Friday 1 June 2012

Dead fish Home Office has lost sight of the "public" in "public service" – Rob Whiteman

Thanks to Anna Leach writing in The Register magazine, the following astonishing interchange at a Home Affairs Committee evidence session (15 May 2012) is brought to everyone's attention. The Chair of the Committee is Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP and Rob Whiteman is Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency, part of the Home Office:
Q151 Chair: ... over the issue of your computer system that crashed at Lunar house. Hundreds of people were turned away, and we hear that some were in tears at the fact that the system did not work. What went wrong? Have we got compensation from the IT company? Will it happen again, and have we rearranged all the appointments?

Rob Whiteman: We contacted people over the bank holiday weekend and rearranged appointments. Around 500 appointments that were cancelled were rearranged. The issues around IT are incredibly frustrating for my staff, as well as for our customers. When I meet staff, it is a constant frustration that systems do not work all the time and that some of the resilience issues do not conform to common standards. In terms of morale and other issues, it is absolutely vital that we get to the heart of these IT problems. They are complex, yes, but-

Q152 Chair: Yes, but we do not want to go into that now. Do we know why it broke down?

Rob Whiteman: We do know why it broke down. It was an error on the network that affected the way appointments were queued from the system, and therefore they could not travel properly around the network. It was an IT failure, but, to answer your question, I have discussed this several times with the Chief Executive of the IT company that is the primary IT provider.

Q153 Chair: What is the company?

Rob Whiteman: I would rather not say.

Q154 Chair: I am sorry, Mr Whiteman; this is a Select Committee of the House-

Rob Whiteman: It is Atos.

Q155 Chair: There is no need to be secret with us; we will find out. It is public money. It is not coming out of your pocket. The taxpayer is paying. What is the name of the company?

Rob Whiteman: Atos.

Q156 Chair: And what was his explanation as to why it broke down?

Rob Whiteman: The reason I was reluctant, Chairman, is that we have a contract with Atos. It is trying its best to resolve the issues, but obviously we are being a demanding client and saying that performance is not good enough.

Q157 Chair: As you should be.

Rob Whiteman: I would not want to cast aspersions on the effort that it is making. It has put an additional team in to try to analyse the problem, and I receive daily and weekly reports from them. The point I would make is that in terms of UKBA improving over the next couple of years ...
The first reaction of a senior civil servant like Mr Whiteman is meant to be in favour of the public. That's what the public service ethos is. But when Mr Whiteman is asked to name the contractor responsible for the failure of a major IT system his first reaction is "I would rather not say".

His first reaction is to try to hide information. From Parliament and from the public.

His first reaction is in favour of the producer. "I would rather not say". This is producer capture.

The relationship between the Home Office and its suppliers in this case and others is pathological. Mr Whiteman's posture is craven. He isn't meant to be beholden to his suppliers. That's the wrong way round. Instead of serving the public, he finds himself serving UKBA's consultants and contractors. Which leaves the public paying and unserved.


Anonymous said...

Interesting follow-up today in the Telegraph regarding a letter from Damian Green correcting his evidence to that same committee meeting.

He says that his argument that the queues were down to the airports providing rubbish forecasts of arriving passenger numbers isn't correct. It is just that the official giving him the excuses didn't understand the info he was being provided with.

Interestingly Damian also distances himself from the failure of all the Stansted e-gates. They belong to BAA. It is their problem !!

David Moss said...

Thank you for that comment, Anonymous, which I completely missed.

UKBA either don't have the statistics (April 2011) or they do but they misunderstand them (T5 expected arrivals). Upshot – officials misinform ministers and ministers misinform Parliament, which used to be a hanging offence but now just goes in the SNAFU bucket.

Mr Augur has his work cut out.

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