NAO: Defra’s geographic information systems strategy wanting

The National Audit Office has questioned whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is delivering value on a major technology investment.

A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) questions whether a £39.3 million project to run geographical information systems at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has delivered on the investment or if a new geographic information systems (GIS) strategy is needed.

According to a report published 13 July, the NAO found that Defra and related agencies, such as the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission England and the Rural Payments Agency, lacked a business strategy at the outset of the project that made it impossible to say whether Defra’s geographic information systems have delivered value for the money invested.

Nevertheless, the department’s data management programmes win praise from the report’s authors.

In February, the NAO made a range of recommendations for information and communications technology (ICT) in government, one of which was for greater and better use of business intelligence. Its investigation of GIS strategy at Defra was one of two projects it announced to further that agenda.

The news was not all bad. The NAO concedes, in a press statement, that the department has “delivered some value from the £39.3 million spent on its geographic information strategy and activities .... However, [it] has not tracked the full cost of geographic information and systems to it or its arm’s length bodies, or systematically measured benefits. The Department has been able to identify savings of only approximately £9 million. The figures for costs and benefits are both likely to be underestimates. This lack of financial information means that the NAO cannot determine that value for money has been achieved.”

In the report itself, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Geographic information strategy,  the NAO said, “neither the original [2002] strategy, nor the updated 2009 version, set business targets for cost reduction or quantified the benefits that could be achieved by collaboration or by sharing geographic information and systems.”

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said, in a press statement, “Given the importance of geographic information to the activities of Defra, it is surprising how little it knows about whether its strategy is achieving value for money.

“The Department’s geographic information systems have developed significantly, but they should serve the business needs of the Department much more coherently if good public value is to be demonstrated.”

Defra, the report said, has built common geographic platforms and negotiated licenses on behalf of both itself and its arm’s length bodies. Between 2008 and 2010 it saved £7.5 million through the central negotiation of data licenses.

But what do these geographic information systems deliver and to whom? Mapping and other spatially referenced data, are, says the report, fundamental to disciplines such as land surveying, farmland and wildlife management, emergency management, environmental protection, impact assessments and overall environmental governance.

Defra’s original GIS strategy was reactive, occasioned by the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001. It was updated in 2009 and is said to be based on five key principles: a federated business model, data sharing, professional skills, technology adoption and collaboration.

The data elements of Defra’s geographic information systems include the following:

  • An environmental mapping website, MAGIC (Multi-Agency Geographic Information for the Countryside), which gives the public access to 170 environmental data sets on interactive maps.
  • A data store SPIRE (SPatial Information REpository), which became operational in 2007, with a development cost of approximately £13 million. As of March 2011, it had cost £8.6 million to maintain. In February 2011, the data store held approximately two terabytes of data and more than 400 data sets.
  • A toolkit for nonspecialists, SPIRIT (SPatial InfoRmatIon Toolkit), used across the department and its arm’s length bodies.
  • A data warehouse that provides customer and land data, CLAD (Customer and LAnd Database).

In February, Defra started to review its GIS strategy to focus on sharing and reducing costs across its linked organisations. It is also realigning its strategy with the government’s new declared IT strategy, encapsulated by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, in a quote cited in the NAO’s February report: “The UK Government spends more on ICT [per capita] than any other government. And yet the history of UK government ICT projects is littered with budget overruns, delays and functional failures.

“We need fewer huge mega-projects; systems that can talk to each other; a level playing field for open source software and smaller suppliers; to buy off the shelf rather than always seeking bespoke perfection; to open up access to government data; and far more effective procurement and management of projects. We also need a new vision for how government can engage with citizens.”

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