Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Are you saying that you were not involved in the selection of these CAPPA sites that are listed in this note, or the delineation of whether five different sites scattered across the country were necessarily the best way to organise this service as opposed to a smaller number?
  (Mr McNeill) That was in the business plan last summer. I have been in this position only five weeks.

  61. You have not had the opportunity to revisit it?
  (Mr McNeill) The Minister has taken a decision on that. I am working on that basis. It is not for me to challenge that.

  62. So you do not have to assess whether that is the most efficient outcome or not; you just live with it and say that was the political decision that was made?
  (Mr McNeill) That is the decision that has been taken, and I am working within that decision. If something came up that we felt we could perhaps improve on that in some way, of course, we would put that forward, but at this moment in time I am working on the basis that it will be like that.

  63. So you start from a process design that is already set out, that it will be managed by five different places across the country.
  (Mr McNeill) That was the business case for which the Treasury put up the funding.

  64. Indeed, but that means that the first stage of defining the systems you will use starts from that basis of saying "We are going to disperse the activities to five different places around the country and therefore confront the task of managing those processes efficiently across five centres and the systems to support those processes."
  (Mr McNeill) That is end game CAPPA. In the interim, of course, we still have a role in the other sites. There are proposals that some sites should close earlier, perhaps in two or three months' time. That is something that has to be managed as part of the business continuity plans.

  65. You understandably emphasize the importance of the selection of an IT partner. In Joyce Quin's note, which I am slightly concerned you have not had, it says, "The draft IT strategy and high level logical design is being refined as further work on business processes, IT design and the sourcing strategy progresses." There is therefore some sort of IT strategy that has already been developed.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes. As I have said, we are now moving towards systems development.

  66. Who did that?
  (Mr McNeill) That was headed up by David Davison, an expert we have on a consultancy basis. He is in charge of the IT stream, and he is working in liaison with the IT department at IBEA and ITD and in MAFF, and of course, it is running in parallel with the operations work that has been going on.

  67. I recognise that you are not an expert in this, but what would you say the key principles are to developing a successful IT strategy?
  (Mr McNeill) We are using a methodology which is identifying clear milestones, identifying the final outcome we require. We are identifying the critical points within that process and the points for which we will review the system. We are trying to apply best practice in that area.

Mr Jack

  68. What was the name of the system?
  (Mr McNeill) It is Prince II. Project management in a controlled environment.

Mr Todd

  69. If you move on to the issue of design of the systems, you pass briefly over something which gave me some comfort, but I would like to explore it a little bit more, and that is the human process design element outwith the systems design. Can you set out how that is being done?
  (Mr McNeill) That work is headed by a very experienced director of the Carlisle site, Ian Pearson. He has involved a number of his colleagues, both from the Intervention Board and MAFF, in a project group, and they have really taken a grass-roots look, using staff within the organisation, at what we do now, and at the legacy systems that we use to deliver the current schemes. They have looked at it from a first principles basis on what could be improved, how this technology could be smarter to avoid the level of error.

  70. You are beginning to worry me already. This is not a systems issue initially; it is an examination of the principles of the human processes of how you deliver this service. You only now, in modern terms, design a system after you have thoroughly considered your human processes and defined them as the most efficient which you can make.
  (Mr McNeill) I think that is what the review is of the current systems: are they as efficient as they should be? What could be improved?

  71. That is not the correct approach. What you are doing there is basing it on the legacy, saying, "What do we do now? How do we tweak it?" rather than, frankly, "Was what we were doing in the past completely useless? Are there first principles that need to be examined as to how we can approach this service afresh?"
  (Mr McNeill) Those were the exact words I used: starting at grass roots and looking at the work, and saying, "Is this what we should be doing? Can we do this better?" We are not designing a system to just mirror what we are doing now. We are trying to say, "Could this be done better? Do we have to do this?" We are asking fundamental questions so that when we develop and produce the systems specification, we have addressed those issues. I used the expression "grass roots".

  72. I know you did, but then you strayed into some other references which concerned me. Have you looked at alternative models, other frameworks? This is a bulk processing activity, essentially, which would be commonplace in the private sector in many other larger organisations. Have you looked at other models of how this is done?
  (Mr McNeill) It is my intention to do that. Along with looking at the good and the bad in terms of successive failures in systems development, we are very keen to look at what best practice is in other agencies in Europe. We know that Sweden has done some work in this area, and we would like to make sure that we take advantage of that and learn from their experiences and others. We have been talking to the Irish; they have made some progress in some of their systems development in the way in which they manage CAP payments. But there is more work to do in that area. I would like to do that with my management team, because I take the view that the management team will manage this process. They need to understand what is best practice and how we get there. It is our intention to look at the good and the bad and systems failures across the board, and then focus on what we think is best practice.

  73. But there is a difficulty in the sequence here, is there not, which is that you are pressing ahead with process design before you have done that task?
  (Mr McNeill) The initial specification is really the first step in what is a very lengthy procurement system. There will undoubtedly be additional work required on that.

  74. You are very familiar with the fact that one of the major reasons for failure of public sector IT projects is poor specification at the start, confused leadership, and change of agenda during the process. It is absolutely critical to have the foundations of this right before you start, and not have a new management team suddenly arrive and say, "Now we have looked at it again, there are some other issues we think ought to be considered here." That is a recipe for fiasco.
  (Mr McNeill) I do not disagree with you at all. This is the document, the draft CAPPA High Level Logical Design and IT Strategy dated 11 December 2000. That is the work progress to date. This has been circulated for discussion with all the interested parties. It goes into tremendous detail as to specifying what is required of the system. This has been developed further since. We are trying at this stage to get a specification out so that we can identify the suitable partner, and I think there is work to do with that partner.

  75. Just to get this straight, your first step will be to find a friend, someone who you feel you will be able to work with properly, and then to define a proper specification for this system.
  (Mr McNeill) In much more detail.

  76. Not just in much more detail; possibly afresh, bearing in mind, as I have said, that some scrutiny from these, we hope, rather high-quality individuals that you are going to be hiring, may produce some insights that are well worth pursuing. Sadly, you have referred to CAP agency experience elsewhere alone. I think it is very valuable to look at what Sweden and Ireland are doing, but I think it would also be useful to look at large private-sector institutions in this country who have to handle large quantities of paper work each day, and have to satisfy the normal audit processes and so on.
  (Mr McNeill) I agree.

  77. There is plenty of experience to look at in this area, which does not have to mirror public sector experience elsewhere, although we can certainly learn from them.
  (Mr McNeill) I certainly agree with you totally. That is our intention, to look at best practice, and again, it is about having a management team with sufficient time to do that properly and to focus on that.

  78. I am concerned that, with your management team not in place, and not having had the chance to address these tasks, you will be rushed into a process of finding a partner and specifying a system before you are ready to do that.
  (Mr McNeill) I understand your concerns.

  79. There will be political pressure on you to maintain momentum on this project when, frankly, professional advice may well be to delay and think harder.
  (Mr McNeill) I was asked earlier were we going to rigidly stick to the timetable, but I think the pressure that I am under is to make sure that this works. If it has to be delayed, it has to be delayed. The important thing is that it works and we get it right. We are going to approach it in a workmanlike manner. I consider myself not necessarily bound to deliver on exactly the day we have indicated in the business plan. There may well be very sensible reasons why we have to adjust that.

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