BBC DMI row continues as Linwood defends “working technology”

Former BBC CTO John Linwood was scrutinised by a public accounts committee yesterday during a hearing about the failed BBC Digital Media Initiative

Former BBC CTO John Linwood was scrutinised by a public accounts committee (PAC) yesterday during a hearing about the failed BBC Digital Media Initiative (DMI).

Linwood told the committee the BBC has tried to pin the blame for the failure of the project on the technology to avoid facing up to the truth that it wrote off tens of millions of pounds worth of software which could have been used.

The BBC scrapped the initiative in May 2013. It was intended to link digital production tools with a central, digital archive for BBC staff to access throughout the production process. 

The contract was originally awarded to Siemens in 2008, but was brought back in-house after the supplier failed to deliver the technology and began to hit long delays.

Linwood continues to stand by his earlier statements that some of the technology produced during the DMI could have gone live. He said production tools, including the archive system, were chosen not to be used by the business arm of the BBC when they could have gone live.

He said technology was never stated as one of the issues for terminating the project. The BBC said its business vision had changed and the DMI was no longer valid. “Not once did they say there was technology issues,” said Linwood.

DMI timeline

October 2006: Approval of £2.8m for initial mobilisation of Digital Media Initiative (DMI)

March 2007: Approval of £6.6m for design of DMI

January 2008: BBC Trust approves £82m total budget

February 2008: Siemens wins £79m fixed-price contract to design and deliver DMI by May 2009

July 2009: BBC and Siemens terminate contract

September 2009: BBC brings project in-house with target date of completion for February 2011

June 2010: BBC Trust approves wider roll-out with revised budget of £133.6m

August 2010: Procurement delays push back DMI timetable by five months, with final delivery date set at July 2011

January 2011: NAO reports BBC has made good progress on straightforward parts of system, but faces challenge in the following stages

February 2011: BBC tells Public Accounts Committee it is on track to deliver DMI technology by summer 2011

February 2012: The project management office grades the status of DMI as ‘red’ and suggests termination or re-evaluation of the project

May 2012: Executive board requests review of costs, benefits and timetable. Whistleblower contacts the BBC Trust saying NAO, PAC and the trust may have been misled about the DMI’s progress

November 2012: Most work on DMI is stopped pending review

May 2013: Programme permanently stopped and CTO John Linwood suspended

Source: National Audit Office, based on various published and unpublished sources provided

“They wrote off more than they should have done,” he said. “They wrote off software that was working and infrastructure that was working. They were written off because the business decided not to use them.”

Replacement or further investment

After presenting his evidence, the BBC's former director general Mark Thompson, former chief operating officer Caroline Thomson, former trustee Anthony Fry, director of operations Dominic Coles, and former financial officer Zarin Patel were also grilled by the PAC.

Coles argued that the metadata archive has only 168 active users because the system is “incredibly clunky” and “difficult to operate”.

“It can take up to 10 times longer to use the archive database than the legacy system,” he said.

The reason why the BBC decided to write down the full amount of the archive database, despite reports that it is being used by the broadcaster, is because the BBC does not believe it is a long-term option, he said. “We will have to replace it or invest further into it.”

Fry, a former trustee of the BBC Trust, said it did not have sufficient knowledge around the technology and that outside consultants should have been appointed to keep a closer eye on the technology side of the project.

But he added that if the project had “gone swimmingly” it is likely the Trust would have been criticised for spending additional money on the use of consultants.

Changes for the future

Coles said changes have already been put in place to change the way the BBC manages projects in the future.

He said the BBC is trying to change the culture of the organisation by “pushing down accountability” so that everyone is aware of their individual accountability. Additionally, the broadcaster plans to appoint single responsible owners for major projects and more frequent reports by the project management office.

Coles also said the BBC had “absolutely” learnt its lesson from the DMI project and has plans in place to change the way the broadcaster digitalises its production processes going forward.

He said the BBC plans to deliver the technology differently by “chunking it up in definable separate projects”, each with its own business plan and milestones which will be delivered to the market cheaper and with more certainty.

“One of the problems for the DMI project was the marketplace moved so quickly that a lot of those tools were available off the shelf,” he said.

Coles said the BBC plans to capitalise on off-the-shelf technology now, so it will no longer be “one, integrated, all-works-or-nothing-works plan".

Former BBC director general Thompson also took the opportunity to apologise to the committee and the public for the waste of licence-fee payers' money.  

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