Passport Service director: Why we’re going public on things we didn’t always get right

Bernard Herdan, Executive Director of Service Delivery for the Identity and Passport Service, has explained why he has taken the unusual step of publishing a report on the lessons learned and mistakes made on his agency’s key IT projects.

Herdan said he was responding to a challenge issued by Computer Weekly on BBC Radio Four’s You and Yours programme last year, when we questioned whether he would go public on why the Identity and Passport Service had withdrawn a system only weeks after it went live. The system – electronic passport application, EPA2 – had, for a short time, allowed people to apply and pay for passports online. Then about 5,000 passport applications became stuck in the system.

Herdan’s agency has now published a report on the lessons learned, and the mistakes made. He also said in an interview with Computer Weekly that he has decided to continue sharing the lessons from key IT projects.

He said: “You are absolutely right to push for that kind of thing [more openness over the lessons learned and mistakes made on IT projects undertaken by government departments and agencies], and it will be interesting to see whether others follow our lead and do the same thing – in other words admit that everything did not go smoothly and that there were things [they] did not get right and will get right next time.”

Herdan said the EPA2 system failed for a number of reasons, including bugs which only became apparent in live running when staff entered particular combinations of instructions.

At one point last June some people faced the possibility of having to cancel their holidays because their passport had not arrived.

Herdan spoke of the difficulties he faced when staff at the Newport office realised that EPA2 was not working as well as intended.

Herdan said: “Do you soldier on in the assumption the software supplier will fix the problems and they will go away? Or do you take the view there is a risk to people’s holidays and the service, therefore we should discontinue [the system]?

“We had a meeting and took a decision that the next day we would revert to the previous system, which turned out to be a really good decision, because actually some of those problems were quite difficult to sort out. They were not things you could do in a day. We have decided to rebuild it differently.”

The agency’s main IT supplier Siemens Business Systems is to pay for the system to be rebuilt. EPA2 may be reintroduced this summer. Meanwhile the Identity and Passport Service is relying on its old online passport application system EPA1 which is more cumbersome and does not allow people to pay online.

He commented on the fact that gateway reviews of IT projects and programmes – which are independent assessments of IT projects by the Office of Government Commerce – are not routinely published.

Herdan said: “This is an attempt to improve on that. We will make sure we will continue doing this, sharing our lessons at the risk of people saying: “On gosh, fancy them getting that wrong? Didn’t they know? People will say that after the event.”