I’ve posted on this blog answers to questions I had put to two senior executives who are running the £5bn contract for a new Defence Information Infrastructure [DII]. They talk about the scheme’s progress, problems and lessons learned.
It’s difficult to avoid making a comparison between their openness on the DII and the defensiveness of officials over the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].
Both are huge IT-based programmes. Both schemes have a one-size-fits-all approach. And on both projects those with old technology welcome having it upgraded, though others complain when their advanced systems are replaced with something that does less in the interests of all.
But there’s a big difference in the way the MoD and the Department of Health confront dissidents.
The MoD accepts them and says what it is doing to solve the programme’s problems. Health officials instead regard as conspirators the individuals and organisations that have criticised aspects of the NPfIT.
The following is part of a briefing from officials which was read out in the House of Lords by Lord Warner who’d retired as one of the ministers in charge of the NPfIT. Lord Warner told peers on 21 June 2007 of his discovery: that some people and organisations were “working together to campaign against this programme”.
The conspirators included organisations such as the charitable City of London livery Company, the Information Technologists’ Company, the online market researcher Medix which has carried out surveys of doctors on the NPfIT, and Computer Weekly which, together with 23 computer scientists, has campaigned for an independent review of the NPfIT.
Lord Warner told peers: “The campaign [against the NPfIT] seems to be made up of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, the Big Opt Out organisation, the Conservative Technology Forum, Computer Weekly, Medix surveys and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, which I only recently discovered.”
Lord Warner then impugned the credibility of a leading computer professor at Cambridge University who had been an adviser to the Health Committee in its investigation of aspects of the NPfIT.
About two weeks earlier in the House of Commons the then health minister Caroline Flint had personalised the Department of Health’s criticism of independent voices on the NPfIT. In a debate on the NPfIT she had, reading from a brief, criticised me by name, and incorrectly.
Doctors are now in the target zone. One would hope that health officials on the NPfIT would be working hard to win the hearts and minds of clinicians but in the past few days there has been an extraordinary attack on a “minority of GPs”. There are about 30,000 GPs in England so a minority could be as many as, say, 5,000 doctors. A senior official who works on the NPfIT said: “The programme is being actively obstructed by a minority of GPs for essentially selfish reasons.”
That huge projects such as the Defence Information Infrastructure and the NPfIT run into problems will surprise nobody; and informed criticism is a healthy sign that people care. No debate at all on these projects would be more worrying.
The Mod and its DII supplier, the Atlas consortium, led by EDS, have done the right thing. Faced with criticism they have accepted that there are problems and have responded point by point to matters raised by Computer Weekly and Channel 4 News in its investigation of the DII. They do not welcome criticism. But they give useful answers to straight questions. They don’t assume that critics are conspirators, enemies of society.
On a more general point, it would do no harm for officials at the Department of Health and Ben Bradshaw, the minister in charge of the NPfIT, to take note of the advice of Jacob Bronowski, UK scientist and author, who said in a lecture to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.”