NHS IT chief threatens to exclude whistleblowers

IT suppliers critical of the £2.3bn national IT programme have been told not to talk to the media.

IT suppliers critical of the £2.3bn national IT programme have been told not to talk to the media

The head of IT in the NHS has told suppliers they could be removed from shortlists for contracts and excluded from doing business with the NHS for 10 years, if they publicly question the national IT programme.

Richard Granger, who took over as director-general of IT in the NHS in September 2002, also told suppliers they could be cast into the abyss for criticising the programme, for which the government has committed an extra £2.3bn on IT over three years, on top of the £850m already spent each year.

His warning came at Avonmouth House, a conference centre in South London, on 3 December 2002 when suppliers met to hear Granger give details, at various sessions during the day, of the national programme. One of the supplier's delegates recorded what was said for its internal minutes.

The Department of Health told Computer Weekly that Granger had "no intention of blacklisting suppliers" and his comments needed to be put into the context that he wanted any criticisms made directly to him and not through the media.

Granger is the UK's highest-paid civil servant on £250,000 a year. He was recruited by the Department of Health to run its national IT programme which consists of four main projects: infrastructure, electronic patient records, appointment booking and prescriptions.

IT directors have welcomed the extra money but some are concerned that it will be spent on systems that may go largely unused by clinicians because they feel no sense of ownership of technology that has been imposed centrally or regionally.

There is also concern that Granger's management style may discourage criticism, and particularly whistleblowers, and he may therefore find himself surrounded by willing suppliers and others who agree with him.

"If he [Granger] can be that dictatorial with suppliers, it certainly sends a message to me," said an IT director at a trust in the North of England.

Several IT managers said they valued their jobs too much to say anything publicly, positive or not, about the national programme.

Last year the health minister told the House of Commons, "We expect a climate of openness and dialogue in the national health service."

Among those who heard Granger's comments at the December conference, several fully supported the national programme and upheld his right to warn suppliers about speaking out.

"It was really a way to try and create an impression and a view of how strongly he feels," said one consultant at the conference. "He was trying to tell suppliers: let me know what needs changing, I'll go away and make a very serious attempt to change it and when I've changed it, be supportive."

Asked about Granger's threats, the Department of Health said, "Any comments to IT suppliers were made in the context of moving rational and constructive discussion into the health and business arena rather than the media arena."

There was "nothing to fear from this open approach to collaborative national procurement or by those suppliers which have an interest in delivering the applications and services around the national IT programme."

The department spokesman said it had received strong support from suppliers for the national programme. "With regard to discussion on the procurement process, it is our firm hope that this will be carried out in a professional manner and through the established formal channels in line with other major national procurements in more mature public IT sectors."

Has Whitehall learnt Wessex IT lessons?   

An audit report in 1992 into an IT disaster in the Wessex health authority found that it was caused by a management style which discouraged criticism and open debate, too close a relationship between the authority and some suppliers, and the imposition of systems on resistant clinicians and IT specialists.

Read more on IT risk management