PAC report says transformation provided 'inappropriate' digital front end and increased risk factor
Parliament's Public Accounts Committee has stuck the Government Digital Service (GDS) with a large share of the blame for problems with farmers' payments under the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Its latest report on the delivery of the CAP says that a failure of GDS, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to work together has caused serious delays. Only 38% of farmers received what was due under the Basic Payments Scheme on 1 December 2015, compared with 90% in previous years.
It traces the problem back to the payments becoming one of the digital exemplars of Cabinet Office's Transformation Programme in 2013. This involved the development of a digital front end that was “inappropriate for farmers”, suffered from poor broadband coverage in rural areas, and increased the risks of problems.
The report says that GDS did not provide sufficient support.
There was also a lack of clear priorities between GDS, Defra and the RPA, which caused disruption and delay, made worse with changes of the senior responsible owner.
Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: "This programme was set up to deliver support to UK farmers. Instead, it delivered an appalling Whitehall fiasco. It was frankly embarrassing to learn of senior and highly paid civil servants arguing to the detriment of hard-pressed farmers.
“Explanations such as 'We worked on different floors' and 'We dressed differently' are a slap in the face to them and a dismal excuse for failures that could severely hit the public purse.
“A fundamental part of setting up this Programme should have been to establish a clear and robust vision of the final product, focused on the needs of farmers. For it to end up as a digital testing ground was wrong-headed.
“The enduring mental image is of managers, having seemingly lost sight of the purpose of the project, devoting their energies to a childish turf war instead.”
Among the MPs' recommendations are that the Cabinet Office, through GDS, should assess departments' capabilities to deliver any changes it imposes and ensure that it provides an appropriate level of support.
In response, a Government spokesperson said: "The new CAP is widely acknowledged as the most complex ever and the task of setting up a new IT system to handle this additional complexity was a significant challenge. Throughout this period the collective focus has always remained on getting payments out to farmers as quickly as possible.
"In March 2015 there was a problem with one part of the online interface that enabled farmers to put data directly into Rural Payments, but the core of the system has always worked. Over 87,000 farmers registered on the system and it has been used to process and pay over 70,800 farmers - over 80% of all those eligible - their 2015 Basic Payment Scheme payment, totalling £1.11 billion.
"Almost all farmers in England will be paid by the end of this month and the Rural Payments system has been further improved for 2016 to make it easier for farmers to apply for CAP payments."
Image from Donnylad, Creative Commons through Wikimedia