Heroic and Epic - Minister Stephen Timms in praise of NHS £12.4bn National IT plan

Stephen Timms, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has given his unqualified support for the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT] – and praised the scheme’s achievements using the words “heroic” and “epic”.

Timms is the minister largely responsible for the Comprehensive Spending Review which will set the budget allocations for departments for 2008 to 2011, so his support for the NPfIT indicates a possible willingness – under a Brown premiership – to continue funding for the troubled programme. The outcome of the review and the budgets for departments will be announced later this year.

At the Government UK IT Summit in London on 14 May 2007, Timms acknowledged none of the criticisms of the NPfIT by the all-party Public Accounts Committee.

Timms used to work in the IT industry, at Logica then Ovum. His comments on the NHS programme will be welcomed by those who want the scheme to be spoken of in public only in an enthusiastic and optimistic voice.

But his uncritical comments may further distance IT professionals, doctors and others from the programme. Some may believe that ministers are praising the programme for political reasons, because the investment is too large to allow any official affirmation of mistakes, whereas the board of a large private sector company might by now have undertaken a rigorously independent review of the programme. And board directors might have been willing to consider earnestly any criticisms that were motivated by a desire to stop money being wasted.

Timms told the conference that he wants public services to take advantage of the “huge opportunities which technological development is going to open up to us over the next few years”.

He continued:

“We have seen some very very important technology-enabled transformations in a number of key areas already but we are going to need a great deal more.

“As we prepare for a change of Prime Minister and plan in the work I am doing in the Treasury for public spending for the coming three year period it’s essential that we secure service improvements and greater economies.

“And it’s crystal clear that new technology gives some of our best opportunities of achieving both of those goals. In particular IT enables us to design public services around the needs of the users, rather than around the needs of convenience of the departments that are providing them.

“That potential we must take advantage of to the fullest possible extent. We can bring together data from different parts of government; we can drop the requirement for people to keep on telling us over and over again the same information; we can share services; we can share resources between different parts of the public service.

“And as we set the Comprehensive Spending Review objectives for the coming three year period, the highest government-wide priorities, they will almost all be cross-departmental in character and will need more smart use of IT to deliver them.

“IT brings challenges too: managerial and technical challenges that we need successfully to overcome – learning from our experience of what has worked well as well as from what hasn’t.”

He spoke of the “challenge of rising expectations” and the need to convert the voices of users into systems that meet their needs. He also referred to the digital divide – the conference was told that up to 20% of people in the UK do not use the Internet.

“We need to be clear sighted about those challenges but let’s be equally ambitious and confident about the opportunities to do everything we can to make them a reality. Nowhere are those opportunities greater than in the National Health Service and I pay tribute to the epic transformation underway in the NHS through investment in IT. It’s heroic in scale and it’s going to be transformational in impact.

“And I have no doubt at all, by contrast with many commentators today, that the future users of the health service are going to be very appreciative of the investment that is being made. So far more than 15 million prescriptions have been transmitted electronically, delivering a better service to patients and better value for money as well; around three million hospital appointments have been booked online through Choose and Book, offering greater choice and more convenience to patients.

“And perhaps the biggest success so far of the Connecting for Health project, 185 million digital images, that’s x-rays and scans, have been stored centrally, enabling doctors to access them immediately when they need them, reducing delays and reducing the risk of losing images as well.”

Blog Comment on the speech to follow

Public Sector It projects have only a 30% success rate – Government CIO