‘I don’t accept that ESN failed’ – civil service head

Written by Beckie Smith on 4 April 2019 in News

Former Home Office perm sec denies that two of department’s major technology projects were failures

Credit: PA

Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has denied that two major Home Office projects he was responsible for when he led the department were failures, despite multi-year delays and cost overruns of close to £1.5bn.

Sedwill, who was permanent secretary at the Home Office from 2013 to 2017, faced a barrage of questions from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee this week on the Emergency Services Network and the Disclosure and Barring Service’s digitisation programme. Both are set to be delivered years later and cost hundreds of millions of pounds more than originally anticipated.

Pressed on who in the department was responsible for the failure of the DBS and ESN projects, Sedwill insisted: “I don’t accept that characterisation – that they failed.”

“These were ambitious programmes, and very challenging. They had a series of challenges through their time,” he said.

Last spring the PAC accused the Home Office of providing a “masterclass in incompetence” in its push to digitise record checks conducted by the Disclosure and Barring Service, which was facing a four-year delay and an overspend of some £229m. In December, DBS then relaunched its procurement process for IT services after concluding a critical platform was “not suitable for further rollout”.

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And in September, the Home Office said it had extended Airwave, the emergency communication system it was replacing through the £5bn ESN programme, for three years until 2022, while it rolled out replacement services incrementally. Permanent secretary Philip Rutnam later said the extension would cost an extra £1.1bn.

During Monday's tense PAC hearing, Sedwill said: “I don’t think… it is reasonable to suggest that any complex programme that does not absolutely stay on track the entire time is a failure; otherwise we would never deliver anything.”

“Programmes of this complexity sometimes go on and off track. They are subject to events,” he told the committee.

Among other things, the DBS programme was derailed by a High Court judgement challenging how minor offences were disclosed in the checks, and delays in the handover between two commercial providers of the system, he said.

Sedwill said he did not agree with the committee’s assessment that he and others in the department should have foreseen problems with the programme – including that employer take-up was a third of what the Home Office had projected.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said the digitisation programme was “not in tune” with what employers wanted, as many had systems in place for the old system of checking physical documents.

“I don’t recall stepping back and considering that digital take-up was going to be significantly less than the programme expected,” Sedwill said. “I did not have any real evidence to suggest that was likely to be the case – certainly not that I recall.”

He added: “As an accounting officer, you cannot just act on instinct and hunch; you have to act on the basis of the hard material you have.”

'A high-risk programme'
Sedwill made a similar argument when challenged on the Home Office’s implementation of the ESN programme. He said he agreed with the National Audit Office’s assessment last year that the programme was too ambitious, adding: “We always knew that it was a high-risk programme.”

He said he was “always uneasy about the level of ambition and the pace” of the ESN programme and had held “a whole load of informal challenge sessions” alongside the formal checks and balances procedures at its inception.

“However, the programme passed those. As the accounting officer, you cannot act without hard information, particularly if you are going to delay a programme and incur additional cost,” he said.

"Programmes of this complexity sometimes go on and off track. They are subject to events."

He said the risk could have been lessened by allowing for a longer implementation period. “Certainly at the beginning of it, we would have then projected very significant additional costs because of the nature of the Airwave contract at the time, and the nature of the extensions,” he said.

He said a deal he had negotiated with the network’s carrier, Motorola, had lowered the cost of the Airwave extension as the original contract for the programme did not allow for an extension in the event of a delay.

But committee members appeared unsatisfied with Sedwill's responses to their questioning.

Tory MP Lee Rowley challenged Sedwill. "I still struggle with how we have lost, either by cost overruns, or the like, about a billion and a half pounds, and I can’t find anybody who will take personal accountability for that," he said.

About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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