An IT system being developed by the Scottish Government to provide payments to farmers has been branded a “significant risk right up to implementation and beyond” after exceeding its estimated budget by 74%.
The project, designed to provide farmers with EU subsidy payments, was originally forecast to cost £102.5m, but estimates have increased to £178m.
According to a recent report by the Holyrood Public Audit Committee, these increased costs are due to squeezed timescales caused by changes to European Commission (EC) requirements.
Of the increased spend, £60.4m has been put towards an IT delivery partner, which is 111% more than the estimated £28.8m.
“The Scottish Government attributes the increased costs of the programme to the need to deliver the IT system in compressed timescales and to changes to EC requirements,” said Caroline Gardner, auditor general for Scotland.
“The Scottish Government manages the aggregate costs of the programme within its overall budget, which will have to accommodate all costs in excess of the original forecast,” she said.
EC requirements meant the project had to be delivered in time to allow for payments to be made to farmers by June 2016.
The programme has already seen the launch of online registration for existing and new members, as well as an online application form for the Basic Payment Scheme, Less Favoured Area Support Scheme, Agri-Environment Scheme and Forestry Grant Scheme.
But Gardner highlighted the focus on delivering core requirements has led to pushbacks in other areas, with the agri-environment and forestry schemes delayed for two weeks.
“The focus on delivering the registration software has meant there has been less progress on other key parts of the process, including coverage of user acceptance testing, quality assurance of portal content, training preparation and execution and communications to staff and customers,” she said.
Read more about the Defra rural payments system
The delays are similar to the problems faced by Defra’s rural payments system, which forced farmers to revert to paper-based forms when the system encountered problems.
The £154m payments processing system for the Rural Payments Agency was slowed by poor server utilisation, which was hitting 100% capacity with only a few users online.
The project was criticised after entering beta despite not receiving the go ahead from the Government Digital Service (GDS), the “digital by default” leaders.
Feedback from users claimed the system was “extremely buggy” and too difficult for most farmers to use.