Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. So from 1 April you will be accountable not just for the establishment of CAPPA but for the ongoing operations of IB and the RSCs across the country?
  (Mr McNeill) That is correct.

Mr Jack

  21. How often are you personally going to report to ministers, either in writing or at face-to-face interview, about your progress in establishing CAPPA?
  (Mr McNeill) I had a meeting with the Minister only last week, and he indicated that he wants to be kept closely informed of progress. The Permanent Secretary has made it very clear that he wants to be made aware of any difficulty in the project as quickly as possible. There will, of course, be formal mechanisms. There will be an Ownership Board, which will probably meet on a bi-monthly basis, involving various stakeholders, which, of course, is the Minister's advisory board, so the Minister will be made aware of any concerns. In addition, it is proposed there will be another steering group made up of internal and external expertise, which will scrutinise the change process, apart from the day-to-day running progress of CAPPA, and will report also to the Permanent Secretary, who will probably chair it and report to ministers on progress.

  22. You said in your introductory remarks that you had looked at the IT projects within government, or some of them at least, that had failed. One of the projects that is parallel to what you are doing, which is developing a new way of doing business whilst an existing one continues, was the introduction of self-assessment in the Inland Revenue, a £250 million project involving both Revenue officials and an outside IT provider, EDS. Have you looked at that project?
  (Mr McNeill) No, I have not, but I certainly will do.

  23. Given the very comprehensive risk management strategy that was developed there—because obviously no government wants to have an interruption in the flows of its basic raw material money—do you think there is merit in looking at this?
  (Mr McNeill) I certainly intend to. It is my intention, once my management team becomes established, to look at these particular cases with experts, to draw parallels with the work we are doing and identify the lessons to be learned.

  24. Would I be right in saying the fact that I posed that to you and you very generously say, "Yes, I will look at it," it may be the first time that somebody has suggested you do that? Is your adviser, whether it be the person who fulfils this Director of IS or somebody else, going to present a comprehensive picture of success and/or failure in terms of government IT projects? I sense you are aware of difficulty, but equally, I wanted to be reassured that you were aware of success.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes, our intention is to look at the good and the bad in terms of the delivery of new systems as a management tool and to learn from that.

  25. As one of your milestones, which we will come on to talk about shortly, have you established a point in time when that assessment process will be completed and you will therefore be able to look across the board at the projects that you want to?
  (Mr McNeill) We have already on the team an experienced and highly qualified risk manager, who is very au fait with the various failures that you have mentioned and the difficulties that have arisen, and we are very focused on ensuring that a risk management plan is maintained within the organisation. But we certainly, as a management team, when my management team is established with permanent people, will be spending time looking at good practice, bad practice, lessons to be learned. For example, this is one of the documents which we have in circulation now for discussion, looking at some of the software failures. In addition, I am aware there has been a PAC report, which we have copies of, and we will be going through that as well.

Mr Mitchell

  26. Just going back on some of the ground you have covered, I am mystified as to how independent you are going to be and how constrained. You are a government agency, and this marvellous advert says, "...building a new organisation with a new culture and an uncompromising focus on quality customer care. We need people who will deliver, because failure is not an option." That is marvellous stuff! Your qualifications as specified in the advert were really entrepreneurial, were they not, yet you report to the Minister and you are a government agency? How independent are you going to be in building up your own organisation and dedicating it to its purpose?
  (Mr McNeill) Of course, you will be aware that, as a next-steps agency, our relationship with the Department and the Minister is clearly defined in the framework document which is approaching completion. It has been the subject of discussions with, obviously, the Minister, and with officials in MAFF. I have reviewed it with some colleagues, and the trade unions have been involved. There are a number of people looking at the framework document, which really defines what that relationship will be. Within that there are some constraints. For example, I cannot take decisions on senior civil servants' appointments to CAPPA, because those are in the gift of the Permanent Secretary. If CAPPA were to make changes which resulted in senior civil servants being out of a job, they would have to return to the core department, which would have to seek to employ them and to accommodate them. I do not find that unreasonable, and in developing the structure to date I have to say everyone has been quite positive and helpful. I have not identified anyone who is anything but enthusiastic to ensure that we do everything possible to ensure that this project operates successfully and is completed successfully. After all, this is a flagship project for MAFF, and they are very aware that it is essential that it is delivered; otherwise there will be, as you say, serious problems. Even though there are safety checks and balances in there in terms of parallel running when new systems start to come on line, etc, everyone is aware that if we spend this amount of money and do not deliver this project successfully, we are obviously going to have very serious difficulties.

  27. "Failure is not an option"! But you are happy personally that you have the authority and independence to carry out this executive role, which is really running a business rather than a government agency.
  (Mr McNeill) One of the important areas that I am content we have control over is the ring-fenced fund, the funding to actually bring about change. As the accounting officer for the agency, we have control over what that is spent on, so that it is not frittered away on other things. It will be spent on developing new CAPPA. We have control over the staff and the structure in developing what we need in terms of CAPPA. We have control over which consultants we employ. One of the key decisions in all of this, I am sure you would agree, is the selection of the IT partner for this project, and of course, we will involve both the Cabinet Office, e-Envoy and others in that decision-making process to take a view, and indeed external expertise, so that we have the very best appointment, but again, I think that decision will rest largely with the CAPPA management team and what their view is as well. We will have a significant influence on that as well. I am not aware that there is any bar. We have pay delegation, so we can look, apart from looking at systems, at how we are going to move from the classical civil service, nine-to-five-type working arrangements to a 24-7 type of arrangement, where farmers might be very keen to talk after working hours. Why should a farmer tie up his working day talking to people about his application form? Why not have people available, either through Internet or through call centres, or indeed some sort of front desk service, available outside working hours for farmers? We would like to look at things like that. Those are all issues that we have to look at, and we have flexibility to do so.

  28. So you are happy?
  (Mr McNeill) To date, I have no complaints, and as I said, Brian Bender has made it particularly clear that if we hit any bureaucracy or any nonsense, I would go straight to him and sort it out.

  29. To follow up Mr Todd's question about the IT systems and the cock-ups there have been in government, how much freedom do you have to decide what systems are relevant to your purpose and to purchase those?
  (Mr McNeill) As I say, this is the key decision, and it is my intention to get the very best advice we can get, be it within or outwith government. If we get that decision wrong, the whole project could fail. That is a serious worry. On the systems specification, the first systems specification is on target for completion at the end of this financial year, end of March, for putting out to tender on 1 April, and given that lead time, of course, we need to move quickly. So we will be involving as many people as possible to give us advice as to who the best contractor is for that work, and in addition, it is my view that we need to make sure that it is intensely managed. We need to make sure that we do not leave this to lower-level management in the organisation, but have senior people. The proposal is we have someone in a significant position in another IT company on the supervisory board, looking at this development, making sure they are content with the way it is going. It is by initiatives such as this that I would hope we would be able to manage it. But at the end of the day, that decision will be taken within various criteria. We are a public body, we will have to consider what is best value, we will have to consider which company provides most assurance as to delivery, which company has the best track record of actually delivering, and talking to their customers, and indeed, not only delivering but supporting the system afterwards. There is a raft of issues that will have to be considered and decided on.

  30. We could give you a list of names of those with a not very good track record. Moving on to the milestones, the business case identifies five key milestones. The funding for milestone 1 was approved in SR2000. Are you on target to launch CAPPA on 1 April this year, which is milestone 2?
  (Mr McNeill) As I have explained, for a number of reasons, legal reasons and consideration of financial reporting reasons, we will not formally launch CAPPA as a next-steps agency on 1 April. We will move to single management; in other words, we will move to the CAPPA management team taking over responsibility from the Chief Executive and management team of IBEA and from Mrs Jane Brown, as head of the MAFF Regional Services Group, and the management team there. That will happen on 1 April. The proposal is then that we move to a formal launch of CAPPA on 16 October. That is actually the end of the accounting year, which, for a number of reasons, legal and other reasons which we have discussed at length over the last few weeks, is, I am advised, the best date, and avoids a number of difficulties in terms of the Commission and others.

  31. Have you identified the offices that are going to be closed as yet?
  (Mr McNeill) We have a Business Continuity Director, who is actually here today, Mr Peter Watson, who is a former senior manager in the Regional Services Group at Northallerton. I think the Committee went there. We also have a Business Continuity Board, whose role is to oversee any proposals to make changes in operations and to ensure that those proposals will work satisfactorily. That Board has members such as the National Audit Office and others, who have expertise in this area. I was at a meeting of that Board last week, and it is very clear that Peter is developing proposals as to what offices may have to have work taken from them and which offices it might have to be placed with, and those proposals are being considered by that Board to make sure that they are content.

  Chairman: The answer to the question is no.

Mr Mitchell

  32. You have not identified them?
  (Mr McNeill) It is not quite that simple. It is not a static picture.

  33. It is either yes or no.
  (Mr McNeill) We have identified them, yes, but there are some decisions yet to be taken, because it is not a static picture. We have at the same time as establishing CAPPA, as you will be aware, the setting up of RDS and the setting up of government offices. That is creating a scenario which has to be carefully considered. For example, there are a number of senior managers in those offices currently involved on Regional Service Centre work, on IACS work, etc, who have now been appointed to posts in Government Office, who have been appointed to posts in RDS, and that influences the thinking as to how secure and safe it is to leave certain levels of work in those offices. There are issues such as whether there are people we can put in post in those places. There are accommodation issues, where obviously RDS is trying to brigade its staff into certain offices, and the State Veterinary Service is making certain moves in Worcester to set up a scrapie unit. There are a number of influences which are now coming to the fore.

  34. These are influences in the light of which your decision will have to be considered.
  (Mr McNeill) Exactly, yes. So in the meantime, I cannot sit here now and say to you, "Our plan is to do this, this, and this." We have now been made fully aware of a number of issues which will have to be considered in deciding how work is moved, and indeed, which may influence which offices close where. I am trying to indicate that it is a dynamic situation. It is not, "Look at the business plan. It said shut this office." We may well still follow the proposals in the business plan, but there are a number of other influences which are coming to the fore, and until that thinking is finalised, I cannot say to you, "Yes, we know which offices are shutting when."

  35. In other words, you are living in the world of politics rather than business efficiency?
  (Mr McNeill) No. I am in the world of management. These are management issues. You are aware as a Committee that MAFF is splitting up into a Regional Development Service, Government Offices are being set up and CAPPA is being set up. We have to live in the real world. People cannot run the RDS or CAPPA if they are spread in small numbers round different offices. They want to re-brigade them. Unless we add extensions to buildings or whatever, we have to say, "It would seem now to make more sense if we move out of this office and move that work." The other thing which we have done which has come to the fore is that we are putting in an IT linkage to the Intervention Board site at Newcastle. There is an empty wing in the Newcastle office of the Intervention Board, which has just been vacated by the Employment Service. We can acquire staff in that area, whereas we have difficulty in other areas. That is a new angle to the continuity plan which we are considering, how best we can use that resource which already exists within CAPPA.

  36. Do you expect the whole programme will stick to the timetable that is outlined in the business case?
  (Mr McNeill) No. Anyone who has ever put any of these systems developments in place will expect that we will have to review that timetable as we progress. I am not suggesting that we will allow slippage, but I think we will have to consider the timetable. We are retaining the services of Nick Harper as the Programme Manager, and a part of that job is to be realistic and not just stay on the railway tracks because that is what we said we would do. If we realise we have difficulties and we need to spend more time at a certain stage to avoid problems further down the line, we may well do that. Having been through other projects, though certainly not on this scale, I think that is a sensible approach. We will certainly challenge any suggestion that we delay, or challenge any reason why we should divert from the present plan. At the same time, I cannot sit here and say to you, "We will certainly deliver this project to the day."

Mr Jack

  37. Can I follow on Mr Mitchell's line of questioning just to clarify a point which is emerging from your response to the first two questions. I think you made an observation about the difficulties of people being involved in this project who also had day jobs to do ferreting away at night and at the weekend trying to do this. Who at this moment in time is solely engaged on this particular project, apart from yourself, obviously?
  (Mr McNeill) There are a number of streams of work being picked up by stream leaders, for example, human resources, IT development, and finance. There are some 10 or 11 streams of work that are being undertaken at this moment in time. In looking to set up early CAPPA and launching the agency in October, I have not deflected people from that work, but a lot of that work is being done by people who have day-to-day experience of running the current business, and so it should be. That is important, but that is obviously putting pressure on them as well.

  38. Just to be clear, the people who are in charge of developing the streams of work that you have identified are doing that and nothing else?
  (Mr McNeill) In some cases, for example, in IT, we have a stream leader, David Davison, who is a consultant, and yes, that is a very important stream. In other areas, for example, the current IBEA Finance Director is heading up the finance stream as an additional responsibility, so he obviously has a day job and is working on this stream.

  39. Would I be right in assuming that once this Director of Finance is appointed, that person will take over the sole job of developing the finance side of the project?
  (Mr McNeill) As I said at an early stage in this discussion, it is my intention to ensure that senior management are appointed with a structure which enables them to delegate as much as possible the day-to-day responsibility of running the business. After all, we are just not here to set up new CAPPA; we have to run a substantial business and make sure we do not incur disallowance, etc. My intention is to make sure that the person who we are really seeking to drive the change has time to do so. They still need to understand the business; they cannot develop new CAPPA in isolation. They must understand what happens day to day.

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