How the BBC blew £100 million of your licence fee

Introducing Bogpaper’s Techno Geek James Eadon

Resident Bogpaper Geek, Eadon shall be reporting weekly on the dark side of techie stuff, with an emphasis on the scandalous and digital FAIL horror stories. What better horror story to start with than a BBC TECH DISASTER FROM HELL?

The BBC splashed 100 million pounds on a failed programming project called The Digital Media Initiative (DMI). The business goal of the project was to allow TV producers to improve their efficiency and productivity. The idea was to create a vast repository of existing digital media (e.g. TV footage) and add to it older media that exists on tape. Then the aim was to share this vast trove of digital data within the BBC and with approved external parties. A layer of software programs were to be developed on top of this data to help the producers work with the data and help them to produce programmes.

The project failed and has been binned by the BBC.

The U.K. parliamentary committee, which analyses public spending, condemned the 2011 BBC’s DMI project status update report to the UK Government. “The thing that really shook me is we were told there were bits of this system that were working, you were using and running programs with them, and that wasn’t true,” quoth committee chair Margaret Hodge, seemingly accusing the BBC of lying.

Now if a politician accuses you of lying, you know you’re on dodgy ground. And that’s before blowing £100 million of licence payer’s hard-earned on an uncontrolled project. A silver lining is that the BBC has a smaller budget with which to broadcast left wing propaganda.

What went wrong? First you need to know how huge computer projects are organised.

In large projects the work gets chopped up to make it more manageable. How? First you define a series of deliveries (called “releases”), one following another over time. Each release is broken up into “streams”, chunks of work that can be worked on by distinct teams in parallel. In turn each stream is chopped up into what are called “phases” of the “life-cycle”. Firstly you capture business requirements. Then you analyse those requirements in terms of what computers can do to meet them. Then you design the software. Then you program (create) the software (which is where programmers come in) then you test the software, then you deploy it to production computer systems.

Contrary to popular belief, only about one in ten man-days of a large computer project are spent doing programming. It is relatively rare for large projects to fail due to poor software programmers, because poor quality work in this area is relatively cheap to detect and fix. So if the programmers are not the cause of the failure of the BBC project, then who is?

The critical part of the project life cycle is the first part, where the requirements are defined, which is the “scope” of the project. If the scope is over ambitious then the project will either fail, or it will be late and deliver fewer features than planned. If requirements significantly change over time then you have to throw away work and perform new work. That is called “rework”. Change and rework are inevitable. If you have too much change and that change does not simplify the project, that is a project killer! Over-ambition and change are the two greatest risks to a large computer project.

Managers are responsible for the scope of the project and for minimising the amount of rework needed to be done on the project. In the case of the BBC DMI project the scope was over ambitious and there was too much change. The changes made the project even more over ambitious. The risks involved were enormous. Consequently costs spiralled as risks metamorphosed into disasters. That was the fault of the BBC management, all the way to the top. So who controls the BBC management?

The BBC self-regulates via the BBC trust. The watchdog was wilfully blind and betrayed the trust invested in it. The BBC trust did not consider it a high priority to evaluate the DMI project based on costs, the DMI became sacred and was a law unto itself. The fallacy of not controlling costs is relatively typical of the Public Sector. In contrast, the private sector keeps the purse strings tight, because failing to do so quickly leads to lost cash flow, evaporated profits and bankruptcy. (Unless you’re a profligate bank, in which case you perversely get rewarded by “bail outs”, which is why banks are socialist systems rather than capitalist systems, in effect).

The DMI problem was exacerbated by internal BBC politics. Management at the BBC operates in the shadows and it would not have been difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the BBC Trust. Managers have an instinct to hide bad news for fear of compromising their careers. If you want to succeed then do not rock the boat is a management motto and whistle blowers are severely punished by the public sector.

So the BBC computer system did not fail for techie reasons but due to the abject failure of regulation combined with internal politics at the BBC.

Why does this failure matter anyway?

Imagine setting fire to a ten pound note and feeling bad about the loss. Now imagine doing that a million times. If the BBC had done that instead of financing the DMI computer project then it would have saved the licence payer £90,000,000! However the BBC did what socialists do: profligately spend other people’s money.Request Feedback

Furthermore the environmental impacts of such a vast project are gigantic. The megawatts of electricity, commuting fuel and indeed food consumed by people working on the hundred million pound project over the years were wasted, as no product of value was created. Because of its inefficiency, the BBC is an environmental nightmare, but I doubt that the champagne socialists that run the corporation will care too much about that. Hypocrisy? They’ve heard of it.

To conclude, behold the £100,000,000 BBC FAIL.

13 comments on “How the BBC blew £100 million of your licence fee

  1. Brian the Rhetaur
    June 18, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    We knew the story. Thanks for the detailed analysis.

  2. John Duffield
    June 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    Sadly it’s an all-too familiar story. In my experience part of the problem is that “management” will not hire strong project managers who tell them how it’s got to be if they want the project to succeed. And then when it all goes tits up, even deputy heads don’t roll.

  3. Anthem
    June 18, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    I obviously don’t know the specifics but what the BBC aimed to do here doesn’t actually sound that ambitious.

    It’s a big project, of course, but £100million should have been more than enough to cover it.

    I’m thinking along the lines of Youtube which was initially setup for a mere $11.5 million.

    It all just sounds like one big database to me and the biggest job with something like this would seem to be actually getting the data into it (converting decades of analogue recordings to digital would have been a massive undertaking).

    I don’t know… something still smells a bit fishy to me… follow the money….

  4. James Eadon
    June 19, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    @John Duffield – spot on. Yes men are preferred to guys that tell it like it is, who do not know how the game is played.

    @Anthem – When I said over-ambitious, I meant what the managers define as the scope of the project compared to what is a more sensible scope.
    £100 million is a brobdingnagian sum of cash, but IT projects excel at burning through cash, which is why it is critical to scope the project correctly and stick to that scope and/or simplify where possible.
    “just sounds like one big database” – a data repository might be closer to the techie reality of it. A relational “database” organises data into tables (a table being a grid of rows and columns) and is not usually the best tool to handle data that is a) large multimedia datasets and b) larger than terrabytes (a terabyte is a million megabytes).
    Also digitising and storing data is only part of the problem, the other problem is how to make that data searchable and accessible by non-technical TV producers.
    These kinds of problems are called “Big Data” and the BBC attempted to reinvent the wheel (the “Not Invented Here” syndrom that affects hubristic organisations like the BBC) when they could have used an existing solution.
    It is these kinds of decisions that non-technical managers are not equipped to make, yet non-technical, politically motivated managers are often the ones with the power.

  5. jdseanjd
    June 19, 2013 at 7:45 am #

    It’s all part of the Grand Plan.
    If you want to take over a country by stealth, rather than with tanks, one strategy is to bankrupt it.

    This leaves said country in need of a huge bailout from the IMF, & hey presto, we have a new set of masters, the IMF, the World Bank & the Banking Cartel behind them.

    This is why the crypto-marxists of Greenpeace & their “environmentalist” ilk want offshore wind farms built: the construction & maintenance costs will be horrendous, & the production of electricity will be miniscule.

    Which of our politicians, civil servants, charities & organisations such as the profoundly left wing BBC are in the know re this strategy, & which are dupes?

    That is the question.

  6. hyperdaz
    June 19, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    The BBC did a good job with iplayer which was vastly more technical and challenging, I don’t understand what made storage and search so hard, for a 100 million they could of probably bought a datacenter ran it as normal with existing customers and built their environment in unused space. Has to be a financial/management cover up black hole…. blame it on the tech them techies made us do it.

    The BBC is commercially viable without the need for the tax.. the rest of the world also pays for its programs… how much has too gear made globally over the last ten years…. even with the amazingly dreadful US remake.

  7. silverminer
    June 19, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Stop feeding the beast! Don’t watch the leftist crud they produce live (or, more sensibly, at all) and you don’t have to pay them a penny. Apparently, I’m one of 400,000 who’ve realised this. Add a zero to that and they’ll be up shit creek…

    • Beethoven
      June 20, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

      Unfortunately, the refuseniks have been compensated for, ten-fold, by the immigrant flood. The larger the population, the larger the BBC budget.

  8. MadPole
    June 19, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    Burning large amounts of money allegedly helps to reduce inflation and strengthen the economy. Trying to manage unknown can be costly and unpredictable, Boening’s Dreamliner being one of the latest widely reported examples.

    So what’s the big deal then? What’s the issue here? I guess it is to do with mis-representation and certain lack of democratic or free market process. Boeing has every right to throw away money obtained from its customers and shareholders. But Boeing’s customers and shareholders have every right to withhold their funds if they believe they are being wasted.

    Guaranteed, secured funding must be spent, by whatever means, to prove that it is needed. The only way to stop financial wastage of BBC is to allow licence payers to vote with their money.

  9. James Eadon
    June 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    “The only way to stop financial wastage of BBC is to allow licence payers to vote with their money.”

    If people weren’t so addicted to the horror of TV then all would be well with the world. Meanwhile, people keep buying TV licences alas.

  10. Bob
    June 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Hi James,

    In full disclosure, I work for one of the companies that supplied into the DMI project, and I would like to say you are correct, but you have not even scratched the surface of what went on with DMI.

    I would be happy to discuss in more detail, but won’t post it here.

    You have my email address if you are interested.

  11. Jeremy
    June 21, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    Quite remarkable the soft responses to this great theft out of your pockets!! As an Australian i am getting robbed by a different body , but it is the same! why have your elected representatives not sacked every person in the heirarchy down to the weekend cleaners?? These people are thieves!~!!

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