Passport agency goes public on test errors

User testing is strengthened after project runs into trouble

The Identity and Passport Service is strengthening its testing programme for IT projects after an investigation into the failure of a project to process passport applications online found that insufficient testing and checks were partly to blame.

And in response to Computer Weekly's campaign for greater openness, the government agency has published a report on the lessons it has learned from this and its other key IT projects in 2006.

Bernard Herdan, executive director of service delivery, said the agency had changed its approach to testing on IT projects in the light of the internal inquiry's findings. And he challenged other central departments to follow suit by publishing lessons learned from specific projects.

After the problems it encountered last year, the agency is doubling the time allowed for user acceptance tests, from nine weeks to 18 weeks, on its latest project. The scheme involves building systems that will support agency staff when they help authenticate passport applications by personal interviews with applicants.

The change of approach comes after the agency's inquiry into the failure last year of its Electronic Passport Application system, known as EPA2. The inquiry found that too much work had been left to the agency's main IT supplier, Siemens Business Systems.

When EPA2 went live in May, passport applications became jammed in the system, there were "quirks in the software", and performance slowed to the point where a backlog of 5,000 applications built up.

The report on the lessons from EPA2's problems said that, because of the supplier's strong track record, the Identity and Passport Service had "relied on Siemens Business Services for technical assessments and should have done more to ensure testing was done".

The agency added that it needed to "develop further our technical capability to challenge supplier assertions and to develop more comprehensive acceptance test plans".

Herdan told Computer Weekly that Siemens would pay for the cost of correcting EPA2. The system's design will be simplified before the software is rebuilt and brought back into service, perhaps next summer.

"The EPA2 system as delivered was considerably more complex than initially intended. In isolation, each change was assessed but together [the changes] rendered the system too complex and much more difficult to test," said the report.

The EPA2 project team also acknowledged that they had given too low a prominence to the risks of poor performance of the system when it went live.

After the failure of EPA2 last year, Computer Weekly issued a challenge on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours, calling on the Identity and Passport Service to publish the lessons learned from the project.

But the agency decided to go a step further and publish the lessons learned from all three of its key IT projects in 2006.

"We thought it important to get the lessons out," said Herdan. "We will continue sharing our lessons at the risk of people saying, 'Fancy them getting that wrong, didn't they know?'"

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Tony Collins and Bernard Herdan interviewed on BBC Radio 4

Read Tony Collins' blog

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