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The Zombie IT project that makes the case for digital

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 17, 2013
Today's Think G-Cloud conference in London provides a timely reminder of why the new direction of digital government is so essential to prevent further monstrosities like the NHS's grand IT nightmare.

Today diginomica is out in force at the Think G-Cloud conference in London.

G-Cloud is the national programme for cloud computing across the UK public sector. It's been talked about for many years in principle, but in practical terms has been around now for just over a year.

It's done pretty well for itself all told - advocating a whole new way of public sector procurement of IT services that hopes to shake off the bad practices of the past that have done so much harm to the reputation of government computing as well as costing the hard-pressed tax payers untold billions in wasted investment.

This past weekend, Denise McDonagh, outgoing Programme Director for the G-Cloud was made a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the Queen's Birthday Honours list.

Non UK readers, this is another quirk of UK life that demands too much effort to discuss here and now. But essentially the Queen has two birthdays a year - one biological, one official - and on her official birthday she doles out medals to the good, the great, the deserving - and an awful lot of establishment time servers, especially when you get up to the knighthood levels.

McDonagh, we're quick to point out, most definitely gets her CBE from the deserving category. Nominally it's for services to information technology, but really we think it's for her sterling work on the G-Cloud and delivering on a much needed revolution in government.

The undead

Aside from McDonagh's gong, UK taxpayers had a timely reminder of why G-Cloud and the wider digital push by the current government matter so much when the zombie-fied corpse of the most disgraceful public sector IT projects in history rose up to haunt us all again.

The NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) - a grandiose, over-ambitious, under-thought through abomination that has cost the UK taxpayer the best part of £10 billion and delivered…well, faff all really.

Other than seeming never ending revenue streams for large systems integrators which have cashed cheque after cheque for over a decade while coming under relentless fire from all side for lack of delivery.

Tony Blair, architect of the NHS IT folly

NPfIT was set up back in 2002 under the regime of then Prime Minister Tony Blair whose aching for all things modern caused him to dream of a hi-tech health service. This was the (short lived) age of Cool Britannia - and Blair had been hanging out with hi-tech figures like Bill Gates.

It took ten minutes for Blair to commission NPfIT apparently - the time allotted to a Department for Health civil servant – Sir John Pattison – make the case for what would become the National Programme.

In fact, more time seems to have been spent quibbling over the delivery time scale. Sir John reportedly suggested three years for the first phase of the Programme; but with an election looming Blair was thinking more in terms of two years.

Eleven years later, it's still not working.

All down hill 

It all went down hill from there. A man called Richard Granger was put in charge, picking up a £280,000 a year, pay packet - the highest in the UK civil service and not bad for a guy who got a 2.2 degree in geology after (according to his mum) failing his computer sciences degree!

The real damage came with the contracts. Or rather with the handling of the contracts and the suppliers who won them.

Granger boasted of striking hard deals with companies such as Accenture, CSC, Fujitsu and BT and of being ready to 'throw them off the sled' if they didn't meet the highest of standards. Deliver the goods or don't get paid!

Things went from bad to worse.

  • Accenture paid to get out of the deal. 
  • Fujitsu quit and is still pursuing compensation. 
  • Systems were not delivered in the main and when they were they didn't do what they were supposed to. 
  • Granger quit and moved to Australia. 
  • NHS execs tried to convince everyone that the project was under budget. It was - but only because nothing much had been delivered!
  • Auditors and MPs (and new Prime Minister David Cameron) all weighed in with increasingly ferocious criticism.

But still the damn thing rumbled on. It was like a giant bucket with a whole in it sitting under a tap that no-one dared switch off.

Then in 2011 the current UK government declared enough was enough and drove a stake through NPfIT's heart.

And so the nightmare was over.

Or was it?

Risen from the dead

Two weeks ago the government's National Audit Office (NAO) released a superficially upbeat report predicting in an end-of-life forecast that total benefits of NPfIt would in the end slightly surpass total costs - £10.7 billion v £9.8 billion.

But it's never that simple when it comes to this monstrosity of mismanagement. The NAO's own research showed that some parts of the programme have estimated benefits yet to be realised of 98%. In other words, only 2% of the ruddy thing has been delivered and is working the way it should be!

The NAO covered its back quickly by noting:

"It is important to stress the very considerable uncertainty that surrounds the benefit figures. Overall, around two-thirds of the total estimated benefits are future benefits that have yet to be realised."

Just as well it did as, in a related development, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons put Sir David Nicholson, the top man at the NHS and long term (unconvincing) apologist for the NPfIT, on the rack and uncovered some terrifying numbers in relation to the continued activities of CSC as one of the remaining prime contractors when the programme was 'terminated'.

Not only has the estimated value of CSC’s NPfIT contracts actually risen from £3.1 billion to £3.8 billion at today’s prices, but NHS officials expect to pay CSC a further £1.1 billion on top of the £1.1 billion it has already received.

That's another billion for work on a programme that was officially shut down a year ago.

On top of that the government seems to have paid CSC £100 million in compensation simply in order to change its contract as well as around £2.9 million in legal fees since the start of negotiations to close the contract.

Margaret Hodge MP - raging after the

Margaret Hodge, the fiery chair of the PAC, raged at Nicholson:

“It was a PR exercise to say you closed it..I think the impression you were trying to give was that you were closing the programme…All you were doing was shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic."

As for CSC, she dismissed the US systems integration giant as:

"this rotten company providing a hopeless system”.

And there could be an even higher price tag as Fujitsu and the government are still in legal negotiations.

Some £31.5 million has been spent on the DoH’s legal costs in the Fujitsu case to date. If the NHS loses its case, that price tag could soar.

And then, presumably, bang goes that slight benefits v cost lead that the NAO predicted.

Ah well, easy come, easy go.


This is the ongoing insanity that is the National Programme for IT - the worst public sector initiative in UK history.

A near £10 billion price tag - to date - for systems that after nearly 11 years have only managed to deliver 2% of the benefits they were intended to produce - and billions more yet to be spent on a programme that was supposedly put out of our misery over a year ago.

That is why G-Cloud and the drive towards digital government matter so much - so that abominations like NPfIT are consigned once and for all to the dustbin of history.

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