As ambitious scheme continues to see delays, department accepts that it ought to be more willing to buy off-the-shelf technology
Churn in the senior leadership team of an “overly ambitious and overly complicated” Ministry of Justice tagging scheme for offenders contributed to the project’s “catastrophic” waste of public money, a damning report by MPs has said.
In a report looking at the Ministry of Justice’s procurement of offender monitoring tags, the Public Accounts Committee said that the 2011 scheme to develop a new world-leading ankle tag, incorporating GPS technology, would not be in place until 2019, more than five years late.
The committee said the scheme was intended to reduce the cost of tagging and provide wider operational benefits and more sentencing options for courts, but the scheme went ahead without clear evidence that it was deliverable and delivery had been “fundamentally flawed”.
The MoJ’s high-risk approach to procure a new kind of electronic tag, and its poor management of both the programme and potential suppliers, exacerbated underlying problems with the plan. Over £60m has been spent on the scheme so far, but tagging technology that was commercially available when the programme first started remains in use.
The committee’s deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said that the MoJ “took an all-singing, all-dancing approach to what could have been a relatively simple procurement exercise”.
This “ill-fated adventure in the possibilities of technology” had so far cost £60m, but the delays mean that the system will rely on the same form of technology that was available when the programme was launched.
“The evidence to support a wholesale transformation of the tagging system was weak at best but the ministry pushed ahead anyway,” he said.
“The ministry accepts it got this badly wrong but admitting its failures does not excuse an approach that disregarded fundamental principles we would expect to see applied in the spending of public money. It must act on lessons learned from this programme. We urge it to demonstrate a commitment to doing so by publishing details of the steps it is taking to avoid such wasteful mistakes in future.”
Among the flaws identified in the scheme was a lack of continuous civil service leadership, having been led by five senior responsible owners in its six-year life. The department has recognised that the oversight of the programme and previous tagging contracts – it was during the procurement period that the MoJ discovered it had been overbilled by existing suppliers Serco and G4S for electronic monitoring services – had been too light. It said action had been taken to strengthen both its commercial and project delivery functions.
However, MPs highlighted that the department’s permanent secretary Richard Heaton told the committee he had been “startled and stunned” by the over-optimism of the original project. Not enough research was done before the programme was approved and the programme received limited external challenge because at the time it was seen as just a simple re-procurement of an existing service, according to the report. It said the requirements for the programme were far too ambitious, including the development of a bespoke tag, and a timetable for delivery that was unachievable.
The ministry has now accepted that it should be more ready to use off-the-shelf products where these are already available and appropriate, rather than reinventing the wheel and seeking to develop ground-breaking, untested technology. MPs called on the department to ensure it has a full understanding of the complexity and deliverability of future programmes and that estimates are tested for optimism bias and subject to proper levels of external challenge.
The department has “paid dearly to learn lessons which should have been common sense”, according to the report. The fundamental over-ambition of the programme should have been self-evident, the committee said, adding that it was “not assured that this situation could not happen again”. There are currently 16 major MoJ projects in addition to electronic monitoring, almost all of which are rated as amber or less under the Infrastructure and Projects Authority traffic lights warning scale in terms of confidence in delivery.
Responding to the report, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the programme was “now in a strong position to continue improving confidence in the service and providing better value for money”.
“Electronic monitoring is a valuable tool in supervising offenders and protecting the public, but we have been clear there were a number of challenges to our expansion of the electronic monitoring programme. As a direct result, we fundamentally changed our approach in 2015, expanding and strengthening our commercial teams and bringing responsibility for oversight of the programme in-house,” the spokesperson added.