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MPs bitchslap MoD mega-IT architecture project

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The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, famous for its stinging attacks on expensive government technology projects, has issued some relatively mild criticism of the ongoing Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) mega-IT push at the Ministry of Defence.

The parliamentary report, now available to read online (pdf), offers 11 main conclusions. The headliners are these: the DII is running late, by about 18 months; more than half the machinery is still to be delivered, but only a third of the "risk funding" money - intended to cover unforeseen emergencies - is left; and at the moment there is only enough cash to buy 140,000 terminals rather than the 150,000 the MoD says it needs.

The MPs also offered some criticism of the way the project has been run, saying there should have been a pilot project first. They say that running such a pilot would have prevented the programme being as far behind time as it is now. The parliamentarians also say that plans thus far haven't tied in well enough with those of the Defence Estates - the people who manage the MoD's buildings and property.

In addition to all this, the Committee members appear to have been following the news lately. They note that "the ATLAS consortium’s record of delivering software on time is not good" - by which they mean EDS, the main member of the ATLAS combine, which has seen high-profile nightmares in other major government projects for other departments.

According to the MPs:

Despite recent successes, large parts of the original requirement are still missing. Many of ATLAS’ initial designs have been of a poor quality, which has forced the Department to increase its scrutiny of them. If the level of design errors increases again, the Department should reintroduce more onerous scrutiny and should not accept claims for increased costs that ATLAS incurs as a result.

It's plain, reading the report, that the MPs expected the MoD to be full of ire against EDS, and are mildly frustrated that in fact the Ministry men are cautiously pleased with the way things are going. The MPs nonetheless are full of dire warnings, suggesting that EDS will surely seek to rook the government out of extra funds soon.

They also say that "the Department currently has an undesirable record on data security when it should be amongst the best in Government", though that statement - based on a recent spate of media stories about lost laptops, memory sticks etc - can't as yet be tied to the DII.

The Ministry, for its part, says that there's no need to worry about the risk budget being two-thirds gone at this point as it is normal for emergencies to appear early rather than late in a project. They say they can't comment about how well EDS has done for other departments, but they see their own dealings with the contractor as "something of a model".

It was also noted that the projected shortfall of 10,000 terminals might not be that much of a bother, given the MoD's ongoing attempts to trim down its legions of backoffice staff in Whitehall and elsewhere. As of now, according to the MoD, the real shortfall is 6,000 and falling.

It's worth noting that a report last July by the National Audit Office offered a similar picture to that given today by the PAC, but was noticeably more positive about it. The NAO beancounters forbore to add notes on security breaches and EDS' relationship with other departments. They said the project was late, but costs had "largely" been controlled and equipment was functional.

On the old adage of "on time, on budget, to spec - pick any two", it would be possible to say that the DII appears to be offering an acceptable performance so far, if not a sparkling one. Whether this will continue, or whether the MoD too will see its ambitious IT plans spiral out of control, only time will tell. ®

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