPS completes the roll-out nationwide of IT systems for 68 offices it has set up to interview first-time applicants for passports – the so-called Authentication By Interview project.
Herdan said that the IPS was over-optimistic about how quickly the IT could be rolled out and 600 new staff recruited to interview applicants. The start of the rollout was delayed by about six months – and there were difficulties synchronising the hiring of staff with the rollout of IT to support them.
The IPS hired too many people too soon – but their start dates were delayed because the IT was not ready and some decided not to take up the job. When the IPS began recruiting again this took longer than expected because security checks on new personnel became more stringent – so existing staff had to cover for the recruits to avoid a waste of money from empty offices and unused IT systems.
But IPS had successes with three large projects last year – and learned lessons from the parts of Authentication By Interview which went well, in particular the testing of new processes by having staff use, in live operations, paper instead of IT systems.
The IPS began the annual reporting of lessons from its major IT-based projects and programmes in 2007 after a call by Computer Weekly that it, and other departments, should do so. We had made the challenge on BBC R4 – which Herdan accepted on air.
The openness and experience of IPS on major IT-based projects has earned the IPS the respect of other departments – in 2007 it won a civil service award for the Best Project and Programme Management across government.
Herdan said in 2007 he’d welcome it if other government departments published the lessons from its key projects. But so far none has. HM Revenue and Customs flatly rejected the idea when it was suggested to Paul Gray, its then chairman, by MP Richard Bacon, a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Bacon campaigns for less secrecy over government IT projects.
On EPA2 a spokesman for the IPS said that £10.9m in development costs over 2006-07 and 2007-08 has been written off. He said:
“It was indicated last year that IPS would be seeking to simplify the EPA2 system and that once it was in a position to re-launch EPA2, its implementation would have to be accommodated within the other planned business/system changes IPS had planned for 2007.
“The costs of the simplified system, and IPS’s inability to recover its investment before new systems became available meant that further investment was not justified.
“After careful consideration and evaluation of technical and commercial considerations the IPS Management Board decided to cancel the project. IPS is satisfied that this is the right decision and rather than plough on and potentially invest further in transitional and support costs, agreed it was better to stop and seek to acquire a modern on line channel. This will now form part of the projects and contracts procured through the NIS [National Identity Scheme’s] Strategic Supplier Framework.
“Currently IPS is solely using EPA1 and this will continue until 2011 when it will be replaced by a modern online channel.”
Nothing astonishes us more than frankness, common sense and plain dealing.
This is why we’re taken aback when officials at IPS discuss openly what mistakes they’ve made. It makes us think that IPS knows what it is doing.
And when HM Revenue and Customs refuses to discuss openly its mistakes it gives us a feeling it is burdened with the complexity of its operations and ageing IT systems. This may be an incorrect impression – but it’s the message it sends to MPs and the media.
Doubtless the IPS will continue to make mistakes. But publishing details of them means the mistakes are a useful, and even a positive, experience – if others learn from them. We congratulate the IPS on its openness.