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E-borders fiasco highlights the need for expert scrutiny

The government has been ordered to pay £220m to Raytheon after a tribunal found that the cancelling of the contract for the US-based defence contractor to supply the technology for the e-borders programme was illegal. As overseas-based companies are frequently contracted to supply complex systems to the UK, this raises important questions which must be answered to avoid this costly outcome re-occurring.


The UK Border Agency was in charge of specifying the e-borders contract

E-borders was intended to assist the police in detecting criminals entering or leaving the country by checking their details against immigration, police and security checklists. It was ordered in 2007 by the Labour government, with the £742m contract awarded to the Trusted Borders consortium, led by Raytheon and including Accenture and Qinetiq. Almost £200m of this sum had already been paid by 2010, when the contract was scrapped by the incoming coalition government around six weeks after the General Election.

The reason given for the cancellation was that the consortium was a year behind schedule in delivering key parts of the system, which was supposed to be fully operational by March 2014. Raytheon argues that it had delivered ‘significant capabilities’; Home Secretary Theresa May says that the situation when the coalition took over the reins of government was ‘a mess with no attractive options’, and Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, claims that the UK Borders Agency didn’t know what it wanted from e-borders when it was set up.

’If anything is clear from this event, it’s that something went very badly wrong somewhere

A revised version of e-borders is still being constructed, with IBM as lead contractor, and the system for checking details on arriving passengers in advance is partially in place. However, if anything is clear from this event, it’s that something went very badly wrong somewhere; the taxpayer ending up having to foot a bill of almost a quarter of a billion pounds when we’re told that public finances are still perilously tight isn’t an outcome that anybody could have wanted.

It seems pretty strange that the coalition should take the decision to cancel such a complex contract so soon after taking charge; clearly, as the cancellation has now been ruled illegal, they didn’t scrutinise the contract clearly enough or measure the consortium’s progress against benchmarks properly (and Vaz alleges that his committee hasn’t been able to ascertain what the benchmarks were). As such, we can’t even say whether it’s correct that Raytheon was late in delivering the system.

Could this be a case where better advice from engineers could have helped? E-borders is clearly a multifaceted system involving several pieces of advanced technology including electronic gates at entry points, and government is notorious for not having qualified engineers on hand to advise on these.  Scientific advisers in the Home Office, with a wide spread of subjects to cover, might not have been equipped to advise on the drawing-up of the contract; and we all know that MPs with engineering expertise are thin on the ground.

As digital systems become ever more ubiquitous in all areas of our lives, it seems that we need a better approach to specifying them. Massive, multifunctional systems are obviously problematic, as similar failures in the NHS and the BBC have shown; maybe they should be separated out into more manageable modules to build up functionality gradually. And contracts need to be more transparent and scrutinised more carefully, with each part explained clearly by the organisation in charge of specifying the system. If the Border Agency didn’t know what it wanted, this should have been picked up before public money was committed.

Readers' comments (16)

  • Often IT people are not engineers and do not employ engineering disciplines. Coming at software engineering from the angle of embedded control systems, where determinism, fail-safe etc are top of the agenda, I frequently see "holes" in IT architectures. The same goes for the health-service data-base.

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  • Not the whole story I’m sure – but the real problems are probably cultural rather than technical.

    With a system that is predicated on security (of operation) combined with commercial security considerations (IP etc) together with a generally risk averse set of politicians – there is likely to be a ‘culture’ whereby transparency and openness is unlikely to be the default mode. Securitising everything from contracts to technical architectural design will be difficult under these circumstances and ‘joining the dots’ to use business speak – to gain an overall view of what is going on near impossible. There is probably a parallel here with massively overrunning defence contracts.

    Secondly the trend for government (and the civil service) to outsource everything is generally seen by critics as being the result of Privatisation & penny pinching initiatives started in the 80s. Whilst this is often true – what is missed, and is equally important to understand, is that outsourcing allows government to abdicate themselves from responsibility and decision making- as they can blame the consultants/contractors. These contractors have just made sure they get paid for what they did (as well as doing us a favour by clarifying that the govt agency didn’t have a clue). Undoubtedly the requirements analysis was outsourced out to some consultancy who were more than willing to offer their services.

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  • From very bitter personal experience I can understand the statement that the UK Border Agency does not know what it wants: other than a kick up the proverbial.

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  • How about some common sense? Hong Kong is using e-borders for years now. Might as well have a look there. The same goes for their Octopus card which is far superior to London's Oyster card or the very slow card t h e C o v e n t r y B u s is using.

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  • chris cordingley is correct - So called software engineering is IMO between 15 and 40 years behind large scale Engineering such as Automotive and Aero and probably Civil. Systems engineering is not really used (at least properly) in s/w eng. Maybe a slightly unfair analysis but s/w today is often like designing an aircraft with a bunch of enthusiastic aero hobbyists....Maybe if for every line of code the developer had to place in the bank £1k against failure - better design and requirments analysis processes may emerge.

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  • NIH syndrome strikes again!

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  • 25 years ago the government had the Defence Quality Assurance Agency, which provided the Engineering expertise needed for an intelligent customer. However accountants who seemed to make the wrong purchase decisions often ignored its advice. Rather than listen to its engineers the DQA was disbanded. Monitoring of contractors was privatised and the visibility of what suppliers were producing was lost. Technical expertise was transferred to the procurement agency and this ran on its own inertia for longer than I expected. In time, without its technical laboratories, it was unable to provide engineers with the right up-to-date knowledge to provide the vital intelligent customer input. I’m only surprised that it has taken so long to get this bad.

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  • As JK Galbraith did say:
    "it will take the UK economy 100 years to recover from the policies introduced by 'you -know-who' (those started in 1979 when the grocer's daughter came to power) if ever!

    Price of everything, value of nothing...
    I am reminded of the firm who made a reasonable profit for many years, but were not sure where it was coming from. They appointed a raft of accountants, and made a healthy loss, but at least they did know where every penny went!

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  • mike blamey- it took Labour only thirteen years to largely destroy the success of "you-know-who"; it also seems the rabid left are still so scared of her they can't even speak her name-still, they deserve only to be taken as seriously as a Harry Potter novel, they have the same connection with reality. Amusingly, many of these self-styled class warriors are so genuinely spineless they were unable to face her dead any more than alive.

    Anyway, off the subject of our most successful ever prime minister who did more good for manufacturing industry than all other post-WW2 governments combined, you do wonder whether, as with the West Coast Main Line fiasco, this was either sabotage or mere incompetence by the Civil Service, in which case the costs should be borne by the Civil Service pension fund to incentivise them a tad. Possibly we risk confusing lethargy with strategy.

    Ah, I suppose The Engineering Daily Mirror's unlikely to post this anyway.

    I'd better add how wonderful the Left have always been for the economy, never left us in a recession even worse than the last one they caused, and so on.

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  • Raytheon come from an engineering background so their processes are actually better than most SIs in that regard.

    The lack of expertise on the client-side was made up for by paying Deloitte £39m to fill the gap.

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