Top campaigner for independent review of NHS's IT scheme receives New Year Honour

Congratulations to Martyn Thomas, a leading campaigner for an independent review of the NHS’s £12.4bn National Programme for IT [NPfIT], who has been made a CBE in the New Year Honours List. His honour will not be welcomed by everyone.

A visiting professor of software engineering at Oxford University Thomas has long campaigned for the adoption of formal methods for writing software, to improve its dependability.

Thomas said: “For many years, I have worked to persuade Government and industry to make better use of strong software engineering methods.

“A few companies have shown conclusively that using formal specifications can reduce the risk of overruns and failure of IT projects, and that using strongly-typed languages and analysis tools can eliminate most run-time errors and security holes. “Strong software engineering takes skill, but it is not expensive once staff have been trained.”

He added: “I very much hope that the recognition of software engineering in the New Year Honours will encourage Government projects such as NPfIT and ID cards to start taking these methods seriously.”

Thomas has been a spokesman for more than 20 experts in computer-related sciences who wrote two open letters to the House of Commons’ Health Committee in support of their call for an independent review of the NPfIT.

The letters of the 23 academics expressed support for Connecting for Health which is managing the IT elements of the NPfIT, the main aim of which is to provide an electronic health record for 50 million people in England.

But the 23 are also concerned that the national programme is “displaying many of the symptoms that we have observed in previous major IT projects that have subsequently failed”.

In response to the first open letter Thomas and other representatives of the academics met Richard Granger, Director General of NHS IT, and other senior health officials.

The Health Committee has since announced on its website that it has decided to launch an inquiry this year into “aspects of IT in the NHS”. No date has been set.

My comment:

An honours committee made Thomas a CBE for services to software engineering. Its members might also have noticed his high profile last year in support of the campaign for an independent technical audit of the NHS’s National Programme for IT.

The campaign began in April last year when Computer Weekly published an open letter from the 23 academics to the House of Commons’ Health Committee. The letter called for an independent audit of the NPfIT, and its contents were reported widely in the media. Thomas was quoted on TV, radio and in national newspapers.

As a result some Whitehall officials, and political advisers to ministers, may be miffed by the honouring of Thomas, particularly those who regard commentators on the NPfIT as pietistic about the project or against it. They would like to dismiss Thomas as a vociferous radical. But this could not be further from the truth.

He is an independent consultant systems engineer who serves on the Advisory Board of City University; he is Visiting Professor in Software Engineering at the University of Oxford, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and at the University of Bristol. And he was a Deloitte & Touche partner, with world-wide responsibilities for software engineering.

He also serves on the IT policy-making bodies of UK professional computing institutions the British Computer Society and the Institution of Electrical Engineers. He chairs the steering committee for the UK’s major research collaboration in dependability; he is a member of the Scientific Council for a European Network of Excellence in resilient systems, and he is the only European member of a US National Academy of Sciences study into Certifiably Dependable Software.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell said about honours in general that they are there to “recognise the achievements of ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

That a computer expert as distinguished as Thomas regards the NPfIT as a potential disaster should ring alarms in the highest echelons of government.

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