Rural Payments Agency Shambles as the Computer Says … Do It On Paper!

Some of us who go back a fair way may have felt worried over recent years about the pace of technology change, and the ever -accelerating move towards "digital services". The prophets of that movement talk about "digital by default" and how everything we do, even accessing government services, will be as easy as buying on Amazon.

So it's good to see that the new world of IT isn't quite so different from the old world as we might have thought. Yes, new digital IT systems and developments appear to be just as capable of being absolutely useless as the old-style systems.

The Rural Payments Agency is linked to Defra, and is responsible for the Common Agricultural Payments IT system. But implementation of the system for handling farmers' payments has been delayed or scrapped - depending which reports you read. Certainly, farmers have been told to submit their claims for subsidies using a paper-based system for the moment at least after major failings were found in the new system. If the UK fails to meet the June deadline for getting this sorted out, it could face fines from the EU. Going back ten years, the department had to pay £400 million in fines to the EU due to incorrect payments caused by the previous IT system.

As the Government’s own website says;

“... there have been performance problems with the online interface that farmers and agents use. The RPA is now offering farmers and their agents the use of established forms and processes to complete their claims by the deadline. The RPA will then input this data on to the system”.

Here is Computer Weekly.

After successive software releases failed to resolve problems with a digital mapping tool used by farmers for the subsidy payment system – and with servers hitting 100% utilisation rates with only a few users online – a final upgrade last weekend was intended to sort the issue once and for all. But Monday arrived, the problems continued – and developers had no idea how to fix it”.

That is a blow for the Government Digital Service (GDS) which sits in the Cabinet Office and was largely responsible for the new system. Before this came to light, I was talking about government technology to someone last week who was clearly better informed than me on these matters. His comment was this.

"GDS has done a good job on simple stuff - rationalising government websites and so on. But it has yet to prove it can deliver on the big projects".

This episode would seem to support that analysis. The Register website (“El Reg”) said this about what may have gone wrong here.

“El Reg understands that the main issue was a problem with the new digital front-end failing to integrate with multiple back-end systems. ...El Reg understands that the Government Digital Service was responsible for throwing out a small number of suppliers working on RPA instead and went for a 40-plus suppliers approach - focusing too much attention on the front end, and little attention to integration between front and back”.

Ah, just like the old days. Well, I guess it shows that Digital by Default is not magic, and that whatever approach you use, you still have to find suppliers who know what they’re doing, manage them well, and get them to work together. Not as easy as it sounds sometimes...

Voices (3)

  1. Secret Squirrel:

    That also probably misunderstands it a little, Trevor. Whilst not making RPA blameless, the business case would have been hugely influenced by GDS policy to make the service ‘Digital by Default’ which would have meant that this type of solution pretty much being the only possible acceptable solution to get Cabinet Office signoff under the controls policy and process.

  2. Trevor Black:

    What is also overlooked is that a significant number of Farmers either do not have access to broadband or the signal is so poor that access to any on-line service results in crashing. It’s strange that apparently you can obtain a good broadband signal in the upper reaches of the Amazon but here 12 miles from York the speed is 1mb. Not sure if the RPA considered this when they prepared the business case!

  3. Secret Squirrel:

    Oh it’s worse than that Peter. GDS procurement approaches mean you’ve now got 40+ contractors and no prime to take responsibility. So when all that front end work is wasted as the back end doesn’t work, you can’t even get proper compensation for the failure of the whole…..

    Whoever would have thought that G-Cloud and ‘Digital Services’ framework approaches would lead to this? *raises hand*

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