Serious cover-up of failing NHS IT Programme

Posted by Kevin Brady on Mon 21st August 2006 at 01:00 PM, Filed in Project /Programme Failures

Some weeks ago I published a post entitled - Management Consultants Friends or Foe where I reported on an article I had read in the Daily Mail.  In it Dr Paul Miller, leader of Britain’s hospitital doctors (Chairman of the British Medical Association Consultants Committee), mocked Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt’s recent boast that the HNS has had its best year ever. “How deluded can one get?”


The core of the article was the fact that the NHS was spending some £1 billion on Management Consultants last year, and the NHS was getting precious little for this money in terms of efficiency savings /fully functioning IT systems.

I have also mentioned in other posts that the £30 billion a year figure representing the annual cost of failed IT projects in the UK, is on course for a dramatic increase because of a number of government IT related programmes of work which are only awaiting the close attention of the National Audit Office :-

  • EDS Child Support Agency system. The system was declared months behind schedule (due to go live April 2003), functionally not fit for purpose (due to unspecified “technical problems” ) and £50 million over budget (original cost estimate £200 million).
  • NHS Medical Records System. This IT programme is said to be the most ambitious ever attempted by the health service and aims to link, in a single system, 117,000 doctors, 397,500 nurses and 128,000 scientists and therapists and about 300 hospitals by 2012. The real cost of the new programme is now quoted at £12.4 billion over 10 years, not the £6.2 billion quoted at the outset. It is already being discovered that despite all this extra expenditure the “choose and book” (key system feature) is already two years behind schedule.

Over the last year I have wondered how the government might attempt, at best, to deflect criticism away from these failing /failed IT Programmes of work or, at worst, spin them into IT delivery successes ?

One of the answers to this question came with the announcement last month of the closure of the CSA, which meant that its hugely costly IT system failure could be quietly buried along with the agencies demise. Clever or fortunate ? I know which one I would chose!

This left the more serious, and costly, NHS Medical Records System which I predict will be the countries largest ever recorded IT Programme Disaster. This has got to be a straight jacket even Harry Houdini would find difficult to get out of!

Then I read a very worrying article in the Sunday Times 20/08/06 by Jon Ungoed – Thomas & Tom Baird entitled “Labour Conceals NHS Criticism” and S straight away I put my coffee down (should be on the 9 o’clock news in my view).  The article described how the government, given time, could spin this potentially serious vote killer of an issue into a success through the bullying and eventual politicisation of the National Audit Office. The key sections of article run as follows:-

“Labour faces allegations of trying to undermine the independence of the National Audit Office after it successfully toned down the findings of an inquiry into the £12 billion NHS computer system. Documents released last week show how key passages in the NAO report were changed after interventions by the Department of Health officials. These included removing warnings about the difficulties of creating computerized records for every patient in the country. The NAO report on the scheme, published in June, was welcomed by NHS officials for its broad support of the programme. However, a draft of the report, dated January 26, 2006 and obtained by The Sunday Times under the Freedom of Information Act, warned of potential problems. It said:

- The Department of Health had failed to demonstrate “clear and effective leadership” to staff implementing the programme.
- NHS workers were worried “the confidentiality of patient information may be at risk”.
- The NHS lacked sufficient skills to support the delivery of the programme.
- Although there had been “substantial progress”, the programme faced “significant challenges”.

When the report was published six months later, the warning over departmental leadership had been removed: the paragraph highlighting doctors’ worries over confidentiality was also missing and the claim that the NHS did not have the required skills to deliver the programme had been dropped.
Instead the headings of the report were changed which gave more emphasis to what the project “has achieved”. Even the projected costs of the programme were cut from £13.4 billion in the final version. The key conclusion on the challenges was unchanged. One source who has worked closely with the NAO said: “It’s pretty clear the NAO were bullied into changing this report.”

This article discusses something of such national importance that I fail to understand why it didn’t knock off the front page the article entitled “Prescott Jr Profits from father’s land boom”. The only thing which separates the UK and its low levels of civil service corruption from countries like Nigeria /Italy and Spain where corruption of government officials is common place, is the independence and professionalism of our National Audit office. Without our National Audit office all independent case study data of IT project /programme failures would be almost nonexistent as explained in my posts Can Government Policy Reduce IT Project Failures Part 1 - Part 2

If the government can bully the National Audit office into altering these statements in a report on potentially the UKs largest ever recorded IT disaster, then I fear it will not be long before the only reliable well of information concerning IT project /programme failures in the UK will for ever run dry. This can only make the industries thrashing and flip-flop gyrations of between approaches such as outsourcing /insourcing and AGILE vs SSADM worse in their drive to reduce IT costs and increase IT project /programme success rates.


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The whole thing is an utter disgrace quite frankly and Patricia Hewitt far too smug for her own good.

Posted by Peter  on Tue 22nd August 2006 at 11:05 AM | #


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