10 years tickling the toes of NHS IT suppliers

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When Richard Granger, then the director-general of NHS IT, signed the contracts for the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in 2003, he famously promised he would hold the suppliers' "feet to the fire."

Ten years on, it's clear that the contracts instead called for the NHS to rub their feet and tickle their toes until the suppliers' wallets were full.

The many woes of what is now £10bn of taxpayers' money wasted on NPfIT have been well documented in Computer Weekly and elsewhere, and are too painful to repeat ad nauseum here.

But the latest report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) should be made compulsory reading for anybody in Whitehall IT before they select any supplier and negotiate a contract. It's a best practice guide for how not to work with IT companies.

Take, for example, this statement from the PAC report:

"The contract with CSC - signed in 2003 - was originally worth a total of £3.1bn. However, 10 years on, CSC has still not delivered the necessary software and not a single trust has a fully functioning Lorenzo care records system. The extraordinary lack of progress on Lorenzo is illustrated by the Department [of Health]'s statement during the course of our hearing that, at what it describes as the 'key site' of Morecambe Bay, the Lorenzo system is working fully 'with the exception of the parts of the software that have not been fully delivered'."

CSC was originally contracted to provide patient records systems to 220 NHS trusts. Today, it is expected that just 22 trusts will end up using the Lorenzo software - and several of those trusts are even being given multimillion-pound financial incentives by the department to help them implement Lorenzo.

Despite the fact that not a single NHS trust has a fully functional Lorenzo implementation - not one - 10 years after the contract was signed and several years after it was due to be delivered, the NHS was still advised that it could not simply walk away from the contract.

How much more evidence of non-performance does a supplier have to demonstrate before they are thrown off a government deal?

As committee member Richard Bacon MP put it: "The contracts were let in an enormous hurry, in total secrecy, bound up with huge confidentiality clauses, and it was only after they were all signed - quite rapidly after - that people became aware that the contracts would not deliver what was required."

In an act that offers some small mitigation for the Department of Health, it did actually throw one supplier out of its NPfIT contract - Fujitsu, in 2008. But five years later, after £31.5m has been spent on legal fees, the department remains in arbitration with Fujitsu and may yet be forced to pay compensation to the supplier.

That's a lot of money to spend on a barbeque when you don't even know if the coals are hot enough to singe the supplier's tootsies.

The PAC MPs called NPfIT "a fiasco", and increasingly it seems they were being kind in such a description. Perhaps from here on we should refer to each future government IT disaster as "doing a Lorenzo", in honour of the CSC deal - quite possibly, there may even be a contractual clause that means we have to.

But for sure the £10bn NHS National Programme for IT will go down in history as the biggest Lorenzo of them all.

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