Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. When did you take over the scheme?
  (Mr Crade) The application was originally developed for Northumbria probation service and was used by them and one or two other probation services in what was called the PACIT group. It was deemed to be the best fit to the probation services round the country, their business needs and we were told it was an 85 per cent fit. Some further development was done to turn that application, which was called NPIMS, into the product called CRAMS, which we then took over. That was shortly after signing the contract, some time in 1995. We then were asked to build that onto the IT infrastructure.

  141. May I refer you to page 22, paragraph 2.31 which says that in May 1997 the Home Office issued you "with a formal warning that unless the acceptability of CRAMS in the service environment improved markedly, the whole programme and hence Bull's contract could be called into question". Do you think that was justified as you did not originally start the system?
  (Mr Crade) We did have a bit of an issue with it because we had not had specifications for the changes which were required. However, in order to keep the relationship going strongly, we did do some developments to improve the user interface at our own cost to try to improve the service.

  142. When you took it over you did not have a clue what the expectations of the client were because you had no specification.
  (Mr Crade) What transpired was that when we went to the pilot sites users were complaining about the user interface. This user interface had been acceptable in Northumbria but other probation services were not happy with it. Therefore the requirement was to change that user interface but we did not actually have a specification for what they wanted us to change it to. We did do some developments at our own cost in order to improve the user interface from our understanding of what the users wanted.

  143. I am probably reading this all wrong but my understanding is that the Home Office were asking you to make the system work.
  (Mr Crade) Yes.

  144. You are saying that making it work was not in the specification and making it work would cost extra. Those are the sorts of words the guys on the chimneys use.
  (Mr Crade) If you are told to fix some issues then you need to know what to change it to. Therefore we were seeking agreement on exactly what was required to make the system acceptable.

  145. But you are the experts. You are the ones who sell very expensively your service to put in systems which work, which are right.
  (Mr Crade) The system worked. That the system was not acceptable to users was the difference.

  146. With regard to the complacency of Mr Gieve, which somebody else mentioned, one answer you did give—and you can read the minutes of the meeting—was that you decided not to go ahead with a further contract. However, the real reason was that you were stopped due to legal advice. You needed the legal advice because you were going to go ahead with the contract, were you not, even though it was outside the rules of procurement?
  (Mr Gieve) I do not remember the answer you are referring to. Yes, we got legal advice which said it was probably outside the EU procurement rules and then we decided not to do anything other than some tidying up business.

  147. The words "we decided" are what I find strange.
  (Mr Gieve) We were forced into it.

  148. When I am told I cannot do that, I do not decide, I have been told I cannot do it. There is no decision for me to make. To pretend you decided anything is trying to glorify the position you were in at the time.
  (Mr Gieve) There is no glory in it, in that it actually postponed some developments we wanted.

  149. I believe it explains quite a lot about the running of the department. It is all encapsulated in the essence of that statement you made and the answer. May I turn to the personnel for the Probation Service. I love the term you used about "fiefdoms"; these fiefdoms running their own paper-based systems which were apparently out of date, working but not as well as you wanted. When they were buying into the system how much pressure was put on to these individual fiefdoms to buy in?
  (Ms Wallis) Before 1 April a good deal of pressure was put on but it was about trying to persuade, to cajole and to persuade them of the business benefits. We are now in a very different situation. On 1 April of this year a National Probation Service was created with very new governance arrangements. We are now in a position to run it, to run our IT, to run our new programmes, our new projects, as a national integrated system so that we all move in the same direction. We do now have that governance and we do now have that management grip. In response to your use of the word complacency, basically we have been very assertively running the recovery programme since last year. Our colleagues in the NAO would say that we were not defensive throughout that inquiry, that we participated very willingly and that we really wanted to learn. All of the recommendations in that report have actually been taken on board and have been put in place during this recovery period.
  (Mr Gieve) As evidence of that we are now talking about an IT department in the national operations directorate of about 50 people. We are recruiting ten for senior posts at the moment. In the 1990s we sometimes had as few as five or six people working on the contract. When we say that we are taking the lessons seriously, it is not just a form of words, we are investing very heavily in the capability.

  150. I am glad you are continuing to invest because that was my next question. When Mr Rendel asked what the costs and benefits of this scheme had been to the Probation Service, I was amazed you did not have any figures, you had not worked out what you felt were the benefits for the Probation Service. How much did it actually cost them to buy in? Have you reimbursed them?
  (Ms Wallis) Let me be very clear about the combination costs. The Bull infrastructure was wholly funded by the Home Office. What the local areas were raising purchase orders on was to do with support and management, technical fixes and so forth. They were also paying for the training and the local project costs. That is the basis on which the costs were redistributed between the different areas. When I talked about the change in governance and new arrangements since 1 April, I did not mean that in the sense that the directorate simply sits and imposes this. We have learned the lessons. One of the things the NAO report said was that we were not communicating well enough, that we were not actively involving the services closely enough in the specification of what was needed in the first instance. Now in our programme board on all of our projects we have colleagues from the operational areas sitting in and partnering with us in all of this work.

  151. Have you reimbursed them?
  (Mr Gieve) Reimbursed whom?
  (Ms Wallis) Reimbursed whom?

  152. The people who are buying this system, being trained on this system, the actual cost to the service. Where does that money come from if it does not come out of the service?
  (Ms Wallis) They have had service for what they have paid for, what they have pulled down by way of support and maintenance. There have been responses to that. The training which has gone into the workforce gives clear benefits to the probation boards in having their staff trained.

  153. They all feel very satisfied that they got a good deal.
  (Ms Wallis) They do not all feel that they had a good deal from CRAMS in the past, but in terms of the recovery programme and the new arrangements which have been put in place and certainly the changes which have been made since in terms of the new level of service they are getting from the contract, the upgrades to systems, the total connection of the e-mail across the 43, some new applications which are coming on stream, they are very much involved now both as users, as designers, as co-designers of the programme sometimes, they are part of the user acceptance testing and they report back to us is that they are on the whole pleased with how things are now going.

  154. Did this period reduce the efficiency of the service because you were taking costs out which could have been spent elsewhere?
  (Ms Wallis) No, I do not believe that this did reduce the efficiency of the service. You have to turn to the evidence for that. The Probation Service has come through one of the biggest change programmes ever and we have that without any discontinuity to the delivery of services. Indeed our performance, as we can evidence, has continued to grow. Far from the service being more inefficient, we can demonstrate that it is more effective than it has been before.

  155. Would you put down the fact that a very small number took it up and made it run and made it work to the fact that it was done on the backs of the foot soldiers, the ones who had to make it work?
  (Ms Wallis) It was not done on the backs of the foot soldiers. Every attempt was made to try to do this together. A lot of lessons were learned. The users increasingly in the latter months, over the latter period, particularly during the recovery programme period, have been very much involved with us in identifying the flaws, the shortfalls, what can actually be done to improve it. With CRAMS Version 4.8, which has recently been given out to those areas who want it, something like 450 fixes or changes have been made to that system and the user feedback is now very much more positive than it was when the NAO were doing their field work.

  156. Where do the health and safety issues come in?
  (Ms Wallis) The health and safety issues are very important to us, as indeed to users. You will know from the report that University College London helped us do those health and safety assessments. Since we received those reports we have been working in partnership with the trade unions and we are also using an ergonomic specialist to help us both try to improve CRAMS. More critically, in any new development we are now doing, for example on a new application we have just put out to services, IAPS, to support offender programmes, a health and safety expert and an ergonomic expert work with us throughout to make sure that we do learn from the past and do not repeat those mistakes.

  157. It was down to stress, was it not, stress put on the workforce to run this system? That is what the health and safety aspect was. Yes?
  (Ms Wallis) Some colleagues, as they were learning to use it, found it a difficult and complicated programme.

  158. That is where the foot soldiers come in; they had to carry the load. When you say this is in the past and we can only judge the past and things are better now, they always are. If we had gone back three or four years, things would have been better then and that is why we have to look at your history because that is what we have to judge you by. We can all make promises. We do every four or five years.
  (Ms Wallis) The NAO have made judgements about our history and we have accepted those findings. We have tried to protect those things which work well and build on those. We have tried to learn the lessons from things which did not work well. We have had a 12-month period now since the beginning of that inquiry and a great deal has been delivered during that period. We have worked with the contractor to get the best value from the current contract, because we want to drain every drop from it before 31 December. We have just completed a successful major procurement, so we will have a new contract in place on 1 January. We have delivered to all areas some new functionality. During the last 12 months I should like to suggest that is also added to the record by way of judging whether we have taken this report seriously and put in place the people, the systems, the arrangement which will see that we do better in the future.

  159. May I thank you for that answer because it is on the record now and if we come back in two years' time it will be read word for word.
  (Mr Gieve) Of course it is true that people in our position usually try to make the best of a job and they say things are going to be better. You have to look behind that at what we are actually doing and there are some things in place more widely than the National Probation Service which I hope will lead to better results in future, particularly the OGC's gateway review process which requires major projects right across government, including the Home Office, to go through a rigorous process of external review both while they are in negotiation and then afterwards in implementation. I welcome that hugely, it is tremendously helpful to people running departments as well as to the taxpayer.

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