The Commons’ public administration committee has concluded that the government’s lack of IT skills and over-reliance on an “oligopoly” of large contractors is a “recipe for rip-offs.”
In a report that echoes the findings of successive spending watchdog investigations into government IT, the committee says that the “overall record of developing and implementing new IT systems is appalling” despite an “obscene” amount of public spending.
Although it did not take evidence from the Department of Health, the committee’s verdict that “IT procurement has too often resulted in late, over budget IT systems that are not fit for purpose” sounds very like the latest National Audit Office verdict on the National Programme for IT in the NHS.
In its third report on the project, which focused on detailed care record systems, the NAO concluded that successive contract negotiations had delivered less functionality to fewer trusts for hardly any less money; so the programme had not delivered value for money and was unlikely to do so.
Committee chair Bernard Jenkin said: “The government has said that it is overly reliant on an ‘oligopoly’ of suppliers; some of our witnesses went further and described the situation as a ‘cartel’.
“Whatever we call the situation, it has led to an inexcusable situation that sees government waste an obscene amount of public money.”
The PASC acknowledges that while successive governments have failed at large IT projects, they have also tried to find out what keeps going wrong. Its report says the NAO found 30 major cross-government policies, reviews and strategies of IT from 2000 to 2010.
It also finds that most of these reviews identified common problems; such as projects being: too big; open to only a limited range of suppliers; duplicating work that had already been done elsewhere; not interoperating with other systems; being poorly managed; and failing to engage users.
The PASC also accepts that the present government has tried to address these problems; for example by: “creating a presumption against projects having a lifetime value of more than £100m”; creating an asset register and cross-public sector app store; promoting open source software and open standards; and trying to hold ministers and senior responsible owners to account.
The Cabinet Office, under its minister Francis Maude, has been leading on these efforts, and is known to be taking an active interest in the NPfIT local service provider contract that still has to be decided for the North, Midlands and East of England, where CSC has missed a number of deadlines to deliver Lorenzo to trusts.
However, the PASC says that it is still not clear that the government has “grasped the fundamental causes of failure or simply listed its systems.”
For example, it says the failure of many IT projects may be a symptom of a more deep-rooted tendency for departments to think about policy and IT in isolation from each other. And it says over-capacity in data centres and a lack of cross-public sector contracts with large companies may be a symptom of a more deep-rooted reluctance among Whitehall departments to work together.
The PASC recommends that to get to the root of the problems, the government needs to improve the information it has on how much it should be paying for IT goods and services, and also publish more information about what it has and how much it costs to run.
“All IT procurement contracts should be published in full to ensure transparency and restore trust,” it says. The report also calls for a wider supplier base, saying smaller contracts, common standards, and procurement changes are needed to encourage small and medium sized enterprises into the mix.
Finally, the report says the government needs to work in an “agile” manner and stop outsourcing its IT staff, so it has the “necessary skills and knowledge in house to manage suppliers and understand the potential IT has to transform services.”
In this light, the decision not to have an IT or informatics directorate in either the DH or the new NHS Commissioning Board may be seen as unfortunate.
© 2011 EHealth Media.
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