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Rural payments digital service like watching a Greek tragedy unfold, say MPs

Serious culture clash and dysfunctional leadership were at the core of the rural payments digital service problems, the Public Accounts Committee heard

MPs have criticised the rural payments digital service for failing to deliver the programme and said it was like watching a Greek tragedy unfold.

Last week a National Audit Office (NAO) report found that the programme, which aims to deliver a digital system through which farmers would apply for payments under the EU Common Agricultural Policy – was dogged by spiralling costs, senior level bickering plus poor and often changing leadership.

In a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing yesterday (9 December), chair Meg Hillier said she found the report disturbing and that it identified “personal rifts, counter-productive behaviours”, which was highly inappropriate.

MP David Moat said the roll-out was like watching “some form of a Greek tragedy".

Government Digital Service (GDS) chief technology officer (CTO) Liam Maxwell, who was the senior responsible owner (SRO) for the programme from October 2014 until May this year, and Mark Grimshaw, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) - who is now the current SRO - were particularly in the firing line, due to the “dysfunctional leadership” of the programme.

The payment service, which is run by the GDS, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the RPA, went live in late 2014, despite failing its readiness assessment by GDS. In March 2015, the government was forced to make a U-turn on the project and resort to pen and paper, following problems with the IT system.

Culture clash

The PAC heard how eight weeks before the digital service was due to go live, Maxwell was brought in as SRO of the programme to try to deliver the service on time, which caused rifts between the departments.

Attempting to explain what had happened, Maxwell said that in the circumstances, his team came in to try and “resolve a task and make sure a service was delivered to farmers.”

“I came into support and help and sometimes people think that’s difficult,” he said. At this point, Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, who was also attending the PAC meeting, called on Maxwell and Grimshaw to take the findings of the report seriously and said that the NAO rarely writes reports relating to individual behaviours.

“This is a most unusual event to have such extensive comment on behaviours which were distressing to staff and visibly confrontational. Just skirting around it with a bit of chat is not going to be good enough. You need to speak to this issue. It's not good enough to just explain it by saying 'we cooperated well',” Morse said.

This is a most unusual event to have such extensive comment on behaviours which were distressing to staff and visibly confrontational
Amyas Morse, NAO

Maxwell said the rifts were caused by a culture clash and differences between the departments, with the programme team on one floor of the building while the rest of RPA staff were somewhere else.

“They were culturally very different. People dressed differently. People used different methods of reporting, much more traditional ways of reporting of management information,” he said.

“The programme itself used digital technology to report what was going on and I think people found this difficult as a different way of existing and managing a project.”

Commenting on the way in which Maxwell came in to try and solve the issues, MP Richard Bacon said that Maxwell was effectively “a Mr Fancypants” coming into Defra from the outside “with your digital teams”.

Maxwell said that he is not a very “conciliatory person when there are issues to be resolved” and that he didn’t “want to sound as if I’m being glib by saying I’m from the centre.”

He added that when he arrived, there was no one “who could talk through the whole system”.

“When someone turns up, with that little time to go on a programme which didn't have a walkthrough product, clearly there were very clear conversations about what we needed to do to fix it," he said.

Lack of focus

The system was hailed as one of the government’s 25 flagship “digital by default” services, and Grimshaw said there was a “difference in approach” in the different departments. He said that his focus had “always been on reducing disallowance and providing accurate payments” and that “there’s no requirement for an interactive front portal” from the EU.

When asked by Bacon if the emphasis on digital by default had been a distraction from the RPA's focus on delivering payments on time, Grimshaw said: “There is that possibility”.

He said he regretted his “personal inability to explain the requirements of the programme in terms of the key controls versus any of the ancillary activity,” which he added is a frustration that he “still bears”.

The NAO report found that poor leadership was one of the main reasons for delays and the costs of the project which have spiralled from an initial £154m to £215m, 40% over the original budget.

PAC chair Meg Hillier asked former Defra permanent secretary Bronwyn Hill, what action had been taken to resolve the behaviour of people involved. Hill said that she held weekly meetings to get to the bottom of it, but that she didn’t want to “stifle the tension.”

“I was disappointed that the enormous time, commitment and energy put in by everyone I knew on this programme, was not always reflected in the behaviour of senior leaders,” she said, and added that there was a massive tension in the rural payments project, which “is a challenge.”

The NAO report said that since 2012, the programme has had four different SROs who have all changed the priorities of the project. Bacon critisised the lack of focus and said:  “This is relatively straightforward. You’re not talking about reaching the end of the universe, you’re talking about payments for a certain group of people.” He added: “What kind of vision is it that would be threatened by a change in SRO?”

The programme was one of the first large-scale projects to follow GDS’s guidelines for moving spend on large government IT projects away from single-supplier contracts, and to focus on using small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in a multiple-contractor approach.

This meant Defra was expected to provide systems integration skills to bring the different elements together. However, as the NAO report found, the department had very limited experience in this and “did not have the necessary skills in-house and did not know how to obtain them”, which was another main reason for the failure.

By 1 December this year, the RPA managed to pay 39% of farmers who have claimed their Basic Payment Scheme money.

Read more about the rural payments digital service

Government forced into U-turn as flagship 'digital by default' service for payments to farmers resorts to paper forms following an IT failure

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

Inappropriate behaviour and too much focus on IT procurement led to rural payments programme costs spiralling to 40% over budget, says National Audit Office report

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