Can Probation Service avoid repeating IT mistakes?

Last week's leaked report on the Probation Service's IT suggests that the organisation is still wrestling with the critical issue...

Last week's leaked report on the Probation Service's IT suggests that the organisation is still wrestling with the critical issue of project management. James Rogers looks at whether the Home Office can learn from the mistakes of the past

Even by the standards of the UK public sector the Probation Service has a poor IT track record. Last year, for example, the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted serious project management problems, citing poor specification of expected outputs, weaknesses in service monitoring and inadequate control of purchase orders by the Home Office.

The Home Office itself is no stranger to IT disasters, having endured the Passport Office debacle in 1999 and the cancellation of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's Casework Application system last year.

The leaked report, commissioned by the Probation Boards Association, which was revealed in Computer Weekly last week raises questions about the management of the Probation Service's contract to upgrade IT systems with its technology partner, Integris.

The report's author, Leslie Willcocks, professor of information management and e-business at the University of Warwick Business School, expressed concern that the service had signed the contract "without nailing down exactly the scope and cost of the technology upgrade that Integris seems now to be embarked on defining." Integris, which was formerly part of the service's long-term IT supplier Bull, was recently taken over by systems integrator Steria.

The Government argues that the Willcocks report is based largely on old information and that progress is being made in probation service IT. A Home Office spokesman said, "This is a missed opportunity, given Professor Willcocks' knowledge of IT management issues."

The Home Office claims that the first phase of the new Standard Technical Environment for Probation Services (Steps) contract with Integris will result in all 42 probation areas in England and Wales being connected to the same IT infrastructure for the first time. The two-and-a-half year upgrade contract, effective from January this year, covers support and maintenance of the IT infrastructure, desktops and case management systems.

What the Willcocks Report does reveal, however, is that the Home Office could find it a major challenge to instill confidence in users. Earlier attempts to develop a unifying system were unsuccessful. The service's problematic Crams case management system, for example, was described by probation officers as "a dangerous and farcical waste of money".

The Steps contract could present an opportunity for the Home Office to win over probation officers disillusioned after years of IT problems. Essentially, Steps is the replacement for the troubled National Probation Service Information Systems Strategy (NPSISS), which was itself plagued by poor project management and high staff turnover. Last year the NAO reported that the NPSISS programme employed seven different programme directors between 1993 and 2000, of whom only two had significant experience of managing major IT projects.

Giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last November, John Gieve, permanent under-secretary of state at the Home Office, admitted that such a rapid turnover of directors was damaging to the Probation Service's IT strategy.

Home Office officials claim, however, that these problems are being ironed out. A spokesman said, "Since the PAC hearing we have recruited nine permanent senior members of staff with specialist technical, project management and contract and procurement management skills."

The project could also be compromised if IT becomes the poor-relation to other functions within the organisation, as has often happened before in the public sector, particularly the NHS.

To this end, the Probation Service is taking steps to ensure that IT is well represented at board level. The Home Office spokesman confirmed that the head of IT at the National Probation Directorate is also a member of its strategic board.

Criticisms have been levelled at the Home Office for its handling of contracts with Probation Service IT suppliers. Indeed, a recent PAC report said there were faults with the tendering process and project management of the NPSISS contract.

The Steps contract has already been subject to intense scrutiny, according to the Home Office. Officials said that the contract was drawn up by lawyers from both the Home Office and Treasury, as well as advisers from a firm of commercial lawyers.

The contract includes service level agreements to help to ensure that it meets expectations. The Home Office spokesman said, "It defines the services required by the National Probation Service in terms of service levels and dates for the delivery of key milestones." A contract and service management team has been set up to ensure that the contract delivers to its commercial specification, he added.

There are signs of change at the Home Office. All high-risk probation projects have been subjected to the Government's Gateway Review process since January 2001.

Ironically, the Probation Service's IT debacle was one of a series of failures that originally led the Cabinet Office to set up a review of major IT projects which led, in turn, to the creation of the Gateway Review process under the Office of Government Commerce.

The Gateway Reviews, launched last year, are expected to shave £500m off the cost of government procurement on a range of major projects, including IT, by 2003. The process is seen as a sign that IT project failure in the public sector will no longer be swept under the carpet with no lessons learnt.

At a departmental level the Home Office is also focusing on project management. An official confirmed that the department is in the process of establishing a project monitoring system as part of an initiative to improve project management.

Despite the criticism from the Probation Boards Association's report the Probation Service is confident that it is learning the lessons of previous IT disasters. Whether this new knowledge will be applied quickly enough for probation officers who need to use the systems remains to be seen.

Home Office history - IT that went wrong

Summer 1999
Problems with the new IT system at the Passport Agency lead to a backlog of 565,000 passport applications and delays of up to 50 days

September 1999
The Home Office announces that work by Integris on the development of the Probation Service's "Crams" case management system is to stop. Work is confined to the support and maintenance of the latest version

February 2001
Government cancels the Siemens Immigration and Nationality Directorate's Casework Application programme

April 2001
A damning report by the National Audit Office into probation service IT highlights poor specification of expected outputs, weaknesses in service monitoring and inadequate control of purchase orders by the Home Office

May 2002
A report from the Public Accounts Committee describes faults with the tendering process and project management for the National Probation Service's NPSISS contract.

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