PAC slams 'ridiculous' attempt to hide immigration IT debacle

Siemens and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate are to face the PAC again. Mike Simons reports.

Siemens and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate are to face the PAC again. Mike Simons reports.

Siemens Business Services and the Home Office are to be dragged before the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) once again after dropping the core of a troubled new IT system at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND).

The Home Office had hoped its decision to drop a key part of the IND Casework Application programme would go unnoticed after it was quietly announced in a Parliamentary written answer two weeks ago.

Last week, Computer Weekly's front page story on the decision prompted a political storm, which saw Siemens and the Home Office try to hide the costs of the failure under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

David Davis, chairman of the PAC called this "untenable" and "ridiculous", as he warned of a second inquiry into the debacle.

The IND's attempt to modernise its systems could go down in the text books as a classic example of how not to manage an IT project.

The Casework Application system was the core of a complex IT and business process re-engineering project that was intended to speed up immigration and asylum applications.

A public finance initiative contract was signed in April 1996, with the new system scheduled for delivery in October 1998, but it was doomed from the start.

The Siemens-IND contract combined a major business process reorganisation project with the implementation of a complex new IT system and a major office relocation plan in one big bang.

According to project and IT managers, any one of these tasks is a major organisational challenge, but implementing all of them together is a recipe for disaster.

Problems began when the IND and Siemens took longer than expected to finalise the business requirements for the project.

This was compounded by Siemens' decision to start developing the IT systems while negotiations on the business process reorganisation were still underway.

The mess 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, deciding instead to develop a bespoke package.

In July 1998, four months before the Casework Programme was due to go live, Siemens established a new team of 160 people to design, construct and test the system.

This impossible timetable then exposed what David Omand, permanent secretary at the Home Office, told a PAC hearing in June 1999, was "pretty flawed" contingency planning.

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

A final complicating factor was the need to move offices before a building lease ran out and before the new IT system was installed.

The Government recognised the mounting problems and in the autumn of 1998 allocated an extra £120m to the IND to try and rectify the situation. But the extra funding could not guarantee a quick fix.

The PACsaid, "When additional resources were eventually made available, the Home Office considered that recruiting new staff to be trained in the old system of working would not make sense and therefore opted to move immediately to the new caseworking system with paper files."

This is the "interim solution" which Jack Straw, the home secretary, said two weeks ago was working well and had delivered 110,000 casework decisions in the last 12 months.

Interim IT measures introduced by Siemens included rolling out an expanded network to 3,000 IND terminals in 23 locations, the creation of a database on asylum applicants.

However, as recently as three months ago ministers were telling MPs that the complete system, which promised even faster case handling, would be delivered.

Now they have to try to explain away an embarrassing failure that has seen the backlog of asylum seekers soar and the number of staff at the IND double compared to 1998, when the system was originally timetable for delivery.

It may be that the PAC supports the Home Office decision to drop an IT system in favour of employing 600 more staff. Home Office minister Barbara Roche last week told MPs that the annual average unit cost of employing an executive officer (the grade which normally makes asylum decisions) is £21,000, which means the decision cost about £12.6m a year.

However, MPs will want answers from Siemens and the Home Office about what became of the assurances given during the original hearings in June 1999.

Just 20 months ago they heard Gary Pusey, managing director of Siemens Business Services, say a full system had been delivered to the IND for evaluation. "We are looking at a period of about four months for testing," Pusey assured the committee.

At the same hearing, Home Office officials said, "A tough testing regime has been designed to validate [the full computer system] and how it will work in a live operational environment.

"The system will not be accepted until we are fully satisfied that it will meet this requirement."

The PAC will certainly want to know why it took so long before the plug was pulled. It will also want to take a close look at the changes to the contracts and payment schedules, which the IND and Siemens are currently negotiating.

The committee is unlikely to accept at face value the words of Chris Mace, deputy director-general of the IND, on a Siemens press release which said, "I value the very positive support we have had in rolling out IT across the IND organisation."

The PAC may also ask the Home Office why eight of the 11 major IT projects it is currently sponsoring are either severely delayed or over budget, according to a written answer given to Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes.

Above all, the PAC will want to assure itself that the Government's Gateway Review process, which is designed to prevent major IT project disasters, will prevent a repetition of the IND debacle.

mike.simons@rbi.co.uk

Immigration IT: how not to do it

  • Siemens started building the IT systems before the business requirements they were supposed to support had been finalised. "As a result, a situation emerged over time where the business requirements of the directorate and the IT being built to meet them had diverged,"said the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in its report.

  • The Home Office said the scope and goals of the project were acceptable but admitted its timetable was "too ambitious". The PAC said phased implementation of separate elements of large projects should be considered.

  • Many potential risks had been identified during the planning stage but the Home Office's contingency plans were wholly inadequate.

  • Siemens and Perot Systems, its initial IT sub-contractor, did not agree a clear approach during the pre-contract and IT development phases of the project. Government departments need to ensure there is an agreed approach between main suppliers and their sub-contractors, said the PAC.

    Source Home Office: The Immigration and Nationality Directorate's Casework Programme, Committee of Public Accounts Seventh Report (January 2000)

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