Agency ‘sprints’ to new software finishing line

The Skills Funding Agency has announced an “agile project management approach” to developing software following the implementation of this year’s troubled new Funding Information System (Fis).

It said it was employing a “number of smaller teams working in two-week bursts of activity, known as sprints”.

The new system is being used to develop Fis and the “learning aims rates service” for 2014/15. It is understood that two “sprints” have already taken place.

The move comes after current software systems were introduced that continue to be plagued with problems.

However, an agency spokesperson said: “Rather than develop a new Fis each year, we will add a new funding year module to the existing system.

“The advantage of this new way of working is that measurable improvements are made to each system on a regular basis.

“The project team is also able to adapt its delivery objectives very quickly to take account of feedback and external requirements.”

It should provide some hope for providers’ management information systems (MIS) staff who have been unable to download current software and, in some cases when they have, keep getting unreliable funding reports.

Stephen Hewitt, Morley College’s strategic funding, enrolments and examinations manager, said: “It’s a little bit silly using words like sprint, particularly when you look at how long it has taken to get the funding software right.

“But I suppose those are the words people use for this sort of thing and we are hardly free of silly jargon in this sector.

“If their new way of doing things did help finally develop Lars and solved the problems with Fis then that would definitely be a good thing.”

The current Fis should have been available in August last year, but was not released until November — and providers say it is still giving unreliable funding data reports.
The learning aims reference system (Lars) should also have been available by last August.

However, providers are still having to use Lars Lite instead — a temporary downloadable database from the agency that providers claim is also producing unreliable data.

Private contractor Trinity Expert Systems was originally hired by the agency to develop Lars through a contract thought to be worth more than £5m.

But it went into administration last year and was bought-out by London-based Liberata IT Solutions.

The agency and Liberata, which took over Trinity Expert Systems in October, declined to comment on whether administration had disrupted the development of Lars.

Nevertheless, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock told FE Week earlier this year that he took “full responsibility” for the problems.

“I take full responsibility for everything that happens in my portfolio, including within the agency and these IT problems. I am very sorry for the disruption caused by the new system,” he said. “We have continued to pay all providers on time, and will work to resolve the problems as soon as possible.”

However, the agency’s new approach was given short shrift by Shadow Skills Minister Liam Byrne, who criticised the Department for Business, innovation and Skills (BIS).

He said: “Under this government, BIS couldn’t even manage a slow walk towards operational efficiency when it comes to skills funding, let alone a sprint.”

It is understood the launch date for Lars has now been put back to at least May.

“We appreciate that there are still improvements we can make and will continue to work with the sector to identify these,” said an agency spokesperson.

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  1. Codswallop. Every part of the [very late] project was done in an agile manner exactly as described so nothing has changed at all so this is just a smokescreen so the SFA can pretend they have already taken corrective action and there is no need for anyone external (NAO or Shadow BIS) to look at what really happened. It is also disingenuous to draw attention to Trinity / Liberata as they were only in dire straits thanks to the nonsense of this project. It sunk them, they did not sink it. The technical design the SFA IT people came up with was too complicated. Do not forget that the SFA designed the software and the SFA managed the project. The suppliers were just told to do as they were told and had no way to influence the crazy direction.

    • Agree with Anon
      If Governments keep changing the funding rules and methodology every year then no wonder it takes time for software houses to play ‘catch up’ particularly when more complex rules are added and flawed funding systems created. You can run a coach and horses through the 16-18 study programme. Could you write a FIS that allows providers to make up their own rules ” I’ve planned it so it must be worth ….”!!??

  2. Peter Talbot

    It seems to me that the SFA have simply tried to replicate the previous LIS system rather than consider alternative models, and have made some bad technical decisions. The choice of clickonce deployment together with SQL Express was bound to make the software problematic on college networks. Since most providers deliver a limited set of subjects and work with local students and relatively few employers, distributing a vast database of learning aims, employers, postcodes etc., to every user is a complete waste of resources. There are bound to be lots of updates and fixes in the early days, so users are collectively spending thousands of hours downloading changes to their desktops. A cloud-based application would not have had these issues.

    • The SFA IT people are not very good so just took an old design, played around with it and added some new technologies (because nothing says “low risk” like trying new technology!!!).

      “How hard can it be?” they thought “After all, we are really clever freelancers and we have been here a long time so we must be good. Our £800/day rates say we are too.”.

      That is why every one of us who has worked with this has been able to say that A is the new version of B, C is the new version of D and so forth. It is all just the same as it was before but this time it doesn’t work as well.

      It is £15-20m (plus our costs!!!) of legacy system from day one and if SFA appoint anyone with any real technical knowledge (heaven forbid) they would probably insist on starting from scratch. But knowing SFA IT the same old faces will already be at central govt, cap in hand, saying “Phase 1 went well so could we just have another £10m pretty please?”.