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NHS data project ‘late, over-budget and doesn’t deliver’ - sound familiar?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 30, 2015
The UK government has been lambasted once again by an influential committee for failing to properly deliver an NHS IT project. It serves as a timely reminder for 2016.

Health practitioner hold laptop on drawn chalkboard
(via Adobe Stock)
It seems fitting that on the eve of a new year the influential UK Public Accounts Committee decided to release a report heavily criticising an NHS data project for being late, over-budget and not delivering - given that we are entering into 2016 with high hopes for digital transformation in Whitehall and are being told that government-as-a-platform could be the new way for citizens to interact with the public sector.

However, as the committee’s report highlights, this failed project shows Whitehall has not learnt from its past mistakes and IT projects continue to follow a path of failure, wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers money.

The project in question was labelled the General Practice Extraction Service (GPES), which was intended to allow eight NHS organisations extract data from all GP practice computer systems in England. The data extracted was supposed to allow these organisations to monitor quality, plan and pay for health services, as well as keep up with medical research.

But, as the report outlines, the system falls woefully short of its intended capabilities, has come in £26 million over budget and there have been a number of failings on the government’s part, as well as the part of the supplier (Atos).

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

Once again we see a failure in a Government IT project at huge cost to the taxpayer.

It’s incredible that basic mistakes on contract and project management are still being made, from inadequate testing to woeful governance.

We keep calling for 'lessons to be learned' and keep receiving reassurances from senior accounting officers that they are. Yet the same issues occur time after time. It’s simply not good enough.

The Government needs to get its house in order, properly address these very serious failings and ensure public money is not squandered in such an irresponsible manner.

The failings

Work on the GPES project began in 2007, when it was the responsibility of the NHS Information Centre, which initially designed and ran the project. The project was also overseen by the Department of Health, which approved the business case and provided the required funding, as well as technical expertise.

NHS Information Centre, however, also awarded a contract to Atos in December 2011 to produce the central software required to interact with the GP systems. Since then, NHS Information Centre has closed and all responsibility has transferred to the new Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).

The main conclusions and failings of the report are:

GPES is late, over-budget and still does not deliver all that was intended - The committee found that the original business case expected the service to start in 2009-2010, but it actually took until April 2014 for the first data extract to be provided to an organisation. The expected cost of the project also increased from £14 million to £40 million, with at least £5.5 million of write-offs. The department has admitted it is not getting value for money and that the service is only delivering about half of what it was specified to do. To top it all off, HSCIC is now considering whether to try and improve the system or just replace it.

The original project team did not have the right skills or experience to build GPES and the governance structure was not fit for purpose - The was an “exceptionally high level of staff turnover in key roles”, with ten project managers over a five year period and three Project Board Chairs over three years. The department did nothing about this. The committee also found that because NHS Information Centre had signed off the Atos element of the system and made public announcements about the success of GPES, the government later had not practical legal recourse when the system turned out not to work.

Atos did not show an appropriate duty of care to the taxpayer - The committee said that it was not satisfied that Atos provided proper professional support to an inexpert client and added that it was very concerned that Atos appears to have acted solely with its “own short term best interests in mind”.

Whitehall is not learning from past failures in IT projects and is repeating the same mistakes - The committee, rightly so, highlighted that the project exhibits many weaknesses common to other high profile IT failures such as the National Programme for IT in the NHS, the Single Payment Scheme and Tax Credits. These failures include; lack of staff continuity, inadequate testing, the wrong contracting approach and a governance structure which was not fit for purpose.

The year ahead

As we head into 2016, this report serves as a timely reminder of why things need to change with new digital investments made possible by the recent Spending Review - especially given the ambitions plans for government-as-a-platform.

It’s evident that the old way of doing things just doesn’t work. You would have thought that this would have been evident a number of years ago, but there is still a mindset within Whitehall that thinks that working

+big fail2
this way is the only option for ‘solid IT’.

But the problem with that is that there are very few examples of these projects actually delivering ‘solid IT’. However, we can list endless examples of where things have gone catastrophically wrong. And those examples of IT cock-ups all have the same disastrous themes - lack of skills, under-scoped, poorly tested, motivated by self-interest, badly designed and procured.

These are the basics.

It’s also worrying that the NHS thought it appropriate to publicly announce that the project was a major success, when in fact it hadn’t been properly tested or proven to work, which meant that when things truly went wrong it didn’t have a legal foot to stand on. It seems that the ‘image’ of the government’s capabilities in the short term are more important than taxpayers money.

Let’s put a stop to this in 2016.

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