Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Committee of Public Accounts. We have a new member, Mr Nick Gibb, whom we welcome this afternoon. We are considering the implementation of the National Probation Service Information Systems Strategy (NPSISS). Welcome, Mr Gieve, perhaps you could introduce the other witnesses.
  (Mr Gieve) Eithne Wallis on my left is the National Director of the Probation Service. Richard Crade on my right comes from Integris, Bull Information Systems. On my far left Paul Sleightholme is also from Integris.

  2. Clearly probation officers were having difficulty in understanding this system. Just as a matter of interest, have you yourself tried to work the system?
  (Mr Gieve) I have had it demonstrated for me.

  3. Did you find it difficult to penetrate?
  (Mr Gieve) I had it demonstrated by someone who knew how to do it so it was not particularly difficult to penetrate.

  4. In 1997, when it was obvious that the difficulty the probation officers were having in using the system was becoming a major issue, why did the Home Office not listen more carefully to the concerns of the probation officers? I am thinking particularly of the remarks made in paragraphs 2.29 and 2.30 on page 21. In 1997 doubts were being raised and it seems that the Home Office were not paying sufficient attention to what the probation officers were saying about the difficulty they were having in accessing this system.
  (Mr Gieve) This is the CRAMS system.

  5. Yes; I should have made that clear.
  (Mr Gieve) As you can see here just over the page, the Home Office did issue a warning to Bull that the thing was not working well. At that point, after negotiation, the Home Office felt it was worth pursuing and that it could be made to work better. Indeed it has been working in some probation services; there have been some who have made it work, others have decided not to.

  6. A system which cost £12 million and some probation services are using it and some are not using it at all, because of the difficulty of access.
  (Mr Gieve) That is right.

  7. Surely this matter was not helped by the fact that in the first seven years to 2001 the Home Office's programme management team was led by seven successive programme directors, of whom only two had significant experience of managing major IT projects. That is a point made on page 23 in paragraph 2.39. Why is it not a prerequisite of being a project director that you have to have managed a large IT project already? Seven successive directors seems to be a bit of an exaggeration.
  (Mr Gieve) Clearly it did not help at all, no, having seven in seven years, especially the very rapid turnover after 1997. That is one of the key lessons of this episode. In terms of training for and preparation for people running major projects, I absolutely agree with you that we have to have people who are trained for the job. We cannot always have people who have already done it before but we can always have people who have gone through project management training and hope in their team to include people with experience of other negotiations.

  8. It was not made any better, was it, as paragraph 2.43 on page 24 tells us, that the management team was "badly under-resourced . . . with misaligned skills". What lessons are you taking from this? Why did the Home Office not recognise sooner the need for appropriate resources to manage the implementation of this complex programme?
  (Mr Gieve) The lessons are the obvious ones: that you have to invest in and properly resource not just the initial programme design but the management of the contract. That is what we are trying to do now, not only in the Probation Service but other parts of the Home Office. Why did we not do it earlier? We should have done, is the first answer. Why did we not reach that conclusion? The answer is partly that up until this year we were dealing with a decentralised system in which the local probation services were under the control of 54 independent boards. You will have seen from the report that in 1997 we set up a management board for this project in which the Home Office were observers rather than leaders. The idea was that the Probation Service as a whole should own and manage the programme. Looking back on it, this was a rather optimistic plan. Nonetheless that is possibly why we did not resource up at the centre in order to control the programme better: because the decision had been taken in 1997 to try to decentralise it.

  9. Could one of the problems have been, as we have often seen with the introduction of new IT systems in central government, that you were trying to do two things at once? You were taking central control over the Probation Service from local authorities and you were bringing in a new IT system. Perhaps some probation officers would have seen this as a tool, a centre of control, or something they were suspicious of and you were just trying to do too much.
  (Mr Gieve) At that stage we were not taking control of the Probation Service. That only happened in the 2000 Bill, from April 2001. Nonetheless we were trying to get a degree of commonality and it may well be that that was resisted in some parts of the country. I shall ask Eithne, who was in the Probation Service at that stage, to answer that.
  (Ms Wallis) It was a combination of the governance at that time being scattered through 54 committees, but yes, there was some resistance in the staff group itself. One of the actual benefits of NPSISS is that we do now have a computer literate workforce and that is a very real advantage to us as we try to make the improvements and realise the benefits into the future. It is true that at that time, a lot of the workforce was not IT literate and there was very substantial resistance in some parts of the country to acquiring and developing those skills.

  10. You say that progress had been made. I understand from paragraph 2.15, page 17 that some probation services are having to rely on paper-based systems. We are still back really in the old-fashioned systems because the CRAMS system is so difficult to understand. That is not very satisfactory, is it?
  (Mr Gieve) CRAMS has definitely not delivered as much as we had hoped. This paragraph is particularly about public protection work on potentially dangerous offenders; that is one aspect of that.

  11. I wanted to ask you about that. The whole system is supposed to ensure that if you have a dangerous offender then the probation services around the country know exactly what is going on. If some probation services are having to rely on paper-based systems, they cannot access the new computer system, the public may be put at risk, may they not?
  (Mr Gieve) Obviously we have been worried about that and we have asked the Chief Inspector of Probation specifically about whether the staff or the public had been put at risk by the lack of a proper case management system. He said that they had not. You are absolutely right that one aspect of the CRAMS system was to support work with dangerous ex-offenders, but it was intended to do rather more than that.
  (Ms Wallis) The lack of functionality in CRAMS is more accurately described as an opportunity cost. It is a benefit that the service aspired to, it was a benefit that the service very much had and which was not delivered. That should not be confused with it actually putting us in a business at risk. It did not. The service continued to do its assessment and its work with those offenders without any actual drop in performance. The Chief Inspector of Probation actually acknowledged that point and made it very clear that this system simply did not assist the probation officers to do their job in the way that we had hoped, but that job was actually done. The public were not put at risk.

  12. Let me ask about the legal agreement with Bull. Paragraph 2.52, page 26, says that legal advice received by the Home Office in 1999 suggested that any new orders placed under the enabling agreement with Bull would be unlawful. What developments have the Home Office had to put on hold as a result of this advice? This is a fairly extraordinary situation. You sign a contract, you want to make some changes and now you have to go back, you have to open the field out further than Bull. Is that right?
  (Mr Gieve) The problem here was that we had two layers of enabling framework contracts before we got to particular purchase orders from Bull. The legal advice was that the top level contract did not allow for a second framework contract. We then took the decision not to contract for new substantial services under the contract with Bull. With some minor emergency work we have had to do, we have stuck with that since. As it says, the other intended developments which this delayed, were the extension of the network to the head office in the Home Office, access to the Internet and links with the police computer.

  13. Paragraph 3.15 on page 29 of the report refers to the cost of remedial work required to make the NPSISS network Year 2000 compliant. Why does Bull consider it acceptable to supply a system, which so soon afterwards required major modification at further public expense?
  (Mr Crade) The original contract was awarded in 1994. The awareness of the Y2K problems came to light round about 1996. Later on in 1997 we started talking to the Home Office and probation services about how we might mitigate the risk of Year 2000 and in fact we carried out a study at our own cost to help advise the Home Office on the way forward. What we were doing through that was looking at the various software components which we supplied and trying to get warranties from those software suppliers as to the Year 2000 compliance. On some of those we were not able to get those warranties.

  14. When you supplied this system, did you have any inkling, or did you know, that it might not be compliant for the Year 2000?
  (Mr Crade) No, not initially.

  15. When did you find out?
  (Mr Crade) When year 2000 compliance issues started to come to light and there were concerns about the impact of Year 2000, then we started to look at the systems we were providing and tried to come up with a resolution to the issues which might arise from that.

  16. May I ask Ms Wallis a general question about establishing links with IT networks being developed by other criminal justice systems? When will the National Probation Service be able to share its case information with the IT networks of other criminal justice agencies?
  (Ms Wallis) It is unlikely that we shall be able to have full sharing of information within the new contract, that is likely to be still two and a half to three years away into the phase two, the strategic contract. What we do have is a gradual moving towards that in a variety of ways. For example, one of the new applications currently under development is called OASYS, Offender Assessment System. That is a joint development with the Prison Service, a very critical partner for us. Thirty-six per cent of our work is done in partnership with the Prison Service. Every day we have 200,000 offenders under our supervision and we need to be able to do individual assessments of their risk, their dangerousness, their need. We need to develop not just the professional tools to do it but the IT software to support that, to facilitate and enable our staff. This is a joint development with the prisons. We have worked on it together, we have a single specification, we have the same paper-based system. At the moment we are developing IT systems separately because we cannot actually make our systems converge just yet. We are introducing the IT support separately for the moment. Roughly within the next three years, we hope that we shall be able to converge and that is one example of a way in which we shall be able to move together.

  17. Are you telling us that despite the rather sorry saga of this, £12 million, several probation services not being able to use it, difficulties, that your new strategy is going to deliver on time and will be rather more successful than CRAMS was?
  (Ms Wallis) Yes, I am going to tell you that.

Mr Steinberg

  18. This is a further example of a failed government IT scheme, is it not? I just do not know how you get away with it—not you personally but civil servants. If politicians were squandering money the way the Civil Service does, we would be out on our ears. Yet it goes on and on and on. It is a catalogue of complete comedy and disaster since 1993. I understand that you were responsible for the comprehensive spending review. What is your opinion of the way it has been handled since 1993, bearing in mind that you have been responsible for the Government's spending reviews?
  (Mr Gieve) Two things. There were many failures in this story certainly, but the project was not a total failure in the sense that it did introduce linked IT systems, hardware and e-mail through most of the Probation Service, which is described as a considerable achievement by the National Audit Office. That is just one point. In terms of the lessons learned from it: a number of lessons are common to this and other IT projects of the last ten years, particularly the need for clarity of ownership, clarity of objective in terms of outcomes. Secondly, continuous review both before the project is let but also through the implementation of the project. Thirdly, the development and sustaining of skills and investing in skills in the departments. There is no doubt in this case, as in others, we under-invested in contract management.

  19. The plan was to put a high IT scheme into the Probation Service between 1995 and 1999, was it not? Then a common record and management system was to be put in. Out of 54, 49 actually put the infrastructure in, but only 16 have used the system substantially. One hundred and eighteen million pounds have been spent and seven years on only 16 are using it. It is 70 per cent above the estimated cost to the taxpayer and it is not being used. Tell us why it is not being used?
  (Mr Gieve) The computer system, NPSISS, is being used in 49 of the 54, or, now they have been reorganised in districts, by the majority of the districts very actively. What is only being used by 16 is CRAMS, the case management system.

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