What went wrong with £234m C-Nomis IT project

When civil servants defend the failure of an IT-related project they usually say that the problems are in the past and all is well now.

Last week Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, was ready for that answer.

Leigh was facing Phil Wheatley, Director General of the National Offender Management Service in the Ministry of Justice. The subject of the hearing was the £234m National Offender Management Information System, called C-Nomis.

The Home Office launched the project in 2004.  The aim was to provide a single database of offenders to replace a range of legacy systems. When the Ministry of Justice was formed in 2007, it took over the project from the Home Office and almost immediately commissioned reviews which found that the project was in a dire state: the projected costs had risen from £234m to £690m. 

Suspension of C-Nomis

The Ministry of Justice suspended the project in 2007 [a far cry from a statement given to the House of Commons only months earlier by then then Home Secretary John Reid who said in March 2007 that the “main C-NOMIS base release, encompassing full prison and probation functionality, will be available no later than July 2008”].

The business case for a revised scheme, called Prison-Nomis, or P-NOMIS, has been put to the Treasury only this year for approval. Now the plan is much simpler: to deliver a Nomis system to prisons only and not to the probation service, and to link various systems to get information on offenders, rather than have the data in one place.

New contract with EDS still being negotiated

A new contract with the main contractor EDS has been in negotiation for months and still not concluded.  It’s clear that the taxpayer through the Ministry of Justice is to pay more money for less than originally expected.

The good news is that the MoJ is, from May 2009, resuming a national roll-out of the revised system for prisons. The system had already been installed in three prisons on the Isle of Wight before the minister halted the scheme.

Public Accounts Committee hearing on C-Nomis May 2009

It’s against this background that Edward Leigh began to question Wheatley on C-Nomis last week. The purpose of the hearing was to question Wheatley on a report by the National Audit Office on C-Nomis in March 2009.

“Mr Wheatley,” said Leigh. “You know that I have a very high opinion of you personally, but this is a dreadful [NAO] report: a delay of two years; a project which was supposed to cost £234 million which in fact is costing the taxpayer £513 million; it was supposed to deliver a single database and there will be three separate databases.

“You will come with the classic defence line, that of course you were not there, it is all in hand now, you have learned the lessons, in the sort of school that Permanent Secretaries learn when they come to this Committee.

“However, I have had all this before and I just do not know whether there is any point really carrying on frankly.”

Why, asked Leigh, do problems with IT projects re-occur? “The same old lessons have not been learnt: over ambitious, weak project management and all the rest. Give us an honest answer.”

Wheatley said the C-Nomis project was “badly run in the early stages” but now “we are delivering a programme which will give us real gains and which uses the taxpayers’ money wisely”.

But Leigh established that even today – five years after the project began – there is a gap in financial control of the main contractor, EDS, such that there is no certainty on expected cost and time to completion. 

Wheatley did not try to defend a spend of £161m on nobody knows what.

But Wheatley, Leigh and other MPs, particularly Richard Bacon, did manage to establish the main causes of the failure of C-Nomis.

What went wrong – the lessons from C-Nomis

First, the project board met once every two months but did not manage the project because it accepted the programme team’s assurances that the scheme was delivering on time and to budget.

Second, accurate reports to ministers on the problems were non-existent. Alan Williams, a senior member of the committee, said it was “incredible that for three years nobody senior knew what was being delivered for the money spent”.

To this Wheatley said that people had asked questions but were told that “actually the programme was all going well”.

Third, C-Nomis was managed as an IT project, not an IT-enabled change programme. The result was that the scale of change was underestimated. The committee was told that the management capacity needed to drive a complex project and deliver the changing way of working “simply was not put in at that early stage”.

Fourth, the senior responsible owner of the project had never run an IT project before. MPs on the committee were unable to ascertain why she had been appointed SRO. She has left the civil service.

Fifth, the original budgeted cost was a “gross underestimate” said Wheatley. 

Other causes of the failure were:

– A lack of control over changes to the system. There were 800 change requests in 2005 and 2006.

– “Over-enthusiasm for what looked like a good solution” said Wheatley. Hence complexity was underestimated, as was the extent of changes needed to customise the software.

– Not enough “heavyweight programme management grinding away at the detail”, Wheatley said.  

– A failure to manage EDS well. Wheatley was unable to tell the committee how much EDS has been paid.

–  A failure to act quickly or decisively enough on gateway reviews which highlighted weaknesses in the project’s management.

– A failure to realise that most of benefits of the original system could be gained with a less ambitious, simpler design using three databases instead of one.

Labour MP Alan Williams a senior member of the committee said that, “in scales of comprehensiveness of incompetence” the C-Nomis project is “largely unmatched”.

At the end of hearing a still-frowning Edward Leigh was still exasperated.

“Clearly this project was handled badly, it achieved poor value for money, many of the causes of delays and cost overruns could have been avoided. I could make some grand eloquent statement about how we never expect to see this happen again in the Civil Service but I suspect I would be wasting my breath.”

So what’s changed in 26 years of government IT experience?

What Leigh didn’t know – and it wouldn’t have been prudent to point out to him at that time – was that the hearing on C-Nomis came 26 years after the same committee began its first inquiry into apparently systematic failures of government IT projects.

C-Nomis trumps our satire – IT Projects blog

National Audit Office report on C-Nomis – NAO website

Public Accounts Committee despairs opver regular cycle of IT failures – Computer Weekly

Gov’t IT projects – billions at risk – Michael Krigsman 

Why big Government IT projects keep failing – public accounts MP