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'Waste of money'

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The Home Office's computer system for the probation service has been savaged by an official report from the National Audit Office.

Almost every aspect of the system - which was supposed to provide a national infrastructure for the probation service - has been criticised by the watchdog, adding another abject government IT failure to the already long list.

The system - described as a "waste of money" - has so far cost 70 per cent more than expected at £118 million. The management system CRAMS was initially budgeted at £4 million but has reached £11 million and is still going. The network operates in 38 of the 42 local probation areas in England and Wales, but CRAMS has had "serious problems", causing it to be used by only a small proportion of areas.

The implementation of the system suffered enormously from a conveyor belt of different programme directors - seven directors have been in charge in the seven years the network has been in existence and only two of these actually had the relevant IT knowledge, the report said.

The Home Office was blamed for "poor specification of expected outputs, weaknesses in service monitoring and inadequate control of purchases". It has also held back its IT development due to concerns that the supplier, Bull Information Systems, wouldn't meet new criteria for such projects. This has meant a costly second procurement phase has had to be followed.

The Home Office "underestimated the technical risks", the reports says and the system failed to keep up with the changing needs of the probation service. One example given was that the network does not provide local services with direct access to data on offenders held by other areas.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn said: "Whilst the Home Office has been able to install a standard information technology infrastructure across a large part of the probation service, there are some important lessons to be learnt from the serious flaws in the Home Office's procurement and management of this IT programme."

The failure of the Home Office to run a decent computer system comes hot on the heels of it scrapping a £77 million project for immigration in February. Other government cock-ups have included the Passport Agency (also Home Office), tax self-assessment, the Post Office, National Insurance and the Prison Service.

As a result of all these failing systems, the government re-announced in February that all IT projects undertaken by the civil service in future will have to be run through a procurement watchdog - an offshoot of the Treasury called the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

An executive summary of the NAO report (in Acrobat format) is available here or the full report is available here. ®

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