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Home Office digital border programme has failed to deliver, says NAO

The Home Office’s digital border programme has so far not achieved value for money, has suffered delays, lacks clear objectives and will cost taxpayers an additional £173m, according to the National Audit Office

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a scathing report about the Home Office’s Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme, which has suffered from delays, technical issues, lack of oversight and increasing costs.

The DSAB programme replaced the troubled e-Borders programme in 2014 after the latter, launched in 2003 with the aim of improving the use of information to track people moving across UK borders, failed to deliver. By that point, the e-Borders programme had cost £830m, while its successor, DSAB, is expected to cost £311m by 2021-22.

The original aim was for DSAB to be completed by March 2019, delivering three main systems: Advance Border Control (ABC); Border Crossing; and Advanced Greight Targeting Capability (ADGTC). These would replace two legacy systems: Semaphore, which was delivered by IBM in 2004; and the 26-year-old warnings index system. However, during a programme reset in 2019, the Home Office made the decision to upgrade and improve Semaphore.

The National Audit Office report on the programme said that, since 2014, the department has faced pressure to increase its scope and failed to clearly define what it sought to deliver.

“When the department started the programme, it lacked clear objectives, a timetable for delivery and budget. By October 2014, the department had not outlined its planned technical roadmap, despite its intention to set this down in September 2014,” the report said.

“It sought to accommodate new business needs, changing priorities and technologies, with insufficient consideration of their impact.”

It also struggled with “stability and quality” of programme leadership. Between 2014 and 2019, the programme had four senior responsible owners and three programme directors.

“The Home Office utterly failed to learn from the mistakes it made with the e-Borders project. It once again lost sight of the programme’s core purpose, trying to add more and more features like baubles on a Christmas tree”
Meg Hillier, Public Accounts Committee

“Furthermore, staff leading the programme had bred a culture of tightly controlled and manipulated communications towards key stakeholders and senior leadership, making it difficult for the department to discuss honestly options to move the programme forward,” the report said.

By March 2019, when the programme was due to be fully operational, only one of three systems was in live operation – the Border Crossing system – and even that was only run as a pilot in up to eight ports.

The department had also failed to estimate the whole-life cost of the programme. Its October 2014 business case estimated a total cost of £189m to build the systems, but failed to include any information on running costs or the cost of running the legacy systems.

“By March 2019, the department had spent £120m developing new programme systems, £79m less than it had planned,” the report said, adding that this was because it had not delivered what it planned.

Commenting on the report, Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said the Home Office had “utterly failed to learn from the mistakes it made with the e-Borders project”.

“The Home Office once again lost sight of the programme’s core purpose, trying to add more and more features like baubles on a Christmas tree,” she said.

“The department plunged ahead without a delivery plan and didn’t address risks. Failure was inevitable. Meanwhile, the Home Office has to keep on propping up creaking systems, one of which is 26 years old already,”

Programme reset

Due to the problems with the programme, and failing to achieve value for money, the Home Office decided to reset the programme in 2019.

“In March 2020, the department’s Portfolio Investment Committee approved a new programme business case, which it subsequently updated and approved in May 2020. The programme board formally closed the reset period in June 2020,” the report said.

The aim of the reset was to give the programme a reduced, more manageable scope, according to the NAO report.

“It recognised scope creep – changes including the government change to classification of security data; a government requirement to improve data and analytical systems to provide intelligence on areas of risk and better targeting of resources to areas where risks and vulnerabilities were greater; and requirements stemming from the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), had affected its ability to deliver the programme to its original March 2019 timescale,” it said.

The reset also resulted in scrapping the delivery of the ABC and ADGCT systems. The Home Office will now only deliver its Border Crossing system, which will include technology that allows staff to simultaneously search multiple databases and enable them to check passengers against data held by law enforcement or other agencies in their own separate databases.

It has also decided not to replace Semaphore. Instead, the 16-year-old system will be stabilised and improved.

“This will involve moving it to a cloud-based service and stabilising it by separating the reporting database used by data owners to add new data and the operational database used by front-line Border Force officers,” the report said.

However, the report noted that the Home Office’s plans for modernising Semaphore were not yet fully developed and “are slipping”.

“Despite the complex dependencies of the work and the data flows between the department and carriers, the department noted in August 2020 that it lacked a detailed plan or governance for managing these dependencies, their prioritisation and escalation,” the report said.

The Home Office has also had to extend its contract with IBM for Semaphore, as well as its contract with Fujitsu for the Early Warnings Index, which will eventually be replaced, until 30 April 2022.

However, the department has “not yet set out a detailed strategy for replacing the legacy contracts”.

“It can choose to extend the Fujitsu and IBM contracts beyond 2022, but it would need to negotiate the detailed terms of such an extension, including its cost, with suppliers,” the report said.

Both IBM and Fujitsu told the NAO that the short extensions made it hard to “justify their continued investment and the existing contracts already expose the department to the risk of additional costs and service risks should obsolete components fail”, and the Home Office has yet to agree an exit plan with Fujitsu.

The plan is to split Semaphore into smaller contracts once it has completed the modernisation work. However, the Home Office has not yet begun considering how to split the system, “nor how the potentially greater number of contracts will work in practice”.

Value for money

Ahead of the reset, the Home Office’s programme was under budget, having only spent £120m by March 2019, however, not delivering to its original timeline, and now, delivering the systems by 2022 will cost an additional £173m.

“Since resetting the programme, there have been improvements and the Home Office has a better understanding of the significant risks and challenges ahead. It now needs to build on this work to deliver the programme at the pace and scale it requires”
Gareth Davies, National Audit Office

The NAO is concerned that because the department has already missed some post-reset milestones, and only recently began re-engaging with users, and still needs to “complete the more technically complex aspects of the programme and must manage multiple key dependencies”, it could struggle to meet its deadline, which would again increase costs.  

“The department still faces significant risks in delivering and integrating its new systems against a challenging timetable. And there are wider risks to value for money if it cannot successfully integrate Border Crossing, Semaphore changes and other interdependent programmes to deliver its ambitions for the digital border as a practical reality,” the report said.

According to the report, the Home Office is “confident” it has the resources it needs to pull off the programme, and has strengthened governance, leadership and delivery capability.

Commenting on the report, NAO head Gareth Davies said the DSAB progamme did not achieve value for money by March 2019, “failing to deliver what it intended and leaving Border Force staff to rely on outdated legacy systems”.

“Since resetting the programme, there have been improvements and the Home Office has a better understanding of the significant risks and challenges ahead. It now needs to build on this work to ensure that it can deliver the programme at the pace and scale it requires,” he said.

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