Useful or useless minutes of the week

As a regular slot this blog will cast a spotlight on organisations that publish up to date and comprehensive papers on their discussions on IT-based projects and programmes.

We will also name organisations whose minutes are strikingly uninformative, or out of date. Some departments and agencies don’t publish any minutes at all, which is inexcusable for government organisations that should account to taxpayers on their discussions about how they spend public money.

In the private sector independent scrutiny of IT programmes is important, but a matter for the board. If it loses money on a costly scheme, it is the board that takes responsibility for shareholder funds, and customers can take their business elsewhere if they regard the service as poor.

In the public sector, success is built on a foundation of the public sector ethos and the professionalism of those running projects. Many and perhaps most smaller scale projects projects are successful – National Audit Office report on Delivering Successful IT-enabled Business Change – and don’t get publicity; and where bonuses and high salaries are paid for success in the private sector, the public sector tends not to reward success.

But government departments also undertake some huge and risky programmes that often go wrong, and which overshadow the larger number of smaller-scale successes.

Tradition has it nobody in the public sector takes responsibility for projects that don’t meet their objectives or expectations; taxpayers are captive funders of failure, and customers cannot take their business elsewhere. That’s not going to change. What could change is for lessons to be learned – were they published.

With one honourable exception – at the Passport and Identity Service – mistakes are not admitted let alone published. So independent scrutiny of public sector IT is arguably more important than in the private sector.

In the first of the series, we draw attention to the Department of Health’s Departmental Management Board meeting on 7 December at Richmond House, the department’s headquarters.

Someone involved with the publication of the minutes at the Department of Health has a sense of humour because the published minutes of the meeting are marked in capitals “RESTRICTED – MANAGEMENT” as if they contained sensitive information.

It was an important meeting. Attendees included David Nicholson Chief Executive of the NHS, Ken Anderson Commercial Director, Alan Doran Director General of Departmental Management, Richard Douglas Director General of Finance & Investment, Richard Granger Director General for NHS Connecting for Health, and Duncan Selbie Director General of Commissioning

We are told in the minutes that there had been a quarterly review of the risks facing the department’s programmes and projects. We are not told the risks.

We are told, however, that the “quarterly risk register had been circulated to Board members” which is comforting. We’re also told that the Board had “agreed to review the register every quarter” which also soothes our anxieties. And then “members identified issues”.

And that’s it – no mention of any of the issues.

There is a section on the NHS’s National Programme for IT, a part of the agenda that involves David Nicholson and Richard Granger. We are advised that “David Nicholson acknowledged the real benefits of the IT Programme” and these were “being seen in the service”, but “more still needed to be done to ensure NHS ownership”.

We are told that a senior health official is “addressing the future scale and scope of the programme” but we are not told why it is necessary at this point, five years into the programme, to address its future scale and scope.

Granger updates the Board on progress to date, current plans, and the implementation challenges; and no details are given.

The reporting of the discussion on the NPfIT concludes with the unhelpful disclosure that: “The NHS Management Board would discuss NPfIT at their next meeting …”

Congratulations to the Department of Health for winning our “uninformative board minutes of the week” award. Yet it is more open than some.

We asked the Home Office why we couldn’t find its minutes on its website.

“Why do you want to know?” said a spokeswoman.

We pointed out that it spends hundreds of millions on IT projects, so it would be good to see how the money is being spent and what discussions are taking place on how to spend it. A few hours later she rang and said the department doesn’t publish minutes and doesn’t intend to.

The spokeswoman seemed offended that we had the unblushing insolence to question the Home Office’s decision not to publish minutes. We should have accepted that it’s public money, and as such it’s up to the Home Office how it spends it.

So much for transparency and accountability.