Spending watchdog to review Government Digital Service after rural payment delays

National Audit Office says GDS now getting on better with Defra after subsidies fiasco – but announces wider probe into effectiveness of the central digital team

By Matt Foster

24 Oct 2016

The National Audit Office is to review the work of the Government Digital Service, after a high-profile row over the central team's involvement in a botched overhaul of the system used to pay subsidies to farmers.

GDS and the Rural Payments Agency originally worked together on a new system to process the more than 100,000 European Union Common Agricultural Policy subsidies handed to UK farmers in Britain each year.

But a report published last year by the NAO said “personal rifts”, leadership churn and a failure to coordinate the work of the RPA with GDS had contributed to escalating costs and major delays in making the payments. 

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The RPA eventually switched to a “paper-assisted digital” scheme which has required claims to be manually entered by its staff, and MPs on the Public Accounts Committee criticised the way rural payments appeared to have been used as a "digital testing ground".

An update from the NAO – published this week – says that the RPA has made some progress since it last reported, pointing out that it has exceeded its self-imposed targets of making 50% of payments for the 2015-16 cycle by December 2015 and 75% by January 2016.

This was done, the NAO said, despite the "significant administrative burden" imposed by the switch to the paper-assisted scheme.

However, the agency missed its target of making 92% of payments by March 2016 "by some margin", according to the watchdog, with just 84% of payments made by that time.

The NAO puts this missed target down to three factors: the implications of a legal ruling on common land which "proved more complicated than the RPA anticipated"; delays in obtaining data from agencies in the devolved nations; and a delay in rolling out a system to process inspection findings.

The delays meant that one in six (16%) of farmers had not received a payment by March 2016, according to the NAO.

The NAO's fresh assessment of the programme also takes a specific look at the changing relationship between the RPA and the centre of government, saying that GDS "no longer has significant involvement" in the programme and the RPA telling the watchdog "it has not sought any further support" from the team.

"Its distance from the programme has allowed the department to shift from a focus on agile and digital delivery to an approach that combines agile software development with programme management and governance arrangements with which the RPA is more familiar," the NAO says.

And the NAO reveals that it will soon be taking a detailed look at how GDS "now engages with other government departments to ensure it offers the support needed".

The review will, it promises, probe both "GDS's achievements and the challenges it faces", with a particular focus on "whether the centre of government is supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government".

"Cultural changes"

The extent of the personal clashes between the RPA and GDS leadership over the direction of the programme was laid bare at a Public Accounts Committe hearing late last year, with the then-chief technology officer at GDS, Liam Maxwell, saying the two teams had been "culturally very different".

"People dressed differently," he told MPs. "People used different methods of reporting, much more traditional ways of reporting of management information. The programme itself used modern digital techniques to help report what was going on.

“And I think people found this very difficult, as a different way of existing or a different way of managing a project.”

The NAO's progress update on the rural payments delays says that while no changes have been made to the "formal" management processes at the RPA since the watchdog's report last year, "cultural changes" have been made "that aim to reduce tensions that may arise in the future".

"Over the past year, GDS has been assisting with other aspects of the department’s work including its transformation programme, and the department has told us that its working relationship with GDS has recently been more constructive," the watchdog adds.

The latest report from the NAO comes after the new boss of GDS, Kevin Cunnington – brought in from the Department for Work and Pensions over the summer – said he wanted GDS to become less "adversarial" and hinted at a loosening of the strict IT spend controls put in place by the Cabinet Office in the last parliament.

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