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Failed probation system 'masterclass in sloppy management'

Even the NAO is impressed

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The failure of the project to provide a single offender management system for UK prisons and the probation service was the fault of senior civil servants who had failed to learn even the first lessons of project management.

The drastically downsized project is currently three years late and twice over budget. This failure was due to a lack of management oversight, failure to provide adequate resources, weak programme management, an underestimate of the technical challenges and weak contracts with suppliers.

All these factors contributed to a three-year delay and a doubling in costs. The project has now been abandoned and replaced by a much more limited system. Edward Leigh, chair of the National Audit Office, said the project was a spectacular failure and: "a master class in sloppy project management".

The National Offender Management Information System aimed to give every prisoner a single entry on a single database thanks to a partnership with EDS. The new computer system would support new working practices - offenders would have one manager throughout their prison sentence and also any period of probation afterwards.

The project has reduced the number of databases from 220 to three but will not attempt to unify these three databases onto one.

The National Audit Office report into the mess put the blame squarely on poor management.

Amusingly, just before the probation project started, the NAO and the Office of Government Commerce put together the eight most common causes of government IT project failure. The probation service managed to miss just one of these eight reasons for failure.

The Audit Office found:

1. Lack of clear senior management and Ministerial ownership and leadership

2. Lack of skills and proven approach to project management and risk management

3. Lack of understanding of and contact with the supply industry at senior levels of the organisation

4. Lack of effective project team integration between clients, the supplier team and the supply chain

The Audit Office found the failure was partly caused by:

5. Lack of clear link between the project and the organisation’s key strategic priorities, including agreed measures of success

6. Lack of effective engagement with stakeholders

7. Evaluation of proposals driven by initial price rather than long-term value for money

But there was no evidence of the eighth most common cause of project failure - "Too little attention to breaking development and implementation into manageable steps." The team were given credit for undertaking a software trial and an initial pilot implementation.

The NAO noted that because of the failure to create a single database some bodies, like the Parole Board, were now creating their own systems.

The report also makes recomendations for the government's chief information officer:

The failure of the C-NOMIS project could have been prevented had basic principles and existing good practice been followed by NOMS. The Government CIO should, with OGC, seek assurance that all government departments managing large scale IT programmes are actively avoiding these well known reasons for delivery failure.

A bit of history

Her Majesty's Prison Service and the National Probation Service created the National Offender Management Information System NOMS in 2004.

By July 2007 NOMS had spent £155m and the project was two years behind schedule. Total expected costs had risen to £690m.

In summer 2008 the decision was made to put a hold on the project. The project was reduced in scope, at a cost of £41m, and was restarted in January 2008, the original due date.

Lifetime costs are now expected to be £513m and it should be delivered by February 2011, although it will no longer support "end-to-end" offender management as originally planned.

The full report will be available from Nao.org.uk later today. ®

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