The government prepares to write off Parliamentary report on the NHS's IT programme


All the signs are that the government is preparing to reject a report of the all-party Public Accounts Committee into the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT].

There is a view in government that the committee’s report is the result of lobbying by politically-motivated groups and individuals who are irredeemably ill-disposed towards the NPfIT. However this view ignores the fact that much of the criticism of the programme comes from NHS trusts.

Something we have noticed, having written about IT projects for more than decade, under Labour and Conservative governments, is that civil servants and ministers can rarely confront forceful, vigorous and effective criticism of major IT programmes, from within or without. So they write it off as politically motivated.

The possibility that the sharpest criticisms may be justified does not seem to occur to them.

So it’s likely the government’s response to the report of the Committee of Public Accounts will read as if written by NPfIT marketing experts.

There will be statistics on the take-up of national systems, text that promotes the success of systems not in the original scope of the programme, and paragraphs on the improvements that have been made to the programme and by the programme.

Any delays will be due to factors outside the control of the Department of Health. There will be no acceptance of any serious shortcomings. And to the committee’s deepest concerns, the government will pat MPs gently on the head and explain the “true” facts.

But not listening to those who may know has caused many a project failure – and not only in the world of IT. Management hubris brought down two space shuttles says US senator Bill Nelson, a former astranaut who flew on a shuttle mission.

Nelson said: “The problem that NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] has had that caused the destruction of both space shuttles is the same reason … arrogance in the management of NASA so that they were not listening to the engineers on the line,” Nelson said.

When people die as a result of engineering failures, lessons are usually learned. Not so with IT project failures.

The government’s response is due to be published by the end of June.

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