Big IT based projects: benefits of an independent review over an internal one

This is one of a series on this blog of some of more memorable comments made by witnesses and MPs at an inquiry into the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] by the Health Committee of the House of Commons.

The witnesses at the first hearing on 26 April 2007 were:

– Richard Granger, Director General of IT for the NHS and head of the NPfIT

– Harry Cayton, National Director for Patients and the Public, Department of Health

– Dr Gillian Braunold, a GP and National Clinical Lead for GPs, Connecting for Health.

Martyn Thomas, visiting Professor of Software Engineering, University of Oxford,

Dr Paul Cundy, Chair, General Practitioners’ Joint IT Committee

Andrew Hawker, NHS Patient

A list of who is on the committee is at the end of this article.

At the Health Committee hearing the chairman Kevin Barron asked Martyn Thomas why he was calling for an independent review of the NPfIT. Barron’s view appeared to be that the facts independent reviewers would discover would already be known to the project team. So why have an independent review? In reply Thomas gave a sound summary of the benefits of an independent review over one commissioned internally.

Barron asked: “Do you think that people who are involved in the National IT Programme at the moment are aware and conscious of those facts, whether reviews have been published or not in terms of that? Do you think they are not capable of knowing that as something in their daily business, as it were? The programme is not without its problems. Are these people who are developing it not capable of being able to do that?”

Thomas replied: “I have reviewed a lot of large technical programmes over the years, and I want to stress, I am not asking to review this one personally, I am not for a second bidding for that job, but my experience of carrying out those reviews is that people get blinded by the fact that they are too close to the project and they get compromised by the fact that they cannot stand back and admit errors.

“What typically happens is that people start redefining what the milestones meant in order to claim success for milestones and to put off the day when they have to admit that things have gone wrong, and they start arguing about what it was they really were setting out to do at the beginning, so they start getting a bit weaselly about what the specification really was, and the whole business justification is lost because the costs have changed, the specification has changed and the balance between what you are going to get and what it is going to cost you has gone wrong in two directions; and the people on the programme are not motivated to stand back and say that because they have got this vision, ‘One more heave and we will get there.’

“It takes somebody who does not have a stake in the programme to come in and stand back and say, ‘The reality is this, and we need to make appropriate changes if we are to achieve sensible things and sensible milestones’.”


Membership of the House of Commons’ Health Committee

Kevin Barron, Labour, Rother Valley – Chairman

Mr David Amess, Conservative, Southend West

Charlotte Atkins, Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands

Mr Ronnie Campbell, Labour, Blyth Valley

Jim Dowd, Labour, Lewisham West

Sandra Gidley, Liberal Democrat, Romsey

Stewart Jackson, Conservative, Peterborough

Dr Doug Naysmith, Labour/Co-operative, Bristol North West

Mike Penning, Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

Dr Howard Stoate, Labour, Dartford

Dr Richard Taylor, Independent, Wyre Forest