Politics and IT: a difficult mix

The dangers of mixing politics and IT projects are clearly illustrated by the reaction of ministers and senior civil servants to...

The dangers of mixing politics and IT projects are clearly illustrated by the reaction of ministers and senior civil servants to the National Audit Office report on patient choice in the NHS.

The Department of Health tried to brush aside the NAO's concern about delays to the IT-based Choose and Book system by claiming the first live booking had occurred 21 months after the start of the procurement and within 36 hours of its planned time.

The department's official statement said nothing about how targets had shifted, how revised targets were being missed and how interim solutions - deployed to meet politically set deadlines - increased project risk.

The reaction of health secretary John Reid was equally disingenuous. He dismissed those raising concern about end-user buy-in to new NHS systems as doom-mongers. Yet even as he spoke it emerged that the government was making extra funds available for Choose and Book that could be used to pay GPs to use a service that the NAO report shows is - in its present form - unpopular with its core users.

Financial incentives may persuade some GPs to use the system, but they will not begin to deal with the fundamental problems surrounding the national programme for IT (NPfIT).

One of the biggest causes of IT project failure is that the project's sponsors fail to appreciate when things begin to go wrong. Inconvenient truths are ignored in the name of maintaining momentum.

The reaction to the NAO report last week displays precisely that problem. If ministers and those driving the NPfIT say everything is fine when there are clearly major issues to be resolved, then the problems are far deeper than the inevitable technical hitches in linking disparate IT systems.

There is something wrong with the whole culture of the department. The first step to putting things right is to acknowledge that there is a problem. For the NPfIT that means recognising critical aspects of the NAO report, heeding its warnings and creating a genuine dialogue with those expected to use the systems. It also means telling ministers that go-live dates will be put back to ensure systems are fit for use, even if it is politically inconvenient to do so.

The stakes are high. When the NPfIT was launched everyone knew that the IT investment in the NHS was a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform the health service. If the project failed there would never be such investment in health service IT again.

That still holds true today. As health service users, as taxpayers and as IT professionals, we all want this investment to succeed.

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