Background to the report

Upgrading or replacing legacy systems and improving information at the border through digital transformation programmes has been an ambition of the Home Office (the Department) since the launch of its e-borders programme in 2003. But in 2010, the Department cancelled its contract to deliver a single e-borders system, citing failure to achieve milestones, as set out in our 2015 report E-borders and successor programmes. In 2014, the Department started its Digital Services at the Border programme (the programme), as a new attempt to achieve its objectives by March 2019 through replacing the legacy systems Warnings Index and Semaphore (which are respectively 26 and 16 years old). The Department considers these legacy systems increasingly expensive, difficult to maintain and unfit for the future needs of government.

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The Department intends that the programme will provide UK Border Force staff with better information to make decisions about people crossing the border than current systems. The programme is crucial to delivering the Department’s overall objectives for national security at the border. Since 2014, the Department has changed its strategic priorities to support its broader ambition for a digitised immigration system (Future Border and Immigration System, FBIS) and provide the border controls required following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. In 2019, due to these changes, scope creep and poor programme performance, the Department decided to reset the programme, reducing some elements of its scope (and adding new elements) and pushing delivery back to the end of March 2022.

Content and scope of the report

This report assesses the Department’s progress in delivering the programme. It examines:

  • progress in achieving the Department’s objectives for digitising the border up to 2019;
  • the Department’s reset of the programme; and
  • the remaining risks facing the Department in delivering the programme.

Report conclusions

Between 2014 and 2019, the Department did not achieve value for money against its plans to deliver the Digital Services at the Border programme. As a result of both internal and external factors, the Department did not deliver the programme by its original timetable of March 2019, with only one of the programme’s planned three systems (Border Crossing) in live operation at that point. These difficulties meant that the Department had to continue using legacy systems which are increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain and delayed its objective of giving UK Border Force officers better information with which to make decisions about people crossing the border.

The Department’s decision in July 2019 to reset the programme provides it with a clearer focus on Border Crossing and offers a more realistic delivery plan. Since March 2020, board and external reviewer confidence about programme delivery has also increased. The Department has strengthened the programme’s governance, leadership and delivery capability, better understands the challenges it faces and is working to address them. But the reset decision has extended the programme’s delivery timescale by three years and the additional cost to the taxpayer of not delivering to its original timetable is £173 million. The Department is re-using some work done prior to reset but has missed some post-reset milestones, has only recently re-engaged with users, needs to complete the more technically complex aspects of the programme and must manage multiple key dependencies. Therefore, the Department still faces significant risks in delivering and integrating its new systems against a challenging timetable. And there are wider risks to value for money if it cannot successfully integrate Border Crossing, Semaphore changes and other interdependent programmes in order to deliver its ambitions for the digital border as a practical reality.

“The Digital Services at the Border programme did not achieve value for money by March 2019, failing to deliver what it intended and leaving Border Force staff to rely on outdated legacy systems.

“Since resetting the programme, there have been improvements and the Home Office has a better understanding of the significant risks and challenges ahead. It now needs to build on this work to ensure that it can deliver the programme at the pace and scale it requires.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (9 Dec 2020)

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