The UK's worst public sector IT disasters

We look back at some of the biggest government IT failures, from the National Programme for IT to Universal Credit

Government announcements of grandiose new IT schemes are a regular occurrence, but rarely do they live up to the hype.

The implementation arc typically goes something like this: ambitious project, outsourcing, bloat, disaster, crash, spend, spend, spend.

To celebrate this all-too-familiar pattern, we've rounded up some of the most significant public sector IT disasters in the UK in recent history...

Read next: The major milestones of the Government Digital Service (GDS)

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Army Recruiting Partnering Project

The British Army's £1.36 billion Recruiting Partnering Project was slammed by the National Audit Office (NAO) after failing to meet its recruitment targets for six years in a row.

The online system launched over four years later than planned, at a cost of £113 million – triple its original budget.

Outsourcing firm Capita had won a £495 million contract for the project and was given responsibility for developing the online system, but both Capita and the Army had "underestimated the complexity of the project", according to the 2018 NAO report.

Technical problems continued after the system was launched for both staff and applicants. The army estimated that this resulted in 13,000 fewer applications made between November 2017 and March 2018 than were made over the same period in the previous year.

Lieutenant General Urch, commander of Army Home Command Group, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that it had been "naive" to outsource the project to a non-military organisation, and admitted that the insisting on Capita using an "antiquated IT system” was a "bad mistake".

Gov.uk Verify

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) described the Verify digital identity service as "not fit for purpose”, “failing its users”, and having "not delivered value for money" after the programme failed to meet any of its original performance targets.

The platform had been launched by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2016 to provide citizens with a single system through which they could prove their identity to access online services. It was set a target of attracting 25 million users by 2020, but by February 2019 had only been used by 3.6 million people, according to a report by the National Audit Office.

"Unfortunately, Verify is also an example of many of the failings in major programmes that we often see, including optimism bias and failure to set clear objectives," the report concluded. "Even in the context of GDS’s redefined objectives for the programme, it is difficult to conclude that successive decisions to continue with Verify have been sufficiently justified."

Universal Credit
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Universal Credit

Perhaps one of the most well-known blunders in recent years is the creation and rolling out of Universal Credit – a system that was originally intended to simplify the receiving of various welfare benefits under one umbrella.

In June 2018 the National Audit Office published a damning report titled: 'Rolling out Universal Credit', concluding that "the project is not value for money now, and that it's future value for money is unproven."

Announced in 2010 by former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the system was built in part by the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) major IT suppliers Accenture, IBM, HP and BT.

DWP soon changed track when the technology didn't prove itself out, instead developing an in-house solution known as the ‘full service’. The DWP decided to keep running the initial system though, mainly as a learning exercise, until its planned retirement by July next year, costing £837 million in taxpayer money.

The government maintains that Universal Credit will eventually bring a £34 billion return over 10 years.

Home Office\'s DBS modernisation project branded \'a masterclass in incompetency\'
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Home Office's DBS modernisation project branded 'a masterclass in incompetency'

The IT modernisation of the Disclosure and Barring Service has been branded "a masterclass in incompetency" after it overran by four years and is expected to be over budget by £229 million.

The report from the Public Accounts Committee, which was published in May 2018, gave a damning verdict of the modernisation project, which has been undertaken with IT contractor TCS, branding it "another example of a Home Office project marred by poor planning and contracting, delays, spiralling costs, and a failure to understand what service users want."

In its summary of findings the report delivered its verdict on the project, stating: "The modernisation programme is over four years late and costs are expected to be £229 million more than initially planned, while the new update service has seen a fraction of the demand expected by the Home Office in 2012. DBS re-evaluated the programme in 2014 but has not done enough to turn the programme around."

Read more: Home Office's DBS modernisation project branded 'a masterclass in incompetency'

This is the second Home Office IT project of the past couple of years to make this list, which also includes the heavily delayed Emergency Services Network project.

Emergency Services Network progress deemed ‘deeply unsatisfactory’
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Emergency Services Network progress deemed ‘deeply unsatisfactory’

A project to modernise the networking infrastructure for the UK's emergency services continues to overrun and is projected to be over budget by as much as £3.1 billion.

The Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) includes plans for an enhanced 4G network to replace national radio infrastructure, new mobile devices, and an integration and support services wrap.

A highly critical report in May 2019 by the National Audit Office concluded that the new system is unlikely to be in place before 2022 and laid the blame on Home Office management.

Ministry of Justice tagging system branded a \'catastrophic waste of public money\'
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Ministry of Justice tagging system branded a "catastrophic waste of public money"

The Ministry of Justice's system of monitoring criminals with electronic tags was blasted as a "catastrophic waste of public money" by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in January 2018.

Eventually rolled out in February 2019, the scheme overran by five years, at a cost of £60 million to the taxpayer.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, deputy chair of the Committee said: "The Ministry of Justice took an all-singing, all-dancing approach to what could have been a relatively simple procurement exercise."

E-borders

E-borders

The e-borders programme was intended to allow the government to track non-EU nationals arriving in the UK and was initiated by Labour in 2003. It took until the London 2012 Olympic games before it was even partially ready, when a Home Affairs Select Committee branded the project a 'huge disappointment'.

The UK Border Agency sacked the e-borders supplier, Raytheon, in 2010, resulting in an arbitration process. Raytheon had been paid £188 million out of its £742 million contract when it was kicked off the project, and was later awarded £224 million in compensation for the handling of the termination.

In 2014, director general of the Border Force Charles Montgomery announced that the project had been terminated entirely, though some of its features were to be rolled into the Border System Programme.

A National Audit Office report later scrutinised the Home Office for its handling of the scheme, claiming £830 million had been spent between April 2006 and March 2015, and that the new form of the programme would not be finished until 2019.

Atos, the DWP, and the Work Capability Assessment
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Atos, the DWP, and the Work Capability Assessment

IT supplier Atos was contracted by the Department for Work and Pensions for the Work Capability Assessment programme, to assess whether welfare claimants were 'fit for work'. The idea was to use medical assessment software to check whether existing claimants were capable to work - and therefore not entitled to payments.

The ‘logic integrated medical assessment’ (LiMA) software was criticised for being used as a replacement for actual medical professionals, and was operated by Atos’ own occupational health staff.

An investigation by the Public Accounts Committee laid much of the blame at the feet of DWP itself however.

Margaret Hodge, who chaired the committee at the time, said: "This poor decision-making is damaging public confidence and generating a lot of criticism of the department's contractor for medical assessments, Atos Healthcare – but most of the problems lie firmly within the DWP.

"The department is too often just accepting what Atos tells it. It seems reluctant to challenge the contractor," she said.

In 2014, Atos began to arrange an exit from the scheme, and by early 2015 it was complete - according to DWP sources it paid a "substantial" settlement to do so. US firm Maximus then took over the contract.

Care.data lurches on and on and then is scrapped
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Care.data lurches on and on and then is scrapped

Care.data was an initiative designed to pull patient data from doctors' surgeries into a database, and then sell on this data to private companies and universities.

It was beset by criticism from the beginning. Privacy campaigners claimed most patients were not aware of what was happening with their data, let alone for profit. Others said it was simply an outright risk to people's personal privacy - with highly sensitive data being stored on the system, although in a pseudo-anonymous form.

After years of delays and controversy care.data was finally brought to a close in July 2016. But one month later, and the Department for Health confirmed it was working on a new project that would rake confidential patient information.

Farmers told: go back to pen and paper with CAP payment scheme
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Farmers told: go back to pen and paper with CAP payment scheme

Farmers were told not to bother with the Common Agricultural Policy payment system in March 2015. The programme was set to be delivered in conjunction with the Government Digital Service, but integration problems between a web portal and the system's software caused the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to tell users to go back to pen and paper.

It was supposed to let farmers assess, apply and track their funding applications under the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as allowing them to manage land through online mapping.

In 2013, the National Audit Office warned that the project was at risk of failure, because of its reliance on outsourcing to multiple IT providers at once. And a public beta in 2014 shut farmers out of acessing the system because they couldn't certify their identity using another government IT project, GOV.UK Verify.

Ministry of Justice loses £56 million on cancelled ERP project
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Ministry of Justice loses £56 million on cancelled ERP project

Back in 2011, the Ministry of Justice brought in Steria for a £20 million Enterprise Resource Planning system – a shared service programme that would include HR, finance, procurement, transactions and payroll. It was due to go live in 2013, but didn't.

About £100 million had been spent on the programme and in the MoJ's 2013/14 accounts, it admitted that by deciding to move to the outsourced Shared Services Connected Limited (SSCL), half of that sum would be written off.

The project was abandoned totally in favour of outsourcing to SSCL - a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and Steria, the company awarded a heap of cash by the MoJ in the first place.

National Programme for IT
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National Programme for IT

In 2002, NHS England announced the launch of the NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT), an ambitious project to transform the way that the NHS used data. However, a string of contract blunders and delays saw the initiative swell to costing as much as £9.8 billion, prompting MPs on the Public Accounts Committee to call it one of the "worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector".

In September 2011, almost a decade since it was announced, the government said that the programme would be dismantled.

From the very beginning, it was found the NPfIT struggled with juggling its contracts - the government had to renegotiate with CSC across 220 trusts after a string of delays and other problems. After 10 years, not a single trust had a functioning care records system, the PAC claimed.

And terminating contracts also incurred hefty legal fees, as companies like Fujitsu sought compensation.

"The taxpayer is continuing to pay the price for the ill-fated National Programme for IT in the NHS," said Richard Bacon, member of the Committee, at the time. "Although officially 'dismantled', the National Programme continues in the form of separate component programmes which are still racking up big costs."

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