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The modernisation of the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) is running years behind schedule and failing to deliver value for money, with an estimated £229m in increased costs over the course of the project, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
A NAO report into the project to transform the background check programme found that the project, which has a huge IT element, is currently running three-and-a-half years late and has not delivered the intended savings.
The DBS was created in 2012 through the merging of the Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority. As part of the modernisation programme, the Home Office planned to reduce costs and deliver a new “update service”, allowing employers to run quick background checks on employees.
The Home Office signed a contract with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in 2012 to run the modernisation programme, with plans for a new IT system and business processes to be delivered by March 2014, “with further modernisation completed by June 2014”.
“Part of the first stage of modernisation was delivered in September 2017 but modernisation of disclosure certificates is not yet delivered,” the report said.
The report added that the two parties have no agreed date for when any further update will be delivered. It might not even be completed by the time the Tata contract comes to an end in 2019 and the disclosure certificates remain paper based.
“DBS and Tata have not yet agreed whose fault the delays are,” the report added, but DBS has paid the company £8m for “agreed delays”.
“The modernisation is currently delayed by 46 months and the parties have agreed cause for 24 months of delay. The cause and impact of the remaining 22-month delay is the subject of ongoing negotiations between DBS and Tata,” the NAO said, adding that the two parties are currently in negotiations on cause and responsibility of the further delays.
A TCS spokesperson said the company “respects” the NAO findings “about what is a complex project”.
“Throughout the duration of our involvement in this project we have ensured the steady delivery of DBS’ citizen safeguarding services,” the spokesperson said.
“While there have been challenges which affected this modernisation programme, we remain committed to delivering a positive outcome and supporting the DBS as it transforms its operations.”
The “update service”, envisioned as a portal that would “allow an existing or new employer to check whether new information had become available since an existing certificate was produced”, was launched in June 2013 by Capita, which ran the old criminal records disclosure service.
As part of the Home Office contract with TCS, the new supplier took over the responsibility for the service in mid-2014.
It aimed to reduce the volume of disclosure certificates needed to be produced, creating a cheaper service and ensuring employers wouldn’t need to pay for the more expensive disclosures as often.
“The 2014 business case forecast savings for employers by reducing the price of traditional disclosures, but this decrease has not been implemented,” the report said.
However, uptake has been much lower than expected. In 2012, the Home Office estimated it would have 2.8 million paying users by 2017-18, accounting for 69% of all transactions, but two years later, in 2014, it cut its expectations to 0.9 million, or 20% of transactions, the NAO report found.
It added that DBS “does not know why the demand for the update service has been lower than anticipated”, and that the Home Office failed to run any pilots or user engagement programmes before going live and has so far not collected any “systematic data” on why people aren’t using it.
Although the update service provides digital access, “a lack of standardisation of police IT systems means information cannot currently be automatically uploaded into the update service,” the report added.
Issues from the start
As well as running the update service, the original contract with TCS included the building and transition of a modernised IT system for the disclosure certificates and “general IT application management and development”.
When the Home Office ran the procurement exercise, it was on the “assumption that any modernised IT would be hosted on physical servers provided by an existing Home Office contract,” the NAO report said.
However, the Cabinet Office rejected the plans because it would be too expensive, and told the Home Office to use cloud-based servers.
“The Home Office accepted this change to how the IT would be hosted, but did not discuss the implications of this with Tata or change the contract with Tata before signing it in October 2012, three months later than expected,” the report said.
As well as delays and low uptake, the programme has also been plagued by increased costs. In the 2012 business case for the programme, overall costs between 1 December 2012 and March 2019, when the contract ends, were estimated to be £656m. However, the current forecast is set at £885m – an increase of £229m.
Commenting on the report, Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said it shows “that government took the unbelievable decision to launch it without testing it on customers first”.
“Combine this with an IT overhaul currently running three-and-a-half years late, and the result is a missed opportunity to save schools, hospitals and taxpayers millions of pounds a year,” she said.
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