Are briefings to ministers on the NPfIT optimistic?

Coverage of the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] in Computer Weekly was mentioned recently to Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Health. Hewitt dismissed our coverage as unhelpful.

As a former research director at Andersen Consulting, later Accenture, Hewitt will want to take in all the relevant facts before making up her mind on the likelihood of success of the NPfIT.

It is possible that Hewitt gets comprehensive briefings from her officials. Or, like some ministers in other departments, she may not always be given the full picture. Or she may not want to be given the full picture.

When two committees of the House of Commons – Public Accounts and Environment – investigated the failure of an IT-based project to introduce a single payment subsidy to farmers – the so-called Single Payment Scheme, run by the Rural Payments Agency – ministers said their briefings from officials had been overly optimistic.

One of the ministers in charge of the Single Payment Scheme, Lord Bach, said in evidence to the House of Commons’ Rural Payments Agency sub-committee on 23 October 2006 that civil servants came to him with a unified view of the nascent IT project.

“I would discuss that view and debate that view, always, as I said, bearing in mind risk factors involved. But I do think that, at the end of the day, some of the advice that I received from the Rural Payments Agency [in relation to the IT-based project being managed by the agency and its main supplier Accenture] was over-optimistic.”

Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told the Public Accounts Committee on 30 October 2006 that on the development project to support the Single Payment Scheme there had been a “conspiracy of optimism”. One wonders if there is an unjustified optimism too among the NPfiT’s ministers.

Ghosh told MPs: “There were problems about testing the IT against a real business process. Again, the [National Audit Office] report highlights that. Clearly, there was not a proper – what I would call model office – approach to testing.

“Management information was one of the very early victims of time and resource pressure. That meant, as I think the report says, that there was a conspiracy of optimism in the agency in terms of the achievability, in the end, of full payments starting in February 2006.”

Yesterday (27 November 2006), at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee, Labour MP Don Touhig, said that when he was a minister he was not always able to speak to grass-roots graded civil servants.

It would be understandable if Hewitt so wanted the best possible outcome on the NPfIT that she dwelt on only on its most hopeful aspects. But the main aim of our coverage of the NPfIT has been to tell it like it is.

Although this frankness may not be helpful to Hewitt we’d rather remain independently-minded, inquiring and realistic, than placidly Panglossian.