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Successful IT systems
Successful IT systems

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1.2 A failed system

We will move on to look at an example of what is widely viewed as a failed IT system.

Box 2: A failed IT system – the BBC Digital Media Initiative

Tara Conlan and Charles Arthur

The BBC has suspended its chief technology officer and admitted wasting nearly £100m on a five-year project intended to make the corporation ‘tapeless’, saying that to continue with the project would be ‘throwing good money after bad’.

The Digital Media Initiative (DMI) was supposed to create a production system linked to the BBC’s huge broadcasting archive, but flaws in the system peaked in April when instead of streamlining access to old video footage, it caused chaos following Margaret Thatcher’s death.

Video editors were unable to access archive footage to use in news reports via computers in New Broadcasting House in central London. Instead they were forced to ferry tapes there by taxi and tube from the archive storage facility in Perivale, north-west London.

In an email to all BBC staff on Friday, director-general Tony Hall said he was halting DMI and admitted: ‘We have a responsibility to spend licence-fee payers’ money as if it was our own and I’m sorry to say we did not do that here.’

One insider called the DMI project ‘the axis of awful’, while another source said: ‘The scale of the project was too big and it got out of hand.’

John Linwood, the BBC’s chief technology officer who was responsible for the running of the project, has temporarily been replaced by BBC News head of technology Peter Coles. Linwood was appointed in 2009 from Yahoo and had formerly worked at Microsoft. He receives a £287,000 salary and was one of four of the organisation’s top managers to receive a bonus last year – in his case amounting to £70,000.

BBC Trust member Anthony Fry said the project had ‘generated little or no assets’ for the corporation. In a letter to Margaret Hodge MP, who chairs the public accounts committee, which investigated the project, he said: ‘This is because much of the software and hardware which has been developed could only be used by the BBC if the project were completed, a course of action which, due to technological difficulties and changes to business needs, would be, I fear, equivalent to throwing good money after bad.’

DMI has cost £98.4m, and was meant to bring £95.4m of benefits to the organisation by making all the corporation’s raw and edited video footage available to staff for re-editing and output. In 2007, when the project was conceived, making a single TV programme could require 70 individual video-handling processes; DMI was meant to halve that.

An independent review by PricewaterhouseCoopers will investigate what went wrong in the project management, control and governance. Some problems were significant: after just 24 months, the project was 21 months behind schedule.

Hall said off-the-shelf tools were now available that could do the same job ‘that simply didn’t exist five years ago’, and that all the assets from the project are being written off. The BBC declined to specify which editing tools Hall was referring to. Avid’s Pro Tools and Apple’s Final Cut Pro software are popular with other professional sound and video editors, but both have been available for more than a decade.

Only DMI’s ‘Fabric archive database’, first rolled out in 2012 to help staff search and request access to tapes and other media, will be retained – although even that is understood also to have been criticised by users as slower than existing libraries with tape copies, and was the system that failed calamitously after Thatcher’s death.

Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East, said: ‘The BBC spent well over £100m experimenting with a system that it appears was highly unlikely to work. It is a disaster for the BBC but a bigger disaster for the licence fee payer.’

The BBC initially awarded a £79m contract to Siemens in February 2008 without open competition, a Public Accounts Select Committee report noted in April 2011, but no technology was delivered and it was terminated in July 2009. The BBC then brought the project in-house, clawing back £27.5m from Siemens – but was still unable to bring costs under control, and did not deliver the software required.

The PAC in 2011 noted that instead of saving £17.9m, the DMI had cost it a net £38.2m. It expected that the DMI would be delivered by summer – but that deadline slipped, and the forecast benefits slipped to an overall cost to the corporation.

(Conlan and Arthur, 2013)