The Department of Health is asking the heads of all primary care trusts across England to attend a private event at which the worldwide Chief Executive of Microsoft Steve Ballmer will address them on the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].
The unique event – from which the media are barred – is in October 2007 at Microsoft’s headquarters at Cardinal Place in London. A spokeswoman for Microsoft declined to confirm that Ballmer will be speaking at the event. She said only that he is expected to be in England at around this time.
However a list of keynote speakers for the event puts the Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft at the top: and it gives a short biography of Steve Ballmer.
The event comes six years after the co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates met the then Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street where an IT-based modernisation of the NHS was discussed.
The following year Blair approved the NPfIT at an NHS IT seminar at Downing Street in February 2002. The seminar was attended by representatives of Microsoft, along with ministers and business consultants.
The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has ordered the Cabinet Office to release papers on the NHS IT seminar at Downing Street, after Computer Weekly submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act in January 2005. But the Cabinet Office has not done so.
Microsoft is a major supplier to the NHS, but it is only one of several. The exclusivity of the October event may be perceived by other companies as giving Microsoft a commercial advantage.
A list of the keynote speakers at the event mentions no other supplier representatives.
The Department of Health regularly issues briefing notes to chief executives on important news and events, and recommends where action should be taken. On the Microsoft event it tells the chief executives of primary care trusts: “Read the information and book online … if unable to attend offer the place to either your Professional Executive Committee Chair of the Chair of the Board.”
The Department has told chief executives that the event will give them the skills to help them take on their new roles as senior responsible owners for the NPfIT. Under the NPfIT Local Ownership Programme, every chief executive of a primary care trust has become a senior responsible owner of the NPfIT.
The Cabinet Office had intended, in principle, that there should be only one senior responsible owner who would oversee a project or programme from concept to the objectives being achieved.
But now there are more than 150 senior responsible owners of the NPfIT. The October 2007 event will provide chief executives with an arena to “feedback the issues and challenges facing you at the moment”. It will also give them a chance to “understand the fundamental role of leadership in the successful delivery of IT enabled change at a local level”.
The chief executives will be able to question Ballmer and David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS, on any aspect of the NPfIT, and “discuss the issues around implementation of NPfIT in your patch”.
The closeness of the relationship between Department of Health and Microsoft is likely to work against any serious inroads of open source software into the NHS.
In November 2004 NHS Connecting for Health, which runs part of the NPfIT, announced a nine-year “ground-breaking deal with Microsoft”. The then Health Minister John Hutton said the deal would mean a saving of about £330m and allow the NHS to use up to 900,000 licences which would be held on a perpetual basis, not renewable annually.
The announcement said that the then Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, and Richard Granger, Director General NHS IT, had met with Microsoft’s Bill Gates that year  to “discuss Microsoft’s involvement with the NHS”.
But there is much secrecy around Microsoft’s dealings with the NHS, which is the subject of a separate blog entry.