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Tech 100: ‘The last thing anyone working on social security wants to do is to become the next CAP Futures’

Tech 100: ‘The last thing anyone working on social security wants to do is to become the next CAP Futures’

“Anyone you speak to in social security says that the last thing they want to do is to become the next CAP Futures programme, so there is a real sense that lessons are being learned and embedded in that.”

Sarah Davidson’s admission is perhaps unsurprising, although the Scottish Government director general for communities’ candidness only serves to underline a realisation that the fiasco surrounding payment of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies cannot be repeated.

That project, which earlier this year Audit Scotland declared it does not expect to deliver value for money, has been beset with difficulties from day one.

Lengthy delays, missed payment targets and rising costs – IT delivery costs rocketed by £79m since the original business case – culminated in persistent attention being paid in parliament as well as the press to the IT system set up to process claims.   

The CAP Futures programme did not sit within Davidson’s brief, though the senior civil servant has had to become increasingly familiar with its flaws ahead of taking on what she considers the “most ambitious” piece of work within government: building a system able to pay benefits following the devolution of social security powers to Holyrood.  

“We are really clear that when you’re paying social security benefits to people, putting money in the pockets of people who really need it, you just cannot afford to get that wrong,” says Davidson, who has accountable officer responsibility for the project and will chair the first formal programme board meeting in January.

“Both ministers and we are of one view that building the technical support around this has to be got right.”

Government officials across digital and social security teams have been going through the “discovery phase” to figure out the capabilities required to run the system – which is working towards a go-live date of 2020 – while a chief digital officer is likely to be appointed before the year is out.

“I am significantly reassured by the extent of close working between the digital, technical and policy teams [and] the fact that ministers have been really clear with us that their number one priority is a safe and secure transition so we don’t have the sense that they’re going to be pushing us too fast until we’re ready,” she adds.

Delivering such a system brings with it pressure, albeit Davidson acknowledges it is all the more intense following CAP Futures. “I feel very, very strongly that if we get this right,” starts Davidson before quickly correcting herself, “when we get this right, that when we deliver a system that has not only in terms of governance and delivery met the tests for good delivery of a major programme that we would want it to but which also then delivers the outcome – the social security benefits at the end of it [that] it is meant to – that that will be the single biggest thing that we could do to restore or to build government’s reputation for being able to do these things well.

“And the converse, of course, is that if we can’t do that and don’t do that then it feels like a pretty big nail in the coffin of our reputation for doing those things. So yes, inevitably there is an added sense of responsibility that comes with that.

“But, to be honest, that’s partly because it is the biggest and most ambitious [project]. To be honest, I think if you were to ask any of my colleagues who are accountable officers or SROs [senior responsible owners] for programmes at the moment, they would feel a share of that responsibility. It’s not a comfortable place to be.”

Government, of course, are not the only ones who have not achieved unqualified success in delivering big IT projects of late.

In February NHS Scotland chief executive Paul Gray went before Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee to label NHS 24 a “dysfunctional organisation” after costly contractual flaws with its new call handling and IT system were not escalated for almost two years.

The system, which Audit Scotland found to be more than £40m over budget, will not be fully rolled out across Scotland until the end of 2017, four years later than was originally intended.    

A day after Gray’s piercing remarks in parliament, Police Scotland ICT director Martin Leven went before another committee to claim that their supplier on the i6 programme – billed as a replacement for more than 100 legacy force systems – had “very clearly let us down”. Five months later the project was scrapped altogether.

“I wouldn’t begin to pretend that government’s reputation for doing those things is where I would want it to be,” says Davidson. “To an extent – and this isn’t an excuse, it is just reality – we suffer a bit from the lag between learning lessons, putting things in place and then seeing them flowing through into new programmes and projects.

“I certainly feel in a much more confident place now given the work we’ve done looking at all of those and saying, ‘What is it that could have been done at the start of those, which, had it been done, might have given a different outcome?’.”

Retrospective work by Davidson and her colleagues, looking at NHS 24 and CAP Futures, found decisions were taken to proceed at certain stages when pausing and reassessing plans would have made more sense.

With ministers’ agreement, assurances processes are now in place that she says will lead to “harder stops” at each stage of projects to make sure the correct planning has been done and resources in place. A more hands-on approach by government in its dealings with other public sector bodies will be adopted from here on in, she signals.

“We are absolutely being far more, probably interventionist is the right word to use,” says Davidson. “Interventionist hopefully in a supportive way but nonetheless recognising that we collectively own the government’s reputation here.

“The new assurance procedures, the enforcement of the digital standards and the resources we’re putting behind that in the office of the chief information officer is designed to do exactly what you describe: to be sitting down at the outset with people and actually saying, ‘See this (Davidson picks up a piece of paper and starts waving it), that’s not good enough, you haven’t got what you need, so we are not going to let you go forward' without a minister actually saying, ‘I’m going to overrule that’.

"And I find it very hard in the current circumstances to imagine a minister who would overrule advice that said, ‘This programme is not ready to go’.

“Now, the way we’re structuring that is not that the team come in at the eleventh hour, look at the paperwork and say, ‘No that’s not good enough’.

"What we’re doing through the digital transformation service [established last year] and the OCIO [Office of the Chief Information Officer] is actually getting alongside people from the very inception of their programme and helping them do the work right so that when that point comes, when they come in to scrutinise it, the aspiration is that they see something that’s exactly what is required because they have actually been instrumental in getting it there.

“But we’ve tightened up that safety net so that, let’s just say there is a situation where a body is not willing to engage and doesn’t work with the team and doesn’t produce the goods, then there will be a stop-go gate, to use the jargon, where if it’s not there then the alarm bell gets pressed.”

Part II: On Wednesday we’ll bring you the second part in our interview with Sarah Davidson as she discusses competing with the private sector for skills plus women in tech 

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