Yesterday Theresa May announced the demise of UKBA – it is being replaced by separate agencies for immigration and visas and for immigration policing.
It was interesting to see that one reason May cited for UKBA’s failings was its ‘inadequate’ IT systems. It isn’t difficult to see why. A number of years ago I was involved in discussions with the Agency, along with colleagues at Universities UK, to work out how the new points based immigration system would work with the education sector (the ‘Tier 4’ route). UKBA’s initial premise was that those wishing to bring in migrants (ie international students) would enter the data directly into the system. It was only when the potential cost of doing that was pointed out to them, allied with the fact that universities already possessed most of the data that UKBA required, did they consider the possibility of developing a mechanism of transferring data between institutional student records systems and the points based immigration system. This was despite universities and colleges being responsible for bringing in the most migrants into the country. Clearly there had been no assessment of the potential users of the system and consequently the needs of the biggest users had not been addressed. The points based system was specified as a closed system – there was no expectation that data would be transferred in or out but just viewed on a screen.
Once the argument had been won regarding the need for a data transfer mechanism, the specifications were delivered in a reasonably quick time. But this was something that was unplanned and institutions and suppliers had to make special provision in order to develop the extracts and imports required. UCISA has recognised that there is a need to plan for such developments and consequently has agreed relatively long lead times with sector agencies such as HESA and UCAS to ensure that there is adequate time for development, testing and implementation. With the points based system, however, we did not have the luxury of time. Nor did we have the luxury of a test system. Because there had been no consideration of interfaces to the points based system, there had been no provision for a system against which the developments could be tested. In the end, testing for suppliers and institutions was largely restricted to four days for everyone. That meant in practice, half a day to carry out the initial tests followed by a further half day to test any amendments. Predictably not everyone was ready when Tier 4 went live. Even now suppliers have nothing to test against when they develop new releases or when UKBA has changed their requirements.
So there is a promise that the ‘inadequate’ IT systems will be revamped. But to focus on the IT is misguided. The Home Office needs to take the opportunity to review all the processes around the visa application process and ensure that they are fit for purpose and deliver the good and effective customer service that May said would be the focus of the new visa agency. As many have learnt to their cost, without process change the best that revamping the IT will do will make bad processes run faster. Once the processes have been refined, we can move onto the IT. It is to be hoped that, in this era of open government and transparency, the education sector will be recognised as a major stakeholder and will be fully involved in scoping the new processes and system, with efficient data transfer mechanisms between institutional and Agency systems. The development of the new system needs to be adequately resourced and the needs of those developing interfaces to and from it need to be considered. Without process review, involvement of the key stakeholders and a well-funded development, the promises of an improved service will founder.