NHS trust proves sound procurement is key to successful projects

The management of big, outsourced IT projects in the public sector has seen its fair share of criticism, with committees regularly publishing details of mismanaged procurements and wasted millions.

The management of big, outsourced IT projects in the public sector has seen its fair share of criticism, with committees regularly publishing details of mismanaged procurements and wasted millions.

In the past decade the sector has become notorious for underestimating the complexity of projects and failing to work productively with suppliers, leading to spiralling costs and missed deadlines.

One NHS trust says it is side-stepping the problems by avoiding the tender process, which requires managers to specify early on exactly what they want from a contract and the IT supplier.

"If you write a detailed specification, you often end up with something that's not required. That's what happened with the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) - you get what you asked for two years ago," says John Thornbury, director of IT at Worcestershire Acute NHS Trust. Instead, he said, the trust went down a "negotiated route".

Thornbury is in the middle of rolling out electronic records, having signed a 10-year deal with Xerox last August that is outside of the NPfIT.

The trust is currently going through the paper records, filed in a large warehouse, scanning them in and giving each one a barcode. Once this is complete, there are plans to use different databases to allow doctors and nurses to access the relevant information on each patient when they need it. Wi-Fi networks will allow access to the system at a patient's bedside.

As well as cutting out the necessity of driving records around the trust's rural catchment area, Thornbury hopes it will make clinicians' lives easier and save £200,000 a year for 10 years.

The key to what Thornbury hopes will be a successful contract is, he said, a productive relationship with the supplier.

"We wanted a partnership. If there's a problem, we have to share it rather than immediately going to the contract and pointing fingers. Our view is that if we refer to the contract, we've failed."

The relationship was built as part of the procurement process, and Thornbury said both sides were careful to keep the same people involved throughout. "It's not just the sales team negotiating it and then walking away - we've got consistency. The people who sold it to us are still implementing it."

The bosses on both sides are also closely involved. "We have quarterly meetings with the chief executive and the vice-president of Xerox to make sure things are going smoothly. It's useful for both sides, because if there's anything to discuss you have that mechanism available to bring things up," Thornbury said.

The trust, which has around 10,000 employees and serves a population of 560,000, is aiming to go live with the system in a few months time.

Thornbury said outsourcing appealed because it gives access to the supplier's expert knowledge and meant he didn't have to make a capital investment in the technology.

"It's beyond me why other people aren't going down this road. If you did this across all the NHS there would be millions saved and patient care improved."

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