A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report released this week makes grim reading for those hopeful of a shift away from failed Whitehall IT disasters of days gone by. Since the Government Digital Service (GDS) launched a few years ago there has been some optimism that projects that wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, whilst management consultants raked in high wages, were a thing of the past.
However, the PAC report out today, which looks at GDS’s involvement in helping the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) build a new system to support European subsidy payments to farmers, shows that there is still plenty of work to do.
And whilst both Defra and GDS have been criticised in the report for not focusing on the project at hand and instead engaging in an ongoing “childish turf war” of ‘old meets new’, it is the Government Digital Service that should know better here.
As a result of the dysfunctional relationships and a lack of ability to put the needs of the farmers first, the cost of the programme has increased by 40% to £215 million and the Rural Payments Agency has actually been paying farmers later than it has in previous years under the new system.
Since its inception, GDS has marched around Whitehall touting the benefits of focusing on the user needs, as opposed to the needs of government. In its own service manual, which focuses on user-centred design, GDS states:
Any thinking about a service, whether online or offline, must start with the question: what is the user need?
Defining a user need must be strict and honest. For GDS, it’s the need the user has of government, not the need of government to impart information to the user.
That’s an important distinction, because it means that you’ll be able to more accurately measure the success of your services and iteratively improve them to meet the needs of the people who’ll make use of them.
And yet, in this case, GDS perceived digital to be the need here, when in fact it appears to be largely inappropriate for rural farmers without access to broadband and who don’t often engage with digital services.
Although there is plenty of meat within the report, the one word that pops up regularly is “inappropriate”. The systems were inappropriate, behaviour was inappropriate.
Meg Hiller MP, chair of the PAC, said:
This Programme was set up to deliver support to UK farmers. Instead, it delivered an appalling Whitehall fiasco.
It was frankly embarrassing to learn of senior and highly paid civil servants arguing to the detriment of hard-pressed farmers.
Explanations such as 'We worked on different floors' and 'We dressed differently' are a slap in the face to them and a dismal excuse for failures that could severely hit the public purse.
A fundamental part of setting up this Programme should have been to establish a clear and robust vision of the final product, focused on the needs of farmers. For it to end up as a digital testing ground was wrong-headed.
The enduring mental image is of managers, having seemingly lost sight of the purpose of the project, devoting their energies to a childish turf war instead.
If the Department is to build trust in this Programme and other projects it first needs to rebuild trust with farmers.
That starts with setting out exactly when it expects to pay them in future and we will be expecting the Department to address this as a matter of urgency.
The report produces a number of conclusions and recommendations from the evidence given at a recent
hearing. One of which is that as a result of the fiasco, the Rural Payments Agency paid only 38% of farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015 - the first day of the payment window - compared to over 90% in previous years.
In March 2015, as a result of the failure of the online application system, the Department had reverted to a ‘paper-assisted digital’ system, requiring a significant amount of manual input and creating a large number of errors.
It is also clear that differing priorities were at the heart of this - and I would argue that actually Defra, which has been portrayed by GDS as the ‘old guard’, had a far clearer idea about the user need than GDS did.
The report states that Defra’s priority was to pay farmers accurately and on time and to reduce disallowance penalties. Whereas GDS focused on trying to encourage digital innovation, reduce costs and develop learning across government.
The PAC report reads:
The parties’ differing objectives were never reconciled into a single set of priorities. The Programme has been led by four different SROs since its inception, with each bringing their own distinct priorities, vision and style. GDS’s focus on developing a digital front-end to allow farmers to apply online, which was not a European Commission requirement, was inappropriate for farmers, who have a lower average level of digital literacy than the general population and there is poor broadband coverage in many rural areas.
User needs? Hmmm.
In addition, PAC found that GDS introduced a level of innovation and risk to the Programme, without assessing whether the department was capable of managing the changes, and did not provide sufficient support during implementation. In other words, they threw Defra in the deep end without any arm bands.
And most importantly - but closely related - the failure of the department, the Rural Payments Agency and GDS to work together effectively resulted in serious detriment to the programme (and to the farmers). The PAC said that this behaviour could potentially have cost the taxpayer millions of pounds in financial penalties. The report states:
Neither the government’s Chief Technology Officer nor the Chief Executive of the RPA was able to provide us with an acceptable explanation for their behaviour. The Department’s efforts to resolve issues, such as weekly meetings with the main protagonists, failed, and the Cabinet Office also did not halt the disruptive behaviour. Highly paid public servants need to get the job done and such behaviour is unacceptable.
Whilst I’m pro-GDS in its agenda to drive change through the heart of Whitehall, when it falls short, it needs highlighting. It seems that every step of the way the Government Digital Service put its priorities at the heart of this project, quickly forgetting about the needs of the farmers and the need to help Defra manage this change.
Not that Defra is innocent in all this - by a long shot - but GDS is meant to be the organisation that is managing this digital change across government and, as I said above, it should know better.
I have faith that new GDS director Stephen Foreshew-Cain’s more conciliatory approach may drive this point home for some of the organisation’s other leaders. But GDS isn’t going to make its programmes work if it goes in like a bull in a china shop and shouts loudly “DIGITAL IS THE ONLY WAY”.
This change, as much as it’s about technology, is equally about people. GDS knew that when it started out, let’s hope it hasn’t forgotten it.
GDS's ideas and messaging are spot on, but if it can't deliver on implementations such as this, what's the point?
GDS Director Stephen Foreshew-Cain will be speaking at the following event: