State IT project a 'masterclass in sloppy management'

A government IT project that is three years over its deadline at almost three times its original cost has been derided as a "masterclass in sloppy management".

The troubled project – C-NOMIS – was conceived at the Ministry of Justice in 2004, to build a single and shared computer system for the prison and probation services.

But "blunder after blunder by senior managers," and a rocketing in its cost from £234m to £690m, means the project is now unable to deliver this core objective.

Instead of one integrated system to track all offenders, what was delivered was a "masterclass in sloppy project management," added Edward Leigh, PAC chairman.

His Public Accounts Committee found management oversight on the project was "inadequate," while its ambitious technical complexity was "significantly underestimated."

Monitoring of the project budget was "absent," change control was "weak" and poorly framed contracts let ailing IT suppliers wiggle out of delivering to time and cost.

"This committee hears of troubled government projects all too frequently," Mr Leigh said, "but the litany of failings in this case are in a class of their own."

The National Offender Management Service, which became part of the MoJ, was blamed for the failings, which in Aug 2007 led to the project being replaced by a smaller build.

In particular, NOMS' relationship with the project's IT suppliers, especially EDS, deteriorated from 2005, resulting in the service failing to make the "best use of their expertise."

The National Audit Office, which reports to the PAC, said NOMS had its own problems with senior recruitment, staff skills, delegation and financial accountability.

Evidencing its claims, the NAO said there was no communications manager until almost two years into the project, and no dedicated financial controller until early 2007.

For still having "key posts" vacant in the project's third year, NOMIS became reliant on freelance contractors, 'which could impact the central team's ability to manage effectively.'

The NAO added that as of July 1st 2008, more than a third of the IT project's 137 roles were occupied by external contractors, while 15 per cent of them were still waiting to be filled.

The office also criticised NOMS for underestimating the need to invest in business change, such as standardising processes in 42 separate probation regions, alongside the system.

"At the outset, NOMS treated C-NOMIS as an IT project rather than a major IT-enabled business change programme," the NAO said in its report.

"This status increased the pressure on the project team to approve requests for changes and contributed to significant scope creep."

In 2005 alone there were an estimated 300-400 requests for changes to the initial requirements, during which time NOMS' board did not ask for reports on project progress.

Although reporting systems were in place for project leaders, the board was left "unaware of the full extent of delays or the implications of decisions it made upon project cost."

The report added there was also "no process in place for assessing the cumulative impact of individual change requests on the project budget or delivery timetable."

More positively, the spending watchdog said the total number of databases in the prison and probation services has been reduced from 220 to three.

But it found that "many of the causes of the delays and cost overruns" could have been avoided with better and more sober management.

"The desirability of the project's aims appears to have overly influenced decision makers, leading to the failure to evaluate other technical options sufficiently and establish realistic budget, timescales and governance for the project."

A new computer system covering all public sector prisons is scheduled to be ready for May 2010 and a separate system for the probation service is due to go live by February 2010.

Reassuringly, the NAO said management of the IT programme has improved in recent months, particular by better financial control from NOMS.

Recruitment difficulties remain, however, leaving the programme "heavily reliant" on contracted-in staff and vacancies persist, although mainly in the lower and middle ranks.

Its financial forecasting is weak, as is its business focus. "Overall," the NAO added, "the C-NOMIS project was handled badly and the value for money achieved by the project was poor."

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