NHS National Programme for IT: a lesson in project scoping

Computer Weekly’s recent interview with Christine Connelly, director general for infomatics at the Department for Health, illustrates the challenges IT departments face when dealing with major IT suppliers.

A National Audit Office report published a few weeks ago found that the controversial £11.4 NHS National  Programme for IT (NPfIT) offered poor value for money. Connelly says that if she were to design the project today, she would include tighter contract terms.

“When writing a contract that says everything is to hinge on the delivery of a product, it should have a very clear statement that if the product is not there by an amount of time, then everything else in the contract becomes void.”

Connelly is referring to Lorenzo, the patient administration system. She admit it was over-ambitious to expect this system – which was not avaialble when the programme began – to be fully functional as NPfIT rolled out across the UK.

A so-called strategic supplier relationship involves trust on both sides. A CIO buys into an IT supplier’s long-term plans and pilots early adopter technologies. The supplier commits to delivering the product on time and, ideally takes on board feedback from the customer, making the product a closer fit to the CIO’s requirements.

However, in a long-term contract, particularly when the product may take years to develop, it is hard to see why any CIO would want to be the guinea pig who willingly funds the IT supplier’s R&D effort. Being second past the post has its advantages – at least you can see where the first early adopter struggled. 

Going forward, Connelly is planning to deploy much smaller scale projects that allow NHS Trusts to choose which bits they want, and how they wish to configure them.

This seems a sound strategy – and one that is not limited to the Department for Health. While a top down approach to IT can work in some global and geographically dispersed organisations, it may be better to give local business units the opportunity to choose their own destiny.