back to article Ministry of Justice abandons key plank of £280m IT project

Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service has halted one of the core workstreams of its £280m Common Platform Programme, putting three years of development work on ice in favour of keeping an "end-of-life legacy system" in use. In an email seen by The Register, HMCTS Crime Programme Director Gemma Hewison told selected staff …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "an identity access management system to allow professionals to log on and view cases remotely"

    Well that's blue sky, bleeding edge, "Tomorrows World" type thinking, right there.

    With such lofty aspirations, no wonder it's in trouble.

  2. WibbleMe

    "an identity access management system to allow professionals to log on and view cases remotely"

    or OAuthentication that is use in the rest of the industry and does not require R&D development.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "Magistrates now have an online calendar system for booking their court attendance dates"

    Wow. What a complex task.

    Now try a calendar for handling multiple big cases where there are are several barristers per case, many witnesses, including the specialist witnesses who will each have multiple cases on the go, and juries.

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      I feel dirty for saying this but you mean like Exchange can? Or dirty in a different way Google Calendar?

      If 95% of the business world can run on those 2 - why on earth is anyone considering a bespoke system?

      I assume the hard bit is actually client access, authentication and user protection/management, cant see the calendar itself being that tricky.

      1. steviebuk Silver badge

        Because you'll have smarmie sales person that has sold shit to the powers that be. And because the powers that bit either don't know what they are doing, gullible or our in bed with said smarmie sales person, they've just agreed to the project. Despite all the people that actually fucking use it saying "The current system is fine and/or there are much better and supported systems already out there".

        Guarantee it was a top level boss wanting to make a name for themselves then quickly and quietly quitting to "Enjoy retirement" when it was clear their pet project was going to shit.

        1. ToddRundgrensUtopia

          Don't blame the salesman. Don't blame the senior guy who doesn't understand it,but blame the "IT" guy below him who wants to make his name.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        But they do though...

        They use a 'group mail system' - not going to say which - so to some degree they could probably have done this with the systems they have. However I don't know all the in's and out's so I think this is just one of those things when Civil Servants (C.S.) get involved and have no idea what they are doing. I am working on another project with C.S. involvement and since the original scope was sent out and quoted for back in about 2013 there have been just on 700 changes (not minor one's either) to the scope which caused massive delays and cost increases but now it's just about ready the C.S. peeps controlling it have decided they don't need it any more and have gone back to their legacy system, well for half of it anyway.

        Anyone remember Yes Minister ? I think that's what we have again in Whitehall!

      3. FiletCrochet

        The US CLOUD Act 2018 changes everything - but not a lot of people know that

        "like Exchange can? Or dirty in a different way Google Calendar?

        If 95% of the business world can run on those 2 - why on earth is anyone considering a bespoke system?""

        Perhaps because of the US CLOUD Act that was signed into law by Trump on 23 March 2018. Since then, the US govt and military can obtain data, including personal data, held on servers of American technology companies ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, without a court Order. No possibility of challenge unless there is an executive agreement on extraterritoriality in place between the US and the government of the other country. There is no US-UK executive agreement in place.

        It means that using Exchange and Google may put you in breach of GDPR and EU Directives 2016/679 and 2016/680. And "95% of the business world" using those two no longer includes EU countries, except by breaking EU data protection laws.

        1. localzuk

          Re: The US CLOUD Act 2018 changes everything - but not a lot of people know that

          The US Cloud Act may indeed be a thing, but it certainly has zero power over EU based subsidiaries, who have to comply with the local laws - which include GDPR.

          It puts those companies in a rock/hard place problem but the US doesn't have the power to demand stuff from overseas companies simply because their owners are American. The EU have already made a fair amount of noise about this - if a company complies with such a US order, against EU law, then that company will face serious consequences in the EU instead.

          1. FiletCrochet

            Re: The US CLOUD Act 2018 changes everything - but not a lot of people know that

            "the US doesn't have the power to demand stuff from overseas companies simply because their owners are American."

            It does, though. No challenge is possible where there is no CLOUD executive agreement on extraterritoriality in place between the US government and the government of the other country. The US govt v Microsoft legal proceedings which had reached the US Supreme Court in early 2018, about data held on MS servers in Ireland, had to be abandoned altogether.

            "The EU have already made a fair amount of noise about this - if a company complies with such a US order, against EU law, then that company will face serious consequences in the EU instead."

            Which will never happen in the UK because the US govt can already see all the data it wants to see, that is held on the servers of US companies anywhere in the world, without a court Order.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: The US CLOUD Act 2018 changes everything - but not a lot of people know that

          You do of course realise that Exchange can be hosted on-premise and so isn't affected by that legislation at all.

          1. FiletCrochet

            Re: The US CLOUD Act 2018 changes everything - but not a lot of people know that

            Unfortunately, the civil service has gone for Google GSuite.

      4. ToddRundgrensUtopia

        No the hard bit is the civil service and IT. Always a common denominator for useless and wasteful

      5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        "I feel dirty for saying this but you mean like Exchange can? Or dirty in a different way Google Calendar?...cant see the calendar itself being that tricky."

        I rather suspect it's this sort of thinking that lead them into the whole minefield in the first place. It's a really complex resource optimisation.

        It probably doesn't actually have to allocate every trial, judge, barrister and witness in the country but it does have to cope with substantial subsets. What's worse nobody can tell you with any certainty how long a trial will last - that's in terms of days or weeks not hours.

        You might think you've got the calendar for the Bristol area sorted and then an expert witness calls in to say they can't make the court when you've got them down because they've already got a summons for Carlisle that day. If you try to reschedule that case you find you've got it down for a date when the prosecution leader is due to start a three day case in Northampton. Then an accused changes his plea in mid-trial and you're left trying to see if anything can be brought forward.

        There really has to be a better way than what happened in the past. I've spent two or three days, or at least several hours of each, hanging around a courthouse waiting for half an hour in the witness box. I've also been called from the other end of the country to the other to go to a court that wasn't, as far as I knew, going on that day.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yeah, it's definitely not as simple as that summary sentence makes it sound. Beware the oversimplified requirements eh? That kind of optimisation problem with complex constraints is non-trivial - and that's before you get in to the technology needs of most magistrates, plus their wish to have their own time wishes accommodated (all of them).

      Probably paid too much for it, but it definitely isn't an alternative to an Outlook shared calendar.

  4. Colin 29

    Parts of CPP have been successful

    I think you'll find, if you ask anyone who has to use these systems, that they only work sometimes. I'm not sure you can class that as success.

    1. Ken 16 Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Parts of CPP have been successful

      I think you'll find that lawyers and judges also only work sometimes and that they do class that as success.

      1. FiletCrochet

        Re: Parts of CPP have been successful

        Barristers (self-employed) often have to use weekends to prepare for the following week. The MoJ/HMCTS digital case preparation thing routinely falls over at weekends, and when it is recovered people sometimes find their work has disappeared.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Parts of CPP have been successful

        "I think you'll find that lawyers and judges also only work sometimes"

        That's probably due to the fact that scheduling courts is so difficult.

  5. Vanir

    <Senior civil servants felt that "the immediate need to replace it has therefore diminished">

    Felt?

    That's Agile for you.

    So they, the Senior civil servants, have decided to wait until the need IS immediate.

    That's Agile thinking for you. Or is it a case of a Just-in-Time sprint?

  6. tiggity Silver badge

    2000 AD

    I always get thoughts of Dredd when i see "Ministry of Justice"*

    .. And the Judge said "This isn't a court of justice, son this is a court of law" **

    *yes I know slightly different wording, but near enough

    ** obligatory Billy Bragg quote

  7. Milton Silver badge

    IT, fostering delusions since 1977

    If you wanted a large new two-storey extension on your house, would you (a) produce a sketch of its roof on a napkin today, with some notes on how the windows will look, in the expectation that bricklayers could start being 'agile' tomorrow; or (b) be dumbstruck with horror that the builder turned up without a detailed plan, analysis of underlying soil, architectural diagrams, quantity surveys, TL&M costings, planning permission, safety protocols and a detailed project plan with dates, tasks, resources and critical path assessments?

    For some reason people have this extraordinary delusion that because software isn't material, it is in some way ineffably mutable and magical, and that you can, for computers, build fiendishly complex, important, integrated, interdependent and expensive systems without knowing exactly what you want, and without having foundations, architecture, design, costings, resource planning, project planning and contingency. We're all aware of the senior management idiot who thinks, because he once copied&pasted an Excel macro, he knows everything that matters about software development (one of those "How difficult can it be?" idiots, usually a fool who thinks it is a sign of cleverness to admit he doesn't understand detail) but this attitude goes far beyond lazy executives and bean-counters: it seems almost endemic.

    Here's a thought for anyone, government or otherwise, contemplating a non-trivial software project: if you do not devote at least as much attention to analysis, planning, costing and resourcing to the project as you would to the purchase and erection of a home extension, forget it: it's going to fail. Expensively.

    Anyone (read: software consultancy saleslizard) who tells you it's all going to be easy, that the business can decide what it really wants as things go along, that you can take it easy while magic transforms poorly considered requirements, often wrong in critical detail, into useful software ... they're a paid liar, and you're a fool to believe a syllable of his shtick.

    Do you think anyone but a born imbecile would entrust, say, a commercial airliner's operating sytems, to 'agile' development?

    There's a reason we use 'agile' only very carefully, within tightly bound limits, employing the best people on small projects of well-defined scope. To hear it mentioned in the context of major public investments on critically important systems—no wonder it's another disaster.

    If you have a major software development costing as much as a 300-foot railway bridge, maybe—just maybe—you should consider learning some lessons from how good bridges get made? And stay up?

    Agile: applying faddish, laziness-inspired 'methodology' in deferring the hard work of analysis and understanding of details, and delaying the realisation of disastrous malfunction and wastage—until it's too late.

    1. StuntMisanthrope Bronze badge

      Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

      Excellent work. Having run out of various construction analogy’s even after the many successful projects completed. It never staggers to amaze me how the general level of understanding of building a secure data-intensive website, basically equates to a graph in excel and sticking pictures in an email to the stakeholders. It’s also not that hard if you generally manage around the requests and stick to the plan. Ta da! A system that works. As ever the cost of all the process except for build and testing outweighs the usefulness and certainly avoids hitting the target five years ago. On the other-hand I can see the benefits, the dev team has been downsized, financial targets have been met and promotions gained plus the gap is now ten years away. #anewbumperreallyshiny

    2. Ledswinger Silver badge

      Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

      Here's a thought for anyone, government or otherwise, contemplating a non-trivial software project: if you do not devote at least as much attention to analysis, planning, costing and resourcing to the project as you would to the purchase and erection of a home extension, forget it: it's going to fail. Expensively.

      That is true, but in the case of the British Civil Service, I can assure you that vast amounts of money and time ARE poured into analysis, planning, costing and resourcing.

      Unfortunately, none of that helps when the people making decisions don't know what they're doing, but won't delegate to those who do. This applies to almost all aspects of government policy making as it does to expenditure decisions, which is why most government IT projects are a mess, why defence procurement is such a never-ending disaster, and why energy, transport, taxation, welfare, healthcare and every other government policy are such convincing screwups.

      Let me offer you a minor policy example from today. Government are "consulting" on a policy that will require energy suppliers to purchase small scale renewable energy power at a positive price, even in the expectations that the deluge of subsidised renewables currently being built will cause periods of negative wholesale prices. So, having subsidised 100% of the asset in the first place, when those subsidies stop, your and my 'leccy bill will go up to pay for power for which there is no demand. Elsewhere, to create the demand to use this power, selected commercial users will be paid "demand turn up" payments to actually use power. So there you have it: A crap-headed idea, a full "impact assessment", the involvement of every consultant and interest group that can dip their bread in the gravy, an expensive consultation, more analysis, then hand over to the clowns of Ofgem to plan a ridiculous and expensive implementation, and a stupid anti-common sense outcome.

      Let no man say that the Civil Service do not devote attention to analysis, planning, costing and resourcing. They just don't give a flying f*** about the outcomes.

    3. bigbob

      Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

      No, waterfall is all but dead these days in software. Remember the software crisis? Massive failures like NHS National Programme for IT and BBC Digital Media Initiative. Hundreds of millions of pounds invested in IT projects without a single line of code making it to production - that's the hallmark of waterfall. Waterfall is a key element to how Sun Microsystems, IBM, Yahoo etc all worked, and they were simply outpaced by the FANG crowd doing agile. Read last year's 'Accelerate' book for plenty of research showing the agile/devops juggernaut delivering way way more than teams using waterfall.

      Houses, bridges etc are mostly commodities. Built endlessly all over the world to the same well-worn architectures, same materials, same methods over many decades. Also very expensive to change anything once built. That's why waterfall and detailed specs up-front are best for building these sorts of things.

      However, software is a very different beast. You're likely building something highly unique, and new for users, so you're simply going to get it wrong if you try to plan it in any detail. Tech changes quickly, so your raw materials and techniques are changing under your feet. However changing what you've built is cheap, enabling you to do prototyping and put stuff in front of users early on, to significantly de-risk big decisions. Being flexible like this often makes a huge difference to the success. Deliver an MVP to production within weeks and you'll find out very quickly if it is adding value and where to focus effort. YAGNI (You Aren't Going to Need It) is a big thing for cutting cost. You mention complexity, and in agile you should of course consider architecturally significant issues up front and review them as stuff comes up.

      Sorry to the remaining waterfall brigade, but even by planning incredibly intelligently and thinking really hard at the start you're still onto a loser on average. Sorry that agile has been hyped up by arrogant kids in t-shirts and trainers, but all the evidence shows they are right.

      1. JLV Silver badge

        Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

        not to defend waterfall, but the article makes it seem it was an Agile shop...

    4. Walter Bishop Silver badge

      Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

      @Milton: IT, fostering delusions since 1977 .. “*¹ Agile: applying faddish, laziness-inspired 'methodology' in deferring the hard work of analysis and understanding of details, and delaying the realisation of disastrous malfunction and wastage—until it's too late.”

      This should be printed out and posted on every wall in every IT company in the land, well said sir !!!

    5. trevorde

      Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

      Here's how things work in the real world of software development:

      Customer spends 2 years and massive amounts of money developing an unambiguous, watertight specification. This takes endless rounds of meetings, consultations, requests for comments, workshops and fact finding trips.

      Specification is put out to tender. The only companies willing to wade through the 3000 pages of specifications are massive, multi-national conglomerates (MMNC). Small, innovative software companies know to avoid this potential clusterf*ck.

      After a year, there are only 3 tender bids, all from the same 3 MMNCs. All 3 bids are similarly priced and will take several years to complete. The tender is awarded to the same MMNC which has several other, similarly sized contracts.

      Work commences and initially proceeds well until the first change request. It turns out that some requirements have changed since the spec was developed 3 years ago. Some things are no longer needed but other things are now essential. MMNC does an impact assessment and says project will be only delayed by 1 month, with no impact on cost. This emboldens people who now think that *all* changes are free. Changes now come in thick and fast as a lot has changed in the intervening 3 years. MMNC then says that project will be delayed and cost more as changes are not really free, after all.

      Work still goes on until someone notices that the colour of a widget is not specified. All work stops while the colour is queried with the company. This takes endless rounds of meetings, consultations, workshops and fact finding trips. After 3 months, a decision is made on the colour of the widget and work recommences.

      The above cycle is repeated until something is *eventually* delivered at twice the cost and twice the time. Users try it but their needs have changed in the 6 years since the spec was written, so they don't use it.

      The 'blame game' now starts in earnest with the company and MMNC each pointing the finger at each other. This continues until the next specification is developed and put out to tender.

    6. JLV Silver badge

      Re: IT, fostering delusions since 1977

      +1

      But, no, you’d use 1700 napkins, just for the contract, so one actually working on the system, rather than the doc and contract, would have the time to become knowledgeable about the system as a whole.

      Paperwork and CYA would trump working software. Agile it up to make it look good. Testing? Hah!

      Truth is, between rapacious and incompetent consultants and indecisive and incompetent bureaucrats, I have no idea, after working in software all my life, how you could systematically bring even medium complexity gov projects to satisfactory ending.

      https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/phoenix-ibm-contract-union-pay-government-1.4295827

  8. J J Carter Silver badge
    Pirate

    It has to be said

    The biggest criminals here are the System Integrators!

    1. Ken 16 Silver badge
      Trollface

      Criminals?

      Impossible, you have to be convicted to be a criminal and they don't even have a court case scheduled.

      1. A.P. Veening
        Pint

        Re: Criminals?

        That deserves much more than the one upvote I can give you, have a pint of --->

      2. StuntMisanthrope Bronze badge

        Re: Criminals?

        You’d be surprised, I had three scheduled at different locations and times. Never did get a response about that one. As for working weekends. I think just about everything technology wise has before I was a mere immaculate concept of Justice. #youmaywintheargumentbutthatsevenworse

  9. MostlyChimp

    Who decided the application was a legacy application as it is clearly still being used and therefore should be classed as production.

    Let us hope they did and application audit across the government to see which applications are being used before more posts showing the IT delivery companies lacking any common sense by plowing forwards with systems that do not cater for the production apps, waste more money & time without a clear understanding which would help to deliver a platform for agile change over a 3 year hardware refresh mandatory change.

    1. Notas Badoff Silver badge

      Agile after Alzheimers?

      Legacy application:

      * underlying hardware isn't made or serviceable anymore

      * underlying system software is not updated or supported anymore (e.g. compilers, libraries)

      * original architecture no longer extendable (they've retired)

      * application no longer maintainable (see above)

      It's not 'legacy' even though still used, but legacy because practically and realistically "we can't go on this way!"

      Without forethought and continual attention, software systems age and become fragile just as people do.

      legacy: 4. A piece of ones' history left behind for following generations to experience.

  10. Matt Ryan

    £40M wasted on an identity system. I know, I know, the usual excuse that it also includes a load of replacement hardware for ancient PCs for half the UK civil service. Surely by now we've replaced all the PCs that are out there haven't we so this excuse no longer works...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No, that didn't include any PCs. But it did need to cope with a very complex identity verification process and complex on-boarding processes, and a lot of audit functionality (unless you'd like anyone to be able to pretend to be a judge online for a bit?) Still screwed though.

  11. Walter Bishop Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Agile Ministry of Justice and Health?

    I would imagine being banged up twenty-three hours a day would be bad for ones mental health. Whenever I see agile in a sentence I reach for my Airsoft HPA inferno :]

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Farce

    It's unbelievable the level of incompetence on display. It looks like all decisions are made in an ivory tower with no input from the people on the ground (those building the actual system).

    Coffee breaks, gym visits take up more time than being actually present working on the project. It's a shame that public money is being wasted in a such a manner. Without a doubt, a lot of working over weekends and remotely would have been justified and managers would have pushed for that. Who is accountable for the delay and non delivery of the system? Put your hands up.

    IR35 has given a convenient excuse for contractors to dictate how they would provide their services and this means the management have very little control over putting in practices that would make for an effective working environment

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