'Digital by default' is the government's mantra for the use of IT systems and services across the public sector, using platforms like the Digital Marketplace and G-Cloud to aid the process.
This might be sound in theory, but in practice the Government Digital Service (GDS), responsible for the execution of this strategy, has encountered stumbling blocks.
Challenges exist in most shifts from analogue to digital processes, but the problems encountered raise questions about how digital by default the public sector can really be, particularly when it has plans to turn the NHS into a paperless service by 2018.
The most recent setback was the failed £154m farm payment IT system which was abandoned by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), a division within the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).
Negative responses from farmers prompted the RPA to ditch the system's online interface used to make subsidy claims, and return to paper forms. Hardly 'digital by default'.
V3 was informed that the online portal that supports the payment of European Union subsidies to UK farmers failed to work with the back-end rules engine.
Another major problem was a digital mapping tool designed to allow farmers to support claims by identifying land use on a web-based map. Farmers reported problems when trying to make their claim online, noting that the process was much slower than using pen and paper.
Local Wiltshire news site Gazette & Herald reported that problems started in February and then escalated as more farmers went online, overwhelming the servers and causing the software to grind to a crawl.
Farmers were left frustrated with a system they could not use as the deadline for claims approached, forcing Defra to turn back from the digital system to paper forms.
This was despite claims by Mike Bracken, head of GDS, said in December that the RPA's new mapping systems were a way to simplify the subsidy claim process.
"It requires us to not stare ourselves blind at the complexities of each part. Instead, we need to keep thinking about building a service that's beautifully simple. We're building services, not websites. I'm excited to see rural payments show the results of making things as simple as possible for users," he said.
Bracken had all but ridiculed the old paper system as outdated and not suitable for the 21st century, meaning that the decision to revert to paper forms will be an embarrassment for GDS.
But the U-turn is indicative of more than just red faces for Bracken and GDS.
Chris Pennell, public sector technology lead analyst at Ovum, said the problems with the RPA's IT system serve as a warning to the government and GDS that, for all the benefits digital technology can deliver, its implementation carries risks.
"What appears to have happened here should be a lesson for other departments that there is no foolproof approach to system change and that they should always have a failsafe plan," he said.
Arguably, the RPA's backup plan was the paper form system, but given that information from the forms will need to be entered into the RPA's system by hand, the failsafe is a retrograde one.
NHS paperless perils
Digital migration failure in the farming sector does not generate confidence in the government's goal of creating a paperless NHS.
Indeed, the latest setback will only add to existing concerns. In 2013 the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) wrote of its concerns that a paperless NHS can be delivered.
It based this view on the failures of the National Programme for IT, launched by the Labour government in 2002 in a bid to standardise IT and data across the healthcare service. The PAC report said the programme cost millions and failed to yield results.
"After the sorry history of the National Programme [for IT], we are sceptical that the Department can deliver its vision of a paperless NHS by 2018," the committee said.
"Making the NHS paperless will involve further significant investment in IT and business transformation. However, the department has not even set aside a specific budget for this purpose."
Pennell from Ovum offers a more positive take, but still sees a challenging road ahead for GDS.
"The move to a paperless NHS is considerably more complicated than the process undertaken by Defra and the RPA," he said.
"Given the department's experience with the National Programme for IT, I would expect them to be acutely aware of the need for testing and usability before the rollout of programmes."
Clearly, the government's digital strategy appears to be a mixed affair of success and failure.
Soaring sales through the G-Cloud framework is a positive example, but the failure of the RPA system are indicative of the problems that can be encountered in digital transformation. The furore around the care.data project is another such example, although this is back on track, showing the government's commitment to its digital agenda.
With regards to the farming IT system V3 learned that work is being carried out to improve the online side of the RPA's IT system, although given the damning reception it received is unlikely to attract farmers away from paper forms for a second time.
The failure may also result in other parts of the public sector being reticent to go digital by default, despite the mantra from Whitehall.
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