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Secret report into rural payments IT problems points finger at RPA CEO

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is withholding a highly critical report into IT problems that led to the withdrawal of the £154m farmers' digital service

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has refused to release a highly critical internal report into IT problems earlier in 2015 that led to the withdrawal of a new digital service for UK farmers claiming EU subsidies.

The report was commissioned soon after the RPA was forced to withdraw the system in March 2015 and resort to paper forms to meet its deadline for introducing the £154m scheme. The report is understood to highlight a lack of support for the digital project from RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw.

Computer Weekly requested a copy of the report under freedom of information laws, but RPA declined to release it, claiming that to do so would have “a detrimental effect on both the particular processes of the RPA and the effectiveness of future reports by the Major Projects Authority”.

“Reports must be prompt and based on candid interviews and full and frank disclosure from project teams. Project teams must feel able to speak candidly in the knowledge that the review report will be an internal document produced for the benefit of their own project. Fear of immediate publication could hamper this disclosure,” said the RPA.

However, the criticisms contained in the report are likely to become public knowledge this year, since the National Audit Office (NAO) is now conducting an inquiry into the project’s problems. While the NAO would not be in a position to release the full document, any review undertaken by the government watchdog is likely to include feedback from the RPA report.

The project – to deliver a digital system through which farmers would apply for payments under the EU Common Agricultural Policy – initially went live late in 2014, but suffered persistent performance problems. Government Digital Service (GDS) troubleshooters working with digital teams at the RPA and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were unable to resolve the issues, leading Grimshaw to suspend the digital service on 20 March 2015 and ask farmers to use paper forms instead.

But Computer Weekly has learned that RPA CEO Grimshaw failed to give his backing to the digital project, run by GDS and Defra, in the first place. The failure of the digital service was one of the biggest blemishes on GDS’s work in the last parliament, especially considering that its chief technology officer, Liam Maxwell, was brought in to rescue the project as senior responsible owner (SRO). Grimshaw subsequently replaced Maxwell as SRO in June 2015. 

A complex mix

Michael Beaven, GDS transformation director at the time RPA went live, said Grimshaw never believed the digital project would work.

“RPA was a complex mix of factors,” he told Computer Weekly.

“The lesson was that you have to make sure all the senior stakeholders are 100% bought into it. If the thing is failing you say, ‘I know it's failing, but I'm still responsible for it,’ and not, ‘I told you so, I didn't think it would work in the first place.’

"But Mark is within his rights to say that, because he never did think it would work.”

However, Beaven said the RPA CEO was always focused on helping the farmers that his organisation served.

“I don't make criticism of Mark [Grimshaw] - he was there to make it work, he didn't need to worry about how pretty it looked or whether it was leading-edge technology. He’s there to provide the service [to farmers] he believes to be right. He is motivated by a sense of what he believes is right.”

Beaven said that a clash of cultures between GDS and RPA was another contributory factor in the problems.

“You have [GDS] turning up and saying, 'We might want to do this in a slightly different way.' Then you have a sort of horrible middle ground where some things shifted and some didn't. Some bits were done in an agile way and some weren't. The whole thing became a bit half-arsed - it was neither a straight-down government project but nor was it an agile delivery iterative thing either.

"It wasn't a good recipe for success.”

Beaven also questioned the ability of the RPA to manage a big business change project.

“Putting a little agile team of four or five people alongside a big project couldn’t make that much traction or turn the thing around. It was still running like a big government project, but with this agile enclave in the middle of it. It nearly got there - it wasn't that far off. The actual product was in good shape - it was a good-looking product,” he said.

“But there wasn't the climate to try to do things differently. There was a rigid governance structure with some sort of agile development approach in the middle of it – and not enough top to bottom alignment to be successful. The culture of that organisation, its readiness to change, getting the leadership to believe in it, without those three factors you can see in hindsight it was never going to go well.”

Defra said that, despite the problems earlier this year, the RPA made sure farmers were able to submit their applications for subsidies.

“The Rural Payments Agency has been working to bring farmers online, supporting over 86,000 to register this year for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) on the newly developed rural payments system. As reported in March, there were some performance problems with the interface to access the heart of the system, which is why the agency took practical steps to ensure farmers and agents could claim BPS by the deadline via paper forms,” said a Defra spokesperson.

“Importantly, the core of the system is working, data inputted has been stored successfully and is being used to process BPS 2015 claims. As a result the RPA is on track to make the majority of payments in December and vast majority in January.”

The RPA has a history of problems with its IT systems. The 2015 digital service was designed to replace the £350m single payment scheme, which started in 2005 and eventually cost more than four times the original estimate of £75m, with extra costs of £680m to administer the system. Farmers were paid the wrong amounts or did not receive funds they were entitled to.

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