The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has signed a £35m, seven-year contract with Accenture to take the paperwork out of Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers and traders.
The RPA, part of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, hands out £2bn a year of European Union agricultural subsidies to UK farmers and traders.
It hopes the scheme will save £36m a year in administration costs and be a model for other EU member states.
RPA chief executive Johnston McNeill said, "This project, by 2005, will achieve a step change in our service delivery," adding that the RPA's headcount will fall from 3,600 to 2,000 as the agency moves to web-enabled processes.
Accenture will develop and deliver a phased rollout of the system during the next two years and will then support the solution for a further five years.
It will be built on Oracle 11i e-business suite and Oracle 9i database and applications server running workflow, portal, reporting and security modules, on a scalable Sun Solaris platform.
Accenture partner Marcus Robinson said, "We have taken a set of products that power online shopping and turned them on their head, to make, rather than receive, payments."
With farmers able to claim thousands of different subsidies and with payment areas and eligibility criteria changing rapidly, Robinson said the system would be designed around a rules engine. "This should mean the RPA will not have to put change requests every six months," he said.
McNeill and Robinson dismissed suggestions that lack of broadband access in rural communities might make the system difficult for farmers to operate. "Farmers need solutions that rely on relatively low bandwidth," said Robinson, who promised applications that farmers could use with only dial-up access.