PAC slams Home Office over failing digital borders project

Image of a busy day at the UK border

The Home Office has failed to make progress on digitally transforming the UK borders, continuing its “miserable” tradition of “exorbitantly expensive” projects that fail to deliver value for money, a group of cross-party MPs claim.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has blasted the government department’s lack of effective leadership, management and oversight after continued delays to the Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme.

The project, which was supposed to be completed by 2019, has incurred costs to the taxpayer of £173 million so far, a figure that's only expected to rise.

"It is incredible that the Home Office can have failed so badly, for so long, to deliver technology that is crucial to our national security objectives,” said the chair of the committee, Meg Hillier MP.

“The Home Office has struggled to get to grips with the technical challenges, resetting the programme and changing the leadership repeatedly. And it is the taxpayer hit by both the financial cost and the risks to our security."

The Home Office has “presided over a litany of failures” in nearly 20 years, the PAC claimed in its findings, typified by its latest failure to make meaningful progress on the DSAB programme, which was instigated in 2014.

DSAB was initially scheduled to be completed in March 2019, replacing a legacy system that’s been in use for 26 years. This digital transformation attempt follows a failed project, dubbed the e-borders programme, which was abandoned in 2011 after eight years of work.

The latest digital transformation efforts were ‘reset’ in 2019 due to changed priorities to support its broader ambition for a digitised immigration system and to provide border controls following Brexit.

The PAC, however, has criticised the Home Office for still failing to meet its own targets following the change in strategy, despite a revised completion date of March 2022.

For example, officials rolled out the Border Crossing component of the programme in December 2020, with prior expectations that 7,000 staff would use the system by June 2021. So far only 300 are using the system, however, after previous attempts to roll out the programme were met with technical challenges.

Another key component, which would reform rather than replace the Semaphore airline passenger database, hasn’t been delivered at all, with the PAC concerned over whether its interdependencies with other programmes will be considered.

Distinguished engineer with Solace, Tom Fairbairn, criticised the government’s technical approach to its digital transformation efforts, suggesting the key is that the authorities seem to be attempting a “point-to-point integration”.

“While a tried and tested method for some cases, this approach won’t work here, given the fact that there are over 20 government agencies whose systems need to be integrated,” he said. “There are simply too many to go for the point-to-point approach, which is best for integrating two systems.

“With this amount of actors, loosely coupled systems and agility are the key, and the only way to achieve that is with an event-driven approach. This will allow for information to flow between points in real-time, seamlessly and accurately, ensuring citizens get the best possible experience.”

The Home Office has been planning for more than 140 million passengers per year to pass through its DSAB systems. The PAC, however, says it hasn’t yet shown the new systems will be able to cope with existing volumes, let alone a projected 6% annual increase.

This is the latest in a string of digital transformation projects the Home Office has spearheaded to be savaged by public authorities. In 2019, for example, the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the home office for failing to make progress on replacing the ageing radio-based emergency services communications network.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.