DTI website: response from National Audit Office

After getting weasel words and evasions from our fine public servants at the Department of Trade and Industry about why their new website doesn’t meet their own accessibility targets, I wrote to the National Audit Office to find out if the DTI had been properly careful with public money (on the suggestion of Charlie Oates). (All the history).

I received a response yesterday. Here’s an excerpt (there’s lots of background information that we already know):

We discussed the issues you raised with officials from the Department. In their view, the main cause of the accessibility problems involves the Content Management System. Although the project experienced technical difficulties, the Department did not, in our view, effectively manage its relationship with contractors who were involved in developing the website, and as a result the Department did not achieve its objectives for a website meeting recognised accessibility standards. The DTI recognises that its management of this project was not satisfactory.

The Department has commissioned the work needed to rectify the accessibility problems, and acknowledges that further expenditure is likely to be required to make its website compliant with government guidelines.

There is evidence that the Department is taking steps to learn from the problems experienced with this project. As outlined above, the Department commissioned a review of the accessibility of the website from Nomensa, which identified the main issues to be resolved and suggested a number of solutions that would enhance web accessibility and can be applied more widely in managing procurement projects.

I am not able to comment on the Department’s decision not to provide an answer to you under Freedom of Information legislation on the grounds of cost. If you wish, you are entitled to raise this matter with the Information Commissioner, whose website is www.ico.gov.uk.

So: lessons have been learned, an as-yet unspecified amount of dosh has been pissed down the toilet, but hopefully the public might get the website it should have had in the first place – and a group of unaccountable civil servants might just do their procurement and project management better. Maybe.

I’m not holding my breath.

10 Responses to “ DTI website: response from National Audit Office ”

Comment by Dan

Well, that sucks. The DTI let a contract which contained specific requirements which were not met. They did nothing to check if those requirements were met. They are now paying for the contract a second time. The NAO have confirmed all of this.

So how exactly is that not a misuse of public funds? Or is all the NAO do in cases like this say “Oops” on behalf of the department? Bah.

Comment by Daniel Walker

Please, don’t let this turn into a flame-fest against ‘the man’ (least of all a Straw Man).

In this case, ‘The Man’ (if you must cast this creature, thus) has responded (finaly, I’ll grant you!) to Bruce’s concerns, over the website in question, with an honest-to-god “Mea Culpa*” and has promised a redress on this issue…

Lessons have been learnt, they say (hooray). Contractors will be better reviewed in future (hooray).

I, myself, work in a company that wishes to do the best, by its users, but has oft been illadvised, in the past, by compaies that simply did not know where the right path lay,

Very little true evil resides within this world – only silly people doing what they think is best (all too often resulting in the worst, for those that could benefit best, from what this technology offers).

It happens: let’s fix it.

*(those that know Bruce’s most highly estemed friend – the remarkably funny man, Bill Johncocks – will know that the self-conscious use of foreign or latin language, where perfectly good Anglo_Saxon alternaives exist, happens to be one of our personal, and mutual, ‘bet noirs”**

** These are, of course, Anglo Saxon attitudes, and as such, may be inaccessible to the Saxonly-chalenged.

Comment by Destry Wion

Although I think there’s a big difference between who is to blame for the realization of a bad product and who is ultimately responsible for allowing it to go live, I tend to agree with Mr. Walker’s implications.

The situation is probably one where, despite self-proclaims of accessibility awareness (if there were any), the site owner didn’t know enough about accessibility compliance (or CMS evaluation) to begin with to know whether or not the delivered product was in fact accessible as claimed (and/or maybe there was not any double-checking of the deliverables at all, from one side or the other).

A waste of resources around the clock, certainly, but not entirely the fault of DTI; more the fault of the producers, I’m guessing, to go the extra distance when it was needed (client formation, proper CMS selection, taking the initiative to code properly, and so forth)…it happens far too often, and any designer is/was guilty of it at some point.

Designers everywhere need to step up there game by being more responsible with their design, providing formal client instruction (but getting informed themselves first before doing business), using tight tools, and following up with clients for a recognized period of time to ensure things are on track. That’s a lot more work than sitting under a late-night lamp and slapping something out by Friday’s deadline. Of course it also implies that more formal modes of project management and paperwork will be involved on the designer side of things, and hence the incentive to charge more (but the dossier better be right).

It’s a whole paradigm shift for most designers, really, and it’s going to take time (perhaps facilitated by looming legislation). Freelancers will need to stick with coffee-house projects or else start grouping up for bigger fish, because the individual won’t stand a chance if they have to take on the other necessary parts of the game (product documentation, on-site instruction, debugging, follow-ups, etc). I think we’ll see the flood of freelance designers that currently saturate the airwaves be replaced by mid-to-larger design firms that have renewed business plans and more people to handle the increased role requirements.

The [eInclusion Ministerial Declaration of the EU](http://europa.eu.int/information_society/events/ict_riga_2006/doc/declaration_riga.pdf) is interesting reading, and sets the stage for the [eAccessibility Forum in Paris](http://inova.snv.jussieu.fr/evenements/colloques/servonline/Programme/program_en.php) on Monday.

(OK, trying Markdown instead of Textile this time…hope it works. If not, Bruce, some user tips about what syntax is valid would be helpful, or at least a preview button. :) )

Comment by C Oates

Well it’s good that DTI’s being pushed on this one, and it’s also quite refreshing that they’re admitting poor project management. It’s a pity though that the people involved in the debacle have probably already received good reports etc and been promoted to other posts – where they’re presumably f**king up other projects that will cost the taxpayers yet more money.

it’s one of those where you’d just love to be let loose on a backup of every internal email that’s ever been sent on the issue. You can bet that they did some internal testing of this thing before it went live, and somebody *must* have told them it was going to be poorly received. But no FOI request is ever going to turn those sorts of emails up – this government has been great about creating an act that they’ve then done everything within their power to ignore and bend the rules on. It’s reward enough to know that whoever over there is keeping shtum on this is probably going to hell…

Comment by anon

As someone previously involved in public sector IT systems procurement, allow me to speculate what happened.

The requirements for the project receive input from project staff “who know what they’re doing.” Hence the WCAG-AA requirement. Vendors submit proposals stating their product/solution will meet all these requirements, even if it doesn’t (this seems to be standard practice, especially W.R.T. accessibility).

Two or more levels of senior management have “deliver IT project on time” set as one of the performance measures upon which they will be appraised. This performance measure is inevitably defined as “deliver IT project on time” rather than “deliver IT project that meets requirements on time.”

At some point, the project staff realise that the supplier’s product does not meet one (or more) requirements. Supplier than equivocates, plays down requirement, says how difficult it will be to meet the requirement – and, crucially, exaggerates how much longer it would take to implement. These supplier meetings are inevitably attended only by senior management.

The senior managers take the suppliers at their word: the suppliers are helping the managers meet their performance measure, whereas their own staff are arguing against (in the managers’ view) delivering the project on time.

The project staff’s concerns are over-ruled, the project gets implemented (roughly) on time, the suppliers get away with supplying a product that does not meet requirements, and the managers get a favourable performance review and in some cases a performance-related pay bonus.

The project is (internally) deemed a success, regardless of whether it meets the original requirements, and regardless of the degree of “external” success (i.e. how well it serves the public/users). It is in no-one’s interest to highlight any shortcomings. If the shortcomings are unavoidable and/or sufficiently public, a second project is set-up to do what should have been done in the original project. This is seen as building on the “success” of the first project, and again counts as a tickbox performance measure for the managers. Two management performance measure ticks instead of one!

The project staff either tow the line, leave, or are gently made to understand that their concerns, though well-intentioned, are not helping the organisation or their personal career prospects. The next generation of managers understand all too well what their performance will, and will not, be measured against.

And so it goes. I left :-)

Comment by Jim

Going to hell, eh? I believe I know the perfect musical accompaniment to their perpetual torment in the fiery pits of Hades. “C’mon girlfriend!”…

Comment by C Oates

Anon I think you’re putting too much faith in their hands! I think they specced it, it was delivered, everyone thought it was a job well done. Then Bruce and Blether got hold of it, they still thought they’d done a good job, and then suddenly the penny dropped. Queue much internal scrabbling around (aren’t the DTI trying to tell other people how accessible websites are a must!?) to cover things up, and then eventually they release a “lessons learned”, vague apologies, and it all goes away. Oh, after they spend probably as much again on fixing their cock-up: but it’s not their money remember. And it won’t affect their bonuses, even at the top.

Comment by anon2

C Oates, sorry no faith. I can confirm everything anon said. It’s pretty much the way it works across the board in the public sector. I too, left.

Comment by Adam

I’ve only just found this story, but as soon as I saw the name ‘Percussion’ (the CMS supplier) I had a sneaky feeling they may have been the cause. I had the misfortune on working with them when developing a large site for a very famous singer a few years back, and they were dreadful… cost loads, took ages, never delivered to brief, blamed us for the issues. To top it all off the ‘CMS’ they sold us didn’t even manage content, it simply spat out xml files. They have a nice plush office in Soho square though and loads of blokes with spikey hair and suits, so they get lots of big contracts like this.

Unfortunately, they will inevitably get plenty more jobs just like this in the future too, probably from the same managers at the DTI who they took out drinking to get this gig… ‘lessons learnt’ my arse.

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