Not quite direct answers to straight questions

NHS Connecting for Health, which runs the £12.4bn National Programme for IT [NPfIT], is at times putting on its website replies to our questions before we have published articles related to the questions.

The replies contain some useful facts but they have no context, because Connecting for Health publishes its answers without publishing our questions.

Last month we were prompted to ask NHS Connecting for Health how much it spends, and has spent, on public relations and in particular on Bell Pottinger, a PR company that specialises in crisis management. One reason we asked about the bill for public relations was because, at times, Connecting for Health answers only some of our questions.

Indeed to our questions on the public relations bill Connecting for Health answered only one of our four questions. You would not know this from simply looking at its website answer.

We were precise in our questions to Connecting for Health:

i) How much is the contract with Bell Pottinger worth and over what period?

ii) How many people from the company are involved in answering questions on the NPfIT?

iii) How many people in total are involved in PR work on the NPfIT?

iv) How much has PR work/consultancy cost in total since the inception of the programme?

Connecting for Health answered the first question only.

Its reply was that it has “handled over 3,000 enquiries in the past 12 months” and the contracts with Bell Pottinger are, in total, worth about £727,000.

It said: “We have had, from time to time, agency support in handling enquiries from the media in general and in preparing information leaflets and brochures but the cost [of external public relations work], since the inception of the National Programme, is not available without a disproportionate cost to research.”

We are surprised that Connecting for Health does not know how much it has spent on PR work/consultancy since the inception of the programme. And £727,000 on Bell Pottinger is a not insignificant sum.

On our question on the legal fees since the inception of the NPfIT, Connecting for Health gave another useful reply. It said that the amount spent on lawyers’ fees since the inception of the National Programme in 2002 to 30 November 2006, which are the last available figures, is £31,566,286 or 0.5% of the cost of the contracts.

It is true that £31.5m is only a small amount of the value of the contracts – but if the contracts deliver poor value for money, the £31.5m figure will turn out to be a significant sum.

We had also asked how many requests under the Freedom of Information Act had been acceded to in full, in part and rejected.

The answer was not quite as straightforward as we had hoped. Instead of separating the requests that were answered in full or in part, Connecting for Health lumped them together. This tells us little, because answering a question “in part” could, at one extreme, amount to providing only one per cent of the information requested.

Connecting for Health said that since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in January 2005, there have been a total of 284 requests, “requests, of which 209 have been answered fully or ‘in part’; 75 have been refused for a range of reasons covered legitimately by the Act.”