National Audit Office report says government organisations did not collaborate effectively to support payments under new Common Agricultural System
A breakdown in collaboration on IT systems has undermined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) delivery of the rural payments service under the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
It says the effort suffered from the narrow scope of the original design, and that Defra did not receive the level of support it wanted from the Government Digital Service (GDS).
According to the NAO’s Early review of the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme, problems with the IT systems led the department to revert back to paper based applications for payments in March of this year.
A series of changes to the programme have increased the level of innovation and risk, and there has been a 40% increase in costs from the outline business case to hit a budget of £215 million in September.
The programme is a combined effort between Defra, the GDS, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and other bodies, and is aimed is aimed at developing new systems and processes as part of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)in England. It was set up in 2012 to deal with earlier failings and adapt to increased complexity in the policy.
But according to the NAO the original vision and design was too narrow, focused largely on IT procurement and without the wider organisational changes that was required.
It says the programme has been set back by numerous leadership changes, with four senior responsible owners in the course of a year, “counter-productive behaviours” and rifts in the working relationships.
The programme was also affected by spending controls applied by the Cabinet Office in 2013 that introduced innovation but raised the level of risk. GDS aimed to reduce costs, improve the confidence in delivery and build Defra’s digital capability, but the department believed that it did not receive sufficient support to adapt to the changes.
Problems also arose from Defra expecting GOV.UK Verify, the government’s identity assurance system, to be available for use by customers from October 2014. Although the Verify team warned the department that it would have to provide an alternative for that date, none was put in place and the majority of customers had to use the RPA’s existing processes.
All this ultimately led to the reversion to paper-based digital applications for this year’s scheme. The report says this makes it likely that most farmers will receive their CAP payments this month, but that the focus on resolving immediate issues has diverted attention from the long term goals.
This is hampering efforts to improve the service to farmers, minimise penalties imposed by the European Commission, and provide other benefits such as addressing land data issues.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The department, the Rural Payments Agency and GDS have not worked together effectively to deliver the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme.
“There are serious lessons in this episode for all three. This means that costs have increased and systems functionality has not improved at the rate expected, either in the back office or the user-facing front end. This does not represent value for money at this stage.
“One consequence of this is that the department faces difficulties paying farmers accurately and at the earliest opportunity. While the department is now making progress towards its target of paying basic payment scheme claims for the majority of farmers in December, significant challenges remain for the programme.”
Image by Keith Edkins, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons