Monday, July 03, 2006

Libra: Worst Ever PFI Project?

Pilot version of Libra

With BBC R5 concentrating on serious issues like whether Terry or Gerrard should take over from Becks, the redoubtable Richard Bacon MP has nominated Libra- the shambolic project to computerise the shambolic collection of Magistrates Courts fines- as Britain's Worst Ever PFI Project (IT). As a leading member of the Public Accounts Committee, Bacon's view must be taken seriously. But the competition for such an accolade is exceptionally stiff- can he possibly be right?

The facts are:

  • 1998- original budget £146m
  • 2003- after numerous increases, and emergency contract renegotiations, up to £390m
  • 2006- £487m and still counting
  • Currently being piloted in just one place- the notoriously lawless Kingston on Thames
  • ETA now Dec 2007- ten years from kick-off...and don't hold your breath

So quite reasonble credentials for an award, but the project hasn't yet finally collapsed, and at just three times over budget, it hasn't yet reached "outstanding" on Tyler's IT Overspend Rule.

Still, the delay's impressive, and the causes are 24 carat. One factor was that DCA negotiated an onerous fixed price contract with the supplier (ICL, later Fujitsu), which took little account of whether the supplier was actually able to deliver at the price agreed. This is a familiar point that we've blogged before: fixed price contracts sound great in theory, but not if the supplier can't then deliver (see this post for what happened when John Laing met the National Physical Laboratory). That way lies massive delay, big extra bills for taxpayers, and ultimately madness.

The second point is that the whole project was imposed top-down, and as reported here:

"According to one source close to the project, Libra is currently piloting in only three of 42 districts because of political differences between the Magistrate's courts, who are not keen on the Libra brand of computerisation, and the DCA (or Lord Chancellor's Department as it was known at the beginning of this epic tale), which is trying to shove the new computer system down their throats."

As regular waste watchers will realise, there are horrific similarities here with the NHS Supercomputer...onerous probably undeliverable contracts, delays, ballooning budgets, non-delivery, shoving down'd almost think nothing had been learned from Libra.

Meanwhile, unpaid fines have now reached about half a billion. And whereas you and I would just send round the guys with baseball bats, the wibbling Department of Constitutional Affairs says it can't do that because its "records" don't even show how many miscreants are involved, let alone who they are or where they live.

So shambolic, yes. Fiasco, certainly.

But worst ever? Hmmm...that's a pretty big claim...and with all due respect to Mr B, maybe we should reserve judgement until it finally collapses.

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