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Top 10 public sector IT stories of 2015

In the year the UK public voted for another five years of Tory government and Mike Bracken left the Government Digital Service (GDS), public sector IT had a turbulent ride

From pre-election uncertainty over how a new government would take forward digital technologies, to digital chief Mike Bracken’s departure from the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the autumn spending review promising a surprising £450m for GDS, 2015 was a year of suspense and surprises.

Big government IT projects such as e-Borders, Universal Credit and the rural payments digital service have fallen under scrutiny and criticised by both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee after spiralling costs and missed deadlines, with the latter branding the rural payments digital service “a greek tragedy”.

Elsewhere in the public sector, Cornwall Council and BT struggled to resolve their issues, ending in a high court date set for earlier this month, while the Metropolitan Police was forced to stick with a 30 year old command and control system after failing to go live with its replacement system on time.

It’s not all been bad news. The government is moving forward with many of its projects and the near-doubled budget of GDS and a visible drive by government departments to rectify previous problems and getting IT right will hopefully lead to a fruitful 2016. 

Here are Computer Weekly's top 10 public sector IT stories. 

1. Interview: Government digital chief Mike Bracken – why I quit

One of the most unexpected news in 2015 was that GDS chief Mike Bracken announced he was leaving government to take up a job at the Co-operative.

Bracken, who has led public services’ digital transformation for the past four years, took with him four of his key team members, which raised questions about the future of GDS.

One of his big legacies has been making the case for government-as-a-platform (GaaP) but, despite rumours that GaaP has not been well received, in his exit interview with Computer Weekly, Bracken said the government fully supported it and that it was the only way forward.

“We can't just keep making or buying technology solutions in one department and then just chucking it over the departmental wall and saying, 'That will work for the rest of government', because it never does. Ever,” he told Computer Weekly.

2. George Osborne promises £1.8bn funding for digital technology

The autumn spending review saw a huge commitment to digital from central government with chancellor George Osborne announcing a £1.8bn investment in digital technology and transformation projects for public sector. On top of that, Obsorne handed GDS a £450m budget, despite rumours that it would see its budget slashed after Mike Bracken’s departure.

GDS is expected to save £3.5bn in return for the generous budget and will spend the money on GaaP, which is expected to deliver £1.3bn of those savings, common technology services and Verify. 

Other digital projects receiving funding included a £1.3m reinvestment to transform HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) into a digital tax administration and a £130m investment in border technology.

3. Met Police forced to stick with ageing command and control system after project delays

The Metropolitan Police Service was forced to sign a three-year extension with Unisys for its 30-year-old command and control system in September this year after it failed to go live with its replacement system on time.

The new system, from Northrop Grumman, was due to go live in October 2015 but, due to work with functionality and integration of the system taking longer than planned, the Met Police had no choice but to ask for an extension – which sources suggest isn’t coming cheap.

Lockheed Martin is leading the project, overseeing Capita and KPMG which will implement the integration of new technologies. A Met Police spokesperson told Computer Weekly that the scale and size of the integration task is understood by all.

4. Rural payments problems led to 40% increase in costs, says NAO report 

Bickering, dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviours were some of the words the National Audit Office (NAO) used in its report to describe the senior leadership of the rural payments digitals service.

That, combined with too much focus on IT procurement, led to costs spiralling from an initial £154m to £215m for programme, which aimed to deliver a digital system through which farmers would apply for payments under the EU Common Agricultural Policy. The programme, which was hailed as one of the government’s flagship digital by default services, had four different senior responsible officers in three years, all changing the priorities, leading to disruption.

Following on from the NAO report, MPs in the Public Accounts Committee said it was like watching a Greek tragedy unfold and heavily criticised the programme’s SROs for their "counter-productive" behaviour. Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said it was “most unusual to have such extensive comment on behaviours which were distressing to staff”. 

5. Cornwall Council and BT meet in court over botched outsourcing deal 

Cornwall Council’s attempt to end its £260m outsourcing deal with BT saw the two parties meeting in court in early December 2015 after the company filed for an injunction with the High Court to stop the council.

In May, the council fined BT more than £100,000 for contract failures and entered into a standstill agreement in an attempt to facilitate negotiations. After two meetings, BT and the council failed to come to an amicable agreement and Cornwall decided to go ahead with terminating the contract.

The council said it considered BT to be “in material breach” of the contract between them, under which BT was due to deliver a range of IT services and create new jobs in the county. At the time of writing, the court case was still ongoing.

6. Government IT over the last five years – the good, the bad and the digital

As the general election approached, back in April 2015, Computer Weekly looked back at the highs and lows of government IT in the previous parliament.

Over the last few years, the government has been critisised for its outsourcing contracts, but among failures such as IT problems with Universal Credit and rural payments, the government has also made some significant progress, including the creation of GDS and its website project

Computer Weekly also pointed out the development of the G-Cloud platform and digital marketplace, along with implementing coding in the school curriculum as success stories from the last parliament.

7. Which election manifesto deserves to win the digital vote? 

Ahead of the general election, Computer Weekly looked at the three main national political parties and their election manifestos, to determine which was the most digital.

Although none of them offered very concrete spending proposals, they all acknowledged the importance of digital technologies. Broadband came high on the list in all of them, as did the continuation of GDS.

Of the three parties, The Liberal Democrats featured technology issues the most widely, while labour stressed the importance of digital technology in improving the UK’s productivity and digital strategy.

The Conservatives mostly offered a continuation of existing initiatives, and it remains to be seen how far the government will come over the next parliament.

8. IT SMEs losing tens of millions of pounds from government in row over £2.45bn Capita deal 

In February 2015, Computer Weekly revealed that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) lost tens of millions of pounds after refusing to sign up to the controversial £2.45bn Cabinet Office deal with Capita for sourcing temporary staff.

More than 20 suppliers have been protesting the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) about contractual negotiations they believe favour Capita and prejudice their businesses. Some suppliers accused CCS of deliberately trying to undermine their relationship with government, and one supplier claimed to have lost more than £20m in revenue and being forced to lay off 10 staff.

The SMEs were also concerned over Capita’s dominance in the market and the company’s ability to access sensitive commercial information about rivals. Capita denied “any suggestion of  wrongdoing” regarding the framework, and said it had an excellent track record of working with SMEs.

9. Universal Credit costs leap by more than 20% to £15.8bn           

The lifetime cost of Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Universal Credit welfare reform programme has increased to £15.8bn. The figures, which were revealed in a Major Projects Authority report published in June 2015, shows that the costs are expected to be more than 20% higher over the lifetime of the project than what was estimated back in 2012.

But the DWP insisted the change in the costs was simply due to a change in the way the figures are accounted for, and that there was no increase in the budget.

More recently, in a December PAC hearing, permanent secretary Robert Devereux said the national roll-out of the Universal Credit Digital Service will begin in May 2016 with five job centres a month. The PAC critisised the DWP for its lack of milestones available in the public domain, saying it is difficult to assess if the programme is actually going well.

10. GDS targets three million new users of Verify service in next 12 months                                                                                                                                                                       

Although the roll-out of Verify, the system for logging in to digital public services, is taking longer than expected, the government announced in June 2015 that it’s planning three million expected users in the next 12 months.

The beta stage roll-out of the system first started in October 2013 and, according to GDS, Verify will be fully live by April 2016 – although, as of June, it only had six services using Verify for public transactions.

The government is also talking to banks, insurers and retailers to establish Verify as a national identity management scheme.

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