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BBC Trust: 'LA LA LA I'M NOT LISTENING' to this DMI mega-tech FAIL

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The BBC failed to heed warnings given as early as 2010 that its Digital Media Initiative uber-project was vague and getting nowhere - according to the National Audit Office, which published its investigation into the disaster today.

Executives at the Beeb's finance committee, its executive committee and the BBC Trust all rejected warnings and put the rusty car back on track. The Committee also notes that the BBC failed to commission an independent technical assessment of the project when it OK'd the initial systems analysis and again, later, when it brought DMI back in house.

When the BBC did commission an independent report (from Accenture) in 2010 it limited its scope. Nonetheless, Accenture concluded that DMI wasn't robust enough for programme making. Puzzlingly, the Audit Office did not have access to the Accenture study in compiling its report.

DMI was intended to create a digital archive (or warehouse) and archive database (or catalog) to replace physical libraries - giving producers real-time access to the digitised footage. New production tools would also be developed, allowing programme makers to manipulate and share the material. It was fully buzzword-compliant. Supporters also claimed the DMI program would boost the independent TV sector - a utopian goal that got the BBC Trust, the broadcaster's combined watchdog/cheerleader - very excited indeed.

However the project was formally cancelled last year at a cost to licence-fee payers of £100m - with nothing to show for it. Last year, programme makers had to carry film cans aound London on the Tube to provide archive footage for news reports of Lady Thatcher's death.

The NAO report into the disaster concludes that nobody was really in charge, nobody could accurately gauge what progress had been made, and the BBC's byzantine bureaucratic structure meant that the BBC's finance committee heard about problems before the Executive or the Trust.

"The DMI was not subject to any audit or assurance reporting, beyond reports prepared by the project management office, between early 2011 and July 2012," the public spending watchdog reports - with the BBC protesting it was too busy with the Salford move and the Olympics to pay attention. DMI was given an "amber red" warning at the end of June 2011 and went "red" at the end of December 2011. Delays meant the Executive and Trust didn't see the warnings for three months.

Although the BBC has put in new reporting structures, the Trust failed to chase up warnings, according to the NAO:

"The Trust finance committee questioned the executive about slippages in achieving milestones but took assurance that there was potential for unforeseen benefits."

By late 2011 Sports production staff in their shiny new Salford offices were buying off-the-shelf systems - as DMI hadn't delivered. Yet once again, Even after the BBC's project committee advised the finance committee to give up, the latter gave the project its support.

What's left after all the investment? The NAO notes that the BBC is left with an archive database with annual running costs of £5.3m a year - compared to the legacy stock management and ordering system which costs £780,000 to run. It's turning off the old system.

The BBC also bought in a lot of storage gear - which it doesn't know what to do with. A small music royalty reporting system developed as part of DMI is being used however. The parliamentary public accounts committee notes: "at December 2013 it had five users".

Whistleblower Bill Garrett, former head of TV technology at the BBC, maintains that BBC staff falsified estimates of financial benefits.

Garrett adds he was told to shut up when he raised concerns about the sprawling gravy train.

This isn't surprising, for the tone had been set by the Executive and the Trust - something we reported here, but the NAO didn't investigate. DMI was untouchable. In fact, so smitten was the Trust by the Kumbaya promise of DMI - which it hoped to share with, and so save, the independent TV sector - it egged the project onto ever more utopian goals.

The DMI was something "of which the BBC should be proud", the Trust declared in 2011.

In his written evidence to the NAO, Garrett writes:

"Too many staff members' and contractors' jobs depended on DMI continuing, many of them recognised the project had little chance of success however speaking up would impact their careers and livelihood. Many senior figures had reputations invested in DMI."

Nobody-gets-the-Boot note

One of the backstories of the DMI debacle is the ongoing war between the BBC and the public spending watchdog over access to BBC minutes and reports. The missing Accenture report suggests this is still a live issue. Without the ability to drill down through the corporation's own material it's hard to be confident the full story has been told.

You can read Garrett's written evidence here (pdf) and the NAO report here. ®

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