SKETCH: Doubling Down on the Digital Fiasco

The big BBC software project has gone up in pyre of bytes.

They’ve written off £98m as totally worthless work – and there may be another £80m behind that. One question remains of interest to the Public Accounts Committee – who’s going to carry the can?

The answer to that has an even larger question: how do we control these very large public service bodies? They pay each other little miracles of money in salaries, expenses, bonuses and pensions, and when their projects collapse they talk about learning lessons and the journey they’ve been on.

They have realised that if they “say sorry”, there’s nothing further that can be done to them. Now they are all starting to construct painfree apologies. You can tell there’s no real repentance – there’s no contrition – and therefore no real change in behaviour.

But leave the theology to one side.

Over £2m a year in salaries sat in front of the PAC this afternoon. License payers will probably give them a further £20m in today’s money before they die.

A heckle: “Let’s not have them paying tax at the 50p rate, let’s halve their salaries!”

The previous technology chief has been named as the guilty man, so he put in a bid to pass the parcel. No one held it and the music never really stopped.

When Anthony Fry, the ex-Trustee said he took full responsibility for it all, he also said, “What more can I say?”

“I RESIGN!” was the dominant heckle. But of course it was a Tony Blair apology. “I take full responsibility so shut up.”

The Chief Financial Officer (£337,000pa) was jiggered if she was going to admit that a certain set of names on the Report were all either from Finance or Technology. The accusation was that no one wanted this vanity techno-project except geeks – for the purposes of this hearing, people who didn’t make programmes. No, no, on the contrary, Mrs £337,000 said, they were all fully involved, the business people who would use the system.

So why weren’t their names on the Report? She said they were fully involved. So why weren’t their names on the report? They were fully involved. So why weren’t – they were f- WHY W-THEY WERE! Oh, all right all RIGHT! She admitted their names weren’t on the report. (But they were fully involved.)

It was like drawing teeth and the only time I’ve enjoyed the experience.

So, fully involved, or fully informed or fully reported – whatever the £2m at the witness table said, we only had their word for it – this was Stewart Jackson’s slur. Unrebutted but a slur in the modern parlance, being a criticism.
So many important things were decided or passed around in a sofa government way. Pay-offs worth hundreds of thousands were agreed by word of mouth. Legal advice was given orally, without record or minutes.

In addition, the ex-Director General Mark Thompson was accused broadly and narrowly of misleading the committee. He defended himself. But Mr £680,000 is not a reliable witness (see his Savile story earlier today) so his defence will remain in the transcript.

He said he had a nose for “business obstinacy”. He could “smell it”.

A good nose may have been worth the £680,000 a year he had himself paid – but he, the man in charge, got nowhere near the underlying rot of the software project.

He took what he was told, the Trust took what they were told, the Chief Operating Office (£328,000) got her dates muddled up, felt there’d been so many reviews, she wanted just to get on, so she took what she was told. A sidebar – she’s in ballet administration now.

Mrs £337 was too optimistic about her transformational abilities (that’s her “saying sorry”). And the Trustee (“full responsibility”) said that of course more should have been done sooner – in hindsight, in retrospect – but no system of governance would have done any better.

The BBC has done well recently with the Olympics, and their move. And iPlayer apparently is a great achievement (though I’m not sure I couldn’t have done that myself with a year of Imperial College computer scientists armed only with a set of Allen keys).

But these big public services are well worth a new sort of scrutiny. They are an estate within the state. The fifth estate, perhaps. All the other estates have had a jolly good kicking in the last 10 years and now – without wanting to sound vindictive – it’s their turn.



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