Nobody does IT better - except the Dutch

By Clare Cheney

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Common agricultural policy Money Defra

Clare Cheney, director general, Provision Trade Federation
Clare Cheney, director general, Provision Trade Federation
An article on government spending in The Times on April 24 cited eye-watering examples of overspending involving billions of taxpayers' money over the years on purchasing goods and services.

There seems to be some hope for the future, if only because ministers have recognised the potential for cutting costs through greater efficiency. Experienced business leaders have been brought in to advise how to introduce a commercial approach.

However, because so many examples identified involve improved or new IT systems, some doubts start to creep in given the government's appalling record in developing IT systems on schedule and fit for purpose.


Take the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which is closest to the food industry's heart, and its experience with the Rural Payments Agency's (RPA's) computer system, developed at a cost of around £2bn for payments to farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy. DEFRA has had to pay EU fines of hundreds of millions of pounds because the system was not fit for purpose and even the latest set of RPA accounts were qualified by the auditors because they lacked clarity on over- and under-payments.

And the RPA has also been forking out compensation to farmers who were not paid on time. According to the The Times reporter, the RPA was reluctant to replace the system because of the feared cost of £2bn, but it turned out that the government digital service was able to develop a system for under £10M, demonstrating that officials have no concept of realistic costs.

The RPA has predicted that it will be able to cut the cost of each payment from £727 to a "few pounds"​by 2015 ̶ 16. According to information the government released in January, the current transaction cost is the highest of all other services provided by government departments to citizens, which total over £2bn. It costs £223 to process a visa application, for example.

Interactive system

DEFRA is also setting up an interactive computerised system for the issue of health certificates for export of animal products. There are grounds for optimism because it is basing it on a system already used by the relevant authority in the Netherlands, which works well.

Our exporters keep hearing how the Dutch can do the job faster and more professionally. Removing human intervention will release officials to deal with problems that need discussion and negotiation including policy-making. There will still be many occasions when human interaction is needed to solve problems and decide policy.

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