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A £385m computer system being built for the UK's Border Agency and Border Force to process immigrants' paperwork is a year behind schedule and £28m over budget. That's according to the National Audit Office (NAO), which today published findings from a study it undertook in March into the stumbling IT project.

The NAO said border staff cuts coupled with an over-reliance on the delayed computer system - dubbed the Immigration Case Work (ICW) programme - had hampered the service to the point where new workers were needed to plug the gaps:

In 2011-12, the Agency’s workforce reduced by over 1,000 more than planned, despite the fact that progress was slower than expected in the ICW programme and workforce modernisation at the border, and no Agency-wide skills strategy was yet in place. The result of this disconnect was, in some places, a dip in performance and the need to hire new staff or increase overtime.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) hopes to trim £350m in costs off its budget between 2011 and 2015. Part of that money-saving exercise involves cutting loose some 4,500 full-time employees as it relies more heavily on automated systems.

However, NAO was damning about the ICW programme. It said:

We found it had suffered from a loss of focus, poor governance structures and optimism bias in planning and reporting, although the Agency took steps to address these issues during 2011-12. Border Force workforce change has been hampered by the disjointed introduction of change measures and delay in implementation of a comprehensive operating resource model, which is needed to plan optimal deployment of staff.

It added that UKBA was aware of its shortcomings and "is preparing a new transformation programme for launch in the autumn". The agency is expected to make swaths of changes by, among other things, reducing "management layers" by 2015.

"The real leadership test will be whether the Agency can transform casework processing without relying solely on new IT, and whether the Border Force can improve its workforce practices and raise productivity," concluded head of the NAO Amyas Morse.

The audit office's report can be found here [PDF]. ®

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