The Immigration Service: anatomy of an IT disaster

The Public Accounts Committee has exposed IT blunders at the Immigration Service. Mike Simons reports

The Public Accounts Committee has exposed IT blunders at the Immigration Service. Mike Simons reports

The Home Office broke one of the most basic rules of large-scaleIT projects when it started building a new immigration and nationality computer system: it began work on the technology before the business requirements were finalised.

"As a result, a situation emerged over time where the business requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the IT being built to meet them had diverged," said public spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in a report published last week. This was a significant factor in the system's delay, leading to a build-up of unprocessed immigration claims.

This was just one of a series of project management mistakes made by the Home Office and its contractor Siemens, according to the committee.

"The issues flagged up by the PAC are absolutely right, but they are not new," said Stephen Minton, research manager at IT analyst IDC.

Professionalism

The Cabinet Office review of government IT project failures, which reports in May, has got to instill business professionalism into the awarding of contracts, said Minton.

"The Government should handle IT procurement in the same way as a corporation, with tight contracts and meaningful penalty clauses," he said.

Alan Campbell MP, a member of the PAC, told Computer Weekly, "There are serious lessons to be learnt, but I am confident that the Cabinet review of government IT will get on top of the problem."

The Home Office awarded Siemens a private finance initiative contract for an IT dependent business change project, the Casework Programme, in April 1996. However, a series of blunders led to a 219,000 backlog of asylum cases, which hit the headlines last summer.

Problems began when the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate and Siemens took longer than expected to finalise the business requirements for the project. This delay was compounded by Siemens' decision to start developing the IT systems while negotiations on the business process reorganisation were still underway.

Problems deepened when Siemens' main IT contractor, Perot Systems, pulled out. Siemens then abandoned its original proposal, to build a solution based on existing software packages, in favour of a bespoke package.

In July 1998, four months before the Casework Programme was originally due to go live, Siemens established a new team to design, construct and test the new system.

This impossible timetable then exposed what Sir David Omand, permanent secretary at the Home Office, admitted was a "pretty flawed" piece of contingency planning.

Contingency plan

Omand told the committee that the modernisation programme was being funded by making some staff redundant. The contingency plan was to carry on as before, using paper files, but with diminishing staff numbers this could only result in mounting delays.

The Government recognised the mounting problems and in the autumn of 1998 threw an extra £120m at the immigration service to try to rectify the situation.

Yet despite the extra funding and staff, ministers and civil servants told the PAC, the backlogs are likely to grow in the immediate future rather than decrease.

Lessons that must be learned

Project Scope

The Home Office said the scope and goals of the immigation service project were acceptable but admitted its timetable was "too ambitious". Phased implementation of separate elements of large-scale projects should be considered.

Risk Management

Many potential risks had been identified during the planning stage but contingency plans were wholly inadequate.

Relationships with suppliers

Siemens and Perot Systems did not agree a clear approach during the pre-contract and IT development phases of the project. Government departments need to ensure an agreed approach between main suppliers and their subcontractors.

Read more on IT risk management

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