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NAO sees progress with rural payments IT system



Update from Whitehall auditor says that, following earlier disruption, 80% of farmers have now used online system to apply for CAP payments

Most farmers are now filing for their Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments online, but only after the functionality of the IT system for the process was cut back from the initial plans, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.

Central government’s auditor has published a progress report on the programme, run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Rural Payments Agency (RPA), highlighting the fact that some 80% of farmers (about 70,000) have used the online application process while the remainder have continued to use paper.

This follows a series of problems that led to an abandonment of the initial plan for online applications to begin in March 2015 – blamed on problems in the underlying system – followed by a highly critical report by the NAO in December of last year.

The update report says the RPA made the first payments processed through the new IT system in December, and that the trend for its increasing use will reduce the amount of data processing required by the organisation.

It points to four key developments: farmers can now input their data online; land and entitlement transfers can be submitted through the system; applicants are able to view key detail of their application from the year before; and they are able to view their maps online.

Payment problems

But it also highlights continued problems: 6,900 farmers received at least €1,000 less than they were entitled to in their initial payment; and the RPA missed its March 2016 target for the proportion of claims paid by 8%.

In addition, the introduction of functions such as taking applications for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and processing inspection findings has been delayed. Work on some of these is now ongoing.

The update also points out the Government Digital Service (GDS), which it criticised in the early report, has not been significantly involved the work since. The RPA said this has made it possible to change the implementation approach, with a more traditional deployment and release cycle rather the “continuous approach advocated by GDS”.

While the NAO refrains from commenting on the pros and cons, this suggests the RPA was not comfortable with the agile approach to project implementation championed by GDS.

A series of changes to the programme from its original plan increased the amount of development needed and raised the level of risk, raising costs from 40% from the outline business case to hit £215 million in September of last year.

In May, farmers told Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that they feared further disruptions, but the NAO report suggests that most of these have been prevented.

Image by Keith Edkins, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


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