back to article UK govt threw £347m in the bin on failed asylum processing IT project

The Home Office frittered away hundreds of millions of taxpayer pounds on a botched tech project designed to manage immigration and asylum applications, a National Audit Office report has revealed. The "flagship" IT programme, the Immigration Case Work computer system, was launched in 2010 to replace fragmented systems and …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Hmmmm ...

    Let's say that you're a small island based economy, once a great power but now a shadow of that, and your government has quite a lot of scrutiny of it's spending by the voracious local media. Now presume that you want to keep up with the military joneses and develop some 'interesting' state of the art (ish) and intentionally secret weaponry and related systems. How would you hide the spending on the secret projects ... how about a long and ridiculously predictable (suspiciously so) sequence of failed government IT projects. Your populous wouldn't bat an eyelid because it's just another failed government IT project and yet millions of pounds (ooops, giveaway there) flow freely ...

    1. Tom Wood

      Re: Hmmmm ...

      Yes, were it not for Hanlon's razor

      1. Hargrove

        Re: Hmmmm ...

        Hanlon's razor Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

        Grandpa Hargrove's corollary: In the limit it does not matter whether you are the victim of a knave or a fool. The damage you suffer will be indistinguishable.

        Related truth: Stupidity and arrogance are a deadly combination.

        For the topic at hand, greed also plays a significant role. I am personally convinced that the money is not going into clandestine developments. That would require that something concrete actually be done. Why piss money away when a failed project (IT is far from unique in this respect) can move it from the pockets of taxpayers to special interests with no real accountability whatever.

        1. Rich 11 Silver badge

          Re: Hmmmm ...

          Why piss money away when a failed project (IT is far from unique in this respect) can move it from the pockets of taxpayers to special interests with no real accountability whatever.

          That's certainly how it works in education and health, and arguably transport.

  2. batfastad

    Yet

    No... must... not... rant.... here goes...

    And yet ministers have the audacity to whinge that they should have a bigger cut of tax revenue from individuals and corporates participating in perfectly legal tax avoidance schemes?

    Yeah I mean we'd all like a bit more money all of the time, humans are greedy. Especially all the chubby little eunuchs that waddle about inside Westminster.

    But I would also defend the right to anyone big or small to abide by the law and pay their legal minimum amount of tax, like I do and probably 100% of UK tax payers. Presumably Theresa May wasn't making additional voluntary tax contributions while she was burping "morally repugnant" at anything that moved. (Though it was quite amazing to hear that she and likely most other politicians consider themselves our moral superiors/guardians - by definition that's impossible!)

    So in conclusion, there's no way I feel our public agencies should have access to more dosh until they prove that they won't just waste it on beer, hookers, botched IT projects, limpics, and a marginally faster train set that will cost 4x as much to ride on.

    Phew!

  3. Lionel Baden

    WTF

    /RANT MODE ENABLED

    How the Hell, can you not manage to computerise a paper based system with that level of funding.

    Why is nobody going to jail for defrauding the state ? I am getting so fucking Fed up with the amount of times i see X project gets binned after spending XXXmillions

    I WANT TO SEE SOME ACCOUNTABILITY !!!!!!!!

    There is no problem with updating the current systems, but jeezus it cant be that god damn difficult.

    Yes i would be happy to put my money where my mouth is.

    /RANT MODE DISABLED

    1. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: WTF

      It wasn't a paper system, it was replacing an electronic system (which might also have used paper records I suppose, but it was an electronic system at heart).

      The problem with government IT is there are hundreds of chiefs to keep changing what the thing is supposed to do.

      Finally, something is produced, and it is put in front of the people who are expected to use it, and they find that they cannot use it efficiently because it has been poorly specified and somehow mutated to do something that was never originally in spec, and so they continue to use the old software, at least for some tasks.

      This means that you cannot then remove the old software, and so instead of delivering cost savings, the project has delivered extra costs.

      It all comes down to poor management and design processes, which still happen a bit in the private sector, but not as much - if you screw up, you probably no longer have a job - so in the private sector we spend a lot of money making sure that our processes are good and deliver continuous improvement.

      In the public sector, train-wrecks like this happen constantly, and so it seems it is not such a judgement on someone who led/designed these failed projects, they seem to land another one immediately after presiding over hundreds of millions of pounds in losses.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: WTF

        "It all comes down to poor management "

        It most certainly does. Rather amusing to consider the lack of humour and pomposity that causes the Oxbridge educated top echelons of the Civil Service to have their own exclusive trade union entitled the "First Division Association". Talent free, overpaid cunts.

        1. BearishTendencies

          Re: WTF

          They're not talent free, overpaid cunts. They're full of vigour and expertise. They must be. After all, the man who was responsible for procurement in IPS was promoted to Commercial Director at the Home Office and is now the Chief Procurement Officer for all of Government.....

      2. veti Silver badge

        Re: WTF

        Preach it, Tom 38.

        My employer makes and maintains databases, which companies use to keep customer records. By the nature of our business, most of our clients are private-sector, but there are some exceptions (across multiple countries). And contrary to popular belief, given the choice between a public-sector and private-sector client to serve, nobody I know would choose the former, regardless of country.

        There's a - not lack, exactly, but a strange arse-about-face quality to accountability, which means that decision making is invariably handed off to the highest ranking person around - i.e. the one least qualified to make a decision that affects the day-to-day workflows of the poor schmucks on the coalface.

        There's an ungodly high turnover of decision makers, which means that decisions taken today can be revised, reversed or just plain forgotten two or three times by the end of the year.

        Couple this with an insistence on rigid forms and procedures, and you have a formula whereby features have to be built, delivered and tested as promised, even long after everyone involved knows (and quite openly agrees) that they are useless. Because no-one has, or is willing to use, the authority to cancel or change them. That's about as motivating as you would imagine.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: WTF

          "so in the private sector we spend a lot of money making sure that our processes are good and deliver continuous improvement.". That gave me a good laugh, thanks.

      3. <shakes head>

        Re: WTF

        if you really believe it is different in the private sector, can i come work where you do.

    2. plrndl
      Holmes

      Re: WTF

      “How the Hell, can you not manage to computerise a paper based system with that level of funding.”

      Actually it's trivial. Paper based systems are never complete systems, particularly in bureaucratic “organisations”. These “systems” rely on the existence of a small proportion of operatives who are smart enough and willing enough to add functionality to the system. When you remove the smart element and make the system run at GHz clock speeds, you get a solid lock-up.

      The only way to get a working computer system, is to create a perfect system, then computerise it, as any fule kno.

  4. BigAndos

    Intentional typo in the URL?

  5. London 75

    Crazy

    How does a system that keeps track of a measly 300k records blow £347 million. I can't even make some structure up that would cost that much, no amount of staff, no number of developers or managers that sounds even vaguely credible!

    Surely a well controlled focussed project for an entirely new product 100 developers full time for 2 year on 40k each and some back office and project management and testers etc and I'm still only up to 15 million max.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Crazy

      Well each record needs a copy of the database and Windows licensing and a server to run it on - so £1000/record doesn't seem that unreasonable.

      They could probably have bought Dell servers for less than £1000/ea but buying in bulk is always more expensive.

      1. Bronek Kozicki
        Mushroom

        Re: Crazy

        For goodness sake, use icons as appropriate. I was thinking "joke alert", but changed my mind ... because your comment might very well be spot-on.

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. AceRimmer

    IBM

    Now there's a name I would never associate with a massively over spent IT project

    </sarcasm>

    I wonder how many Indian IT workers made their way to these shores on the back of that project

  8. frank ly

    It just goes on

    "IBM won the immigration casework management system gig in 2008 but it is unclear if IBM was then appointed in 2010 ... "

    Another example of poor record keeping? Who did the government contract database?

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: It just goes on

      Record keeping

      They will have kept a record of who they gave the contract to on a specially designed database......

      1. veti Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: It just goes on

        s/specially designed database/macro-infested spreadsheet, and I think you'd be closer to the truth.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It would be really good if, after an IT system has been planned, priced up and signed off, that someone with some balls (metaphoric balls since the person could, of course, be a woman, of course) would say "Ok, since we know this is going to be screwed up sideways and there'll be more value in my pee than in anything that comes out of this sorry clusterfuck of a project, I'm giving it to welfare payments for disabled people".

    That would be nice.

    Won't happen though.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "I'm giving it to welfare payments for disabled people"

      Well, given that we've got twice the proportion of registered disabled as comparable OECD economies, even that approach won't make the money go very far.

  10. Hargrove

    Another contributing factor?

    First, a dinosaur alert. I am not older than dirt, but I am older than Fortran, Cobol, and programming in assembly language.

    Enterprises that I am familiar with are having increasing difficulty maintaining good synchronization among development, test, and live operational environments.

    The root causes are too many and tedious to list here. Most, not all, of them essentially come down to a drive to reduce cost and avoid accountability. One key result is the rush adopt the use of commercial-off-the-self technology (COTS) and dependence on third party vendors.

    Systems comprise a hodgepodge of special-purpose application code, third party Apps, network OS, and database management software (I'm sure I missed a few.) The special-purpose application code barely warrants the name. As a practical matter, the "designer" is stuck with whatever canned functions their COTS "development" system provides. (Think pre-formatted Powerpoint, just less sightly and less creative.)

    Between patching, patching patches and keeping ahead of hackers, third party building blocks are updated every whipstitch. The third party COTS is proprietary, and systems developers/owners cannot afford to pay for IP rights that would provide the level of technical specificity needed to understand the effects observed. The third party vendors are not price gouging--the IP are the crown jewels.

    The problem is that changes have unintended consequences.

    That bears repeating. Changes have unintended consequences.

    Database software that we have no reason to expect to affect an application does. The document that has been rendering quite nicely for several years, suddenly throws a rod and comes out in 6-point type.

    It is not simply that the alleged economic benefits of COTS are not being realized. In the case of one system that I have been personally involved configuration management at the user system level has become virtually impossible. Testing is practically meaningless. We can test the system, but cannot guarantee that the configuration as deployed matches what we tested. In fact when we run an extensive User Acceptance Test, we cannot guarantee that the configuration was stable for the duration of the test.

    Make no mistake, having had to watch a government enterprise make a hash of a system that we successfully operated for years pre-FISMA, I have a severely jaundiced view of government IT procurement practices. But, being objective, I doubt I could do any better if I had to work under the same constraints.

    The explosive growth in real hardware performance over the last three decades has let us det away with abandoning fundamental principles of computer programming. Like tight, efficient code is better than bloatware. We are getting to pay for the results.

    A closing note: The evolution of the technology has served the consumer mass market superbly. I enjoy computing capabilities that I could never have imagined sorting through my deck of Hollerith cards hunting for the infamous infinite "do loop." The mistake is presuming that because the technology is ideal for fun and games it can be put to serious work with minimal cost and effort. It ain't necessarily so.

    One old man's observations, for what they're worth.

    1. Caesarius
      Pint

      Re: Another contributing factor?

      I was going to explore the possibility that non-government projects can go just as wrong, but your discussion is much better.

    2. Vic

      Re: Another contributing factor?

      The explosive growth in real hardware performance over the last three decades has let us det away with abandoning fundamental principles of computer programming. Like tight, efficient code is better than bloatware.

      The problem is widespread.

      I was working at a place a while back where we were developing a wide-ranging Python application[1].

      I saw one developer commit a piece of code that spawned a Java VM within the Python code. Why? The developer wanted to use a Java Hashmap.

      Now I know that the Hashmap goes somewhat further that the Python Dictionary, particularly in things like type safety. But none of that was being used - it was just a key/value store. The Dictionary collection would have done the job perfectly, if only the guy in question had learnt enough of the language he was supposed to be using to have learnt it. Instead, he just used the tools he knew at the cost of *massive* run-time bloat.

      Was he taken aside and shown the error of his ways? No, Management congratulated him on the substantial amount of code he had committed, and put pressure on the rest of us to hurry up and get it working...

      Vic.

      [1] Python was chosen by the then-head of Software Development, so it wasn't something I could argue with...

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    FAIL

    So cabinet office saves £91m, Home Offices p**ses away £347m

    And oh look the HO does not have good quality project management data (so not sure it was heading for a Red light with the Major Project Authority. At least I think £300m+ is a major project, but I'm not a government)

    It's going to merge/integrate 20 different systems, some software, some paper into 1.

    But it seems the Home Office has finally given a figure for how many files are really in the immigration backlog.

    It is in fact 300 000 with 31 000 > 7 years old. Presumably that includes the 60 000 found in a store room in Liverpool. And yes that really does give the astonishing figure of > £1000/ case.

    You can bet there's no "Captain" going down with this "flagship."

  12. xyz Silver badge

    IT System Procurement...Civil Service Guidelines

    1) You don't have to know anything about what your are managing, you only need to know how to manage.

    2) Any functional spec for a civil service project must comprise umpteen pages of what management information is required out of the system. The spec for how to get info into the system is must state "does minion stuff."

    3) Always build 3 systems at the same time. A) The management one that management wants. B) The guerilla one the staff hack together so they can actually work and C) The pipe dream system that IT wants 'cos it has CV friendly buzzwords and BIG METAL

    4) When failure is immenent, take 3A and 3B and integrate into 3C.

    5) When 4 fails get Francis Maude in 'cos his guys are "hip and modern."

    1. Frankee Llonnygog

      Re: IT System Procurement...Civil Service Guidelines

      Spot on. The Maude Squad will stick a shiny Fisher-Price web front-end on your big, failed, legacy system.

  13. tony2heads
    FAIL

    Flagships

    Most of them are like the Vasa, which sailed 1300m on her maiden voyage and sank.

    They don't even have the dignity of getting as far as the Titanic

    Icon - most government 'flagships'

  14. NeilPost Silver badge

    WTF?

    Another casework management system in the bin, following the previous fiasco's at the English and Scottish Courts services.

    I'm just staggered that the project could remotely cost £347m, and be signed off as value. Surely this is an insane amount of money, for what is effectively computerized casework and filing? it can;t be that necessary to bespoke the hell out of it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: WTF?

      "I'm just staggered that the project could remotely cost £347m, and be signed off as value. "

      Why are you staggered? When you're spending somebody else's money nothing is too expensive, nor does it matter whether the system, product or service works or not.

      That's why the MoD spent £4bn on Nimrod MRA4 before scrapping the whole lot (along with a shed-load more of epic and expensive procurement failures). That's why DCLG wasted half a billion on regional fire control centres that never worked. That's why HMRC, DWP and others have allowed around £22bn to trickle through their fingers in uncollected revenues. That's why DoH spent about £10bn over some years on the failed patient records system. Why the Home Office wrote off over £100m on the e-borders system. And that's without considering the many, many projects that saw costs balloon and inadequate functionality, but still managed to drag their carcases over the completion line, like DEFRA's third of a billion SPS that was obsolete by the time it was launched, or the Ministry of Justice's dysfunctional Libra system for courts that cost £400m, the write offs on and multiple and repeated expensive failures to implement shared back office services systems at DWP, DfT, Research Councils, MoD and others. You could include NATS, the inability of the DfT to let (relatively) simple contracts to run trains.

      The list of waste and incompetence goes on and on, and nothing ever changes. It is important to note that it is not purely technology related projects that fail - this isn't just about the Civil Service and politicians being a bunch of Oxbridge politics and economics drips who don't understand technology, but also about rank organisational and individual incompetence in a penalty free environment.

      I can't see the day coming ever, but the only way things would ever change is if senior civil servants are stopped from job hopping mid project, and are personally held accountable for delivering working projects. That would mean sacking many of the current bunch without compensation when the project fails. I'd be quite happy to wield a pair of bolt croppers to publicly remove both their knackers and their unearned, gold plated public sector pensions. I think a black balaclava would be suitable adornment to my features, and I'd like to go by the name of Black Led.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Next time this current administration say that the last administration wasted so much money and put the country in so much debt, it is now apparent that the current administration have now overtaken the last one on those records according to OBR statistics: https://twitter.com/FraserNelson/status/488391487689084929/photo/1. Governments just love to piss our money up the wall.

  16. Steve May 1
    Happy

    A Modest Proposal

    For the next gummint IT project, I suggest that HMRC have a few words with Amazon or Google, along the lines of:-

    "We'll carry on pretending to believe your tax position if you take care of this little software project we have."

    Seem only fair.

    Also they might employ some of the surplus devs currently with the usual suspect companies so favored by the gummint. But manage them properly. Go with what demonstarbly works, I say.

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