2009 was an up-and-down year at the Department of Environment, Farms and Rural Affairs (Defra). On the environment front it was generally positive with the agency leading the charge on green initiatives. On the rural affairs, and the farms front in particular the news was not so good.
In particular, the fall-out from Defra's Rural Payments Agency's Single Payments Scheme continued with a third damning report from the National Audit Office (NAO). The system, built by Accenture to handle the distribution of farming subsidies to UK farmers, was still overpaying some farmers and underpaying others, and the NAO said in October that "significant issues" were still to be resolved.
Problems with the complex and heavily customised system meant that up to £90m had been overpaid to farmers and that the cost of handling a claim in England was £1743 per case, against £285 under the Scottish system. The NAO warned that the agency was now "reliant" on contractors to maintain the system, and with many support contracts ending in 2009, "there is an increased risk of obsolescence".
In December 2009, it emerged that Rural Payments Agency chief executive Tony Cooper had been paid £134,000 in the financial year, and awarded a £12,000 bonus on top. But MPs said that in his three years in the post he had failed to turn around the highly troubled IT system.
In a damning report on the Single Payments Scheme, the powerful Committee of Public Accounts said money was being poured into the RPA's IT systems at a rate that demonstrated "negligible attention" to taxpayers' interests. The RPA, it said, needed to consider whether an alternative system would work better.
The Accenture systems were "cumbersome, overly complex and at risk of becoming obsolete" and continued to "soak up huge sums of money", it noted, yet the data they offered was full of errors.
In questioning, PAC chairman Edward Leigh said in exasperation that the 100 consultants, working to maintain the system, constituted an "incredible" number considering the scheme only paid out to 106,000 farmers. The consultants earned on average over £200,000 a year.
Leigh said, "We might just as well divide up the £84 million and send [the farmers] all a cheque. It would be a lot cheaper and easier in the end." He called for the Departmental Accounting Officer to take personal responsibility for the scheme, to create an action plan, and to begin making detailed progress reports from 2010.
Things looked better on the green front with the department completing a refresh that is set to be rolled out across all government departments. Central to it is a decision to fund only one computer per employee -¬- either a thin-client desktop or a laptop -- cutting down the number of PCs in the department and replacing power-hungry thousands of power-hungry monitors with low-energy flat screens.
Laptop use has also reduced the burden on Defra's crowded headquarters, with 50 per cent occupancy reported in the months following the refresh, compared to more than 100 per cent before. Windows Vista was implemented throughout because of its power-saving functions, and a standard set of assistive technology was implemented for staff who required it with the cooperation of charity AbilityNet. The cost of the refresh was covered by Defra's existing services contract with IBM. Big Blue also used virtualisation in the department's datacentres to consolidate 120 servers down to just 12.
These policies have now been rolled out across Whitehall in a bid to achieve IT carbon neutrality by 2020.
In March 2010, Whitehall auditors said the government's £200 million organic farming scheme is grappling with high IT costs. The Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme is aimed at encouraging farmers into organic practices, in order to help the environment, and provides European Union subsidies to those certified.
In a report, the National Audit Office said that £535 was spent on IT costs for each claim. This represented 84 per cent of total administration costs, and was an amount the NAO called "high in comparison to the relatively small number of agreements". Nearly 2,300 farmers are part of the scheme.
The organic scheme costs reduced in the last year, the NAO noted. The total IT costs for the organic scheme were £1.2 million in 2008 to 2009, compared with a peak of £1.5 million a year earlier.
Natural England, an agency running the scheme alongside the Rural Payments Agency, has to pay a charge on the Genesis IT system in use, but has "little control over the cost" of the system, the NAO noted. The system is an asset of Defra, which oversees Natural England.