Thought for the day:Expensive medicine?

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.This week, I'm feeling a little...

Hard-hitting IT columnist Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.This week, I'm feeling a little shell-shocked. EDS is set to grab a major NHS contract having been named the "preferred supplier". This means it is in a prime position to take the £91m contract for delivering the new national electronic directory and e-mail service that will serve 1.2 million NHS staff.

You remember EDS of course? Who can't, with its remarkable record of public-service delivery over the years? So now, for the modest sum of £91 million, it will offer the cash-strapped Health Service a Web-based e-mail system, Instant Messaging, a security infrastructure, support for PDAs and much, much more.

This potential scoop for EDS comes at a time when the company is facing financial difficulties and the US regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, is probing its accounts. The chairman, Richard Brown, recently sent out a letter to shareholders in which he said: "In Europe, management teams are already working with a small number of financially under-performing accounts to ensure we improve their financial return."

Now £91 million seems like a bargain until you realise that many of us are
using some kind of instant messaging service already in the shape of Hotmail and AOL Instant Messenger. So why, in God's name, is the NHS asking a third-party to reinvent the wheel when it could conceivably buy the same thing "off-the-shelf" for much less? After all, we already use Microsoft's Government Gateway architecture. In line with the Prime Minister's PFI plans, which met resistance at last week's Labour Party Conference in Blackpool, why didn't the NHS simply approach IBM or AOL or indeed anybody else, to offer the same at a more competitive price?

If you work in IT you would be forgiven for thinking this project may well cost much more than £91 million by the time it's finished, assuming it ever is. Call me a nasty, suspicious cynic, but doesn't this project require a quick sanity check or is it a fait accompli like so many other public sector projects?

I'm currently involved in a discussion group, hosted by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, involving e-government experts and facilitators from all around the world. We are examining the question of why public sector projects fail. The thing is, public sector projects consistently fail and for similar reasons in every country represented by the discussion group. In this country, there are many examples of medium to large public sector IT projects that are working but every now and then, one big one comes along and you think "what's going on here, does this really make sense?"

What do you think?
Is £91 million a fair price to pay for the NHS equivalent of Hotmail? reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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